Vladimir Dolmatov

Published september 20, 2010

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In October of 1941 I found myself in the Moscow narodnoye opolchenie (militia). I was in the eighth grade and lived on Arbat. One day our entire school was assembled at Potylikha, the one near the Mosfilm Street, in the yard of a middle school. They gave us hunting rifles, one for every 5 men, small caliber rifles -- also 5 men for each one, and also gave us 5 sabers. That was it! No uniforms -- everyone wore whatever they came in with, and went to fight with the same clothes. The literature teacher became our commander -- a handsome man, he was good to students. They marched us along the Mozhaysk Highway to Zhukovka, which Germans were approaching already. That was about 15 kilometers from Moscow. We deployed in a forest there, about 2-3 kilometers from the highway. Suddenly we heard the noise of tanks. Scouts were sent. When they returned, it became apparent that Germans drove their tanks past us and stopped, and their detachments were encircling the nearby villages. The commander called for me and said: "Volodia, you have to break through to Moscow and report that we are encircled, and that we can't fight, since we have no weapons. Take the motorcycle and hurry to our military commissariat." We had a "Red October" motorcycle and I was the only one at school who could ride it.

It turned out that the village through which I had to drive had already been captured by the Germans. And so I was riding and saw a group of Germans, 5 or 6 of them, standing, talking about something. It was too late to stop, so I kept driving straight at them as if frozen. They turned their heads, looked at me, but didn't react. Then someone yelled something, I got really scared, pushed the gas, and started zigzagging on my motorcycle. They fired a burst, but missed. I flew out of that village and immediately ran into a tree. And when I hit that tree, the motorcycle's frame got bent, and I had to walk to Moscow. I arrived at the military commissariat already at night:

"I'm from the opolchenie. We are encircled. Nothing to fight with," I said.

"Where are you from?" they asked me.

"From the Arbat Square."

"And where are your parents?"

"At home."

"Well, go home then."

That was all. I went home. Mom was happy that I returned alive. Basically, no one came back from that opolchenie! They all perished!

My father worked as a legal adviser at the "Medkhimprom" factory, and since our school was closed, he got me a position at his factory, which, in addition to everything else, had a network of metal repair shops all over Moscow. They sent me to work in a shop at Krasnaya Presnia as a metal worker's apprentice. I had worked for about two weeks there and the manager of that shop said: "You know what, this boy can do anything. Give him a shop, he'll be managing it." And they gave me some freed up premises on the Vorovsky Street, which had contained some other organization's bicycle shop before that. We set up shop on the first floor, since the building's basement was flooded. I assembled boys from my building: one was 12, the other 14, and I was 17, and the three of us started working in that shop. One day, like in the fairy tale about the golden fish, we put out a feeler into the flooded basement, since we didn't have a net, and pulled out a bunch of bicycle bushing. Another time -- pulled out a bunch of wheels. I found an engine with a pump, pumped the water out, and it turned out that the basement was heaped up with bicycle spare parts -- frames, wheels, chains. And since we didn't sign for any of that, all that stuff was unaccounted for. We set up an exchange with other shops and started assembling bicycles. First we assembled them for ourselves, then started selling them at the market at Malakhovka. But we also had to repair irons, bicycles, various equipment, and account for our work. And so, we put a part of the money from selling bicycles into the shop's register, and wrote "repaired iron", "repaired kettle", etc. on the receipt. In this manner we completed 115% of the plan every month. They called my father and said: "Listen, your son is a genius. None of our shops complete the plan, and he gives 115%. We have to give him a bonus." And so they did.

Concurrently with working in the shop, I was attending a truck driver school, and after getting my driver's license went to work as a driver in the 1st Autocomplex, where my daddy again found me a position. That was already in the winter of 1941. I worked from 8 in the morning to 12 at night. My partner and I drove two meter logs from Krasnaya Pakhra, that was 50 kilometers from Moscow. Not just drove them, but first cut down trees, cleared the branches, sawed them, then loaded and drove. We did two trips a day -- 8 cubic meters of wood. Can you imagine it? And so I came back to the office at 12 one night and they told me:

"Volodia, you have to bring firewood to the chief bookkeeper in Hot'kovo (50 kilometers from Moscow). He's freezing."

