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[EX]: Stalingrad

Discussion in 'Fiction' started by Comrade General, Mar 30, 2018.

  1. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    Background Info: This is a story about the 13th Guards Rifle Division which distinguished itself at the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the major turning points of the Eastern Front. It is meant to be a combat novel in the same vein as Thin Red Line but also somewhat philosophical. With each character I am trying to explore a different mentality not just to the battle or the war with Germany but also to life, politics, destiny and so on.

    Name:
    Scott Patrick

    Setting:
    Battle of Stalingrad, 1942

    Genre:
    Historical Fiction

    As the black waves of the Volga lapped against the side of the boat, Private Mikhail Ivanov watched as enormous flames consumed the crumbling buildings on the opposite bank. Roaring flames lit up the ruined towers, casting surreal shadows in the dying twilight. Sparks danced in the evening air; you could barely discern the darkening sky through the clouds of smoke. A heap of scorched machines and wrecked ships littered the far waterside. Mikhail could not compare it to anything he had seen; only to his envisioning of Hell itself.

    Mikhail did his best to think of home. He recalled life on the kolkhoz, the collective farm, where he and his family had toiled for less than a decade, forced off their private lands when Moscow collectivized all Soviet agriculture. He remembered the dry, sometimes arid steppes covered in grain, an infinite sky above endless fields. He could hear the silence of the countryside at night, when his grandfather would recite old Greek myths, like the story about the ferryman, Charon, ferrying the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. As a boy, Mikhail had imagined it as a serene journey, a peaceful voyage across still waters. Yet this conveyance across the Volga instilled in him a new conception of crossing a river into Hell. He felt a fear unknown in all his eighteen years, and he suddenly felt an overwhelming, crushing sense that he was far too young to face death.

    He had not expected to see action so early. His company, the third in the 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment of the 13th Guards Rifle Division, camped far from the frontline, receiving reinforcements and resupply. Ivanov was one of the fresh recruits newly joined, a raw draftee subjected to a quick but comprehensive basic training followed by an intense forced march. His instructors had told him that sending him so soon into action had been a conscious choice, his “baptism by fire,” and would introduce him to the shock of combat to dampen its effect in the battles to come. He and his comrades all guessed the truth, however: it was because Stalingrad was falling. Rumors had it the Germans already occupied the center of the city and would reach the eastern banks of the Volga before long. It fell to Mikhail and his comrades to somehow prevent this from happening.

    Their commanders had pushed them southward, hounding them constantly. As if this had not been bad enough, their rapid movement had kicked up so much dust they had attracted German fighter planes like bears to honey. Those who had survived the sprint across the arid, sandy steppe had found themselves thrust into the maples and poplars along the river, where they had been told to abandon everything besides weapons, ammunition, grenades and rations. The officers ordered the soldiers onto a flotilla of improvised and commandeered craft, a ragtag batch of gunboats, tugs, barges, and rowboats.

    Mikhail sat uneasily in one of the crowded rowboats. The troops near him swore loudly or prayed quietly, the harsh pop of gunfire and the squeals of falling shells echoing from the collapsed warehouses and disintegrating silos of the city on the distant shore. Like Mikhail, they all wore khaki tunics and long breeches, and most had steel helmets as well. Each had a backpack slung over a shoulder, containing extra ammunition and their mess kits. Most clutched Mosin-Nagant rifles in their hands; an unlucky tenth of the division possessed no weapons. Mikhail was one of the lucky ones to have secured a rifle. Regardless of whether they held a gun or not, the men around him bore the same expression. He saw fear on their faces, and he was sure his demeanor betrayed terror as well.

    He wondered if he would even survive the river crossing. If the rumors were true, German soldiers were likely only a few hundred yards away, assuming they were not already holding the western bank. As if on cue, the unmistakable shriek of falling artillery shells and mortars firing sounded. Some of it came from behind; a great deal more came from the German side of the river. Huge geysers of water went up around the rowboat carrying Mikhail, sending showers of hot shrapnel and ice-cold water. Scaly fish flesh emerged with the ripples. Around him, men were staring intently below, and it took him a moment to realize that, like climbers who had ascended to some terrific height and could not look down, these men could not lock eyes at the horrors around them. They kept themselves distracted from the nightmare, as if denying it would make it somehow vanish.

