Antonina Kotliarova

I, Antonina Aleksandrovna Kotliarova, was born in 1923 in Moscow. The war began on 22 June 1941, and we, eighth grade students of the 1st Lenin District School, located in the Tolmachevskii Lane next to the Tret'iakovskaia Gallery, were walking in the park of the VDNKh. Suddenly there was an announcement on the radio -- Viacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov would make a speech shortly. For some reason everyone ran to the Central Square. Well, Molotov announced that the enemy had treacherously attacked our country. What were we to do? We called home, they told us: "Come home immediately." We came back. My parents and the parents of my husband had assignments to go somewhere in case of unforeseen circumstances.>

So Kolia's father (Kolia [Nikolai] is my husband) went to the Lenin District Council where he started organizing militia, afterward they would fight all the way from Moscow to Berlin. And my father went as a private, because he didn't have a military rank. Boys weren't taken into the army yet. My husband Nikolai made them take him into the army. He fought in the tank forces as a submachine gunner. He would return from the front to Moscow, I would ask him: "How is it, Kolia, is it scary?" And he would reply: "No. I hide behind the turret, we reach the Germans, disembark, shoot for a while, then our infantry approaches and we move on." I was silly thinking it wasn't scary. When I got to the front myself, I looked and thought: "How could such a tall man (he was almost two meters tall) hide behind the turret? It was simply a target!" Basically, I also wanted to go to the front, but it didn't work out. I went to work at the Sergo Ordzhonikidze Machine Tool Factory as a turner. I worked there receiving a ration of 800 g of bread. And so, when coming home from work, I would pick up the bread at the bakery located at Polianka. I would get that ration, split it in half, eat one half with water, and then go to bed. It would be impossible to fall asleep because I would be hungry, while half of the loaf would be lying in my drawer... I would get up, eat the other half, then sleep normally and go back to the factory in the morning. When they would sound the air raid alarm, we would be on duty outside, we even had the right to walk all over Moscow during the alerts. One time we were on duty near a house. We saw someone was closing and opening a window on the top floor -- it was some kind of a signal. At that time a bomb hit the Malyi Kamennyi Bridge. We told the duty officer about that. They checked it out, and it turned out there was a German woman sending signals to her compatriots. And what was there in the area, a movie theater and the Red October Factory -- what was there to bomb?

After the panic of October 16 the factory was evacuated to Nizhnii Tagil. Of course, I didn't go with it. Why would I go if it was my duty to fight fascists? I went to the military commissariat, they didn't take me again. I joined the Komsomol. Since I had remained in the city, I needed to work somewhere. I went to the Trade School No.60, on the Kaluga Square (now Oktiabr'skaia Square). We were assembling mines there, at least it was something for the front. Then they sent us to procure firewood for Moscow. I went to the Sasovo district of Riazan' Oblast. When I returned from there, I finally made them take me into anti-aircraft artillery near Moscow. It was the 50th AA Regiment, which was deployed at Bulatnikovo Station. At first I worked on the range finder. It had an eye piece which acquired target, then coordinates were sent to the PUAZO (fire control device), and then to the gun. Then I was transferred to work at the PUAZO. We had 76mm guns.

A.D. What was the mood at the home front, especially during the first period, the period of retreats?

During the panic, people were burning books by Lenin, Stalin in their yards. I had a collection of Lenin's works published in '24. I didn't burn or throw out a single book. But the panic was horrible. On October 17 or 18 I saw how sacks of sugar, candy were driven in sledges across the bridge. The entire Red October Factory had been looted. We went to the Kaluzhskaia Zastava, and even further, threw rocks at cars in which big bosses were leaving. We were indignant that they were abandoning Moscow. Maybe it was lawlessness, but that's what we did. In the beginning of '42 you could rarely meet someone in the streets of Moscow. Moscow became empty.

