That morning I don’t yet know that the new day will be my last day at the Commander Courses.1 There are many days just like this one, and each of them passes without a trace and is just as tracelessly forgotten. We don’t try to mark or remember such days – they are much too alike. These are gray boring days and to say that they are flying by would be to tell a lie.
These dark December days don’t fly – drag would be more like it – in a long hopeless unstoppable string. There isn’t even any difference between daylight and night – rather, all of it merges into one long polar night.
December nights in the middle of the blockade are frightening and dangerous. …Frightening, because they are deserted, there is no one around to help you, to come to your call if you feel poorly or pass out from hunger.
…Dangerous, because cold is a weak person’s “best friend”. It cuddles you, sings you a lullaby and soothes you to sleep forever and ever.
I know all that, know it from my mother, who told me all about cold and what it does to people. She also told me about water and how to behave when near it.
In the morning I feel poorly. I am not hurting, don’t have a fever, I can think and understand everything, but still feel bad. It is as if someone is holding me back, some unknown forces surround me and persistently push me toward the bed.
It seems someone reminds me, whispers into my ear, “Wait, rest, sit down, lie down...” I do all I can not to think about it, not to be alone, try to talk as much as I can, but nothing comes of it. Nobody talks to me at length, there is no suitable subject. Someone passes by with a word or two, and that has to be enough for me. I am again pulled toward the bed. My energy is completely gone. Someone needs to push me, to distract me from...whatever it is.
I can’t do anything; I know I am no longer imagining it. My body is getting heavier, my movements are awkward. My legs grow weak and start collapsing painfully. Sometimes I feel dizzy, my head gets heavy too, I want to lay it on my pillow, but I have a top bunk. If I sit down on someone else’s bed and close my eyes, I almost start hallucinating.
Golden yellow circles in front of my eyes expand beyond my head and keep on going until I shake myself and force my eyes to open.
I grow colder by the minute, freezing at the barracks dressed in my coat and boots. I am simply shuddering, I am overcome by hiccups, and I can’t seem to handle the damn shakes. I constantly feel dismayed, as if I lost something, as if I am missing something.
I start yawning – and so frequently, that I feel embarrassed in front of my friends. How am I going to make it to the evening? What is happening to me?
I cannot lift my foot over the threshold because it is too high from the floor. The steps on the staircase are steep and very uncomfortable – far beyond my exhausted strength.
The staircase has an iron banister, crudely assembled for what used to be a students’ dormitory. Without the elegant decorative elements it doesn’t look nearly as glamorous as the wrought iron fences around the city gardens.
This banister, which seems so cold and alien to me, has been polished by the hands of many students and still has a dull gloss, reminding of those happy days.
This darkly shiny, icy metal is a very dangerous thing to touch during the cold time of the year. It catches and sticks to the bare fingers, causing them to ache for a long time afterward.
The barracks are always half-dark. Since the windows were crashed and casings broken during the bombings, there is no more light and warmth. The empty window openings are covered with plywood, nailed over with boards and insulated with mattresses. But these measures don’t make it any better. This is done just to follow the procedure. There is no heat at the barracks, not because the windows are shattered and the casings are gone. There is no heat because the entire water, heat and sewer infrastructure is destroyed.
It is the middle of December of the unusually cold winter of 1941.
I go outside and can’t even take a full breath. The air is so very, very dry, that even a small sip of this frosty freshness simultaneously tickles the throat and chokes.
Everything around me is frozen to death. Water has been squeezed from every animate and inanimate object. Even metal is covered with the white terrycloth of frost.
There are no signs of animals. Cats and dogs ran away, rodents vanished, city birds flew away, or perhaps they all died, or maybe people, trying to save themselves, used them all for food.
Even the snow has none of its attraction, none of its freshness, or its whiteness – it’s turned coarse and tough. When I step on it with my soldier’s boot, it screeches like a rusty cart.
At times like these I involuntarily remember my old, quiet, cozy northern village, perched on the bank of a sweet gentle little river under the protection of not-very-tall mountains, covered with thick pine woods.