    Mikhail, for whatever reason, could not look away. The river seemed as wide as the vastness of outer space. Far to his left, a shell landed directly on top of a tugboat full of men. In just a split second, it had gone from a slow but steady vessel brimming with life to a heap of floating, speedily sinking debris. He heard breathless groans and desperate screams, but a machine gun fired from the German riverbank soon drowned them out. Straight lines of bullets spit up columns of water, chopping up those survivors clutching for hands or the edge of the boats. Soldiers in the boats instinctively dove for cover, most behind wooden hulls that offered little defense from bullets. Only the privileged troops in the few gunboats enjoyed real protection from the gunfire, but not the mortar shells.

    Cold water fountained up and splashed down on Mikhail as a shell landed just yards away from his transport. More followed, and each time water splashed him. If a shell landed on his vessel, he wondered, would he know in time, or would death come so quickly that, one minute the world around him would be vivid and thriving, and then, nothingness? The thought filled him with dread and growing anger, rage at the impotence he felt to prevent his own demise. He remembered the slaughterhouse where he once worked, and the dumb animals that had gone to the man with the sledgehammer, powerless, unaware. Yet, unlike those animals, Mikhail knew what was happening, knew it was a matter of life and death. That he could do nothing, nothing but hope and pray, made him resent the indiscernible fate that had placed him this precarious position.

    How long would it be to cross the river? It seemed to be an eternity, but gradually he started to smell odors from the western bank. His nostrils filled with the smell of spent explosives, charred asphalt and burnt timber, as well as the nauseating stink of rotting corpses. The soldiers at the front of the boat, who could see where they were going, sent word back that the enemy side of the Volga grew near. A soldier beside Mikhail said, “This is crazy! What are we supposed to do against those machine guns?”

    “Avoid getting shot,” someone replied sarcastically.

    Mikhail thought that good advice, but easier said than done. It did not seem fair at all, the idea of machine guns riddling the disembarking soldiers, before they had a chance to find cover. They would be easy targets. He resolved that he would not wait patiently to leave the boat when it came ashore, that he would jump overboard instead, and several others seemed to share the thought. They gravitated to the edges of the boat, their bodies tense, like coils set to spring.

    Over the sound of the artillery, Mikhail heard the shriller firing of rifles. Men at the front of the boat began shooting as well. He feared that they would draw German fire at their boat, and at any moment a machine gun would sew stitches of bullets into him. Instead, however, a shell landed directly in front of the boat, and suddenly the boat capsized, as if a gigantic hand had flipped it over. Head over heels, Mikhail plunged face-first into the cold water of the river.

    Water flooded his mouth and nose, and his pack soon became an anchor, dragging him down. He forced his eyes open, and beneath him, he could almost see the bottom of the Volga, burned machines and broken barges tossed into the river floor like rusty knives thrown into sand. He could still hear sounds from the river-crossing above, the incessant popping of guns and bursting bombs, but now muffled and distorted underwater. All five of his senses fought to adjust.

    He snatched wildly at the strap of his helmet and pried it loose, then snaked his arms free of his backpack. More out of a primal drive for survival than premeditated intent, he flung his arms out and swam to the surface. He reflexively opened his mouth, wildly gasping for air. Over his deep and ragged inhalations, he heard something zip by his ear, and soon he realized someone was shooting at him. Instinctively, he dove back underneath the churning waves.

    He swam forward, his soaked uniform a heavy weight holding down most of his body. His boots felt as though they contained rocks, and felt he was swimming in quicksand rather than a river. He could feel his muscles aching, the breath escaping his lungs. He tried to fight it all – his growing exhaustion, his panic, his crippling dread – but in the end, he could not help but succumb. Slowly, he ceased to struggle, and his limbs gradually went limp. The last ounce of strength drained from him, even as his heartbeat thundered loudly in his chest. Finally, the water twisted his head heavenward, and beyond the water, he could see the bright sparks still swaying in a macabre dance in the night sky.
     
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  2. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    Sergeant Maxim Morozov dove against a mound of dirt, hugging the earth like a dear and long-lost lover. Around him, many other men did the same. He barked at some new recruits to get down behind cover like he was, to move forward off the shoreline and away from the boats. He knew the longer they dawdled on the riverbank, the more likely the German guns would chew them up. Yet he also knew that, unless they focused, they had no hope of dislodging the fascists from their positions. The Germans were close, to be sure, but Maxim reckoned they had yet to set their lines. The Germans loved speed, as he recalled from past battles, but speed was a double-edged sword; the farther and more quickly a force advanced, the less time it had to dig in. If the 13th Guards could mount a serious attack, it would not be difficult to dislodge their enemy, but their crossing had been haphazard and their landing even more so. Somehow, they had to recover some order from the chaos and secure the shore. They could not retreat.

