Nikolai Dupak

Published september 20, 2010

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In June 1941, when I was 19, I was playing the part of Andrei in "Taras Bulba" being filmed by Dovzhenko. Studio representatives had come to our Rostov Theater School back in March. I had gone through auditions, and literally a week later received a telegram: "Please come to the Ukrfilm Studio for screen tests for the part of Andrei in the 'Taras Bulba' motion picture. Aleksandr Dovzhenko." Such an offer! It was an event for the entire school: Dovzhenko! The director who had filmed "Shchors", "Poem Earth", "Aerograd", the one who was the most leading director of them all. And suddenly he invited some Dupak.

I flew in. They met me, set me up at the Continental Hotel in a luxurious room with a bath. Fantastic! Only in the movies had I seen that people could live like that. And so: "Rest for now, a car will come for you in the morning." The car came at noon, they took the Brest-Litovsk Highway to bring me to the studio. We came to the studio, they took me to a man who was working at a vegetable plot, dressed in a shirt, pants, and sandals: "Aleksandr Petrovich, here's Dupak arrived from Rostov." He looked at me, stretched out his hand: "Dovzhenko." "Dupak." "Have you read 'Taras Bulba'?" "Yes." "What is it about?" "Well..." "Did you notice how when Cossacks died, they would in some cases curse the enemy, and in others praise their brotherhood?" In short, he started telling me how he was going to make a film about friendship, patriotism, about real people who loved life. I was stunned! Dovzhenko was discussing such things with me! We walked around for about an hour. Then -- screen tests, and they drove me back to the hotel. That's how the filming started for me.

We didn't work on Saturday and Sunday. They told us that we would have to watch some foreign film. We were supposed to come to the studio on Sunday at 12. I was reading and re-reading something, went to bed late, and woke up from the sounds of gunfire. I walked out onto the balcony, and my neighbor also came out. "What is it?" -- "Probably exercises of the Kiev Military District", and just as he said that -- suddenly, maybe 100 meters away, an airplane with a swastika turned around and flew to bomb a bridge across the Dnieper. I saw that for the first time. It was around 5 AM. The heat was terrible, about 30 degrees. Windows were open. The neighbor went white -- it didn't look like exercises. We went downstairs. No one knew anything. I walked out to a streetcar stop. Suddenly there was another air raid. They dropped a bomb on the Jewish Market, on the spot where there is a circus now. That's when I saw the first casualties. I came to the studio. We listened to Molotov's speech. The picture became clear. We held a meeting. Aleksandr Petrovich made a speech and said that instead of the planned year and a half for the film, we wood shoot it in half a year, and then we would beat the enemy on his own territory. Such was the mood! But literally the next day, when we came to film, there was no crowd scene in which the soldiers had been supposed to participate. That's when we realized -- sorry, this would be serious and for long. Bombings continued during those days, streams of refugees from the Ukraine poured in. On the second or third day of the war, they put additional beds in my room, tried to create living space for the refugees. Started digging bomb shelters at the studio. We were going to start shooting for several more days, but then people's militia units started being created. Besides me, Aleksandr Petrovich, Andreev, and Oleinikov joined. They sent us to Novograd-Volynskii. When we got there, I didn't see any of them, only the workers and fitters. Our crew formed up: "Anyone with higher education -- 2 steps forward, secondary education -- one step forward." I didn't think I had higher education. I took one step, then hesitated, and stepped a little further. "Ri-i-ight face!" -- and we were led to the barracks. Then they started sorting us out -- where to send us for training. They asked me if I could ride a horse. I said "yes", and they put me into a cavalry school.