* * *
...Log cabins put together from thick mossy logs... Tough corner joints, double casings, iron wood-burning stove in the middle of the floor…
I used to sit on the bed, wrapped in a sheepskin jacket and several blankets along with a bunch of other kids, all of us periodically startled by the power of cold, tearing apart the thick logs. These logs have been under attack by cruel and powerful winter more than once, they had many old wounds to show for it, and they were like old soldiers – as ready to stand strong as ever. The sounds of cold’s merciless blows filled the neighborhood with thunderous pops.
There was nothing to be seen out the window, no way to know what was going on outside. The window glass was covered with thick layer of intricate frosty swirls – an amazing wonderful knit with no knots or tangles.
Land, white with snow, stretched as far as the eye could see. And the sky was the blackest black, and on it was a disorderly spread of copper wallpaper nails with shiny heads – all over the endless heavenly dome.
* * *
Something similar is now happening in Leningrad, except there is a top bunk instead of a bed, cold soldier’s coat instead of a shearling jacket, real explosions instead of frostily crackling logs.
Today is December 15, 1941. According to my count, it’s the one hundred seventy-seventh day of the war, and the ninety-ninth day of the blockade.
Just think of it, it’s been six months since the war began! It wasn’t that long ago, when we painfully lived through its start and cursed this ever-hated war.
Six months… We are forcibly used to it now. People work, not keeping track of days and nights. They don’t leave the factory walls for days on end. All who can move, who can stand and breathe, who can sit and think – all are at work. Only the dead don’t work…
I hear the wakeup call. It is a very weak sound coming from the opposite end of the barracks. So weak, in fact, that many don’t hear the call, and those who do, have no physical capacity to hurry.
It used to be that the sergeant would bark, “Up!” so that the bunks shook. The entire barracks damn near burst into flames with action: everything flew, whistled and knocked. Something flashed through the air under the ceiling, something rattled on the floor, human figures rushed about. In one minute we all ran down the stairs with barely our underwear and pants on.
Now this call no longer has its electrifying effect upon cadets. Some of them are too weak to completely throw off their blankets, some barely move and nobody hops down from the bunks. The process of getting up takes forever. There is only one oil lamp in the barracks, surrounded by gloom. In the darkness, shadows waver in unusually slow motion.
Cadets slowly get down from the top bunks. There is no need to get dressed, because nobody took anything off last night, except shoes. There is an unexpected relief – we straighten the sheets with one hand, while using the wooden bars of the bunks to hold on, to keep from falling and hurting ourselves.
Then we lace up our boots and wrap them around with cloth. I no longer have any stability or sense of balance. I rock to and fro, like someone with a gas poisoning, and keep trying to sit down somewhere and rest.
What is happening to me? I feel exceptionally ill today. The morning exercises no longer take place – they sort of canceled themselves, without an order from upstairs. Everyone sits on the bottom bunks and keeps quiet. There is no water for washing. The plumbing at the barracks is out of order.
You would think, what is water? It’s the most commonplace liquid in the world! There is so much of it in Leningrad – it’s unimaginable! There were so many floods throughout its history, so many people died because of water… There are tons of good fresh water in Leningrad – and here we are, suddenly out of water… There is nothing to wash with, nothing to drink. In order to get water, one must apply a lot of effort, perhaps even risk one’s life.
A few brave souls make their way downstairs, go outside and wash their faces with snow, and then spend half an hour recovering, blowing on their hands to unfreeze icy fingers.
We line up to go to breakfast – each one knows his place. There is no hubbub. We walk to the best of our ability, silently.
On the outside it looks like a regular normal lineup. But on the inside, someone stumbles and pitches forward. He is quickly caught before he falls. I usually hold on to Fedya Kokorin, the red-haired guy with a ramrod straight posture – we don’t have many too many straight-backed people left. Fedya is always upbeat, never shows a sign of growing weakness. He can’t stand idle talk about food. He doesn’t enter into any arguments. …Calm, restrained Fedya Kokorin… So, I stick with him.