    “Kasatkin!” He called to one of the privates alongside him, who was closer to the edge of the mound they huddled behind. “What is it?”

    The private grimaced but did not grumble, as he knew that a reprimand would follow if he complained. He lay forward, with his face inches from the dirt, and crept upward, until his eyes just crossed the horizon. Moments later he pulled himself down and shouted over the ruckus of the maelstrom. “Machine gun! And at least one rifle squad!”

    “That’s it?”

    A pause, then Kasatkin replied, “Isn’t that enough?”

    Maxim grinned darkly as he reached into his satchel and produced a stick grenade. He released the locking catch on the handle and inserted a fuse into the top of the can. He raised himself up enough to throw it, and it sailed around 20 to 30 meters. Several men around him repeated the motion, all quickly ducking back down after the grenades left their hands. When they detonated, the guns firing at them halted briefly, and Maxim raised his rifle, aimed, and fired. Unlike many of the fresh recruits around him, who were still so green that they fired indiscriminately, Maxim took the time to choose his targets and fired to hit them, not just suppress them. It had taken him many battles to hone this ability; all the time at the practice range had not prepared him for the stress of actual combat. In time, he thought, these new recruits would learn it too, and likely very soon.

    He clambered to his feet, disregarding the rucksack that weighed him down like a pack animal. “Come on, you bastards!” he shouted to the men around him. Leading by example, he rushed toward the German line. The grenades had been far less effective than an artillery barrage, but they had done enough to disorient the Germans, putting them on the defensive. Of course, those same Germans were still capable of drawing beads on the oncoming men in drab yellow-brown, including Maxim. Survival would be more luck than skill.

    Kasatkin, as nimble as a ballet dancer, ran on past him. Suddenly, he stopped dead in his feet as something whacked him in the head. Maxim watched him tumble, smoke coming from his helmet, as graceless as a dropped bag of potatoes. Several men also collapsed as bullets smacked them like fists, some writhing in pain, others fortunate to die immediately. Maxim ran on. He could see the hastily assembled German positions, as well as the flames gushing from the muzzles of their weapons. It felt as though they all aimed at him, but still he sped on. Some of the Germans fell back, abandoning the half-walls and rubble they used as cover, but most stayed where they stood or crouched, ready to fight.

    Maxim shouted, a bestial roar, and for some reason, hearing the sound supplied him with more courage. He jumped into a crater that a shell had made, looking for cover but instead found a tall, gaunt man in a green-gray uniform and wearing a dark blue helmet. The German began to bring his rifle to his shoulder, yelling something in his guttural native tongue Maxim could not understand.

    Maxim fired from the hip. He pictured his old drill sergeant chiding him for that, telling him that he would never hit something that way. This time, however, Maxim proved his drill sergeant wrong, as the German fell back, a large red blotch appearing on his chest. He finished the Kraut off with a second shot, this one aimed, which hit right below the throat. Blood sprayed into Maxim’s face as the German made an atrocious gurgling noise and clasped his neck with both hands. He squirmed awkwardly on his back and, slowly, ceased to move at all.

    Up and down the line, the Soviet soldiers cleared the Germans in similar close-combat fighting. The German machine guns fell silent. As in his previous encounters with them, Maxim found the Germans to be brave, most choosing to die rather than retreat. Those few that remained ran back among the mills, warehouses, and other buildings close to the water, in the direction of the center of the city. The usually invincible Wehrmacht had been unable to hold the bank, at least for the time being, but only because they had not yet fortified. It would not be so easy, Maxim thought grimly, to force them out of central Stalingrad.

    Maxim looked around for his squad, trying to keep some order as his company advanced. Kasatkin he no longer had to worry about; he already knew that. He was shocked, though, to find only four men from his nine-man squad had survived the crossing. He found several, seriously wounded, at an improvised aid station set up on the western bank. As he walked among them, he saw a medic sitting on the back of a young private, lifting him upward at the elbows. He was, Maxim realized, trying to force air back into the boy’s lungs. After several tries, the medic managed to resuscitate his patient, who coughed up water and panted for air. The medic pounded him on the back several times, before moving on to some other soldiers who had almost drowned during the river crossing.

