I was born in 1926. Our family lived in a village in Bashkiria (Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). Generally, my ancestors, more precisely my grandparents had moved there before the First World War. At that time it was widely popular to move to vacant lands. There weren't enough lands in Ukraine, and there was plenty of vacant land in Bashkiria. Such Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking migrants founded several Russian villages here.
A. D. – How did people get on in the country before the war?
N. N. – According to prewar concepts and criteria our life was normal, quite well, with dignity. Everyone had food and garments. People lived in a friendly fashion. They were working earnestly at a collective farm. At any rate, we were in easy circumstances. At the same time, however, people hadn’t any luxuries: no TV set, no refrigerator, no radio set. A sewing machine was a rarity in the village, we haven’t one in our household. There was in the Soviet collective farms a system of payment by a number of trudoden’ (literally: one-day-labor) at that time. You had done some work – you earned an additional number of the trudoden’ in your account. Then you received a corresponding amount of grain, honey, watermelons and other collective farm’s produce. Besides, there were individual gardens about 0.7 hectare (173 acres) in size. All owners produced there everything as it should be. And you have to work for both the collective farm and your family.
Being a pre-conscript in these years, I worked at the collective farm mostly as a wagon driver. During a harvesting campaign I drove a brichka (a wagon with a large “trough” on it) carried by two horses. We got grain from a combine harvester and transported it to the collective farm’s threshing-floor. You arrived close to the harvester and it emptied grain from its bunker into your “trough.” Then you turned around and rushed to the threshing-floor for unloading the “trough.” Again you rushed to the field for the next portion of grain. A team of several teens who drove these brichkas formed a real “harvesting conveyor belt.”
Sometimes I worked at the collective farm’s stable. That kind of work was more difficult: you have to give fodder to the horses, to clear away manure, and be on duty by night. (Once, I even assisted our veterinarian when a colt was coming into the world).
My local contemporaries didn’t know where to move after they graduated from high school. The matter wasn’t just to leave the village. Everyone wanted to acquire a profession. Some entered vocational schools at factories. A familiar woman, who graduated from a medical institute in the city of Ufa, told me:
- Kolia, there is a medical “technikum” (secondary school) in Ufa. I advise you to enter it.
Soon I became a freshman of the Bashkir Medical Technikum. It was known that the students of such an educational institution didn’t have the right for a delay to the draft.
A. D. – How did people perceive the news that the war began? How did life change after that day?
N. N. – No panic arose; everything remained calm. Adults thought that the enemy would be smashed on its own territory. Thank God, the Finnish war lasted more or less a short time. And people thought that nothing terrible happened. However, after reading Stalin’s broadcast appeal to the Soviet people of 3 July 1941, people reconceived the situation and understood that a hard fate lay ahead. And in some month or two trains carrying a score of evacuees started moving, as I remember it, from Moscow and Moscow Oblast’. There were special instructions: to a certain district – so many evacuees; to a certain village – so many ones. City-dwellers came to our village. We met and placed them. Most of them were of Jewish ethnicity, some Fridas etc. By an intelligible reason they posed as Ukrainians. However, their Jewish origin was clear by their specific features…
The local people treated the newcomers very well. They weren’t restrained from any of their rights or activities. Being initially not adapted to farming, they gradually became accustomed to it. Soon they poured and winnowed grain and they also took part in weeding. The evacuees had to earn their living, though the collective farm first gave them foodstuff and shelter.
None of the evacuees were directed to our family's house. I'm not sure but it seems to me that the reason lay in what my father had done as long ago as 1937. At that time he was the chairman of our collective farm. That year the collective farm had reaped a very good harvest, and my father, regardles of directions “from above,” had distributed the grain among collective farm's members in large quantities. He was nearly arrested. Though my father was a non-party man, both the Communist Party District Committee and the Executive Committee of the District Soviet of People’s Deputies summoned him repeatedly. Thank God, eventually everything turned out all right…
We, the local teenagers, only from time to time learned from the newspapers what was going on at the front. There was bad news: such-and-such city was left; hard combat there-and-there. All of that confirmed that the war will be a long one…
The conscription continued. Soon my father and men at his age became soldiers. Teenagers had been called up a bit later. I was drafted in 1943 at the age of 17 years and 8 months.
Before being called up I was a sophomore and lodged in a private apartment in Ufa. And I'd like to tell you briefly how had the life changed in our village. Of course, it became worse than it was before the war. All of the men left the village and it became short-handed. Moreover, without tractor drivers all our agriculture machinery stopped. Good horses were also taken away. However, I can’t say that starvation or pestilence came. Life was reasonable. It was tolerable. Every weekend I went home from Ufa and filled my knapsack with different foodstuff. Other sophomores, who didn’t have relatives in the country, experienced day-to-day difficulties because there was already the food rationing system in cities. The daily student’s ration of bread was only 400 grams that certainly wasn’t enough for a young man.