We were especially sobered by Stalin's speech on July 3. Then we really understood that it would be a while. They loaded us on a train and we rode to Kharkov. From there, to the Novocherkassk Cavalry Academy. They were teaching us to be lieutenants, platoon commanders. We had learned how to fight and about horses. We had to take care of horses ourselves -- training, cleaning, feeding. On top of that, we learned trick riding, vaulting, cutting sticks from horseback. Learned to mount on the move. My first horse was called Blackberry -- an animal with a very nasty temper. The academy commander decided to create two companies of 150 men in each, and so we wouldn't get confused, he assigned horses to companies by color -- bays and blacks. That was when they took Blackberry away from me and gave me an astounding horse Orsik instead, who would later save me. It must be mentioned that I was saved from death by my mount three times. They taught us from October and until January. In November or the beginning of December, when Germans broke through to the Donbass, they sent us to plug a hole in the front line. We were unloaded on some station, and then rode for two nights looking for the enemy. About fifty kilometers from the station the forward detachment ran into motorcyclists, and Colonel Artem'ev, the commander, decided to attack. It turned out that there were not only motorcyclists, but also tanks. We were routed, lost twenty men. I was wounded in the throat, clenched the horse's mane, and it carried me eleven kilometers to the River Kal'mus, where our field hospital was located. The horse saved me. I was in a semi-conscious state. They took me off the horse, operated on me, inserted a tube. We were urgently returned to Novocherkassk, from where we marched to Piatigorsk to continue our studies.

We graduated as junior lieutenants on January 2. I was decorated for that battle. Several of us - best students - were sent to Moscow, into the reserve company of the Red Army Cavalry Inspector Oka Ivanovich Gorodovikov. They didn't feed us well. We kept submitting requests to be sent to the front. There was such patriotic feeling that you had to defend the Motherland.

Nikolai Dupak

In the end they appointed me a platoon commander into the 250th, later 29th Guards, Cavalry Regiment, into the newly formed in Orenburg 11th Red Banner Morozov Division of the 1st Cavalry Army. (11th Cavalry Division was formed in September 1941 in Orenburg, by the end of the war it was called 8th Guards Cavalry Rovno Red Banner, Order of Suvorov, Morozov Division. From the moment it was formed, its commander was Colonel Mikhail Iosifovich Surzhikov. Reformed into 8th Guards Cavalry Division on 19 January 1943. At first it was a part of the 60th Army (reserve), then was transferred to Moscow into the Moscow Zone of Defense, on 4 January 1942 it became a part of the 16th Cavalry Corps (Riazan'). On 16 March 1942 it was transferred to the 7th Cavalry Corps and fought in the Briansk Front. - Aleksandr Kiyan, RKKA web site) We had everything. People of Orenburg equipped us very well: fur hats, felt cloaks. Dressed up, we differed from others to a large degree. We even had chocolate when we became a Guards unit. Supplies were good. We were supposed to have 50 g of butter, 500 g of cereals, 800 g of bread, and for horses -- oats or hay. The fodder was distributed in a centralized manner at the school, but at the front we had to find it ourselves when it wasn't delivered. You had to feed your horse even if you didn't eat yourself.

I saw anti-tank rifles for the first time in the cavalry regiment. A week after my arrival we set out from Moscow to the Briansk Front. At first we carried these rifles on the saddle and, of course, rubbed the withers of our horses raw so they were put out of commission. My first rationalization proposal was to put these rifles on skis to be towed by two riders. Already at the Briansk Front we were encircled, and I received a commendation from the command for organizing the production of tar. Tar was needed for harnesses, since they would dry out unless they were regularly lubricated. I remembered a picture from the physics or chemistry textbook, which showed how tar was produced.

At the front I was appointed adjutant to the regiment commander. Then I was wounded, and when I came back, I asked them to put me in a combat unit. I wanted to be a commander on my own. They made me a reconnaissance platoon commander. Soon I got shell-shocked, but I returned to my platoon afterward. In January 1943 the company commander was mortally wounded, and I was appointed in his place. I finished the war at Merefa, where I was wounded, as a senior lieutenant, company commander. Now I feel astonished, how could I have a led a company when I was 20? That was about 120 men, and a machine gun platoon and 45mm gun battery on top of that. 250 men in all. You had to water them, feed them, and get fodder for their horses! Of course, I was helped by the fact that there were few young men in the cavalry. Because you had to love your horse, know it, know how to care for it. We cared for our horses, because if your mount was put out of commission, you weren't a cavalry soldier anymore. After a long march you couldn't water your horse. You had to cover it with a horse-cloth, so it would cool down. It's a whole science! There were no spare mounts, we were getting replacements all the time.