    “You’re lucky,” Maxim pronounced. He offered the boy a hand.

    The boy took it, and with some effort, stood. “Thanks, comrade.”

    “That’s Comrade Sergeant,” Maxim corrected, pointing to his shoulder board. “Which unit are you with? You look familiar.”

    The boy straightened a little. “Private Mikhail Ivanovich Ivanov. 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment, sir.”

    “Well, you’re the right regiment at least. Who’s your sergeant?”

    “Comrade Sergeant Trifonov, sir.”

    Maxim shouldered his rifle and motioned Mikhail to follow. “Come with me, kid. Looks like you missed the fightin’, but there will be much more to come. Stick with me until we find your squad. Where’s your rifle?”

    Mikhail hung his head, looking pensive. “The river, sir,” he said.

    Maxim pointed to where he had killed the German. “Grab a Kraut weapon in the meantime. You’ve just been given a new lease on life, and you’re not going to want to lose it chargin’ Fritz holdin’ your dick.”
     
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  3. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    Huddled behind the brick wall that had once been part of a power station, the commander of the 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment, First Lieutenant Chervyakov, stared hard-eyed at the faces of his direct subordinates. He did his best to shout over the ceaseless pounding of explosions and gunfire, and just managed to make himself heard. “We need to get off the landing area! Advance! Don’t stop until we take the railroad station!” He tapped the map rolled out on the ground.

    A company commander, an impetuous redhead named Avilov, spoke up. “Sir, shouldn’t we wait until the other battalions come across the river? We already have several wounded, and no way to get them over the Volga!”

    “There is no land for us across the Volga,” Chervyakov snarled, reaching over and thumping Avilov’s helmet. “We take the railroad station or die trying! Our boys are good communists. They know they can rest when they’re dead!”

    Second Lieutenant Vladimir Gusev knew better than to argue. A soldier never gets to choose his battlefield. To argue with fate was just as pitiable as it was futile. If this place were to be where his superiors ordered him to fight and, possibly, die, then he would follow those orders. He could not change what was coming; to think otherwise, he believed, was vanity. This attitude guided his every decision and kept him listening passively while Chervyakov chewed out Avilov for his fruitless (if reasonable) protests about the condition of the men. The battalion would either retake the railway station or fail. They would emerge as victors or die. Vladimir understood this, accepted this, without any emotion.

    He did, however, appreciate that the Red Army would be making a fateful stand at Stalingrad, the namesake of their leader. A writer could not have written a more fitting setting; in fact, a literary critic might have said it was too on the nose. For over a year, the defenders of the Soviet Union had been in endless retreat, scrambling to avoid encirclement by the interminable German blitzkrieg. Admittedly, some Soviet counteroffensives had sought to stop or slow the invasion, but all had sputtered out, too ambitious in their objectives. Now, the goal was simple: hold on to Stalingrad, whatever the cost. Vladimir felt no inspiration stemming from the city’s name. He felt no great love for the mustachioed Caucasian sitting in the Kremlin. Still, who could have predicted a decisive confrontation in such a place? No doubt, the residents of Stalingrad would have gladly traded the significance for their continued survival. Unfortunately for them, civilians chose battlefields no more than soldiers did.

    Given his orders, Vladimir went hunting for his sergeants. He stalked up and down the riverbank, checking faces of the dead and living. He found most of the sergeants already clustered together, their squads assembled nearby. He scanned for any missing faces. “Trifonov?”

    One of the most senior sergeants, a burly and bearded Muscovite named Popov, simply shook his head before spitting on the ground.

    Vladimir grumbled. Trifonov had been fighting the Germans since June 1941. It was a shame to lose veteran noncoms. He braced himself for the possibility his senior sergeant had also not made it across the river. However, before he could even ask, Maxim Morozov plopped down beside him, seeped in water, sweat and blood. “Sorry I’m late, sir.” He made a lazy salute and, in the same motion, wiped perspiration from his brow. “It looks like we’re it for the company. We lost a lot of men in that crossing.”

    “We’ll make do. Did most of the battalion make it through?”

    “Our battalion did, seems like,” Popov answered. “But I think the rest of the regiment is still on the other side of the river. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of anyone else from the 42nd up and down the western bank.”