"I can't drive. I did two trips today. I'm tired, can't do it."

"People spill their blood at the front, and you're sitting at the home front! Tired! People are dying, and you're tired!" -- the manager got mad.

He called my father. I said:

"Dad, I can't drive there."

"You see -- it's cold. He might freeze. Bring the firewood, I ask you," he said.

So I drove there. Brought the firewood. And when I was driving back, a trolley bus was making a turn near the Riga Train Station, with its lights off for the purposes of camouflage, and I hit its side. My truck rebounded, I jumped out in shock. Grabbed the crank, stuck it in somewhere -- but everything was already smashed there, the radiator was leaking. I started turning it. A cop grabbed me by the neck: "What are you doing? You truck is totaled!" I came to my sense. "Go call a tow truck." I went and made the phone call, and told them I was at the Savelovskiy train station. Mixed them up... (they are really close to each other - Artem Drabkin) And so I sat there -- one hour, two, three. It was cold. The tow truck didn't come. I stopped a car passing by: "Listen, can you take me to the Arbat Square?" "That's where I'm going myself." I came home. Father was in panic -- his son had disappeared. Then I remembered that I had given the wrong location to the office. I called them -- got some obscene cursing from them. I woke up in the morning. Took my bicycle. Rode to the train station -- the truck was not there. I rode to the office, asked them:

"Where's my truck?"

"What truck?"

"My truck."

"Your truck's not here. Where have you been?"

"Home."

"And where's your truck?"

"Parked at the train station."

"There's no truck there."

It turned out they were making fun of me, they had towed my truck back. In short, for this they sent me to the engine shop as a metal worker, to assemble motors. Then a military commissar came and said that he needed to have 5 trophy motorcycles repaired. They told him that we didn't do things like that, but there was Volodia, who used to work with motorcycles. They called me:

"Can you repair a motorcycle?"

"I can."

"Well, take 5 motorcycles and repair them."

"OK," I said and went to the military commissar.

"If I repair these motorcycles for you, will you send me to the front?"

"What for? Don't you like it here?! You've got leave from draft?!"

"I don't want this leave! I've had enough! I want to go to the front!"

"No problem: fix the motorcycles and you'll get to the front."

I fixed these motorcycles. He gave me my draft summons. I came home:

"Dad, Mom, I'm leaving."

"Where are you leaving?"

"I've been drafted into the army, going to the front."

"What front?! You lost your mind, you idiot!"

A family row started, but there was nothing we could do -- I had the summons. Of course, I said that I was drafted because I crashed the truck, not because I asked for it myself.

They sent me as an instructor to the training automobile regiment in Nizhniy Novgorod. That regiment was located right opposite the GAZ factory. Some time passed. Father got an assignment and went to defend someone in Nizhniy Novgorod, and took a suitcase full of vodka with him, brought it to our unit. He gave one bottle to the commander. The commander said: "Great. We'll find your son now." I came. Daddy hugged me, gave me the presents: pastries, candy, and the suitcase, and whispered in my ear: "That's vodka." I took this suitcase and left. Father went back, said that he'd come back the next day. I went to the sergeant major. Told him:

"My father brought me suitcase full of vodka."

"Are you serious? Let's drink! Let's go to a classroom!"

So we went there. There were cabinets in the classroom about one meter deep, where learning materials were stored. We crawled in there, poured about a liter of vodka into each of our mess tins, drank it down in one draught, and fell dead asleep. We woke up -- there was a class. We lay there. One class left, another came. And so we sat there until evening, but didn't drink anymore because we were too scared. In the evening we crawled out, and I went to my place. Put the suitcase under the bunk and went to the unit commander. He said:

"Where have you been? You were not at the roll-call!"

"I was on the premises."

"What do you mean, on the premises?!"

"I drank and fell asleep."

"And? Slept for 2 days?"

"I don't know."

"Your father is in panic! He'll come tomorrow."

Father came and read a lecture to me.

Our unit's chief technician was Captain Mirtov - a very good
but completely civilian, person.

This photo was taken during one of our
assignments at Moscow in 1943.

