Soviet Writers at War!

Aleksandr Fadeev
A report on workers in Leningrad during the Nazi blockade

"They say a farmer is attached to the soil and to his native village. And of course it's very true. But I'll tell you this: our Russian worker is no less attached to his factory and his work. I have been at the works here since 1914, when I was no more than a boy. My father before me and many of our family worked here too. I shall never leave the works of my own free will, unless of course the Soviet authorities say I must. When the Germans began to close in on our city, do you know how many of our workers joined the Volunteer Corps? They made up a whole division! Many have been killed, but even now there are units in the army, where our Putilov lads are in the majority."

All this was told to me by Comrade Muzheinik, a veteran worker of the Putilov Works which played such an important part in the Russian revolutionary movement and now bears the name of Sergei Kirov, a prominent leader of the Soviet state. The Volunteer Corps Muzheinik mentioned has indeed earned itself a glorious reputation for its part in the defence of Leningrad, shielding the city at the decisive moment with the bodies of its soldiers. The superbly equipped German army, which had spent years preparing for this war and had behind it two years' combat experience in Western Europe and the Balkans, was halted at the walls of Leningrad. And not only halted--suffering tremendous losses in men and equipment, it had to dig in and was pushed back on a number of sectors. This is a historical fact which future generations will regard with awe and admiration.

"We sent our people to fight in the Volunteer Corps," Muzheinik continued, "but we couldn't help wondering what would happen if the enemy broke into the city and cut us off from the works. What should we do then? And we decided not to surrender the works under any circumstances and to prepare for all-round defense. So we built fortifications around the works to be able to defend it ourselves if the worst comes to the worst. And apart from the Volunteer Corps, we organized self-defens units. Come what may, we Kirov people will never abandon the works. Sometimes one wonders just how many of us Kirov folk there are. Certainly there are far more of us than are on the books. For all the people of Narva district are Putilov folk in one way or another, all have something to do with the works, all belong to the same big family. There are countless numbers of us. Just take this one thing--so many people have joined the Volunteer Corps, and yet work goes on. All equipment and all regular workers have been evacuated to the east, and yet work goes on."

"I don't suppose the workers liked the idea of leaving their native city for the rear?" I asked. "As far as I am aware several thousand of them were evacuated by plane, and that means they could only take along a few bare necessities."

"Some liked it more, some less," Muzheinik answered with a smile. "But on the whole they did not make much ado about going. You may wonder why. Simply because Kirov workers know full well that neither Leningrad nor their works will ever submit to the enemy, and that the Kirov workers, if anybody, will certainly return to their native parts. We're still evacuating people even now--children, the old and the sick. When they object, we say: 'Don't you worry, you'll come back as soon as possible. The works will remain where it is, nothing will happen to it.' " Muzheinik uttered these words with such profound conviction as could not but command respect. "And we also tell them: 'You're going to your own people, to Kirov folk. We're all one.' And it makes us proud to hear that over there they work not merely just as well as here, but two or three times better. We are proud of them and we envy them. See that shop? Huge, isn't it. But it is standing empty." He sighed sadly. "Do you know what it is? It's the turbine shop. I started off there in 1914. ... It's a grand shop! They've been shelling it something terrible, but there it stands."

I was one of a group of writers, most of us army correspondents, come to inspect the works. It lay before us spread over an enormous territory, like a whole city. This veteran of Russian industry presented at once a majestic and tragic sight. Throughout the blockade it had been subjected to incessant bombing and shelling, and was scarred and damaged all over. But it held out, and was fighting back. It stood in the second line of the front, as it were, but it was a second line of such importance that the enemy concentrated its fire on it. The works, within its ring of fortifications, was neat and tidy. Some of the shops were empty, some were still working. Everywhere painful traces of destruction met the eye--broken walls, collapsed roofs, empty window-frames and shell craters in the yard. But the chimneys smoked busily. Of course, as compared to peace time, work was not exactly in full swing as was only to be expected, but it nevertheless remained an important arms factory employing several thousand workers. And the sounds of whirring lathes, the roaring of furnaces, the rumbling of rolling mills and the hoots of a small locomotive shunting in the yard was sweet music to our ears.

The iron foundry, one of the biggest workshops, showed many traces of heavy artillery hits, some old, some quite fresh, but work in this vast shop went on non-stop round the clock.