    Vladimir swore, removed his helmet, and ran a hand through his thinning sandy hair. “Forget it. Assemble your platoons and make for the railroad station, per our orders. We must take the city center and dig in as best we can before daybreak. Remember to check your flanks out there.”

    The sergeants nodded, and, with a salute, Vladimir dismissed them. He fell into the trickle of soldiers headed deeper into Stalingrad, which was gradually becoming a stream and then a torrent. “Hurry! Let’s go!” He urged his men forward. Dirt and dust crunched under his boots, each stride carrying him farther into the urban wasteland. From the street parallel to the power station, they passed through the western edge of a large plaza, past some apartment buildings still standing, toward large covered marketplace. Beyond lay the rail lines, their tracks cracked, cars shot to pieces, some overturned. To the west were the remnants of the station. A rifle barked from an outcropping of cracked stone, its flash visible in the quickly dimming dusk. As if answering a mating call, a fusillade of shots rang out afterward. Bullets landed in the earth about fifty yards in front of Vladimir, and he threw himself flat on his stomach. A wounded soldier somewhere to his rear gave out a wheezing and furious string of profanity.

    Vladimir judged that the Germans likely numbered no more than a platoon, judging from the quantity of fire. If he was lucky, the fascists had outrun themselves, and were only defending with ad hoc combat teams. He counted himself blessed that he did not hear the chatter of a machine gun. “Morozov, take your boys to the right! Popov, you go left! Advance by squads! Let’s go! Let’s go!” He gestured madly at the noncoms as he found cover behind a shattered wall. He heard bullets whiz by his head. Most of the men he waved to stayed pinned to their positions, unwilling to leave safety, but in clumps, enough of the soldiers were moving so as spread the incoming fire around, breaking the suppression.

    Unlike on the riverbank, the Germans around the station had fortified themselves, and their field grey uniforms were ideal camouflage given their surroundings. From busted windows and damaged rail cars they shot, volley after volley. The only thing to do was to keep weaving through the steel tracks, curled and ripped from the earth. Vladimir felt his right foot catch something that sent him falling. Had it been a rock, a loose wire, or some chunk of iron? He had no time to tell, for as soon as he hit the ground an enormous explosion went off near him. A Red Army soldier, a silhouette against the blast, tore in half like a paper doll. The body disappeared in a haze of smoke, metal, and flesh. Ears ringing, Vladimir used his knees and elbows to propel himself into a ditch. Besides him, grenades flew toward the German positions. He waited for their explosions to sound before he flung himself up and charged into the closest building.

    A German soldier, prone and shocked from a grenade’s detonation, gawked up, wide-eyed and bewildered. He fumbled for the rifle lying across his chest. Vladimir took a step back, raised his rifle and fired. It was a careless shot, but close enough to hit its target, square in the chest. The German sprawled out, the soul snatched from his body, a corpse lying on dusty hardwood floors.

    The room contained stacks of boxes, almost to the ceiling. It must have once stored cargo. Now men skulked between the columns, weapons in hand. Vladimir leaned against one as his shot brought attention. He heard footsteps, gear clanging, and heavy breathing. He stepped out, rifle ready. He caught a German soldier by surprise. He pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. His rifle jammed. His enemy hesitated, dazed for a moment. In that moment, though, another Red Army soldier had joined Vladimir, ready for the attack. The chest of the German filled with bullets, his spine slackened, and he dropped to the floor.

    Vladimir swallowed hard. This was his first time in combat. In the space of less than a minute, he had killed a man, then almost died himself. What else could he expect in war? Still, it was astonishing for it to happen at all. He had been a clerk before the war, like his father. That job was to be his life. He would have his own son and pass that job down to him. At least, that was the plan before the war broke out. Now, while storming a single room, Gusev had taken life and had his own life spared. This was only his first day in this infernal city. Meanwhile, entire brigades and divisions across the Soviet Union fought in cities and the countryside, their men free and fighting one day, dead or captured the next. Only a fool would have thought he was anything but an inconsequential, faceless pawn, an ember in a global inferno set by politicians and generals. Vladimir knew he would probably die in Stalingrad, just another casualty.
     
