simonov Simonov and Surkov
Soviet Writers at War!

Konstantin Simonov
A report on the changes in the psychology of
Soviet soldiers after the first six months of war

Our army has learnt how to conquer the Germans.
It was the 24th of June. The train, for some reason made up of suburban coaches, rolled away from the darkened Byelorussian Station. Blue lamps were burning. We were not used to them yet. The train was going to Minsk. The passengers were mainly officers returning to their units from leave. War was in its third day, and everyone was hurrying westwards.

Next to me sat a colonel of a tank battalion. He was a short man with greying hair, and wore an Order of Lenin pinned on his tunic. His son--Misha, I believe his name was--was going to the front with him. The father had obtained permission from the People's Commissariat of Defence to take the sixteen-year-old boy along with him as a volunteer. Father and son looked very much alike. Both were short and stocky, with stubborn chins and serious grey eyes.

The train went no further than Borisov. There were Germans ahead, a wrecked track, and complete uncertainty.

There were several thousand officers and men assembled in the woods on the banks of the Berezina. They too had been returning to their units, but the Germans had unexpectedly broken through to Borisov and cut them off.

Wave upon wave of German strafing planes zoomed overhead. They dropped bombs and machine-gunned us from sunrise to sunset, while field guns boomed incessantly ahead of us to the west. All were from different units, all were strangers to one another, and no one knew what was happening. But one person came forward who quickly rallied everyone together and established the necessary order. It was the small colonel, my travelling companion, who became the life and soul of the group of men gathered in the woods near Borisov.

He was the first to pronounce the words: "Take up defence positions". He called the senior officers together, counted the weapons, divided the men up into companies and platoons, and the soldiers felt they were an army once more.

Some guns were found, along with several machine-guns, and men were sent back to Borisov for ammunition. We dug trenches and slits, and climbed in with our rifles.

There were all sorts of different people there. Lying to the left of me were an artillery captain and a military lawyer, and to the right there were two civilians, both lorry drivers.

I shall never forget the colonel's son. The boy did everything he could to make himself useful. His rifle slung on his shoulder, he ran about, carrying messages, fetching food, water and cartridges. In his rare free moments he observed his father admiringly out of the corner of his eye. The boy was glad that he was fighting, and proud that in that critical hour it was his father who proved to be the most resolute of all the men in uniform there.

He was right. He had every reason to be proud of his father. The colonel acted as if nothing unusual had happened, as it all these different people were not total strangers to one another, but a regular regiment that he had been commanding for at least three years. He gave the orders in a calm, subdued voice which had a metallic ring and commanded instant obedience. I heard his name mentioned several times, and I knew it then, but could not remember it later.

I parted with the colonel the next day, and never saw him again.

In November, when I was at the Karelian Front, on the Rybachy Peninsula, we received an old batch of newspapers from Moscow which had been held up for a long time. On the front page of one of them, I don't remember which, there was a photograph with the caption: "Colonel Lizyukov, Hero of the Soviet Union, Commander of the First Guards Motorized Infantry Division, receiving the Guards colors".

The colonel was wearing winter uniform; a short, stocky man with a stubborn chin. . . .

I recognized him at once. Yes, of course, he was the man from near Borisov. I remembered the name I had heard then and later forgotten. Colonel Lizyukov, of course. I wished his son were there in the picture with him. I wanted to see the two of them together as they had been then, in June. . . .

It all came back to me most vividly in December, now that I had travelled along many of the roads leading to the west in the wake of the retreating Germans, had seen how ruthlessly they were being annihilated. Now that we had learnt to beat them, we could at last permit ourselves to cast our minds back to what was too painful to remember before.

I now recalled the first hard battles of June and July, the first painful reverses and lessons, the blood-washed roads along which we retreated and along which we were now returning.