One day in spring or in the beginning of summer we were transferred to Gorodets, which is near Gorky -- German air raids were expected. The unit commander picked out several men, including me, and ordered us to drive to Gorky, to collect the stuff that was left over. We got there and saw there was nothing left from our unit's barracks -- just bomb craters and half the factory destroyed.

In the middle of 1943 our unit was formed into a separate automobile battalion of chemical defense and transferred to the First Ukrainian Front. We came to Kiev, and saw complete destruction there. Houses without windows, caved in roofs through which the sky could be seen, turned over tram cars. And the drivers, boys, would stop the car, take out a carbine and shoot at the streetlights: "Bang!" -- and drive on. I didn't have any spare ammo, so I didn't shoot at the lights, but I really wanted to.

Our task was to create fake crossings on the Dnieper and set up smoke screens, for which we had a barrel of gas on a polutorka (a 1.5-ton truck). We drew the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra on some panels and put them on the ground, released smoke screen. The Germans bombed us a couple of times, and that was all. Some of our soldiers lived at the river bank, the others on the islands, and so they set up a pig and a poultry farm there. The unit commander came, started yelling: "What are you doing here! Immediately get rid of everything!" Well, of course, they were indignant, but couldn't help it -- got rid of everything. Then they thought of a way to fish. We didn't have any boats, but there were plastic sleds, on which we would put a machine gun and drag behind a tank in the wintertime. Their size was about 2 meters in length, a meter wide, and about 40 centimeters in height. And so guys would row out from the shore on these and stun the fish with dynamite sticks. They threw the sticks downstream so that they would have the time to row to the point of the explosion and collect the fish. But, having miscalculated with the distance and being capsized by the shock wave, 2 or 3 men drowned. Obviously this was also forbidden. Our commander was basically stupid. He had read too many books about war and started pushing us hard! Even made us build a club, even though it was obvious we would be transferred out soon.

And suddenly new drivers from a reserve regiment came to our unit, who had served in aviation units before that. And where's aviation, there's the end of discipline. A driver is his own master there. No one pushes him around. And so they said: "We are not going to serve here! The commander's an idiot! He can go to hell! We're running away!" And they ran. The commander raised such an uproar! Entire Kiev searched for them. They were caught and put in a penal battalion after a court martial. But they planted a secret dream of running away in me, which I didn't postpone but decided to realize. I understood that it was impossible to simply run away -- they'd catch me. I went to the train station commandant's office to a sergeant major and said: "Sergeant major, our unit commander is an asshole. I want to run away, but I don't want to get caught. That's why we'll make a deal -- you send me to the front, but don't note anywhere that I left, and I'll give you a bottle of "Tarhun" vodka and a block of "Kazbek" cigarettes". He said: "It's a deal. I send people out on such and such days. You have to manage so that you would be sentry on that day. If you have 8 hours -- consider it a 100% guarantee that I'll send you out." I was getting parcels from home then. I had an old notice, on which I forged the date. Went to the commander of the guard, showed him the notice, and asked leave to go to the city. He allowed it. And the shift after mine was to be taken by another Muscovite, Lesha Rostunov, who was completely deaf. I wrote for him on a piece of paper: "Lesha, I want to run away. So please also take the next shift instead of me." He: "You've gone crazy! They'll catch you!" I tell him: "Don't leave, simply stand on guard, they won't notice." What would they get from him -- he's deaf! He would simply goggle his eyes and keep standing. So I took the leave warrant and went to the commandant's office at the train station. Took out a bottle of "Tarhun" and cigarettes. Took my military papers and instead of the last name 'Kapeleovich' put down 'Kopylov', instead of 'Adolfovich' -- 'Anufrievich'. (I must say that my patronymic caused me many troubles and calls such as "Hey! Hitler! Come here!" were the rule among my fellow soldiers.) With these papers the sergeant major sent me to the 1st Ukrainian Front.

And so I found myself in a separate truck battalion in charge of transporting POWs, which was subordinated to the NKVD. Our unit commander was a former Terek Cossack. He didn't give a damn about all those trucks. He wanted a good steed, a vengerka, and a saber. This happened already about a hundred kilometers from Krakow.