When the Germans were already being chased away from Moscow, and I was still thinking I had to go fight the fascists, I found out that there was a sniper school on the Silikatnaia Street. I became a student there. Graduated from it with excellent grades, and since my Kolia and our fathers were at the 1st Belorussian Front, I asked them to send me there. I, my sniping partner Olga Vazhenina, and approximately another ten girls went to the 1st Belorussian Front. It was already November 1944. We found ourselves in the 47th Army, 143rd Division. At first we were deployed at Praga, near Warsaw. Our squad was together all the time - we persuaded the commander not to break us up into companies.

So we went to hunt with Olga. Picked out a position during the day, then we occupied it before dawn, and started our hunt. Of course, we mostly picked out a position so that the relief of the terrain wouldn't change, so that the German wouldn't know that there was someone in front of our trenches. On top of that, at the front it always happened that our positions were in an open spot, and the German was always in the wood or bushes.

Here I must say that studies are one thing, they can teach you a lot at school, but when we came to the front, everything was different. Of course, first thing we did was to look into the embrasure to see what the German was doing. And on the very first day a girl from Leningrad was killed. She spent the entire blockade in Leningrad, and on the first day after our arrival, when she looked through the embrasure, a bullet ricocheted and hit her right under the eye. So our wartime service began with a funeral.

When I killed my first Fritz, I returned, a reporter approached me and wanted to interview me. I don't know what I told him, but on that day, and the next one, I couldn't eat or sleep. I knew he was a fascist, that they had attacked our country, they killed, burned, hanged our people, but he was still a human being. It was such a condition... When I killed the second one, I was in a horrible state again. Why? Because I saw him through my optical sight: a young officer. He seemed to look at me and suddenly I killed him. But he was a human being! Basically, a horrible state. But afterwards I grew somehow desensitized. I killed -- it was supposed to be that way.

We liberated Warsaw. It was a big city. We had rifles, and also submachine guns. 5 grenades instead of 2. And so we were liberating every apartment, every basement, every attic. Finally, liberated it.

A.D. So in practice, you fought as a submachine gunner?

Yes. I was there as a submachine gunner, our sniper skills did not work there. Because, first of all, while you aimed, you could get killed. So we acted as submachine gunners. There were some incidents: you would be looking through your sight -- aha, there would seem to be several Germans. You would throw a grenade, it would appear like it did its job. In short, after liberating Warsaw, we moved on.

After we forced the Vistula, there was some hill. We, girls, and another 5-7 guys were left to hold it, and our unit moved on driving the fascists before them. So we got to hold it for two days. In the night Germans were trying to capture a "tongue" (in Russian military slang, "tongue" is enemy soldier captured for the purposes of interrogation -- trans.). Had they found out who was facing them, they would've trampled us. But they didn't find out. We didn't allow them. We repulsed all attacks, I even fired an anti-tank rifle and a machine gun. It had a powerful recoil. I didn't get to fire my rifle there either, only sometimes used its sight for observation. We held on to that hill, and then our troops arrived.

A.D. Did you have a light machine gun, or a medium one?

Regular Maxim. I don't think there were others at that time.

A.D. Had you been taught to fire it?

No, we were already experienced. We could do everything on our own. And then, we had good eyesight, skills. After all, we had graduated from a sniper school. Only one boy was killed there. He sat there very sad, he probably felt that he would die. He wouldn't come to the embrasure or a machine gun. He just sat there, and that was all... I don't know how he was killed. Probably, he twitched. It happened that a person felt that he would die.

A.D. Maybe there were some incidents you could talk about in detail?

How I killed? It was horrible. Better not. I told you, Olga and I lay at arm's length from each other. We spoke quietly because the German would be there not far in front of us. They were listening to everything. Their outposts were better organized, after all. We tried not to move, to say something quietly, find a target. Everything would grow so numb! For example, I would say: "Olia, mine." She would already know -- she wouldn't kill that one. After the shot I would only help her observe. I would say, for example: "There, behind that house, behind that bush", and she would already know where to look. We took turns shooting. During the daytime we were always in position, came and left at night. Every day. No days off.