And today one pronounces with a special feeling of pride and gratitude the names of those people who were the soul of our armies then, watching whom in those difficult days one believed that all this was going to end, that we would begin to win and come back, that we were definitely going to win and come back. We did not know when, but watching these people we knew for certain that it would be so.
National Hero or Big Loser?
Read Sergei Esenin's
Song of
Yevpaty Kolovrat

(in Russian)

When Russia was ravished by the Tatar invasion, when her towns were burnt down to the ground and flooded with the blood of their inhabitants, the people bequeathed to us in their ballads the unforgettable memory of the darkest despair and grief. But all the chroniclers of Novgorod, Suzdal, Vladimir and Ryazan also tell the story of Yevpaty Kolovrat, a Ryazan bogatyr, who, coming home from the wars and finding his town razed to the ground, collected a small force and set off in pursuit of the enemy host. He overtook the Tatars, killed a great multitude of them, and in this unequal battle died a hero's death together with all his small force.

Russia freed herself from the Tatar yoke, there was the battle at Kulikovo and victory came, but alongside the names of the victors, alongside the name of Dmitry Donskoi, lives the memory of Yevpaty Kolovrat, the popular hero of those first tragic days of the Tatar invasion.

His name has come down to us because in those grim days of bloodshed and subjugation, the feat he performed was not just a consolation, not just something to be proud of, but also an earnest of ultimate victory.

Times and enemies change--I do not want to draw any historical comparisons--but the heart of the people does not. It remains as staunch as ever in times of trial and as grateful to those who in such times proved purer and stronger in spirit than their fellows.

It will be like that now. The names of the victors will not overshadow in the memory of the people the names of the heroes of those June, July and August battles. I remember very well how at the time of those painful reverses we journalists, who through our newspapers had to tell the public what was happening at the front, sought and found those whose stories engendered faith in victory.

The middle of July. Mogilev. A single wooden bridge spanned the Dnieper. There was not a gun on it, not a single anti-aircraft gun. We crossed over to the western bank, to the regiment which was defending Mogilev. A hard, bloody battle had been fought that day. The regiment had smashed forty German tanks, but had almost been bled white itself. In the evening we had a talk with Colonel Kutepov, the commanding officer. He was a very tall, lean, slightly awkward man who had been many years in the Army but who looked as if he had never worn uniform until the day before. When things were particularly grim his unshaven, bristly, tired, deadly tired face, would light up with an unexpectedly gentle, childish smile.

We told him about the bridge. There was not a single anti-aircraft gun on it, we said, and if the Germans destroyed it from the air the regiment would be cut off on this side of the Dnieper.

"Oh, well," Kutepov suddenly smiled his childish smile. "Oh, well," he repeated in a soft, quiet voice as if he were speaking of the most commonplace of things. "Let them. The others may retreat, but we have decided to stay here and die. It's the decision of the whole regiment. We have already discussed the matter."

To this day I remember Kutepov standing at his command post, and the messenger running up to him at the double.

"Comrade Colonel, there are thirty more tanks on our right flank," he reported, gasping for breath.

"What, more tanks? Where?" one of the officers standing nearby asked the colonel in alarm. Apparently, he had only caught the word "tanks" but had missed how many there were.

"More tanks? Ah yes, there are three lousy little ones on the right flank," Kutepov replied, smiling.

To this day I remember the worry in his eyes and his smile. He looked worried because there were thirty tanks on the right flank and measures had to be taken. He smiled because the officer he was answering was going to the left flank, and it would be better for him to believe that there were three and not thirty German tanks on the right.

I don't know, maybe he did wrong from the military point of view, but looking at him in that tense moment I knew we would win. We would definitely win: it could not be otherwise.

How the war roads have changed! I shall never forget the Minsk Highway with its endless stream of refugees. They were dressed in whatever they had on when they jumped out of bed, and they carried little bundles of food, such small bundles that it was a puzzle what they ate for five, ten or fifteen days on the road.