Mounted reconnaissance

There was a terrible season of bad roads in March of 1943. Rybalko's army (3rd Tank Army - trans.) penetrated the enemy defenses at Kantemirovka, and we were inserted into the breach. We captured a major railroad junction of Valuiki. There, we managed to capture trains with food and armaments going east. Apparently, Germans did not expect such a deep breakthrough. Probably six loaded trains stood at that station, with all sorts of goods, even alcohol. Some soldiers would shoot into a cistern with alcohol, fill a mess tin, and nothing else would interest them. They gave us the Guards designation for Valuiki, and I got an Order of the Red Banner.

We went on, and already at Merefa encountered the "Wiking" Division that had been transferred there. They were fierce fighters, both in height and fanaticism. They did not retreat. I was wounded there and sent from the medical battalion to a hospital in Taranovka. My papers were forwarded there, but my horse-holder stole me and brought me back to our unit. They were taking care of their commander. That saved me. Germans broke through to Taranovka and killed everybody -- nurses, wounded, and sick. Also, when we captured Valuiki, there was an opportunity to pick out new mounts. I liked one drayhorse, whom I called "German". I also found a sledge. Kovalenko, my orderly, took both the sledge and the horse under his care. When he came to the hospital, we didn't know yet where the Germans were. In short, we were riding, and suddenly some soldiers appeared at the edge of the village we were approaching, maybe 150-200 meters away. We wanted to ride through the village, but I saw they were Germans. Kovalenko quickly figured it out and immediately turned the horse around and started it at a gallop, and it flew at a colossal speed. I was a thoughtless idiot. When a horse's ear is wounded, it becomes a real beast -- that's the most sensitive spot a horse has. So I fired my handgun into the ear and, apparently, hit it. How it flew! Through the ravines and into the forest. And they were firing SMGs at us from behind. That's how a German horse saved a Soviet officer. Nevertheless, the wounds to my foot and arm turned out to be serious. At first they sent me to Michurinsk. I spent a week there, then they sent me to the Burdenko Hospital in Moscow. 10 days there. Then to Kuibyshev. That was 2-3 days. Then to Chapaevsk, and to Aktiubinsk. The idea was that if you could be fit for duty soon, they didn't take you away far. Then I was discharged.

A.D. Did you ever attack on horseback?

There were mounted attacks only at the academy, we didn't use our sabers, and never encountered enemy cavalry. The horses at school were so trained, that even after hearing a pitiful "Ura!" they charged forward, all you did was try to hold them back... No, we didn't. We fought dismounted. Horse holders stayed under cover with the horses. Although, often they paid for it, since Germans sometimes shelled them with mortars. There was one horse holder for a squad of 11 horses.

A.D. How were you armed?

We were mostly armed with carbines, but in the beginning of 43 they gave us SMGs.

Left to right: Me, the regiment commander Evgenii Leonidovich Korbus,
the chief of staff,and the commissar. I don't remember their names.

A.D. You mentioned that you were saved three times by your horse.

Yes, I already told you how I was saved by Orsik and German. After Orsik my mount was Cavalier. A beautiful horse! In 1942, there was the first anniversary since our division was formed. It was led by Colonel Surzhikov, former adjutant of Voroshilov. We marked the occasion in the 250th Cavalry Regiment, where I served. The division commander rode outside the village to meet Rokossovskii -- the front commander, and we formed a square and were waiting. Suddenly, I saw a jeep drive up and Rokossovskii get out of it. I commanded: "Regiment! Attention!" Just as I started "Comrade commander...", Surzhikov galloped back! I didn't get to report that we were ready for the parade. After the parade the regiment commander Colonel Evgenii Leonidovich Korbus said: "I won't go to the 253rd Regiment to congratulate them, I'm entrusting that to you." So we rode out with the 253rd Regiment commander Seryshev, congratulated them. It was about two kilometers from the front line in the area of Bezhin Lug, Belev, Michurin. That's where Turgenev used to live. We were riding back. Suddenly, artillery bombardment started. There were six of us, and the first mortar shell fell directly under Cavalier's belly. He fell like a sack, everything was torn up, but I was merely shell-shocked, and my uniform had holes all over. He took all the fragments into himself.

