Quarantine Diaries – Day 49
May 2nd, 2020
Today marks the end of WWII in Europe and the complete destruction of Nazi Germany in the symbolic sense. The culminating battle in the city of Berlin lasted just over two weeks and saw roughly 70,000 to 80,000 casualties on the Soviet side alone. The iconic photo depicting the Soviet flag being raised over the Reichstag has acquired mythical status.
Nevertheless, this victory, at least in the United States, is always overshadowed by D-Day, which neither won the war nor was it even a decisive factor—so late in 1944—in bringing the conflict to an end. By the time the US had begun its Normandy landings, the USSR had already been driving the Germans back for three years and were beginning to initiate Operation Bagration, which, according to Arthur C. Hassiotis’s book, The Extraordinary Rise of the Russian Empire, would go on to inflict the biggest defeat in German military history; besides, he added that the “total collapse was the worst catastrophe in the history of the German Army, and the greatest in German military history.” Not bad, I would say.
Moreover, the Soviet Union had, already in the years of 1942-1943, secured a successful victory at Stalingrad, which was the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare, involving the destruction of the entire German 6th Army, which was responsible for murdering 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar in 1941; if anything, it was this battle that was the turning point of WWII. The city has captured the literary imagination of poets and writers, such as Langston Hughes, who wrote about it in “Good Morning, Stalingrad” and Carlos Drummond de Andrade who likewise pays homage to the city in “Letter to Stalingrad.” Likewise, six months before US troops landed in France, the Soviets had already concluded the nearly 900-day Siege of Leningrad, considered perhaps the longest and most gruesome in history, accumulating more casualties than US and British forces suffered during the entire war.
Alexander Werth, who was a correspondent for the London Sunday Times and BBC, accompanied Soviet troops as they pushed the Germans out of the city. Shortly after the siege was lifted, he interviewed numerous locals, later reporting that the ordeal claimed “the lives of an estimated 1,000,000 city residents.” Similarly, Harvard historian Michael Walzer further stated in his book, Just and Unjust Wars, that “More civilians died in the siege of Leningrad than in the modernist infernos of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, taken together.” In the US, however, none of this is really taken into consideration, as the Western Front dominates the discussion.
Nevertheless, those who know anything about WWII are aware that it was, in fact, the Eastern Front which was by far the most important theater of action; over a thousand miles long, nearly all extermination camps were liberated there, including Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, which is, not coincidentally, when Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated. Furthermore, and most importantly, 75-80 percent of Nazi forces were expelled on the Eastern Front by the Red Army; hence, D-Day can’t hold the significance many ascribe to it, as the Eastern front—both in terms of length and ferocity—was the decisive theater of battle in Europe.
Except for Pearl Harbor, the war never reached US soil, making it possible for the country to lose less than half a million people in the entire conflict and allowing it to avoid the necessity of rebuilding any infrastructure; the USSR, on the other hand, lost twenty five million, and according to documents quoted at the Nuremberg Trials (now archived by the Yale Law School Library), the nation witnessed the destruction of “1,710 towns and more than 70,000 villages and hamlets. They [the German] burned and destroyed more than 6 million buildings and rendered some 25 million persons homeless.” Moreover, “the invaders destroyed 31,850 industrial works which employed some 4 million workers,” along with “36,000 postal and telegraphic offices, telephone centers, and other communication centers.” WWII had, thus, made the US the wealthiest country in the world while the USSR was forced to busy itself rebuilding a crumbling nation that had saved Europe from fascism.
It’s a miracle, then, that only sixteen years after this conflict, the USSR had the ability to gather enough resources and willpower to send not only the first man into space, but also the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, who made her flight on June 16, 1963; and if that wasn’t enough, the first space walk was also performed Alexei Leonov two years later.
It isn’t farfetched to say that the US went to the moon simply to beat the Russians, for what impressive feat has NASA done today when there’s no enemy to beat, so to say? Historically, the US has always thrived on conflict. Everything from the tyranny of the British Empire, to the savagery of Native Americans, along to the aggression of the USSR has been used as an instrument of justification by which this country has given itself the permission to act in tyrannical, savage, and aggressive ways when implementing its domestic and foreign policy.
In fact on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Georgy Arbatov, an advisor to the Soviet Union, told US officials the following: “We are going to do a terrible thing to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” Indeed, the US has always justified other people’s tyranny, savagery, and aggression to interfere in foreign affairs in similarly tyrannical, savage, and aggressive ways. In a 1985 interview with Noam Chomsky, Marshall Goldman, and Russ Johnson, the latter, a Senior Program Associate for the American Friends Service Committee, stated that the US has over two thousand military bases scattered all across the world and that if the Martians came down to earth, they would see the US as the expanding threat to the rest of the world, not Russia (this particular audio bit starts at 4:29).