German planes flew screaming over the highway. They don't fly like that nowadays. They don't dare, and they can't. But in those days they flew so low, it was as if they wanted to crush you with their wheels. They dropped bombs on the road and fired at the stream of people from machine-guns. The refugees then left the road and continued along the sides, about a hundred yards from the asphalt, through the woods that lined it. The Germans were quick to catch on, and the very next day they, too, changed their course and left the middle, of the road, flying on either side of it, a hundred yards or so from the asphalt, planting their bombs in an even line where they reckoned the refugees were now moving.

I remember villages where people looked searchingly into our eyes and asked: "You won't let the Germans come here, will you?"

Or they would ask: "Maybe it's time we were leaving?" And again they looked searchingly into our eyes.

Dying seemed easier than answering that question.

I could not bear to remember it before because it was too painful a memory, but I remember it now because I have walked and driven westward along many of the roads along which we once retreated eastward.

The roads are crowded with refugees again, but they are quite different people now. They are not leaving home, but returning. Only in times of hardship do you really understand how powerful is the pull of native soil, how strongly people are drawn to the home they have left. They do not wait for or seek safety, they come hard on the heels of our army. They come even before the danger had passed, before the fires have stopped smoldering, before the artillery has ceased to thunder. They do not want to lose a single day. They have to be home that same evening, following the soldiers who came there only that morning.

Now, in wartime it's the soldiers who know everything best: they must answer all the questions, and have no right to plead ignorance.

The people trudging along the roads like to ask questions: there is so much, so very much they want to know, and they want to know it right now, without delay.

They asked questions in June and they are asking questions now, in December. But what different questions! I remember passing through Shklov in July.

Every passing car had caused a stir among the refugees. Several cars came along, heading west. People stopped them and asked:

"Maybe we needn't go? Maybe the Germans won't come here?" And there was hope in their eyes again.

But then more military cars passed them, heading east, and the refugees followed them with sorrowful looks. They whipped up their horses in a hurry to get on. And they kept asking where they should go: as far as Roslavl or farther east?

December. The same roads. In Odoyev we were surrounded by people who had just returned to the town. They wanted to know when our armies would take Minsk, when they'd take Belev. Their relatives had stayed behind there, and they believed they were going to see them soon, if they had survived of course. They were quite sure that Belev would be taken, all they wanted to know was when, how soon. Very soon, we told them. We, too, believed it. And then they'd start asking us about Kaluga, Orel, and other towns.

"When?" they repeated, and looked at the soldiers with firm faith in their eyes.

These looks made our mounted soldiers instinctively spur on their horses and go at a fast trot to the town gates whence the road led west.

I remember being at the headquarters of our Far North army one night in November, when half the sky was aglow with the northern lights, and going outside for a smoke and a breath of the frosty air. A man from the Special Department came out with me, and suddenly, as though remembering something, he said to me happily:

"You know, there'll be some interesting material for you. We've captured three German officers."

"What rank?" I asked.

"I don't know yet."

"You mean they're still in the division?"


"The regiment then?"

"No. You see ... you see, the thing is, they're not here at all yet, those prisoners. They're still there, in the German rear. They were captured at a spot sixty kilometres behind the enemy lines, between their Corps and Divisional HQs. Fifteen of our frontier-guards went there and seized them. They sent a radio message that they were bringing three German officers and were going to cross the front line with their prisoners in two or three days' time. So you and I will have to wait a little."

I remembered this episode just now because it implied more than the boldness of a handful of brave men. It implied the confidence which has been growing stronger in our army with every month. In July we were not taking any German prisoners forty miles behind enemy lines. Yet by November we were doing it. And, what is more, it was taken for granted, and no one was particularly surprised that such a thing could be done.

I saw the prisoners three days later. They were wearing felt boots which the frontier-guards had taken along with them specially. It was plain common sense and not excessive soft-heartedness that had made them put the felt boots on the prisoners--it was easier to walk them that way. These three officers from the famous Cretan Alpine Chasseurs Division looked extremely dazed and sorry for themselves. They had never had to fight like that, and they were not accustomed to being taken prisoner like that. They were told they and many of their colleagues would have to get used to it soon. They said nothing. They kept silent not from arrogance, not from a sense of injured pride, as had been the case before, but simply because they had nothing to say, because they were spiritually numb.

