Stalin’s city was always a wonderful place to live. It was large and modern; with many factories supporting the industry of our Soviet Union. There were squares where we children played, and many shops and institutes where the adults worked. It was a city for the people, and all of us who lived there felt very glad that we did.
By autumn 1942 though, our beloved city was no longer where any civilian wanted to be. I guess when the fascists failed to take the capital, they set their iron hearts on another prize. Stalingrad must have been an easy choice. At any rate, they reached our doorstep and encroached into the surrounding villages; and that soon turned into streetfighting in the heart of Stalingrad itself. It was a dreadful situation; but my mother was resolute. My father and brother were out fighting the Germans, and we were going to stay here for them. The Germans will never take Stalingrad, she said, and we must give those boys a good home to come back to.
So we stayed, and we got accustomed to the sight of soldiers in the streets, and of tanks on the square. We weren’t even bothered by the gunshots after awhile, because there were always gunshots coming from somewhere. I guess we got used to the war, but what bothered me was that I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to help, but I was too young to do anything great. When our friends’ apartment in the next street was bombed, we took them in, and I shared my room with all three of their children. But it felt like it didn’t matter; because although they were warm and sheltered, we could still smell the smoke as their home and belongings burned. Even though we did the best we could, the war was evil and it kept coming on and on despite our courage and our efforts.
Life got a lot harder when winter arrived. The Germans were everywhere but so were our troops; and there were so many men about and so much destruction that food became less and less. Sometimes supply shipments made it, but more often than not they didn’t, and the ration centres had nothing to give us. As a young woman with the hope of marriage and a household ahead of me, I put my efforts toward creating palatable meals out of whatever food was available. I got pretty good at it, but we were still always hungry.
It was tough, but life in a combat centre does make for some extraordinary stories. One day before the streetfighting got really bad in our neighbourhood, a sniper from the Caucasus and his spotter set up in our front room. They were there for the whole afternoon, watching the street and the square beyond; and every few hours my mother sent me to them with a mug of tea. Another time, a German bomber crash-landed into the square and its crew was captured. When the city was quiet, the local kids used it as a jungle gym until it was smashed by shelling a few weeks later.
I think about these stories a lot, because they were a break from the hopelessness. We were trapped in our own city as it was broken down around us, and nothing seemed to change from day to day. Just more bombs and more bodies in the street. Anything different to that is what I try to remember, but nothing bests the story of the soldier at the door. It was December I think, and mother was in bed with pneumonia. Since I was freshly eighteen at that time, she entrusted the household and all its duties to me. That meant I undertook the weekly trek through the rubble to the ration centre; which wasn’t easy all the time, but which made me feel like I was accomplishing something every time I made it back.
On the day in question, I couldn’t leave the apartment until mid-morning because the neighbourhood was chattering with gunfire. But eventually I deemed it quiet enough that I gathered the kitchen-basket, wrapped a shawl around my head, and went downstairs. Stepping outside, I was taken aback to find a soldier lying on the doorstep. At first, I thought he was dead, because he was slumping awkwardly against the wall and was barely off the snowy street. But then he turned to see me, and attempted to make way for me. His eyes were kind and he looked tired, so I thought it alright to talk to him.
“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said, pausing opposite as I looked him over. “You seem tired.” The soldier was wearing a green greatcoat stained with old blood, and was cradling a submachine gun. At that time, I’d never had a boyfriend, but this soldier seemed like the type for me. He had kind eyes and a ready smile and I immediately wanted to help him. He was indeed handsome, but he didn’t seem very well. I judged that he was at most a half-dozen years older than me, but his face had a weathered look to it which was unexpected. Not only his face was haggard, but he had a bright red stain of blood on his far shoulder, too. I guess he was a frontovik.
The soldier sighed, but smiled. “Thanks. I’ve just stopped here to catch my breath.”
“I’m not sure you’ve picked the safest place,” I told him. “A shell came through a window downstairs yesterday. The old man who lives there says it knocked a jug of water right off the kitchen table.”
Laughing, the soldier tentatively pulled himself further onto the doorstep. “Where isn’t that happening? Don’t say that to my guys, though. We’ll stop the shelling soon enough.”
I hoped he was right and not just trying to seem brave. “You’re bleeding,” I observed. “How badly are you wounded?”
“It’s only shrapnel. I’ll be alright.”
“Why don’t you come inside? It’s cold out, and you’ll be safer there.”
The soldier shook his head but looked at me graciously. “I’d better stay out here. A medic will be by to pick me up soon, I’m sure of it.”
Surveying the empty, lifeless street, I disagreed. “Well, I’m not sure of it. There’s no one about. You might bleed to death!” And I tore the scarf from my head to use as a bandage for his wound, but he gently pushed it away.
“That’s too pretty a scarf to use for blood,” he said. “And weren’t you going on an errand?”
“Not if I can help you,” I replied resolutely.
He laughed quietly and gazed out at the street. “You shouldn’t worry. You go, and I’ll stay here. I bet your apartment’s never had an armed guard before.” I felt bad leaving him. I was sure his condition was worse than he let on, I’m sure he was trying to seem brave. I wanted to make some kind of difference, but he insisted. “Where are you going, anyway?”