Let’s leave politics aside for a minute, however, and discuss the important contributions that women made in the fight for freedom during WWII. Sending the first man and woman to space is a wonderful accomplishment; however, very few are aware of the indispensable roles that women played in the aforementioned conflict. Indeed, it was the Soviet Union which first allowed female pilots to fly combat missions; members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment were known as the Night Witches. These regiments consisted of almost one hundred young pilots who flew a combined total of 30,000 missions, producing more than twenty Heroes of the Soviet Union, including two fighter aces, Yekaterina Budanova (shot down at the age of twenty six on her last mission, 19 July 1943, near Novokrasnovka) and Lydia Litvyak (shot down at the age of twenty one on August 1, 1943 after taking off from her base at Krasnyy Luch).
Besides fighter pilots, the Soviets employed women as snipers with great success, of which Lyudmila Pavlichenko, with 309 confirmed kills, became the most successful female sharpshooter in history. Equally impressive is Roza Shanina, whom the Ottawa Citizen described as “the unseen terror of East Prussia” in a September 20th, 1944 article. She died on January 28th, 1945 at the age of twenty in the East Prussian Offensive. It’s hard to imagine the woman below earning that title.
It’s for all these reasons that, to this day, I’m discouraged to see the constant lack of recognition by the US for the sacrifices which the Soviets made—sacrifices that allowed them (a country isolated from the rest of Europe by an ocean) to become the richest and most powerful in the world without making nearly the same sacrifices that everyone else made; even this arrogance can be survived, however; but when the US somehow claims to have won the war by landing on the beaches of Normandy, you really have no choice but to hate everything that it represents—its unchecked capitalism which has destroyed an entire generation of young people; its anti-intellectual atmosphere and idiotic obsession with sports (no, you’re not the world champion of anything that anyone besides you cares about—try football, European style, for a change); but most of all I hate its free yellow journalism media which uses any excuse to blame Russia for its own faults and shortcomings. And why in the world did we name one of the most prestigious literary prizes after a guy—Pulitzer—who with the help of Hearst basically furnished a war with Spain by publishing false reports in their newspapers; only the greatest country in the world is capable of such insanity.
For all intents and purposes, yes, I’m a US citizen, but I’m also a product of the European continent. I was born in Armenia in 1987, when it was still a Soviet republic and I moved to Germany with my parents right after the system collapsed. I only came to the US in 1999, at the age twelve, on the verge of being a teenager. Despite being naturalized and swearing the oath ten years later, I can’t say I ever fully became an American—whatever that means (when I visited Mexico in 2012, the Mexicans cautioned me in claiming the label all for myself). Indeed, Mexico is part of the continent, but let’s leave that aside for now and continue with my attempt to become less patriotic.
My grandfather, Artashes Garyan, who passed away in the year 2000, was a dedicated communist; he believed in the system. He was both naïve and an idealist in the sense of Don Quixote, but he was, likewise, a good man who was prepared to make every sacrifice for the good of his family.
The exact date of his birth is unknown; however, he was born in the year 1924. On the eve of defending his completed PhD dissertation (Kandidat nauk), his advisor, Lisovsky (who had always joked that among Armenians there are only the very brightest and the extremely stupid) died suddenly, and my grandfather was forced to find a new chair who would administer the defense of his dissertation. The Soviet system is a little confusing in the fact that there are two stages for the PhD. According to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), the Kandidat nauk is considered by Western standards to be the equivalent of the doctoral degree (level eight). If a graduate wishes to be considered a “doctor” in the USSR, however, the Kandidat nauk would have to complete the second stage of the PhD to attain the Doktor nauk, which usually required ten years of additional research after the first stage of the entry level dissertation. My grandfather only completed the first stage (as shown below).
His so-called doctoral work in the Soviet sense is still in Vanadzor (though undefended) in the possession of my grandmother, Tatyana Zhukovskaya (affectionately known as Batanya in our family).
My grandfather met his future wife in Moscow’s Gorky Park in 1957; at that time, he was studying at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys State Technological University, and my grandmother worked as a cook in a cafeteria. On a casual stroll with his friend, they encountered two women picking phlox (my grandmother’s favorite flowers); they played a prank on them by pretending to be the police and asking for their papers. Subsequently, my grandfather asked where this Tatyana worked; she responded, “in a clinic,” which was a lie. When my grandmother didn’t show up for the date she had promised him, he went looking for this Tatyana in every hospital in Moscow. It seemed that fate was against him, but he nevertheless ran into Tatyana—at a clinic—by chance; she was trying to obtain an excuse from a doctor to skip work that day and go to the movies with her friends.
The rest is history: They married in 1958 and moved to Vanadzor a year later. She still lives there to this day in the same apartment, which I remember very well. This is a photo shortly after their marriage.
