Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by John M. Burman
Sasha Pavlov was mobilized to defend against the sudden German invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Since Sasha was from northwest USSR, he was sent to a Red Army base near Leningrad for three months of training.
The training period was significantly shortened because of the rapidity of the German’s advance. After only a few weeks of “training,” which consisted mostly of marching around without weapons, Sasha and his unit were issued threadbare uniforms and old bolt-action rifles, all from the previous war (The “previous war” has become known as World War I. The war which was then raging has become known as “World War II,” though that war was known in the USSR, and is known in Russia, as the Great Patriotic War.)
After the “training” Sasha and his unit were sent to the front east of Leningrad by truck. They arrived at the “front” (the ‘front” was a trench that had been dug around Leningrad). They arrived as the sun was setting and were unloaded from the trucks. Sasha was among several hundred soldiers who had been sent to defend the city. After unloading from the trucks, several officers circulated among the soldiers and handed each an army blanket, telling them that their tents would arrive “shortly.”
After the sun set, the temperature dropped significantly. Also, a breeze began to blow from the west. As the Army had not been issued tents, the only “shelter” available to the soldiers was the trench. Sasha and his comrades sought “protection” there.
After climbing to the bottom of the trench, Sasha draped his blanket over his shoulders and made himself comfortable. He then looked around. There was no one nearby on his left, but there was a soldier on his right. Wanting to make the soldier’s acquaintance, Sasha put out his hands.
“I’m Sasha Pavlov, from Petro,” he said.
“Pleasure to meet you. I’m Sergei Maximov,” the other soldier said.
The two shook hands vigorously.
“I’m from Leningrad,” Sergei continued. “I’ve heard of Petro, but I know nothing of the place.
“Petro is east of here, about 450 kilometers,” Sasha responded. “As the name suggests it was founded by Peter the Great. Although Petro was originally founded to manufacture goods, the main industry now is logging. In fact, until I was drafted, I worked at a saw mill near Petro. These days, Petro and Leningrad are connected by rail.”
“Once this war is over, perhaps I’ll take the train to Petro now that I know someone,” Sergei smiled. “I haven’t had good conversation in weeks. Tell me about yourself.”
“About a year ago, I graduated from school and married my sweetheart Katya. “Sasha said. “While I work at the saw mill, Katya works at home. I really shouldn’t say home. We have to share and apartment with my parents. Apartments are hard to come by in Petro. Before the Germans invaded I never pictured myself as a soldier. Now, I’ve kind of enjoyed training and I can imagine returning to Katya a war hero. Wouldn’t that be something? What is it you do in Leningrad?”
“Until a couple of months ago, I was a student.” Sergei said. “One day an Army officer came to the school and said everyone over sixteen would become part of the military. I had turned sixteen a couple months prior, so here I am.”
The temperature was declining and most of the soldiers in the trench fell asleep. Sasha and Sergei, however, kept talking well into the night. Sasha told Sergei of his love for Katya, and their plans for a life together after the war. Sergei told Sasha he wanted to graduate from school, attend university, and work as a chemist in Leningrad. Also, that he hoped to find his own Katya, get married and have a family
Soon after, their conversation fell off and both Sasha and Sergei slipped off to sleep.
Sasha and his comrades were awakened by the sound of German tanks approaching. Leaping to his feet, Sasha leaned carefully over the trench. He aimed and emptied his rifle. Sasha watched with growing horror as the bullets bounced harmlessly off the tanks and did not slow them a bit. Glancing to his right, Sasha saw Sergei doing the same thing. As the tanks approached the trench, Sasha looked helplessly at Sergei. Not knowing what else to do, Sasha and Sergei threw their now empty rifle on the ground, turned and began to run toward the rear. After taking a couple of strides, Sasha felt a horrible pain in his back, which caused him to fall face-first into the dirt.
Before he lost consciousness, the last thing Sasha saw was German tanks, followed by German infantry, passing by.
Sometime later, Sasha regained consciousness. At first, he saw nothing. He realized he was staring into the ground and lifted his head and tried to focus his eyes. When he did so, Sasha saw that the battlefield was occupied by thousands of dead or wounded soldiers, and an almost unearthly quiet had descended on the area. The quiet, he realized, was because virtually no birds or other animals had survived the battle. The thousands of men on the battlefield were dead or dying, and the remaining motor vehicles had been destroyed. After being awake for a few moments, Sasha lost consciousness again.
When Sasha next regained consciousness, he lifted his head to look around. He soon figured out that it was very dark, and the battlefield was lit only by moonlight. Looking around, Sasha could see a forest to the left about a hundred meters away. In every other direction, the battlefield was occupied.
Sasha realized he was very thirsty and very hungry. Finding that he could move his arms and legs, he searched the soldier to his right. That soldier had also fallen face first, and Sasha could not see his face. Among the soldier’s belongings, he found an almost full canteen. Drinking deeply from the canteen, Sasha satisfied his thirst. Searching the soldier on the other side was easier because that soldier had fallen face-up and Sasha was able to search his pockets easily. Even though it was fairly dark, Sasha glanced at the soldier’s face and recognized one the many men he had met the night before. Sasha discovered bread crusts in the pockets. Eating the crusts hungrily, and then after having another drink, he felt much better.