He says so himself, “Stick with me, kid, you’ll stay alive.” …Good, kind Fedya Kokorin. ...Plain as a rope, trusting as a calf, strong as an oak. Smile never leaves his face, he must have been born smiling. I feel sorry for him, for this trustfulness will be his undoing.
I tell him about it time after time, but he stares at me, batting his red eyelashes, carefully listens, agrees with me, and then does everything his own way.
Breakfast is followed by classes. We are told that hands-on studies in the field are canceled. All classes will now be taught indoors. This somewhat eases our situation and allows to conserve diminishing strength.
We keep thinking that we should have enough energy to get to the end of the classes. If these courses are three months long, as we were originally told, then we should finish them in the middle of January, 1942. That means that in 1942 we will become brand new Junior Lieutenants, ready to join the contingent of officers at the Leningrad front. But there is still a month to go till then. Thirty-one days of having to move around, listen to our tutors and comprehend what they say. Thirty-one days of freezing, not eating enough, losing a fraction of weight every day and with it – losing energy, the basic physical energy.
Thirty-one days of looking at human suffering, at your own friends, how they work themselves into the ground, replenishing only a third of the energy they spend with non-nutritious surrogate instead of food.
Will each of us be able to pass this test of endurance? We must, there is no other way… If we – the young ones – can’t do it, then who can? The transition from a regular uneducated soldier to a commander is huge.
Perhaps, not everyone can be a commander. There must be something else in you, other than just knowledge.
Sometimes you see a cadet, carrying out the duties of a platoon commander, and it’s obvious: he stands in front of the lineup straight as a rod, confidently gives commands, provides corrections to his own buddies, and in such a tone that it wouldn’t even occur to you to object! This one is capable of demanding, forcing someone to carry out the orders. …Brave, persistent – in other words, a commander.
And here is another example: a cadet facing the lineup is a guy with a college degree. He is at ease with the entire set of military knowledge, well-versed in the policies, understands all commands and carries them out flawlessly. He can comprehensively explain complex questions to his friends. But he can’t lead. He is suddenly overcome with some strange kind of shyness, his voice starts catching and getting hoarse with anxiety. He is rocking on his heels and completely loses himself. He simply can’t overcome the barrier of the regular soldier’s shyness.
Our sergeant always says in those cases, “That’s a lot of wet wool, it needs to be shaken out and dried as soon as possible.”
Yes! Becoming a commander is not an easy business. It’s so difficult, it’s scary even to think about. Just imagine, having to send a soldier on a mission or to rally a platoon, or even entire division and lead them into attack.
But we have to – we are at war! So, we’ve spent the last two months working for twelve hours a day, in any weather, at different hours of day and night, running and crawling – to comprehend the intricacies of military science.
Every day for two months we came back from the field exercises into the cold barracks with nowhere to dry ourselves or warm ourselves up. Many of us developed a heavy, suffocating cough.
So passed day after day, week after week – all the way to the end of day of December 15, 1941.
Dusk comes after sixteen hundred hours. Daylight gives in to the dark, but our work day is far from over. Supper time seems ages away.
I wait for it starting right after the end of dinner. I only forget about this feeling when my mind switches to the gist of an instructor’s lecture, when I feel as if I participate in one of the great historic battles, I become completely absorbed in it along with my instructor and can see the victorious conclusion, and don’t feel hunger – and then I feel good.
This “good” however, only lasts two hours tops, and then I have to go to the next class only to be overcome with hunger again, to be tormented by this gnawing pain, that no power can subdue.
The break between the end of classes and dinner usually finds us back at the barracks. The guys relax, some of them settle on lower bunks, recline on pillows, close their eyes and just lie there calmly and silently. ...As we used to say, in a state of free-fall.