My grandmother was born on March 8, 1932 in the village of Zhukovo, near the border of Belarus. She endured a most difficult childhood because of the war, almost starving to death. In her childhood imagination, she described witnessing rivers bleeding red and Soviet war machinery stuck in the mud. She described running barefoot through the snow and eating potato peels. She described her younger brother, Viktor, dying in front of her eyes of starvation. She described her saving grace—a friend named Lola afflicted by mental health problems, who had given her a few potatoes that saved the family from starvation. All this she described and much more that I can’t remember now.
Still, how she encountered two pilots who gave her some coins is coming back to my mind, along with her story of the hungry Nazi soldier chasing a pig. And, yes, how she fell asleep in the forest from exhaustion one time, causing her mother, Pelageya, to worry sick—a villager named Taras later discovered her. Stories like this stay in your mind no matter how many times you’ve forgotten them. Looking at this picture, I fully understand both the beauty and cruelty of time; it destroys youth but also numbs memory—my grandmother’s smile in old age is a testament to her strength.
Despite the family’s perseverance, however, when the threat became too great, authorities evacuated them to Mariinsk in the far east, where they spent almost two years with Kukai and Kukzai, two of the local villagers. Perhaps the most gracious people in the entire settlement, the native couple had a son who was in the war; by God’s grace, he returned when it was all over and afterwards sent my grandmother’s family a letter—the only part of which she remembers is a sentence of incorrect Russian: “вы очень хорошие человеки.” The last word, “человеки,” means humans, which wouldn’t be the proper usage in Russian; however, because they mostly spoke the local native language, the son couldn’t make the distinction between the aforementioned word and the correct term for the occasion, “люди,” which means people. The whole sentence means: You’re very good people.
My grandmother’s uncle, Emelyan Ivanovich Zhukovsky, met a tragic end in 1937, four years before the war even hit the home front. The story goes that in a drunken revelry he and his friends sang a crude political song: “Сегодня убили Кирова, завтра убьют Сталина.” Today they killed Kirov; tomorrow they’ll kill Stalin. Under Stalin, countless people were denounced and disappeared without a trial. After some searching, we managed to find Emelyan’s record on this website, which lists his date of birth as 1908. He was arrested on the 15th of April and sentenced to ten years under article 58 section 10, which was anti-Soviet agitation; most of the people charged under this code were executed right away. According to the website he was rehabilitated by the government on the 22nd of June, 1992.
My great-grandfather, Alexey, was coerced at gunpoint by the Germans into becoming a collaborator; he was tasked with collecting intelligence and spying on the village, earning him the title “chief.” He double-crossed the Germans, however, and began hiding Soviet partisans (whom my grandmother remembers seeing) in the house. The Soviets made no attempt to find out what he was really up to—they shot him on the spot for treason; one of the partisans later said: “What have you done? He was helping us.” So it goes. This is just one family’s story. There are undoubtedly millions of tales like the one I’ve told all over the Russia and the former republics it once commanded, which is why colossal memorials, such as the Tiergarten monument in East Berlin, were erected to honor the dead.
This nation lost more than 25,000,0000 people to win the war; I think these sacrifices must be recognized because they’re real and the suffering people endured will not be forgotten. It, thus, upsets me deeply when the US turns a cold shoulder on these stories, focusing solely on their own sacrifices. A worthy read is John Dower’s 2017 article “Why Can’t Americans Remember Anyone’s Death Other Than Those of Their Own?” Published in The Nation, the title alone says enough, but speaking about the US, adding the following may help drive the point home: “Apart from the Civil War, its war-related fatalities have been tragic but markedly lower than the military and civilian death tolls of other nations, invariably including America’s adversaries.” In this respect, I’m truly torn—as a naturalized US citizen, I swore allegiance to this country, but if war did break out between the two countries, could I, like Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, make war on my own relatives? I don’t think so.
Walking around the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, I spotted this war poster. It’s hard to believe that the narrative between the US and Russia was once like this.
Hopefully one day—barring a war—we can go back to normal. In fact, relations between the two countries were even better before WWII. Before 1917, Russia was the only formidable power “with which the United States had neither a war, nor serious diplomatic dispute.” Russian support for the American Revolution even led President Jefferson to declare that “Russia is the most cordially friendly to us of any power on earth.” During the Civil War, likewise, Russia was the only European power to support the Union, which led President Lincoln’s Secretary of State to proclaim that Russia “has our friendship, in preference to any other European power.” And who can forget the similarities between Czar Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln; it was, indeed, the former who freed his serfs on February 19, 1861 as the US followed suit and brought liberty to the slaves a couple years later, according to The New York Times. Both men were assassinated. A statue of the czar and the president was erected in 2011 on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street in Moscow to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Alexander II’s liberation.
I do envision a day where relations between both countries will be cordial again. It would be for the betterment of everyone to see these great powers on the same side.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.