Checking himself, Sasha found that he could move his arms and legs, but the blow he had felt had apparently been a severe wound to his back. While it was tempting to go back to sleep, Sasha decided that he would probably not be well treated if the Germans returned.
Normally, Sasha could easily have walked to the forest. Now, however, he could neither stand nor walk. He discovered that he could only slowly pull himself forward using his arms. Sasha crawled forward and maneuvered so he could turn over the body of the soldier whose canteen he had borrowed. Although weak from the wound, Sasha turned the body over. It was dark but, a shaft of moonlight illuminated the body’s face. It was Sergei.
His worst fears having been realized, Sasha put down his face and wept. After a time, Sasha regained control of himself and began the long trek to the trees.
Although getting to the forest was a major effort, Sasha slowly pulled himself in that direction. When he finally reached the forest, Sasha saw a low bushed that would provide a good place to “hide.” He managed to get under it, and, exhausted, fell asleep.
Sometime later, Sasha was awakened by the sound of sporadic gunshots. Lifting his head and peering through the bushes, Sasha saw a group of German soldiers accompanied by a horse-drawn ambulance. When the Germans found a wounded German soldier, he was placed in the ambulance. When they found a live Red Army soldier, they quickly shot him.
As Sasha watched, the German soldiers finished checking the battlefield. He was so upset at the soldiers’ nonchalant execution of Red Army soldiers that he had to forcibly restrain himself from yelling out to stop. Soon the ambulance was sent elsewhere, and the soldiers left the field laughing and talking among themselves.
Perhaps because they did not expect anyone to make it to the forest, the German soldiers overlooked signs of Sasha’s crawl. After the soldiers left the battlefield, Sasha was very upset at the shootings he had seen, and the only thought that penetrated his mind was that he should put some distance between himself and the battlefield.
Crawling to a nearby birch tree, he slowly hoisted himself upright. Although he could not walk, he found that he could push himself from one tree to the next. In such a manner, Sasha slowly moved away from the battlefield. After a time, Sasha learned that he could stumble awkwardly in whatever direction he wanted. After staggering for a while, Sasha found that he could walk, awkwardly, away from the battlefield.
After traveling a couple of hours, Sasha found a small, placid lake. Approaching the water’s edge, Sasha bent down to check the water’s temperature. It was cool but not too cold.
Sitting up and removing his socks and boots, Sasha rolled up his pants and waded into the lake until it was about knee-deep. Stopping, Sasha waited until the water stilled and became clear. He then bent took a long drink. Standing back up, he waded back to the lake’s shore. There, he walked back to the forest to find some trees where he could hang his clothes to dry. He then returned to the lake and sat down.
Sitting where he had stood before, Sasha tried to wash his clothes. He found that his overcoat and the upper part of his uniform were covered with blood. Since it was not possible to effectively wash blood without soap or in cool water, he was not able to clean his garments. After doing the best he could, Sasha threw each garment back to the shore.
After “washing” his clothes, Sasha returned to the shore. Climbing out, he walked back to the forest, found the trees he had previously located, and hung his clothes to dry.
Returning to the lake, Sasha walked back in. This time, he sat on the bottom, and began washing himself.
As he had suspected, he had been shot in the back, above his heart. And the bullet had passed through his body completely. Sasha was able, therefore to cleanse his body fairly well.
Standing back up, Sasha walked back to the shore and climbed out. He walked out to a patch of grass he had noticed before and laid down to dry himself. As the sun was high, and the temperature was warm, Sasha quickly fell asleep. When he awakened, the sun was considerably lower in the sky, meaning that quite a long time had elapsed.
Sasha walked back to the trees, found that his clothes were dry, and dressed. Then he returned to the lake to retrieve his shoes and socks and put them on.
Sasha stood and began walking, again.
In the far north, days are long, so he had several hours of daylight left. Sasha continued to walk away from the battlefield until the sun was about to set. As it the sky was getting dark, Sasha noticed an abandoned (probably abandoned because of the German advance) house. Walking around the house, he noticed a root cellar and a nearly full rain-barrel. Climbing into the cellar, Sasha quickly found a couple potatoes. Taking the potatoes to the rain-barrel, Sasha washed and ate them cold. He then drank again, this time using his cupped hands to drink.
As he did not want to be found near the house, Sasha walked further away. He then laid down to sleep.
Just as summer days in the far north are long, nights are short. Not surprisingly, therefore, the sun was up when Sasha awakened. Taking careful note of the sun’s location, Sasha returned to the house. Looking in the cellar, again, Sasha found more potatoes he could clean and eat. Afterward, Sasha began walking east (Knowing that the sun rises in the east and having taken note of its position, he was confident of his direction).
Sasha continued heading east for two more days. Fortunately, he frequently came across lakes or streams and was able to drink water. He was, however, getting quite hungry.
The third morning, Sasha turned south (by traveling north, east, and then south, Sasha hoped to avoid both the German army and Leningrad).