A.D. So you're saying, you couldn't move the rifle?

Absolutely no!

A.D. So how did it lie? Simply against the shoulder?

Against the shoulder and your finger was always on the trigger. Because you might've had to pull it at any moment. The sector of fire was 800 m. And so you would look, and suddenly a target would appear. When the target reached the crosshairs, then I fired. This means that the target walked into the shot on its own. And, of course, that spot would've been ranged.

There was one incident, we were combing a forest. It was at the end of the war, there weren't many soldiers, of course. Snipers were sent with submachine guns again, but our rifles were always with us. We were on one side, and scouts on the other. And so we walked toward each other and took prisoner anyone we encountered. I let a boy go there. He was such a runt, and I had a younger brother, about same as him. I was sorry for him -- didn't kill him, and didn't take him prisoner, even though I was supposed to do that. I don't know, maybe someone killed or captured him later, but I didn't touch him.

There was another case, when we were liberating Deutch-Krony, there was such a town. That town was located in a forest. So, we supposedly liberated it. Took many prisoners and moved on. Suddenly, someone came up from behind and told us: "The city is occupied by the Germans again." We had dispersed them, but they had re-entered the town from the forest. We had to capture it for the second time. But we didn't spare anyone anymore -- we were so angry. We killed many there, very many. War is war. There was such business.

We finished the war on the Elbe. We were staying in German houses. At 3 AM we were raised by an alarm. There was shooting, but we couldn't understand, could those be Fritzes? The end of war was announced. We ran to the basement, found some rotgut there, and drank it, chasing it down with jam. Incidentally, while we were on the offensive, our supply platoon was always behind. We would liberate a village, you would enter a house, and there could be a still hot meal on the stove. Girls would say: "Tonia, come on, try it." So the stupid Tonia would try it. If I didn't die immediately, we would start eating it. And I didn't even think that I could get killed. Such thought never entered my mind!

A.D. Were there losses in your squad?

No. Imagine that, we were all alive. But two were seriously wounded. Lida Medinskaia and Nina Maziarova were wounded during an artillery bombardment. But they later returned to our unit and we were together to the end.

A.D. How did the soldiers treat you?

Very well! Soldiers treated us well. They were protective, didn't do anything to harm us. Sometimes they would find us a chocolate, or something else.

A.D. What were your relations with the population of liberated countries? Germany, Poland?

I didn't really meet people. But no one shot at us from behind a corner.

Did you send packages home?

No. What packages? Trophies? We were soldiers. No. Later, in Germany, you would enter a house -- if you had to change underwear, you would open a closet, take out a slip, pants were ours, but you would change underwear. We didn't wear foot bindings anymore, but instead put on 5-6 silk or Persian thread stockings, and then boots on top. Then you would go on. I got burned on this at the end of the war. Changed... We didn't have knapsacks, we had left them with the supply platoon a long time ago. Gas masks as well. We only carried ammo, grenades, a rifle. And so right before the end of the war, I found a house, there was clean underwear tied with ribbons in the closet. I couldn't check how it was, right?! So I changed all underwear, and it turned out to have been darned! So I returned to Moscow wearing a darned slip.

A.D. In general, how did you wash yourself and your clothes at the front?

It was difficult. Once we entered some village, there was a bathhouse there. We went there and barely got out afterward -- carbon monoxide poisoning, we didn't know how to operate it. Basically, it was difficult.

A.D. Were there lice?

No. I didn't have any. Soldiers had them. They had close haircuts. And at school they also gave us haircuts like the boys had. I remember one time we were walking from the mess, and Marusia Guliakina was last. She had been sick and so her hair was long. And there was a girl standing there, she said: "Mommy, Mommy, look, men are walking, only one woman!" We were wearing pants and all of us had crewcuts...

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

Oh, we hated them!

Interview:Artem Drabkin
Translated by:Oleg Sheremet


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