May 01, 2020

In the Trenches of Stalingrad

In the Trenches of Stalingrad

On the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, we offer two excerpts from a new translation of Viktor Nekrasov’s In the Trenches of Stalingrad, one of Russia’s first honest books about the war. The novel (which won the USSR State Prize for Literature in 1947) drew on Nekrasov’s experience as a platoon leader, regimental engineer, and assistant sapper brigade commander, and he unflinchingly covers not only the victory, but also the horrible violence of the war, as well as some of the Red Army’s worst failings, including losses, retreat, and cowardice. Born in 1911, Nekrasov was a journalist, writer, and, eventually, in the 1960s and 1970s a dissident and emigre. The novel, translated by award-winning translator Brendan Kiernan, will be released this fall by Russian Life Books.

At the library, Igor delightedly pages through back issues of Apollo from 1911. I enjoy some Peruvian novellas in International Literature. The library’s wicker chairs are comfy. The reading room is quiet and cozy. There are portraits of Turgenev, Tyutchev, and someone with a mustache and a tie pin. A large wall clock chimes melodically every quarter hour. Two teenage boys choke back laughter over Dore’s illustrations of Munchausen. I, too, at one time, had that book with a red cover and gold binding, with the very same illustrations. I could look through it 20 times a day. I especially liked the one where the Baron was pulling himself out of a swamp by his own hair. And another, where a gate cut a horse in two as it calmly drank from a fountain, water cascading out its back.

We sit there until the librarian lets us know that the library closes at six. They’re down to one shift, and work from twelve to six.

“Come by tomorrow. From twelve to six we’re always open. And we also have Apollo for 1912 and 1917.

We say our goodbyes and leave. Valega is probably squawking already – everything’s gone cold.

At the train station entrance, a black, square loudspeaker wheezes sickly:

“Citizens, an air raid warning has been declared for the city. Attention, citizens, an air raid warning…”

Recently, there are air raid warnings three to four times per day. No one pays them any attention anymore. They shoot, shoot, you never see a plane, and then it’s called off.

Valega greets us with a glum frown.

“You all know we don’t have an oven. I already warmed it up twice. The potatoes turned mushy, and the borscht is all…” He waves a despairing hand, and takes out the borscht, which had been wrapped in a winter coat. Out past the train station the anti-aircraft guns start thumping.

The borscht really is remarkable. Meat, with sour cream. We even got dishes somewhere – beautiful, with rosettes.

“Just like at a restaurant,” Igor smiles, “if we only had placemats and triangular napkins in a glass.”

Suddenly, everything’s airborne. Dishes, spoons, glassware, the radio…

What the hell!

Out from behind the train station, slowly, ceremoniously, as if on review, float airplanes. I’ve never seen such a number. There are so many that it’s hard to make out where they’re coming from. They fly in flocks: black, vile, unhurried, at various altitudes. The whole sky is strewn with spitballs of AA fire.

We stand on the balcony and watch. Igor, Valega, Sedykh, and I. It’s impossible to tear ourselves away.

The Germans fly straight at us. They fly in V’s, like migrating geese. They fly low, you can see their yellow wingtips, and, outlined in white, crosses, and their undercarriages, like extended talons. Ten… twelve… fifteen… eighteen of them… They form up single file. Right across from us. The lead plane turns over on its wing, wheels up. It dives. I don’t take my eyes away. It has red wheels and a red engine head. It turns on a siren. Black dots pour out from under its wings. One… two… three… four… ten… twelve… The last is white and large. I close my eyes and grip the railing. Instinctively. There’s no ground to dig into. But I have to do something. You can hear the “singer” pull out of its dive. Then, incomprehension.

Solid noise. Everything has a small, sickening vibration. I open my eyes for a second. I can’t see anything. Maybe it’s dust, maybe smoke. Everything’s coated with something dark. I grip the railing. More bombs whistling, more noise. Someone touches my arm, a squeeze, above the elbow. Valega’s face, strobe-lit, like lightning. Pale, round-eyed, open mouth. He vanishes.

How long will it last? An hour, two, or fifteen minutes? Time and space don’t exist. Only darkness and the cold, rough railing. Nothing more.