A. D. – How did your military service start?
N. N. – The first step was the examination commission at the voenkomat (military registration and enlistment office). It was just a mere formality: your upper and lower extremities are on their places and your eyes function – go ahead!
Voenkomat directed me to join the 14th Sniper School of the Central-Asian Military District at the station Kovtubanovka, West-Kazakhstan Oblast’. That was my start point in the Red Army.
We were poorly fed in this school. When you get up in the morning, all your thoughts are about the food. And when you go to bed in the evening, you already are very hungry. Some ran to the public market to buy a glass of sunflower seeds for 40 rubles – you could see the value of the ruble in 1943.
Not only our feeding was a problem: the conditions of our life were terrible. We lived in dugouts, a complete company occupied a large dugout. Instead of electric illumination only a small wick lamp stood near the soldier on duty in the central part of this “casern.” We used the special liquid for cleaning barrels as a lamp fuel; a peace of a foot wrap was the wick. When you get up in the morning – your face is completely black, only your teeth are shining. When you are clearing your throat – the phlegm is black, too.
The heating devices in the “casern” were two burzhuykas (cylindrical metal oven) fueled by firewood.
It is known that if people live in hard conditions they are liable to get lice. So were we in abundance. At that time a regular sanitary observation number 20 existed in the army – a louse test. You would shake your undershirt over the burzhuyka – it was terrible to hear how the lice decrepitated. Our uniforms and underwear never underwent the louse-killing heat treatment. I don’t know what was the reason: either they didn’t have time to accomplish it or in these circumstances it was impossible.
I still remember our clothes and footwear of that time: the military overcoat, lace-shoes, foot wraps, thermal underwear, and a cap with ear- flaps.
Though our “barracks” was in a forest, the piece of woodland where we should take the firewood was some 10 kilometers from the “barracks.” Therefore, the rousing signal sounded at 5:00 a.m. (we should bring the firewood before our training starts). There were initially one hundred of soldiers carrying one hundred logs. It was very difficult to do. Soon we began slacking: you take two short logs, one of them you dropped by the way. After this trick became disclosed, all of our next similar dodges were cut short immediately. No wagons, no horses were used to lighten the load of logs.
After breakfast we had a platoon formation, and our commander gave us political information: he read aloud some articles of a newspaper or retold them. Then our intense training started. All our studies were out under the sky. The main subject in the sniper school was rifle fire, and we fired a lot. Before reaching the shooting-ground we usually underwent a special training. I describe it below.
It is winter, our platoon is on its way to the shooting-ground keeping to the footworn track. The banks of snow are more than a yard thick. The subject of today’s exercise is “How to act under a raid by air.” Suddenly our commander shouts: “Air! Airplanes!” The platoon must to scatter momentarily, and everyone is running through the thick snow. In a minute or two we hear: “All clear!” The exercise could be repeated several times as we make our way. Finally we feel utterly exhausted. Everyone wants to fall on the snow and not to get up; he want to die and nothing more…
At the shooting-ground we had different firing exercises, mostly at smal-size targets. A “head” appeared from a blindage embrasure for a short while – you should strike it in several seconds. And, God forbid, our platoon had failed the exercises – on our way back we would have to carry out plenty of commands “Air!”, “Tanks on the right!”, “Tanks on the left!”
Initially the exercises were easy. The size of a target – full-length, half-length, and running targets. Then they complicated the exercises gradually. The most difficult thing was to fire at a “head” target that suddenly appeared for several seconds at a distance about 300-400 meters.
We had a very sad accident. A group of snipers were ready at the firing line. Everyone looked through the optical sight at the point where the target could appear. The officer at the firing line became engrossed in a conversation and lost the pace of shooting. Now you can lift the targets automatically but at that time a young soldier sat behind a shield at the target line. He received the commands by phone: “Lift!”, “Show!”, “Remove!” and executed them. This time he was wondering about the long silence of the phone and decided to glance through the embrasure to see what was going on. And our snipers were still waiting for the appearance of a face – bang! The young fellow was killed. And the officer at the firing line was sent to the front line right away.
In general, however, all our instructors at this school were well educated and experienced officers. I'm not sure but it seems to me that they held on to their service and tried to strengthen their positions at the school.
Along with the firing training they taught us how to camouflage ourselves, for example, on the snow, or how to use pieces of a sod in the summer-fall period. A sniper must know these methods without fail. And the most important: they taught us patience. You must wait, wait, and wait; you must bear any weather, being hungry or thirsty; try to keep yourself from coughing…
Besides firing and camouflaging we had regular marching drills, exhausting head-to-head fighting exercises (a rifle with a bayonet in your hands: “Short bayonet!”, “Long bayonet!”, “Beat off to the right!”, “Beat off to the left!”), and some tactical methods (rushing; crawling over; entrenching oneself).