It didn’t used to be this way, everything used to be different, and every free minute was spent in disputes about past wars and the present one. Some discussions included huffy arguments and funny confusions, such as the one about Captain Tushin during the battle at Borodino, who organized such barrage of fire from his battery that Vice King of Italy Eugene Bogarnet ran away along with his entire contingent until he was stopped by Napoleon himself. This story was wittily told by cadet Kowalski – always the most hot-headed one in arguments and the strongest one in war history.
Cadet Istomin, a mature guy with a trusting grin, who never tried to show off and always stayed in the shadow, corrected Kowalski that time, and did so very carefully, “My friend Kowalski, you must have forgotten, that Captain Tushin wasn’t at Borodino, he was wounded at Austerlitz and, I think, lost an arm in that battle, after which he never returned to the front.”
“Where did you read that?”
”In a well-known source – Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace"
That time we didn’t argue about it and quickly made peace. We didn’t carry grudges at length, because it was wrong to carry grudges at such a time. We always found compromise solutions.
Of course, there were among us intelligent guys with a college education. But our uniforms and wrapped-around boots made us all alike and none of us had any desire to stick out. Our task was to master military science and to become field commanders capable of handling a platoon, for starters.
Most cadets try to stay awake as we wait for supper.
Time is against us, we slowly but surely grow weaker. It’s so noticeable that one doesn’t need to be a medical professional to realize the catastrophic level of these people’s exhaustion: we march slowly, talk quietly, tire quickly.
Who could have thought that young energetic guys with nary a notion of fatigue, would experience a lack of energy that grows worse by the day.
We line up to go to supper. Our drill sergeant has changed his attitude toward us for the better. He no longer makes the entire division run around because of one slow cadet. He doesn’t make us march in one spot near the dining hall. He doesn’t keep us out in the cold, doesn’t yell, “Leg – higher, step – wider, forward to the buckle, back till it stops!”
He simply commands, “To the right in twos, to the dining hall, march!” and everyone calmly goes to the dining hall – the only warm place on the entire campus.
We walk from fresh frosty air straight into the warm room, even though it’s only relatively warm. All my “sensors” are tickled. I catch the smell of malt, or at least I think I do. Then, when I reach my seat, I smell sweet steam. Then the smells become all mixed up, and out emerges the smell of squeeze-outs – the by-product of beer-making process. Now, where does that come from? I must be having some sort of stinky hallucination. A new phenomenon, never before experienced by men. So, there aren’t just visual hallucinations, there are some for each one of our senses.
Just to make sure, I ask my neighbor at the table whether he smells anything in the dining hall. “Yes,” the neighbor replies, “it smells like soaked sheepskins, like in a leather processing shop.”
I feel better now. I am not the only one undergoing this transformation.
Supper takes very little time, five or six minutes to be precise. We don’t want to leave the warmth and slowly sip the tea, made of who knows what kind of local flora.
Yes, a cadet’s ration lacks both in quantity and in quality – it’s not much to look at or to chew on. What is a cadet’s daily ration during blockade conditions? It consists of three square famines a day, causing irritation of digestive organs with subsequent painful sensations of the soul.
This wound never heals and constantly seeps life force, causing an entire body to ache.
During the last few weeks my right knee has begun to betray me. It’s not bad during the day, and it doesn’t hurt. But I feel this light prickle in it every evening. It is tolerable for now.
Thinking back on the time that’s passed, with every day worse than its predecessor and no break in sight, nothing to look forward to, I realize that nobody here is brave enough to actually promise better living conditions.
We return from the dining hall in a disorganized crowd, stretched along the entire path to our final destination. These unhurried movements are particularly suitable to emphasize the weakness of these exhausted human creatures.
We reach the barracks slowly. …Tiredly lift our heavy feet from one tall porch step to the next. Then we climb the stairs, barely making it to the nearest landing, and rest. We keep climbing all the way to the third floor.
Here is our barrack – our home, our habitat, our country… We go to our bunks, rest and try to warm up.