How these soldiers of the "invincible" army have changed in six months! In July it was impossible to say which of them were brave and which were cowards. All human qualities were drowned by arrogance--by the insolence common to invaders everywhere. When they saw that they were not going to be beaten or shot, they at once put on a bold front. They believed the war would be won in another fortnight, they looked upon their imprisonment as a sort of enforced leave, and thought they were being treated decently only from fear, from fear of vengeance to come.

But that's all a thing of the past. Nowadays, some of them tremble and weep, hurriedly blubbering all they know, while others--the rare few--keep sullenly silent, locked in despair. The army of insolent blusterers changed remarkably in those days of defeat.

It is a perfectly natural thing to happen in an army that has become used to easy victories and is suffering defeat for the first time.

The Germans are retreating. They are fighting, but retreating just the same. Hitting back, but on the run.

An operations map is spread out on the general's table. I have seen many such maps since the war began, but how different this one looks! Do you remember the maps of July, August and October? There were big blue arrows and small red semi-circles. The picture has changed. Now there are red arrows, drawn with a bold, firm hand, and small blue semi-circles drawing away from them. The

Germans are retreating. The red arrows are moving west, further and further away from Moscow, cutting deeper and deeper into the blue lines of the enemy. They smash these lines, shattering them. The blue semi-circles grow smaller and smaller, breaking up into regiments, battalions and companies.

The map I am looking at shows a deep thirty-mile wedge driven by our armies into the retreating German divisions. Whole regiments of Germans are still at large in our rear, roads are still blocked every day by small groups of tommy-gunners, but our divisions are forging ahead, convinced that they will encircle the Germans and wipe them out. For a minute I try to imagine seeing this map in July or August. If we had seen it then it would have seemed that it was ourselves who were surrounded here, and not the Germans.

The encircling force is also the encircled to a certain extent, to take an old truth. However, what matters here is not so much the number of regiments or divisions one or the other side has, but which side does the attacking, which side believes it is encircling the other and which believes it is itself being encircled.

Something much more important than the capture of a couple of dozen villages or towns has taken place. A tremendous, magnificent change has taken place in the psychology of our troops.

Our army has learnt how to conquer the Germans. And even when its regiments find themselves in difficulties, even when the scales of war seem about to tip in the enemy's favor, even then our soldiers feel they are the conquerors, and they continue to advance and rout the enemy.

The Germans have reached a similar turning point in reverse. They are obsessed by the fear of encirclement, they are retreating, they constantly strive to straighten out the line of the front, and they are frightened by no more than a handful of men penetrating behind their lines, men who firmly believe in victory.

An officer came in and reported to the colonel that a platoon of German tommy-gunners had appeared in their rear.

"Oh, well," he said. "Some of our people will come up behind us and mop them up. Our job is to forge ahead, only ahead." Making no further mention of the enemy platoon, the colonel gave the order to advance.

The enemy must be routed, and will be routed whatever happens. All our people know this, they know it and, what is more important, they feel it with all their hearts. They are driving the Germans back, and they will go on encircling them and driving them back along the highroads and across country, across the fields deep in snow where no vehicle can pass, where legs sink in knee-deep, where progress is devilishly hard to make: but then when you're advancing you discover you possess an extraordinary strength and find a second wind. We are imposing our will on the Germans, we are becoming the masters of the situation. They are going to emerge from encirclement into villages razed to the ground, into impenetrable forests, and they are going to freeze to death in their hundreds where today they are freezing in their dozens. They are going to be killed by artillery shells and submachine-gun bullets, and as they retreat they are going to be killed by the women and old men with stakes and pitch forks, as other invaders were killed on the same roads in 1812.

They need expect no mercy. We have learnt how to conquer, but this lesson was too costly and too cruel for us now to have mercy on the enemy.

Translated by: Anonymo

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see also:
Biography of Konstanin Simonov

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