A.D. Did you use tachanki?

(Tachanka is a four wheel cart with a machine gun mounted on the back, widely used in Russian cavalry from the Civil War - trans.) Tachanki were used. We had 4, with machine guns, just like Vasilii Ivanovich [Chapaev, a Civil War hero] had.

A.D. How were they used?

Like in the movies. During that incident with the enemy reconnaissance our tachanka had barely managed to turn around toward the motorcyclists when a tank fired at it! Everything was shattered into pieces -- traces, people, horses...

A.D. Did people get sick often?

I don't remember people being sick, but horses were.

A.D. What horses were fit for service most of all?

We took any that were available. Some were completely untrained. Then again, horses can be educated. They're like people, only they don't speak. For example, you would see that your horse is upset. You would bring it some sugar. Even if you don't get to eat it yourself, you would still give it to the horse, and it will be ready to serve you. The better you take care of it, the better it treats you. In Valuiki we captured astounding horses of an Italian alpine rifle corps. We all grabbed them, but later they had to be abandoned, because they weren't fit for long marches. After all, sometimes we had to march 120-150 kilometers during one night. They simply died.

A.D. How was the march in the rain conducted?

In the rain - rubbed the withers raw. Horses would get wounded, they would have to be treated. There was one incident when our commissar died. He rode out to the roadside and blew up on a landmine. His horse's leg was wounded: it stood there looking at us and crying... And we realized that the horse was also beyond help, jumping on three legs... It was the most horrible incident in my life.

A.D. How did you treat the prisoners?

It varied. Once I rode out to reconnoiter and also to find fodder. Suddenly I saw an unarmed column marching. I sent out two scouts. It turned out those were Italians who had abandoned the front line and were walking home. So we brought back with us that entire crew, almost 500 men. There were even two Italians working in the kitchen in my company, but then an order came out for all prisoners to be sent to the rear. They told us that all their officers had swords, and when their commander would call on them to attack, he waved his sword. They applauded him and yelled "Bravo. Bravissimo." Of course, they didn't want to fight. And in general, Italians are not fighters. Good natured people. Another time we had six soldiers from the "Wiking" division shot. Apparently, they were a forward detachment of 12-15 men, and they killed almost a platoon of our guys in some village, together with the lieutenant, a great guy. Then we managed to encircle them and partially kill, and capture the six. They were well armed. Big well-built men. Families, children. It was a very unpleasant moment and I'd rather not remember it, but it was revenge for specific guys. Later it was condemned, but no one was court-martialed. In general, there were no executions just because they were prisoners. We shot those whom we captured on the spot of their crimes. War is a very brutal thing.

A.D. What did you think of the Germans?

The Germans were enemy #1. That's what we thought of them. Very militant, skilled, but rather dumb people. They killed more of us. Of course, we tore our victory away with no regard for losses. It was important to hold out and then to win. The most brutal ones were the Vlasovites. When we liberated villages, the residents told us that they could deal with Germans, but not with those - "You commie, Bolshevik scum". Took away everything.

A.D. What was hardest thing in war?

The hardest thing was when we had to march 100 kilometers in one night. Trot - gallop, trot - gallop. Endless commands: "Don't spare the horses! Don't spare the horses!" Because by morning we had to be in another place. In a non-combat situation you could've been court-martialed for a horse ridden to death, but in this case you had to push the horse to the utmost of its ability. Time! Time! People fell asleep and dropped from horses. And horses collapsed with a ruptured heart. I must mention, I pity the horses more than people. People can lie down, hide themselves. They have the ability to avoid a tragic situation. You are the one in charge sitting in the saddle, but a horse can't do any of that.

Interview:Artem Drabkin
Translated by:Oleg Sheremet
Photos from the archives of N. Dupak and Karelian Veterans board


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