There are no conversations. We are tired. Even the fastest most audacious Don Juans and grenadiers (when it comes to fair sex, that is), grow quiet and still and don’t crack jokes. In the past they spent their evenings whinnying like prize steeds and clicking their tongues as they discussed their romantic adventures. Whenever there was a woman approaching, the entire platoon went up in waves like a sea in the storm. Someone yelled, “Red alert! A lady at three o’clock!”
When we see them on the street now, there are no more playful commands. All we can do is look with pity at their swollen legs and faces wrapped in some rags, at slow tired movements, at dark hopeless eyes.
As the circumstances change, so do our attitudes toward various things. Here is this cadet, rather loudly telling to his neighbor, “I went to see my mother, only just now, the door probably hasn’t been shut after me yet. Mother was so happy to see me! She brought an entire pot of potatoes and flipped it right on the table – all wrapped in steam, potatoes falling apart, glistening, some completely broken into pieces. Caught my breath just to look at them!
“…Next to them was a jar of canned mushrooms, chives and a loaf of bread that mother only just took out of the oven. She broke the loaf in half, and I was overcome with the smell of bread. My jaws ached, my mouth filled with saliva, I could go mad with a mere thought about warm bread.
“I drowned in the smell of home-made rye bread. It smelled like the entire world: like the village, like the hay cart, like cows and horses, like the log cabins. It made its way through all the odors of alcohol, vodka, carbolic acid and every other kind of crap. This is bread – the life of the planet.
“I didn’t get to try anything, didn’t touch anything. I inhaled the smell of bread and woke up? Why did I wake up?”
“So, how was your mother?” his neighbor asks.
“I didn’t see her face, you know, she was all wrapped up.”
“That means that everything is alright at home, don’t worry about it,” the neighbor comforts him.
The cadet’s dream is heard by other neighbors, picked up by the connoisseurs of country cuisine and flies all over the barracks. About half of the cadets are village kids. They enhance the menu with milk, each recalls their own village peculiarities of canning mushrooms and berries, of preparing dried beets and turnips, and this creative collaboration would never end, but for an incident that happens to one cadet during this conversation.
The cadet starts convulsing, the seizure breaks him up, twists and bends his body, his neck is stretched out unnaturally, his arms and legs are twisted like springs, strained and twitching. His eyes can’t stop blinking. Bloody foam bubbles out of his mouth.
The seizure ends quickly. The sick man somehow sags and his motionless form lies on the floor like a sack.
The seizure takes away a lot of energy. Other guys pick him up and put him on the bed, cover him with a blanket. It’s not pleasant to watch, and no one has the power to stop a seizure until it stops on its own.
This incident alerts the guys – but that’s about all it does. It doesn’t convince anyone that the seizure took place from starvation. Nobody wants to believe it.
Our platoon commander – and our class president so to say – is a middle-aged man, intelligent and well educated. He declines the cadets’ request to punish for any conversations about bread and about food in general.
Just to create appearance of law and order, he promises to assign unplanned cleaning duties, with the understanding that these duties can take place anywhere by the kitchen.
But this is just for show, nobody ever gets any unscheduled cleaning duties. Although, there are fewer conversations on this subject. Classes continue.
We have straight-A students as well as some average ones, but nobody fails. Group exercises never go smoothly, but at this time there is no demand for precision and clarity in our technique.
All we need to know is how to manage a lineup, and how to handle firearms of domestic production and those of the enemy – to perfection.
When we still held tactical exercises in the field, we would work on the actions of a platoon or the entire division during an attack. We provided data to a cadet, performing duties of the platoon or division commander, placed him into difficult situations, where he had to make the most appropriate and reasonable decisions.
We also used that time to develop psychological stability, stamina and resistance in battle. We were well-acquainted with those notions by then.
We had to keep a cool head and resist various rumors and surges of panic. In other words, we were taught things that were needed during the war.
1 - Commander Courses was the Soviet Army’s equivalent of an officers’ school. Promising soldiers were selected by their commanders and sent to the Commander Courses to study advanced military sciences.
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