Once, when a fire broke out, Konstantin Skobnikov, the forty-three-year-old shop manager fought the flames with a group of workers, while work in the shop went on. With the agility of a young man he climbed onto the roof followed by other members of the self-styled fire-brigade. They worked like Trojans, without a thought for themselves and losing all track of time. When the fire was finally put out and it was clear that the workshop had been saved, Skobnikov was surprised to discover that his hands were bleeding and his face burnt.

"Well, damn it, I built this shop," he told us with an amused smile on his lively, sun-burnt face. "You might say the shop is a part of me: I built it twelve years ago and have been working here ever since. Spent practically all my mature years here."

"Remember how we cleaned it up in the spring, Konstantin Mikhailovich?" asked the very ancient, white-haired foreman who accompanied us on our tour of the shop.

"There were mountains of rubbish," Skobnikov responded chuckling. "And everything covered with ice-pretty discouraging, I can tell you. I must admit when we started I had my doubts as to whether we'd really ever be able to do it. We carted out mountains of junk."

"So there was a period when the shop was not working?" I asked.

"Yes, there was. There was a time when I lived here all by myself."

"How do you mean, lived?"

"Oh, I live right here. My family has been evacuated. In winter I had an iron stove, and I got what heat I could from it. It was silent as the grave all around: the only sound was the wind whistling through the broken windows. Snow had swept in, and everything was covered with hoar-frost. There were moments when I doubted that the shop would ever revive again."

"But what did you do all those long days and nights?"

"In the day-time I was busy enough: there is plenty of work to be done here in Leningrad. Evenings I sat alone and thought or read books."

"What did you think about? What did you read?"

"There were plenty of things that needed thinking about," Skobnikov replied seriously. "People revealed themselves to the full in those hard days. Never before had I seen people attain such heights of spiritual nobility or fall to such depths of moral degradation. For instance, in December 1941, when our shop was still working, despite the terrible cold and hunger, we had a wonderful old man who made earthen moulds. He was a past master at his job, one of those old artists who don't know themselves how they do it. He made wonderful moulds. When people asked him what proportions he used in mixing ingredients, he answered: 'There is no one proportion, I just feel it with my hand and know what I need to add and how much.' They say about such people that they 'know the secret': but the only secret is their clever hands. Well, we had to substitute local sands for those they used to bring from special workings. Everybody kept saying that nothing would come of it. And sure enough, nothing did with everybody but this old man. He could still make the moulds all right. But then we noticed that he was growing weak. He declined rapidly, before our very eyes, but he did not stop work. Instead, he started teaching his old woman how to make moulds. He was all the time explaining things to her, showing her how or making her do something on her own. Sometimes when she couldn't get the hang of it, he would get quite angry with her, then would show her again and again. One day a young lad ran to fetch me. 'He's calling for you,' he said, and I knew at once who he meant. I found him lying on a heap of that same mixture he made so well and his wife standing by, with not a tear in her eyes. Other old workers were gathered round. 'Well, Konstantin Mikhailovich,' he said in a weak voice, 'I am dying. My old woman will take my place.' After that he said no more to us, but gave last minute instructions to his wife, lest she forget what to mix with what. She repeated things after him and kept assuring him, 'Don't you worry, I won't forget.' And she did not cry, though it was a sight to make even a dispassionate onlooker weep. But it's true what they say, that all tears froze in Leningraders that winter. He died in the middle of a sentence. One saw things like that quite frequently. And then there were those that stooped so low as to steal the last bit of bread from a comrade. . . . As to reading, I mostly read Balzac and Stendhal, and I learned a lot about human nature from them."

Konstantin Skobnikov, the son of an engine-driver, graduated from secondary school in 1917 and from a technological institute in 1925. He is an excellent engineer with a good theoretical grounding and great practical experience. He told us what ingenuity was required of an engineer in the conditions of the blockade, when they lacked so many materials without which they had once believed production to be impossible. He mentioned some of the problems he had come up against: how to adapt furnaces so that they could work both on coal and firewood, depending on which fuel was available; how to produce cast-iron without coke; what to use for fixation in the absence of vegetable oils? These and many other economic problems large and small were solved by the quick wits of Leningrad engineers and supply men.

I had occasion to watch many of the latter at work. They are remarkable people. The war has been teaching the supply men of the entire country strict economy, but from the point of view of Leningraders the achievements scored in this field elsewhere are the height of extravagance. The Leningraders are the most economical, ingenious and thrifty managers ever known in our country.

Thousands of shells have landed on the territory of the Kirov Works, but it continues to manufacture all kinds of modern weapons and ammunitions, from mines and shells to tanks.

Most of the work is done by women. There is no trade, however complicated or physically arduous, that the women of Leningrad have not mastered.