At that time, when I was driving to pick up POWs, I passed by a veterinary hospital. One time I started talking with the doctors there. They said:

"The hunting around here must be great, but we have nothing to shoot with! If we had ammo, and a rifle with an optic sight. Can you get it?"

"No problem, but I need a good horse."

"It's a deal: if you bring us a gun, we'll get you your horse."

There was a field artillery shop next to our unit, which did repairs on all kinds of weapons from cannons to handguns. I went there. The sentry yelled:

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"Guys, what's the problem?! I gave you sub-machine guns to adjust," I said.

"And where are the papers?"

I was turned away. Then I went back to our unit and said to the captain:

"I'll get you a steed, but I need a paper that I need to have 3 SVT carbines with optical sights adjusted."

"You're mad!"

"Why mad? There are boxes with parts of all kinds of guns lying around near the road, no one's guarding them. I'll assemble the rifle."

He gave me the paper, and I set out along a railroad branch line through a forest to the shop. There was a boxcar on the rails, some soldiers were sitting on top of it, singing to an accordion, having fun. And one boy, about 10 years old from the look of him, set a sub-machine gun against his stomach and was shooting at tree-tops, cutting off branches. I approached -- there was a gun in the box, looked like an Italian SMG. A magazine would be inserted into its side. Long wooden stock. If I could break it off, it would be sort of like a Mauser. If I had a handgun like that! I banged the stock against the rails -- it didn't break. Another time -- bang! And the soldiers in the car started laughing. I said: "What are you laughing at?!" "Why don't you turn your head, dumbass, and look!" And there were three such SMG's lying with their stocks broken, with a spring inside the stock. I left. Found rifles, assembled them. Came to their shooting range, they adjusted them for me there. Collected lots of ammo -- I could barely walk! Returned to the unit. The commander said: "Some swindler you are!" I told him: "Give me another paper, we only have carbines, let's exchange them for PPSh." He gave me the paper, and I assembled 3 more PPSh, got some box magazines for them. And when I brought these rifles, the guys immediately accosted me -- "let me shoot, let me shoot." I gave a rifle to one, he and another guy went into a field where there was an unexploded bomb, and started shooting at its warhead. It blew so that we couldn't find any remains of them. The commander said: "Volodia, enough with these rifles." I said: "I'll drive for the prisoners now and exchange them for a horse." Just at that time our forces started moving toward Krakow and there was an order to drive to pick up prisoners. I, Lieutenant Sidorov, and two more guards set out. The lieutenant said: "Let's not pick up the horse now, let's do it later." I agreed. We drove to the town of Gzesow and went into a cafe to have some pastries. Can you imagine -- war, nothing to eat, and there was anything you wanted in Poland! We sat down. A pan (Polish for "mister" - trans.) approached:

"Pan soldier, you're in a car. I need some firewood brought in. I could give you vodka, and cigarettes, and food."

"And where are we supposed to get them?"

"In the forest. I'll give you a saw and an axe. Cut some."

I told the lieutenant:

"Let's get the prisoners, and cut the firewood on the way back."

"All right."

We took the axe and went to get prisoners. We came to a unit that had just liberated some town. There they gave us about 15 POWs. We loaded them into the truck and drove back. Reached a forest. I said:

"Time to chop."

And to the guards:

"Get the Germans out of the truck."

They all got so scared:

"Aaah! Kamerad! Kamerad! Nicht schiessen!"

"Get off!" I ordered them.

"Form up!" and led them into the forest.

Some were yelling, some screaming, some simply walked looking down. The lieutenant told me:

"Explain to them, that we need them to work."

"Kamerad, arbeiten!" I said and pointed to a saw.

They cheered up and quickly cut enough firewood to fill the truck. We drove to the Pole. He gave us a case of vodka, about two meters of sausage, and a box of cigarettes. I was amazed! I gave some vodka, cigarettes, food to the Germans. We drove for about 5 kilometers -- they started knocking on the roof: "Kamerad, arbeiten!" I said: "I don't have a saw or an axe!" We reached the next cafe. I went to the manager:

"Need firewood?"

"Yes."

"Give us a saw!"

So we went. Basically, we returned to the unit in about three days. I got a reprimand from the battalion commander:

"Where have you been!? You swine! I'll see you court martialed!"