The railing disappears. I’m lying on something soft, warm, and uncomfortable. It moves underneath me. I clutch it with my hands. It crawls.

I have no thoughts. My brain has shut off. All that’s left is instinct – an animal desire to live, and an expectation. Not even an expectation, really, but something – something like a need to go faster, speed things up, no matter what happens, as long as it’s quick.

Afterwards, we sit on a bed and smoke. How that happened I have no idea. Dust clouds all around, it looks like fog. The smell of TNT. Sand everywhere, in your teeth, your ears, on your neck. Shards of dishes on the floor, puddles of borscht, cabbage leaves, a piece of meat. A chunk of asphalt in the middle of the room. Every last window is blown out. My neck hurts, like someone hit me with a stick.

We sit and smoke. I can see Valega’s fingers shake. Mine too, probably. Sedykh rubs his leg. Igor has a large bruise on his forehead. He tries smiling, fails.

I go out on the balcony. The train station is burning. The small building to the station’s right is burning too. There was some sort of a publication in there, I think, or something political. I can’t remember now. To the left, toward the grain elevator, everything glows. The square is empty. A few craters with scattered asphalt. Someone lies dead on the other side of the fountain. An abandoned cart, old and rickety, looks like it sat back on its hind paws. A horse is dying, in spasms. Its side is torn open, its intestines a red jelly smeared along the asphalt. The smoke grows ever thicker and blacker, a shroud, it hovers over the square.

“Will you eat?” Valega asks. The voice is quiet, not his, and cracks.

I’m not sure I want to eat, but say that I will. We have cold potatoes straight from the pan. Igor sits across from me. His face is grey with dust, like a statue’s. A bruise is spread across his entire forehead, a poisonous violet.

“Well, I…” he waves, “can’t get it down…” and goes out on the balcony.

Pengaunis and Shapiro show up pale and filthy. They waited it out in a trench. The bombardment had caught them on the central square. Bombs hit the Red Army Club and the corner building across from it, the hospital. The southern part of the city is in flames. A truck with ammunition was hit and rounds were still exploding. A women’s head was torn off. She was leaving a movie. Maybe twenty people died right there. The show had just let out.

✶     ✶     ✶

A few bullets whack into a cistern right over my head. A long, thin stream of kerosene hits the rail in front of me, and I feel fine droplets, like from an atomizer, misting my face. A rocket launches. The storage tanks, warehouses, and stone wall are illuminated. Shadows dance unnaturally, growing shorter, then longer. The rocket falls somewhere behind us and we can hear it hissing.

It’s time… I put my fingers in my mouth – I lost my whistle somewhere back near Kupyansk. It seems to me as though, for some reason, it’s someone else, someone beside me, that’s whistling.

I run straight at a storage tank with three bullet holes. There’s shouting on my right and left. Automatic fire crackles. The extra magazines I stuck in my coat pocket bang against my knee. A sailor, black ribbons trailing from his brimless cap, runs on ahead. I can’t seem to catch him. The tanks disappear somewhere, and I see only the ribbons. They’re terribly long, probably reach his waist.

I shout something, too. Probably just, “a-a-a-a.” Running, somehow, feels easy and fun. The slight vibration in my belly is from my automatic. The knuckles of my index finger ache from pulling the trigger.

More storage tanks appear, but different, smaller, with pipes curving out of them like snakes. There are lots of pipes and they have to be hurdled.

The Germans are on the other side of the tanks. They run toward us, also shouting. The black ribbons vanish. Instead, I see a grey winter coat and open mouth. Which also disappear. My temples start to pound and, for some reason, my jaw hurts.

The Germans are no longer visible.

Ahead, white posts and an iron gate. I run up, sit, and then… But I can’t stop. The gate’s already behind me, and ahead are an asphalt path and some workshops.

Later, I’m on my belly and can’t get a fresh magazine into my automatic. My hands are shaking. Something is stuck in the slot.

“Your automatic is jammed… Take this one…”

That’s Valega, I think, but I don’t have time to turn.

Through netting – I’m laying by a low stone wall with fine netting over me, like that found on chicken farms – I see more running Germans. A lot. They’re rushing across a factory yard firing from black automatics, pressing them to their bellies, so it looks like they’re holding some sort of grotesque firework. The Germans fire tracers even during the day.