In Skobnikov's workshop we watched Rumyantseva, the team-leader in the moulding section, at work. She knew nothing about production when she came to the works, and she learnt her trade in as little as three weeks, and is now the works' celebrity. As she talked to us, her small deft hands lived a life of their own, nimble and accurate. There was a lightness in all her movements, as though she danced beside her moulds.

"Don't you worry, comrade officers," she replied playfully to some words of praise. "We'll do our bit alright. It's up to you now to drive the Germans away from Leningrad--soon."

As I said, many of us were in uniform. Rumyantseva smiled playfully.

"We love you very much, but you are stationed much too near for our liking. The further away you go, the better we shall love you."

The women who worked nearby laughed, and we men were somewhat put out, to tell the truth.

In another section of the shop we saw a group of women grinding mortar shell casings at huge grind-stones, with sparks fanning out in all directions. Behind each hot shells lay in a pile. I stopped beside one woman. A dark kerchief was pushed low over her forehead and I could not determine her age. With gloved hands she would pick up a shell from the pile and then press it to the rotating grinding wheel straining with all her body to hold it in position. Sparks flew all over her. This was the initial crude grinding before the shells went for further treatment. Without paying me the slightest attention, the woman took one shell after another and repeated the operation. The task of holding the shell against the rotating wheel was so strenuous that her whole body shuddered. It was hard work, a man's work. I wanted to see the face of the woman and so I stood there until she turned to me. She was about forty, and her features were amazingly beautiful, stern and finely chiselled.

"Is the work very hard?" I asked her.

"Yes, at first it was very hard," she replied picking up another shell and pressing it to the wheel.

"Where is your husband?" I asked, taking advantage of the short interval when she put down one shell and picked up another.

"He died this winter."

I did not ask her what he had died of-that was clear enough.

"Have you any children?"

"Yes. One girl at school, another at the works' kindergarten, and a son in the army."

Women of Leningrad! Will anybody ever find adequate words to express the grandeur of your toil, your loyalty to your Country, to your city, the army, work and family, your boundless courage? Everywhere we see your beautiful, skilful and tireless hands hard at work. You are to be seen at the lathe, at the bedside of a wounded soldier, at the air-defense post on the roof, in office, children's home and nursery school, behind the wheel of a lorry, mining peat, chopping down timber for firewood, unloading barges, wearing the clothes of a workman, militiaman, air-defense volunteer, railwayman, army surgeon and telegraph operator. Your voice is heard over the radio, your hands cultivate vegetable patches on the outskirts of Leningrad and in all its gardens and boulevards. You take care of buildings, bring up orphans, bear on your shoulders all the great burden of keeping family life going in a besieged city. And your smiles, like the sun's rays, light up the whole life of Leningrad.

And how many of you, splendid daughters of Leningrad, are out on the front line. Olga Makkaveiskaya, a nurse attached to a company of sub-machine gunners, shyly showed me her Komsomol card with a bullet hole in it. She had been wounded in the chest and small red spots were visible on the back side of the card, which had been pressed to her body. Olga Makkaveiskaya had recovered and returned to her company. Payments of dues were marked neatly in her blood-spattered Komsomol card. "Now I have another one," she said with a happy, modest smile, showing me a new Party card.

The Kirov Works is the pride of Leningrad, just as it has always been. It still publishes its own newspaper. The editor-in-chief is Alexei Solovyov, a worker-poet. The newspaper is called "For Labor Valor", but in Leningrad, more than anywhere else in the country, labor valor is identified with combat valor.

The Kirov workers live and work on the front line. Their flats are veritable shelters, and pretty unreliable shelters at that, and they go to work as into attack. Half an hour before our arrival six welders had been killed by a shell explosion. The workers have got used to danger, and they go on working, making jokes, attending to their daily affairs. But on their faces, as on those of soldiers at the front, there is a shadow, some elusive furrow which comes from consciousness of constant danger. It is a furrow that is at the same time stern and mischievous, sterner in the older people, rather more mischievous in the younger.

In the tank engine assembly shop managed by engineer Starostenko, a man of great talent and boundless resourcefulness, we were introduced to the young foreman Yevstigneyev. We had already heard about him.

For more than three days and nights Yevstigneyev had stayed in the shop working on an urgent war order. Underfed, like all the rest, his strength began to fail. His comrades told him he needed some rest. He bridled up at this, refusing point-blank to leave his work place. "I'm still your foreman," he said sharply, "and it's up to me to make the decisions. Your job is to fulfill them."