In the school everyone got a regular Mosin rifle and an individual optical sight. The latter should be adjusted to your personal eyesight. The optical sight was easy in use: you need to set both windage and elevation corrections (plus – minus and up – down accordingly). I already knew what should be the point of impact for certain distances.
We didn’t have the self-loading rifles SVT in the school, they were hardly practical at the front: as soon as the tiniest portion of sand got into the SVT – it stuck and stopped working. And the Mosin rifle wasn’t as over-sensitive as the SVT.
At the front snipers usually act in couples but in the school we were taught individually. When you are at the front they give you a fellow sniper. As a rule, the experienced sniper receives a green one.
Our training in the school lasted 9 months – since November 1943 till late August 1944. We were trained thoroughly. At that time the situation at the Soviet-German front no longer required “raw meat” to be sent to the front line untrained. After completing the training we continued to be privates.
I also would like to remark that at this school we all were about the same age. And in the interrelations among us there wasn’t any infringement or physical violence or anything similar. Sergeants and officers treated us normally, humanly. (In regard to that, to put it mildly, exhausting training was considered normal at that time). Our sergeants were just a bit older than we were but much more experienced – they had already prepared several sniper classes. They even trained us how to wind the foot wraps and gave many useful lectures. They treated us fatherly.
And there was nothing similar to this in our army at this time – humiliation, infringement, outrage upon recruits, in other words, – the so-called “grandfathery.”
I remember one more very sad accident during our training at this school. Besides the sniper school, the 21st Reseve Regiment was a part of the local garrison. The regiment was a kind of a trans-shipment point for officers who arrived here for three-week retraining. Along the garrison's perimeter was a wire entanglement, and an armed guard walked along it. A woman, either a mother or a wife, came there to see her beloved officer for a while. The officer in his joy decided to exit the garrison straight on over the fence instead of through the check-point. The guard shouted at him: “Stop!” Then louder: “Stop or I'll fire!” The officer, however, didn't believe that the guard would fire and began getting over the obstacle. Bang! – the guard fired… That was a very sad accident…
After completing the training course we left for the front wearing new good uniforms. Several marching companies were formed, and we boarded the echelon (a troop train) that consisted of numerous freight cars re-equipped as carriages for soldiers (so-called teplushkas). And – forward!
As I remember it, at the railroad station Kuibyshev we saw a medical echelon that transported eastward many injured soldiers. Most were in a good mood because they would be treated at the far rear hospitals. Young guys!
A. D. – What mood were you and your fellow-travellers in while going to the front? Were you well-informed about numerous losses of riflemen at the front?
N. N. – Let’s imagine that I was making for the front alone. Then I could be engrossed in thoughts of different kind. However, if you are among your fellow students of the sniper school, who ate a lot of kasha together with you, you feel the sense of collectivism. All pals are friendly and cheerful. Of course, there are people of different personalities and you could encounter a reticent or gloomy person. At the same time you could meet a joker resembling the Alexei Tvardovskii's fictional character Vasilii Tiorkin, and you feel good with those…
To be honest, we didn’t know plainly about big losses, encirclements, and collapses of some operations. We knew only what we heard from our platoon commanders, who read aloud some articles of newspapers during our “political informations.” At that time the newspapers wrote such an information quite reservedly. Now, instead, we have many those, who like to savor those losses and misfortunes…
A. D. – Where was your destination? How did you start fighting at the front?
N. N. – We disembarked the echelon in the area adjacent to the city of Rovno, Western Ukraine. The echelon couldn't go farther because the rail line was destroyed. The city was destroyed as well. Not far from Rovno, in a forestland was located a re-forming center where certain units were replenishing. I was enlisted in the 585th Rifle Regiment of the 213th Novo-Ukrainskaia Rifle Division. Actually, the division was being formed anew. An arranging and knitting together process was going on. Several experienced officers explained to us what and how should we act in different combat situations. I think that was the real beginning of our being in front-line forces.
There were three rifle companies and one machine gun copany in a rifle battalion. The main armament of a rifle company were rifles. Two snipers were supposed to be in each rifle company. Thus, I already knew my company but I can't remember its number for the life of me. The other sniper of our company was Volodia Churikov or Chumikov…
From the re-forming center we performed a very long march to the front line. To avoid being discovered by German aerial reconnaissance we marched by night. There were mostly separate hamlets in Western Ukraine countryside. In each hamlet you could see a klunia, a spacious drying ground protected against precipitation with an awning. And a company could rest all day long at that klunia under the awning.