“The rationing centre. It’s just at the other end of Bogunskaya.”
“Don’t take Bogunskaya,” the soldier turned grave. “There’s a sniper installed out there, and he shoots at anyone.”
“Well, thanks,” I said, still not wanting to leave. “You’ll be sure to look after yourself, won’t you?”
“I will, you have my word on it.” The soldier nodded. “I’m sure a medic will be by very soon.”
Begrudgingly, I took my leave of him and set off through the snowy city. The streets remained quiet but I had to wait for an hour at the rations centre. And despite the quiet, I knew the enemy was still there. And I wondered about the soldier at the door– was he still there, or had someone come for him? Why wouldn’t he let me help him? I guess, as a soldier, he had to remain on guard for our city, but I wish he could have gotten some treatment someplace.
As I came back within a few blocks of the apartment, I began to feel nervous about what I might find on the doorstep. Turning onto the street, I saw the soldier’s figure still slumped there. Was he dead? I felt a mixture of relief and concern when he gave me a jaunty wave.
“Where are the medics?” I asked him as soon as I approached.
“Someone will be along soon,” replied the soldier, but his voice was more weary now.
Unsatisfied, I looked down at the basket of food in my arms. “Are you hungry?”
The soldier laughed with a ready smile. “Are you?”
“I’ve only been hungry since winter started,” I said. “Will you have some bread?” The soldier stayed silent, but his eyes and his face were tired and hungry. “What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Marina.” And I started to divide up my ration of bread.
“I’m Nikolai.” Nikolai was slow to accept any bread, but once he did he ate it ravenously.
“I guess you are hungry,” I remarked woefully.
“Of course I am. But it’ll all get better soon. We’re keeping the Volga open for new shipments of food and supplies, and the enemy will soon be starved and beaten.”
“And do you still think a medic will come for you?”
“It’s only a matter of time.” Nikolai smiled, although his face was weary.
It would have been nice to share his confidence, or his bravado. I sighed, looking out at the snowy rubble-strewn street and pondering the sounds of guns in the air. Unconvinced, I turned back to him. “But how much time have you got?”
Finally he had no response. He sighed too, and his smile turned sad as he adjusted his grip on his gun. He looked broken and tired, yes, but only in his face. The posture of his bloodied shoulders and the precise, ready grip he kept on that gun told me that he’d made his mind up. And yet I still wanted to help him– I’d been fruitlessly just existing for the past few months, and now the chance to do something was sitting on my doorstep.
“Please, Nikolai,” I said desperately. “At least come inside to get warm. You’re not doing any good out here in your state! Won’t you just come inside?” I already knew the answer of course; but I had to ask him.
His laugh was hollow as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marina. I can’t leave my post. I have to stay here.”
“That’s alright,” I said. “I know you’re a soldier.”
We were quiet for a moment, and the atmosphere was one of regret. Then he spoke up. “Those guns are getting closer. You should go inside before you get hit.”
I smiled and nodded, but I was unable to reply… since I was leaving him, he was probably going to die. It just didn’t sit well with me. I turned to go, but Nikolai caught the handle of the kitchen-basket and stopped me. Looking at me with earnest brown eyes, he announced, “You were good to me, Marina. Kindness can make a big difference.”
That heartened me, and I was able to reply. “You make sure the medics take good care of you. You know I would have.”
“And you get inside, and stay there until this skirmish passes! Do that, and we might even see each other again.”
I left Nikolai sitting half-slumped on the doorstep, exactly as I had found him. But I hoped that I had made a difference to him as he’d said.
The next morning, the gunfire had quietened down and I rushed downstairs to the doorstep. I felt sick with worry over Nikolai; I wanted him to be there, but I didn’t want him to be dead. But there was nothing on the doorstep; nothing except a pool of dried blood where Nikolai had been. There was no one in the street, and I asked all the neighbours and nearby soldiers if they’d seen anything, but nobody had. My mother said that somebody must have come for him after all, because if he’d died then his body would probably still be on the doorstep. I hoped she was right, but I could never know.
After meeting Nikolai, I decided to join the medical corps in the Red Army. It was there that I met my first boyfriend, who in time became my husband. There I tended by chance to my brother, who had been severely wounded by shrapnel near Voronezh. By a miracle, he, my parents, and my husband all survived the war. We did some good work in the medical corps, and I finally felt that what I was doing mattered.
As for Nikolai, I can’t be sure that he survived that night, let alone the whole war. But there is one funny little event which makes me wonder. It was July 1945, after Victory Day, and Stalingrad was rebuilding. There were soldiers out and about to help and oversee the efforts, and I had returned home to visit my family. Walking along Bogunskaya, I had my floral shawl over my head to protect me from the sun. There was a convoy of army trucks crossing the street about 75 yards ahead; each truck packed full of soldiers hanging on like barnacles.
Well, one of those soldiers shouted my name and gave me a jaunty wave. He was too far away to recognise, and then he was gone, but not before I managed to wave back… And I do believe it was Nikolai, I always have. He was right after all. They did come for him, and we did see each other again. I might not have had much of a war, or a life, if I hadn’t met him. It’s been an encouraging thought all these years that, whether he lived or died, I made a difference to that soldier at the door.
© Adair E. R. Jacobs 2017