But his hands would no longer obey him and finally he had to go home.

In the evening some of his comrades came to see him.

"Here, look what they're writing about you," said the youngest of them handing him a newspaper.

Yevstigneyev waved it aside, but after his friends had left he read that Yevstigneyev's team was the best at the works. Then he put on his clothes and set out for work, reeling from weakness. The shop manager yelled at him, saying that he wouldn't allow him to work and that he would do much better to go home.

"But I'm not going to work. Comrade Starostenko," Yevstigneyev replied pleadingly, "I'll just look on."

And he came and "looked on" every day for a week, as a result of which his team fulfilled the month's quota four days ahead of time.

The Kirov workers asked us to arrange a literary recital at the plant. Leningrad poets Nikolai Tikhonov, Alexander Prokofiev and myself took part. It was held in the cellar of one of the factory buildings which had been fitted out for meetings and parties. The hall which seated 700 was not big enough to accommodate all who wanted to be present. The aisles were packed and the door had to be locked. Still, people kept hammering on it all through the evening, although an artillery attack on the plant was in progress.

Nikolai Tikhonov read his poem "Kirov Is with Us". It told about the beloved leader of the Leningrad workers, treacherously murdered on December 1, 1934, making the rounds of besieged Leningrad on a pitch-dark, freezing night.

The impact of this poem, a splendid work in itself, was doubled by the realization that it had been written by Tikhonov that cruel winter in an icy flat by the light of a wick lamp, and by the fact that he read it himself to Kirov workers in the cellar of a factory building while the Germans were shelling the plant. The listeners sat immobile, as though turned into stone. Their faces were at the same time grave and touchingly moved.

One chapter of the poem describes Kirov passing by the plant bearing his name:

Poet Nikolai Tikhonov in blockaded Leningrad.
           Past bombed-out houses, crippled fences,
           Beneath the shattered vault of sky,
           Walks Kirov through the streets of tensely
           Alert and armored Leningrad.
           This man, a fighter just and wrathful,
           Walks slowly through the town he loves.
           The Kirov Works, blacked-out and frozen,
           Looks like a fortress, dark and stern.
           There are no breaks, no smokes, no chatting.
           All thought of rest and sleep is gone.
           The workers' faces, strained and sweating,
           Are grimly purposeful and strong.
           The workshops have been hit in air-raids,
           And fires have broken out in here.
           The work goes on, do what you've got to,
           Don't give in to fatigue or fear.
           If for a moment courage fails them
           An old man speaks up from their midst.
           He's worked here all his life, this old man,
           And what he says to them is this:
           "Our soup is thin alright, and bread
           Is worth its weight in gold, I grant it.
           But we've got strength and guts instead,
           We'll let ourselves feel tired after.
           Their bombing didn't get them far,
           So now they'd starve us out, the braves!
           From Russia slice off Leningrad,
           And make us Leningraders slaves!
           Like hell they will, not on their life!
           Why, on the Neva's holy banks
           The Russian working men will die,
           But not surrender, never that.
           We'll deck the front out in new armor,
           And smash the blockade just the same.
           It's not for nothing that this plant here
           Bears Comrade Sergei Kirov's name!"

As Tikhonov read these lines, tears rolled down the cheeks of the hardened Kirov workers, both men and women. Tikhonov himself was visibly moved. There was round after round of applause when he finished.

Surrounded by young people, we walked across the factory yard to the main gates where a car was waiting for us. It was the middle of May, just before the start of the white nights. Although it was about nine p.m. the sun was just setting. The mammoth works buildings, scarred and damaged as they were, looked very imposing in the red sunset glow. We walked over shell splinters which were strewn all over the yard, and the young people showered us with questions about the life and work of their favorite writers and poets. There was much joking and laughter. The hum of work, sounding solemn at this evening hour, came from the shops.

In front of the factory gates stands a huge statue of Kirov, portrayed as he often appeared on the rostrum: wearing a leather cap, he stood on his sturdy legs, his arm thrown out in a wide oratorial gesture, a brave, confident smile on his broad Russian face. The tails of his open coat were riddled by splinters, of which there were traces to be seen all over his powerful torso. But he stood there, his outstretched arm calling to struggle, with the confident and charming smile of a strong and simple man. He could not be killed now, any more than he had been killed on December 1, 1934, for both Kirov and the cause for which he fought are immortal.

Translated by: Anonymo

For more war reporting, visit:
Soviet Writers at War!
see also:
Biography of Aleksandr Fadeev

Return to:

Address all correspondence to:

© 2012 All rights reserved.