I brought him a case of vodka, cigarettes, and sausage. He went:

"Are you crazy!? Where did you get this?! Stole it!?"

"Why stole -- earned it! We cut firewood."

Then I went to the hospital and brought back a horse, and a saber. Made him a vengerka, a papakha fur hat. The truck battalion commander got on his steed and rode around his shop mounted: "Are you guys ready? Ready? Quickly go pick up prisoners!"

I told you about one such case, but then I turned firewood cutting into a practice, and when I came to a POW camp, Germans yelled "Kamerad! Kamerad!" to me. Guards kept asking me: "Why are these Germans greeting you? What happened?! What kind of relations do you have with them?" I replied: "Well, I just gave them some vodka and cigarettes." There. But nothing worked out with hunting for me. I shot at hares, deer, but didn't kill anything. One time I chased a hare with a PPSh. Didn't rest until I emptied the magazine, but couldn't hit it.

One time I went to pick up prisoners, and Poles directed me to a mined road. A combat engineer ran to me, waving his mine detector and yelling obscene curses. I stopped:

"Where are you going! There is a sign that this road is mined!"

"There is no such sign there."

"Turn around."

I was standing on the side of the road, and the combat engineer was behind the side ditch. I turned a little to the right and hit a mine. An explosion. Nothing remained from the engineer, and we were all shell shocked. We were lucky that the truck was driving slowly and the mine exploded under the engine. I was pierced by fine fragments all over -- in an arm, and in the stomach. I picked them all out with a screwdriver. They brought us back to the unit and there they bandaged everything. So I didn't go to a hospital. The stomach healed, but the arm became swollen and red. I was sent to a hospital where I spent a week. Since I served in NKVD forces, they didn't send me to a reserve regiment after the hospital, like everybody, but gave me papers which only had the number of the hospital and the unit, and let me go. Such paper, while not marked, enabled me to move around the country, and I decided to go to Moscow.

Pilots regularly came to the hospital and flew the wounded back to the rear. I said: "Guys, could I get to Kiev with you? Can you give me a lift?" All right. They put me into a woven cradle, which was fixed to the wing of a U-2. Buckled me up, flew me to Kiev, and let me off. I went to the market, bought a piece of metal and pliers, and made a key for a railroad car. Went to the train station. But I couldn't get into a car there because conductors locked doors not only with a key, but also with a bar, and so I had to ride on a footboard for a long time. Then I ran to the engineer and asked him to let me ride. He said: "Shovel the coal." No problem. He got me to a station where there were trains going for Moscow. I got into a car there, crawled under a bunk. And rode to "Moscow-2". I couldn't be seen by patrols because they would stamp my papers, and I had to have a clean document in Moscow. I jumped off the moving train there. Took off my star and shoulder straps, tried to make myself look like a civilian. Idiot! An utter idiot! I was wearing a greatcoat anyway! I got into a trolley bus and rode to the Arbat Square. From there I crawled along building walls home. When father saw me:

"Where are you from, son of a bitch?!" I told him everything.

"Who are you?! You are not my son! You are some Kopylov Anufrievich. Why did you come to me? Go to your Anufrievich!"

"Dad."

"I'm not your dad, you are a stranger to me! You are an idiot! Do you realize what you've done?! Immediately run to the train station and to your unit!"

Mother saw me back to the area of "Moscow-2". I jumped onto a footboard -- the door was locked. And that was in December 1944. The frost was terrible. And so I rode on that footboard almost until Kolomna (around 100 kilometres). I froze completely. On a stop near Kolomna I crawled into a car in which tanker sergeant major was riding. He said:

"Where are you from?"

"From a hospital. And you?"

"I'm a straggler from my train."

"What train?"

"Well, there are trains going with tanks from the Urals, and I got left behind."

"And what now?"

"Now we'll get to Kolomna, I'll go to the commandant, and they'll send me to the Urals again to get a tank. I've had enough fighting. Here, I already have two orders of the Red Star."

"Yes, but they'll catch you and put you into a penal battalion."

"But I'm not running away, I was left behind by my train, and going to the commandant myself. And then I'll become straggler again."

I told him I was a driver. He said:

"Do you want to go the transit point with me?"

