Let me begin this post by saying that I am not personally a Soviet, communist, or anything of the sort. That said, Soviet culture and particularly the culture and attitudes within the Red Army of World War II fascinate me. While I tend to look at Soviet socialism with a critical eye, and while this ideology had many sins and downfalls; it’s true that many people were very sincerely committed to it. There were citizens who believed that it was the best way forward, and who were committed to using it to its full potential. With that in mind, I wrote this short story; examining the actions of a loyal Soviet soldier throughout his unfortunate capture on the Eastern Front.
The True Soviet
The fascists captured me three days after they took Vyazma. I was still in the foxhole behind my machinegun when the panzers started rolling past. Ilya Soshnikov, my assistant gunner, had lain dead beside me for at least a day and a half; so I tried throwing grenades under the passing tanks instead of shooting. It didn’t have much effect, but I was determined to fight on. I felt sure that I would only leave the foxhole when the fascists dragged me out as a corpse.
Soon the tanks were gone, and the infantry appeared to liquidate the area. They quickly noticed that I was alive, and I quickly realised my stupidity. Idiot. It’s impossible to shoot yourself with a DP28, so I should have saved one grenade for myself. That would have been the Soviet thing to do. But I didn’t. I’d thrown them all fruitlessly under the tracks of the panzers. Thanks to my stupidity, the fascists caught one live and healthy Soviet that day.
I found myself being marched with others to a makeshift POW camp somewhere south of Vyazma. The journey was long and hard, and the fascists kept us going for hours at a time despite the speed of our pace. At the beginning of the march I was only angry at myself for allowing the fascists to capture me; but I became increasingly troubled and less angry as it progressed. I started thinking about what was to become of me. How would I, a true (if shamed) Soviet, cope in the hands of the fascist enemy?
The camp came into sight after many hours. It was set secluded in a valley, and though the sun was setting behind the surrounding hills it was easy to see that this camp offered no shelter. The fascists had tents to sleep in, but we prisoners had nothing. And there were hundreds of us, maybe a thousand. I despair that so many Red Army men have chosen the disgrace of capture. I did have the good fortune to meet another true Soviet who shared my shame– although he had less cause to feel shame than I do. Maksim Ilyich Belkin was captured a few miles from where I was, having been knocked unconscious by artillery. Poor soul, he woke up on the back of a German wagon.
A number of the other prisoners told me quite early on that I should consider throwing away my Party membership card. Needless to say, I balked at that. I will cling to my Party card like I should have clung to that last grenade! However, apparently the fascists have shot every comrade commissar to set foot in this camp, and my comrades told me they’re likely to shoot anyone with a Party card. That’s another reason for me to keep it. A true Soviet should be ready to die for socialism.
As the days passed, I became more and more tormented. There was some talk that we prisoners would be shipped to Germany to work in munitions factories there. I couldn’t tolerate such a fate, and confessed my fear to Maksim Ilyich.
“I won’t go to Germany,” I told him. “I will never help the fascists more than I already have.”
“Then what will you do? Will you escape and run away?”
I sighed. “I don’t know yet. I guess it would be possible to slip away from this camp at night.”
“You might never find Soviet units though, you’ve no way of knowing their positions,” he said. “And if you don’t rejoin the fight, that’s desertion.”
But it was worse than that. I know Soviet law inside and out, I’ve lived the Soviet life since I was fifteen years old; and I knew that I must find Soviet units again, but I could never rejoin the fight. If you’re captured by the fascists, you’re no longer worthy of being called a Soviet. The only thing left for you is death.
I pondered this for a few days, while also plotting my escape. Of course, I did think about ending it all at the camp; but the fascists had confiscated my knife, my razor, even my belt. I didn’t know how I was going to escape, but then Maksim Ilyich told me a plan which suited us both. We would wait until dark, and then he would attack one of the perimeter guards, allowing me to escape. We knew that such an attack would probably result in him being executed, but Maksim Ilyich was looking for a noble escape just as much as I was.
Last night was the night of our plan. I was sorry to leave Maksim Ilyich; as he had become a good friend and I saw in him a pure Soviet heart. If only I had kept one last grenade, I could have been an honourable citizen and soldier like he was!
“Good luck, my friend,” he whispered, shaking my hand. “I’m sorry the circumstances are what they are.”
I reciprocated his sentiment, and then he was off after the nearest fascist guard. As soon as the shouting began, I was off on my own way. Scrambling up the eastern hillside, I didn’t slow for anything– not even when I heard the single gunshot that was probably the end of my good comrade Maksim Ilyich. I stumbled on through the night, hungry and troubled and despairing that I’d let this situation come about. I traversed countless miles of ravaged terrain; and it pained me that the flesh of the Motherland had been cut so deep by the fascists I was sworn to fight. I have failed my Soviet duty, and must atone for it and be shamed forever. The only way to atonement is death.
Finally, a group of scouts found me. I felt both relieved and ashamed to see the Red Star worn so proudly on their uniforms. “Comrade!” They greeted me warmly. “Where are you coming from?”
“You won’t greet me so when you find out,” I replied, and explained to them my capture and my escape. When their expressions turned grave, I said, “I know. Just take me to the commissar.”
They did so, not speaking to me any further but giving me looks of both sympathy and disdain on the way. I was brought before the regimental commissar to face my fate– the regimental commissar, such is the severity of my sin. When I came before him, I expected to feel my spirit broken. But instead of shame and defeat, I felt mostly regret. What could have been… but there’s no sense in thinking about what I might have been when I can still control what I am.
The commissar began to speak, with all the harshness that I deserve. “You allowed yourself to be captured by the fascists. The Soviet soldier is worth more dead than in the hands of the enemy. You went through training, you had a commissar. You know this!”
I nodded. “I do.”
“Well, then. What’s your name? Sergei Yuryevich Petrokovsky, you have violated our solemn Red Army Oath, and are hereby sentenced to death.”
I nodded again, finding both relief and disgust at my sentence. How could I have done such a thing? As I was led to custody, I passed the commissar.
Scrutinising me with curious eyes, he said, “You escaped and made your way back here. You’re a Party member. You knew how we would receive you.”
I clenched my teeth until I could reply. “I might be a fool,” I said, “but I don’t desert.”
“Hmm,” the commissar shrugged, waving me away. “Well, that’s something.”
Today I faced the commissar, and tomorrow I face the firing squad. As I should. But I feel that the commissar was right, that is something. I was foolish in battle, and I must pay for it; in fact, I’m determined to pay for it. My life is useless now, but I won’t let even an unforgivable mistake separate me from my cause. I was too weak, but my comrades are strong; and I hope I’ve acted in the end like a true Soviet, even if I was never a good one. At the end, I stand by this oath of my beloved Soviet Motherland:
If, for some evil intentions, I violate this herein-solemn oath, let the Soviet Law, nationwide hatred and contempt of all the workers strictly punish me.
© Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2017