I loose a whole magazine, then another. The fireworks disappear. Things suddenly turn quiet. I’m drinking water from someone’s canteen and can’t tear myself away.

“Had some herring, did you, lieutenant?” says someone holding the canteen, short and messy, shaggy, in a sailor’s striped shirt and brimless cap.

I finish the water. Seems like I never had such delicious, cold water. I look for Valega. He’s right beside me loading a magazine. At his elbow there’s a small, gold pile of bullets. Beside him, a round-faced lad smokes in a rush, drag after drag, the end of a cigarette. He spits on it and presses it into the earth.

The lot ahead is paved, completely smooth, another factory yard. Behind that is a metal scrap heap, a steam engine with beat-up train wagons, and some sort of white out-building, similar to a railroad crossing’s guard shack, with a small porch. There’s another yard out back behind it all, empty and spacious.

It’s a lousy spot: no place to dig, no cover – just one low, stone wall.

We have to take the shack and the scrap heap, that’s clear.

We can’t sit here for long. I pass instructions to Farber and Petrov. They’re along the stone wall too, off to my right and left. The guy in the sailor’s shirt is inserting fuses into round, deeply-notched grenades.

“Oh-h yeah… that’s right,” he winks with a squinted, black eye. “I know that shack. Nice little shack. It’s got a bit of a cellar too, just what we need.”

“You’ve been there?”

“We were there all night. ‘Til Fritz drove us off. They got there early in the evening. Recon. Looking for our CP.”

He jams one grenade in a pocket, tucks another behind his belt.

Farber signs that he’s ready. A moment later – Petrov. German machine guns open fire over on the left. That means they’ve dug in already, the bastards. We need to hurry and get started before the rest of them get to work.

The guy in the sailor’s shirt is crouched, like a sprinter, one leg back, the other cocked, looking at me out of the corner of a tense, unblinking eye. On his left arm, a bit below the elbow, there’s a tattoo of some sort, probably a name.

I give the signal.

Something flashes past, dark and swift, pushing the air aside. Plaster tumbles from the walls. The guy in the sailor’s shirt runs straight for the shack, waving his automatic. It’s maybe 200 feet to the shack, and the yard is completely flat.

Suddenly, there are people everywhere, running, shouting, in green, in black, striped. The guy in the sailor’s shirt is already at the shack. Disappears through its doors. The German fire is uncoordinated. Then they stop. We can see them running out behind the shack. They’re easy to spot by their wide, beltless, winter coats.

It all happens so quickly that I don’t even have time to think. There’s no one close. Just Valega and I. And someone’s garrison cap on the grey asphalt.

We crawl through the netting. Bent forward, we run to the shack. In the middle of the yard there are two or three dead. All face down. Can’t see who they are.

Near the shack, a long trench heading off into the scrap. I jump down into it. Someone’s going through the pockets of a dead German.

“What’re you doing?”

The soldier, not getting up, turns his head. Two small grey eyes in a dark, pimply face look at me with surprise.

“What?.. I’m taking trophies…”

He sticks something in his pocket, rushing, and it catches on a chain. Apparently, a watch.

“Move it, disappear!”

Someone taps my shoulder.

“That’s my scout, lieutenant. Take it easy.”

I turn. It’s the guy in the sailor’s shirt, with a cigar in his mouth. His eyes are narrow and stern. They shine from under his bangs.

“And who are you?”

“Me?” His eyes are slits and he’s clenching his jaw. “Infantry recon commander. Chumak.”

An elusive motion of his lips shifts the cigar to the other corner of his mouth.

“Put a stop to this nonsense immediately. Understood?”

I speak slowly and unnaturally calmly.

“Get your people together, post lookouts. In fifteen minutes, you’ll report to me in person. Are we clear?”

“Who are you to be giving orders?”

“You heard what I said? I’m a lieutenant and you’re a sergeant. That’s it. And no more trophies until I say so.”

He doesn’t reply. Just looks at me. He has a narrow face, thin lips, tightly pursed. Bangs fall over his eyes. He stands, legs splayed, hands thrust in his pockets, lightly rocking forward and back.

So we stand looking at one another. If he doesn’t turn and walk off right now, I’ll draw my pistol.

The End. Or just the beginning?

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