"All right," I said.

So we reached the commandant's office, and they sent us to a transit point. Suddenly during the day he disappeared. Gone! "Buyers" came in the morning, needed a driver. I went to look and found out that I didn't have the driver's license. That tanker stole my license! I said: "I don't have a license." They replied that since I had no license, they couldn't do anything. I started writing that I could be an car mechanic, a tinsmith, a carpenter. Then a buyer came to get people to Chkalovsk, near Moscow, into the school for tailors and shoemakers:

"I'm a tailor."

"What can you do?"

"I can do anything."

They sent me to Chkalovsk. A credentials committee there was checking what you could do. A tailor in the rank of a general sat and asked you to thread a needle, sew, stitch.

I immediately went into a workshop and said to the tailors there: "Guys, I want to get them to take me here. Tell me how to sew, how to thread a needle." Well, they showed me on which finger to put a thimble, how to thread. I learned the standard moves and passed the test. After that I approached the general, said:

"I'm a Muscovite myself, I'd like to see my family."

"Well, you just got here!"

"But I haven't seen them in 4 years," I said.

He gave me leave. And so on December 25 I came to Moscow. Father:

"You're here again, hooligan!"

"I'm now a tailor," I said.

"No, you tell the general how it really was, that your license was stolen. He should understand."

I returned and told the general:

"Comrade general, I lied to you, I'm not a tailor, I'm a driver, but my license was stolen. I wanted to go to Moscow to see my family, so I came here."

"I don't need a driver. I can send you back to the transit point."

He gave me a directive to the transit point, which read: "A driver with lost license." I came to the manager. He said:

"Since you have no license, you're not a driver."

"I can get a duplicate," I said.

"A duplicate is not my problem. No license, you will serve in another unit."

Then a senior lieutenant came and I heard his conversation with the manager behind a plywood partition:

"I need a driver for a general," the lieutenant said.

"Stalin's order came out to send all drivers for the reconstruction of Stalingrad. You have drivers in your units, so take them."

When the lieutenant came out, I went to him:

"Comrade senior lieutenant, I'm a driver. My license was stolen, and so I'm entered as a carpenter or a metalworker. If you take me, I'll get a duplicate of my license immediately."

"How can I take you? I don't have an order for carpenters. Wait three days for me, I'll get an order for a metalworker."

So, buying continued. Everyone was being bought. A carpenter for police was needed. I said:

"I'm not going!"

"What do you mean you're not going? Then it's court martial. Go get your things."

I crawled under the bunk to the very end and lay there in silence.

"Kopylov! Kopylov!" they were running around looking for me.

"Where's that bastard!?"

"Ran away!"

During the evening roll-call I stood in the formation, as if nothing happened:

"Where were you?"

"I slept."

"Slept where?"

"In my bunk."

On the second day I also hid somewhere. On the third day that lieutenant came. The transit point manager himself came out:

"Kopylov -- the senior lieutenant is looking for you. Needs a driver."

I got out from under the bunks on all fours:

"You son of a bitch! Sly bastard!" he laughed.

So we left, arrived to our destination.

"Here, comrade general. He needs a certificate to get his driver's license," the lieutenant said.

"Comrade general, there is a slight problem here. My last name is written incorrectly, and patronymic," I said.

"What do you mean, incorrectly?"

"They mixed up at the hospital, and I didn't notice, and when I did -- it was too late. I'm not Kopylov, I'm Kopylovich, and not Vladimir Anufrievich, but Vladimir Adolfovich."

He took my papers, crossed out the last name and wrote: Kopylovich, Vladimir Adolfovich. In reality I was Kapeleovich, but that was too much, especially since my father's brothers all had different last names: Kapeliovich, Kapel'novich, Kapelevich. In short, they fixed everything, gave me a Ford 6, and so I drove the chief inspector for formation and inspection of the Soviet Army, twice the Hero of the Soviet Union, Major General Slitz until his tragic death in 1945. And now I suffer -- can't get a certificate of war participant. I sent a request to the hospital for Kopylov, Vladimir Anuvriefich. Got a paper back, where my wound was entered as a "furuncle".

Interview:Artem Drabkin
Translated by:Oleg Sheremet


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