Shortly after turning South, Sasha found a set of disused railroad tracks that he assumed ran between Leningrad and Petro. Although he knew Petro was hundreds of kilometers away, he decided to try and get there and be reunited with Katya.
Fortunately, although Sasha followed the tracks, he did not follow them closely. He avoided soldiers and others he encountered along the way.
As he moved east toward Petro, Sasha regularly found streams and was able to quench his thirst. Periodically, he also discovered houses. If they were occupied, Sasha gave them a wide berth. If they were abandoned Sasha searched them for food.
Drinking when he crossed streams, and eating when he found an abandoned house, Sasha slowly made his way home. After several weeks, he came to outskirts of a city. The area looked familiar, and Sasha decided it must be Petro.
He waited until dark to make his way to the center of the city so that he would not be seen. After he did, he knew he was in Petro.
Sasha’s parents’ apartment was between the tracks and the lake. Sasha went down the hill until he reached the street where he believed the apartment was located. At that point, he turned right, walked about a third of a block and went to the back (his parent’s apartment was, he thought, on the third floor and on the back of the building).
Quietly entering the building, Sasha walked to the third floor. Finding the correct door, he knocked quietly. Finally, Katya answered his knocks.
Although Sasha’s hair and beard had grown long, and he had lost a lot of weight, Katya recognized his eyes. Although she recognized him, She had been told he had been killed and could not believe the person standing before her was Sasha. Finally convinced that it was,
Katya embraced him in a tight and long bear hug. After that, Katya quietly led Sasha into the apartment.
Sasha and Katya arrived at the small living room, where they sat together on the couch. After they were seated, Sasha asked about his parents. Katya said: “Your mother is fine, but your father had a heart attack and died shortly after you went to the front.” Sasha was quiet was a long time. Finally, Katya broke the silence by asking him about the battle and his return to Petro.
Sasha said, “The battle was terrible. A young man I met was killed, and then I watched German soldiers execute wounded Red Army soldiers.” As they were talking, his mother, Elena, came out of the only bedroom. Seeing Sasha, she rushed and hugged him.
After her excitement at seeing Sasha, Elena announced, “I’m going shopping. I will get enough food to celebrate and tell everyone Sasha has returned. She then began walking to the door.”
Before Elena reached the door, Katya said, “Please don’t do that. If the Army learns that Sasha is back, I imagine he will be reactivated and sent back to the front. When he did not come back last time, we thought he was dead. I don’t think I can stand to lose him, again.”
“Okay,” said Elena. “I won’t tell anyone, and I will not buy more food than is necessary for two persons at any one shop. I will ask for your final decision when I return.”
When Elena returned, she saw that the apartment’s curtains were drawn, and assumed Sasha did not want to be found. Once she was inside, Sasha spoke. “We’ve made a final decision,” he said. “I will hide in the apartment until the war is over. I simply cannot forget watching the German soldiers shoot injured Red Army soldiers. I fear that if I am lucky enough not to be killed at the front, I will be killed if captured by the Germans. Fortunately, dad loved books and collected them. His books are still in the bedroom and I won’t be able to finish them even if the war lasts for a long time.”
The only problem was that the Pavlov’s shared a bathroom with several other families. Fortunately, each family was given a bucket each night to use and empty the following day. This way, Sasha never had to leave the apartment. As expected, Sasha read widely, though he did not finish all his father’s books.
The Great Patriotic War lasted four more years. During that time, Sasha never left the apartment.
After the war ended, a few soldiers straggled back to Petro. Late one night, Sasha slipped down to the waterfront, found a small boat, and rowed across the lake. Knowing that he was very pale from being inside for years, Sasha feigned a wound. Putting his arm in a sling, Sasha explained that he had been recently wounded, and had lost a lot of blood.
Sasha arrived back in Petro a couple of days later. He was welcomed as a returning hero. A couple of weeks later, the army discharged Sasha, having incomplete records of which men had served when.
A couple of weeks after “arriving” back in Petro, Sasha returned to work at a nearby pulp mill. He worked there for decades after the war.
The only change in the Pavlov’s life was that in the mid-fifties, their apartment was pulled down and replaced with a Kruzchavka. (Apartment buildings in the USSR were named after the country’s ruler at the time they were built. Nikita Kruzchev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1953-1964). The Pavlov’s apartment remained small, but each had its own bathroom. Also, the first floor of the building was converted to commercial spaces, one of which was used by Katya as a clothing store.
All the Pavlov’s lived to see the USSR. disintegrate in 1991. Elena lived until just after the turn of the twenty-first century when she died.
After his return, Sasha resumed drinking lots of vodka and smoking lots of cigarettes. Not surprisingly, he died a few years after his mother.
At the funeral for Sasha, an army officer came and eulogized Sasha as a hero of the Great Patriotic War. Also, as honor guard fired a volley over his grave.
A couple of weeks after Sasha’s funeral, Katya was having tea in her apartment with Irina, her closest friend. After drinking some tea, Katya decided to “come clean” with Irina. After finishing her tea, Katya told Irina everything.
After listening to Katya, Irina said: “I know. I’ve known for a long time. In fact, many persons knew for many years. No one said anything because we all would have done the same thing.”