Sometimes in the night Banderovtsy guerrillas1 fired at our column. Once a soldier left the column without permission. He entered a small roadside house to ask for a cup of water. His company continued marching but the soldier didn’t catch up with it: either he joined Banderovtsy or they killed him to take his rifle.
To protect he column against guerrillas' hit-and-run attacks, three guard groups were set: advanced and on each side. In contrast to men in the column, they were completely armed.
The country road we were marching along was entirely sandy and stretched alongside coniferous forest. It was very difficult to take such a road: after your one step forward your foot automatically crawled, along with the sand, backward by a half step. With all of this going on, you are well loaded with your rifle, military overcoat, knapsack, digging tools, gas-mask…
One night I saw no commanders close by, so I shifted to the roadside where was easier to march. As bad luck would have it, our battalion commander passed his column on horseback. He caught me at the roadside. As a punishment I received a machine-gun mount for one hour. It was so heavy! You drag it and you feel that you are dragging the whole wide world. I couldn't wait until the end of that hour. Since then on I didn't leave the column anymore.
Our march lasted about three weeks. Everything – the night marching and ambushes exhausted us. As soon as a halt was announced – you fell down and went to sleep, no matter if it was wet or muddy under you…
We reached the front line in late September or early October 1944. It was in the area of the Sandomir bridgehead but on the east bank of the Visla River. We took positions that were already prepared by a unit which held the defense there before we arrived. A monotony of a trench war began. We continued to improve the defense line by digging blindages and preparing reserve fire positions. Often we had to hide ourselves because of enemy fire. Neither the Germans nor we made attempts to attack.
At that time we, the company’s snipers, were ordered to neutralize the enemy machine gunner who terrorized our company constantly. Nobody could rise his head out of the trench. That damned machine gunner had several positions prepared beforehand and he skillfully changed them. Our company commander told us: “We must overcome him.” Volodia, my fellow sniper, and I stepped forth along trenches and fitted out our firing positions about 20 meters apart. Initially we just observed the area through our optical sights. In order to not decamouflage ourselves we did it only when under a shadow or during an overcast day. After we got to know all of the locations of his firing positions, the order of his placements, and some of his habits we started the hunt.
My fellow sniper was watching, while I tried to stimulate the machine gunner to fire. The usual method was to lift my helmet a little over the parapet for some 20 seconds and then to hid it for a minute or so. During my third attempt the machine gunner fired a burst toward me, but Volodia was ready to fire and didn’t miss. Since then, the machine gunner gave no sign of life. Who knows was he killed or injured? Our command thanked both of us officially for the neutralization the enemy’s machine gun.
There was another episode when we executed a specific task. A German sniper appeared at our sector of defense and started troubling us. Volodia and I used the same tactics of hunting. There was, however, only one difference: the day was sunny, therefore I slightly rocked my rifle with the optical sight over the parapet to motivate the German to fire.
As a rule, sniper's position lay a bit into the no man's zone. The best distance to fire was some 300–500 meters. We took our positions in the dark. We were allowed to leave them in the daytime only if it was possible to do it imperceptibly. If not – we sat until dark.
To execute a specific order we spent as long time as needed to liquidate the appointed target. More frequently we had free daily hunting and we liked it. You continue fighting from the same position as long as you are sure that it hasn't been discovered. Otherwise you should make off quickly.
A. D. – Being a sniper, how many German soldiers did you kill? What kind of feeling did you experience after hitting your first target?
N. N. – We haven’t some sniper’s tally. Nevertheless, I think that my score of knocked down was about fifteen. It is impossible to check whether your victim was killed or injured. We used the number of hits, there were no registration sheets or another forms. They should believe what the sniper said.
When I realized that I killed a German soldier, my feeling wasn’t a pleasant one. And of course there was no malicious joy. After all, you killed a human being. It may be that he was just forced to fight. You feel some after-pains…
However, as time goes by you get used to everything. Initially you take the injury or loss of your friend hard but gradually your pain eases…
An unexpected twist of my fate happened shortly before our offensive in January 1945. One night the company commander's orderly awaiked me in our blindage: “The company commander summons you immediately.” There were a few soldiers of other platoons in the dugout. Our commander asked everyone about his education, health, and mood. Then we were dispatched to the battalion C.P. and from there – to the regimental C.P. Yet at the division HQ we underwent the credentials committee for a military college. There wasn’t even a question: “Do you want it?” Our small group was dispatched to the army rear where a military echelon was ready to leave for the Motherland.
Most of the passengers of he train were both war-dogs and stagers. At railroad stations some of them sold uniforms, others rubbed TNT (trotyl) blocks with soap and offered these false soap bars in exchange for some food or moonshine.
My destination was the city of Ural’sk, West-Kazakhstan Oblast’, where I became a cadet of the Odessa Infantry Order of the Red Banner Military College.
|Russian text and translation:||Isaak Kobylyanskiy|