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  4. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    Vladimir’s father would have said God had a plan. God would make events unfold according to His will, and therefore, it was best to trust in Providence. Vladimir, however, did not believe in God. He had grown up in the Soviet Union, learning about the malignancy of religion. He did not believe in invisible spirits in the sky, and he recognized the damage superstition had done to humanity and to its progress. He also felt it naïve, however, to think that human beings had the power to change much of anything. Hitler had sworn to defeat Bolshevism; it was a matter of pride to him. He rose to power thanks to anti-Semitism, hatred of the Slavs and anti-communism. Yet, even Hitler was just one man; he had caught the public mood, directed the immense anger and fear of the German people, and directed it into aggressive war with the rest of Europe. Even in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler had made their pact and carved up Poland, Vladimir knew that co-existence could not last. There were structural forces that human agency could not control; that was the very basis of scientific socialism preached in the schools and by the Party. He had not asked for this war, but there was no escaping it, so he did what he had to do: fight. To philosophize or to take up the optimistic but foolish notion that one person could do anything else was utterly pointless.

    More Soviet troops poured into the warehouse and helped clear it. Soon the Germans fell back toward the safety of the rail station. They did so in a surprisingly orderly fashion, some men covering the others as they ran. These Germans were not green troops sent fresh to the front, unlike the Soviet troops. Still, even crack troops could not hold out against overwhelming force. It fell to Vladimir to ensure that the pressure never relented, that the assault did not halt.

    Several squads had gathered in and around the warehouse. He was counting heads when suddenly a flood of men in khaki uniforms ran out from another building adjacent to the station, led by Soviet officers with blue caps. They belonged to a rifle division under the command of the NKVD, the internal security service of the Soviet Union. They yelled as they charged, crossing over empty tracks to reach the station. Men dropped as small arms fire cut them down. They cried and screamed on the ground, helpless, cognizant of nothing but their own agony. The rest of the NKVD unit went on, though, undeterred by their heavy casualties. They ran into the station like insane men running eagerly into a burning building. Vladimir knew they would need support to stand any chance.

    “Go! Go!” He waved to his sergeants, and then to any regular soldiers who could see him. They were averse to leave the protection of the newly claimed warehouse after the cost of taking it. Vladimir kicked a man squatting in front of him, square in the buttocks. The man tumbled forward and looked back with a scowl. Vladimir did not care.

    He decided to lead by example. Still holding his German rifle, he took off from the large warehouse entrance and headed straight for his destination. He was sure the men would follow him. Most would be too embarrassed by their own cowardice not to do so. He kept his eyes fixed on the door to the station ahead of him. He had no idea what awaited him inside. Taking a deep breath, he took long strides, boots pounding the wooden floor, ready to meet his fate.

    To be continued...
     
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  5. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    Private Lev Epstein watched his lieutenant dash into the rail station with a mixture of awe and horror. He was amazed at the courage of his commander. Yet, he could not believe that he should do the same thing. Instead, he stayed fixed to where he knelt, mid-lunge, his rifle rested on the sill of a busted window. On either side of him stood other regular soldiers from the 13th Guards, a few of whom he recognized, most of whom he did not. The river-crossing had not gone well, and the regiments, companies, platoons, and even squads of the division had come across in fragments. The lack of familiarity he felt with his present comrades, however, did not bother him so much as possible impending death.

    He felt stupid to be afraid to die. Obviously, every soldier in a battle stood a chance of dying, and in a war like this one – which could only end with the destruction of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany – enduring until the very end had very low odds indeed. To make matters worse, Lev was a Jew. It was not something he or his family had ever advertised; they had assimilated first into the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union. Lev identified with the themes of equality and brotherhood of communism, but was no true believer; in the abstract, the themes of equality and brotherhood ostensibly advocated by Marx and his disciples made good sense. Yet, the institutional racism and casual discrimination he and his kin experienced did not disappear after the October Revolution, nor after the Civil War, even if Moscow claimed to deplore racism, including anti-Semitism. If anything, his family – well-to-do before the Bolsheviks seized power – had seen their wealth evaporate, although that perhaps had more to do with the endless wars since 1914 than government policy.

    What Lev was clear on, however, was that the Nazis murdered his relatives. He had grandfathers and grandmothers in Germany, cousins in Czechoslovakia, a nephew and seven nieces in Minsk, now well behind German lines. There was no question what the Germans did with Jews. Hitler blamed them for everything, and the pogroms once contained within Germany followed its army with every square mile of Europe they subjugated. Among the Jews in the Red Army, speculation was that death was preferable to capture, and all those already under German occupation were probably as good as dead. Lev had held out some initial hope, but no longer; the political officers were very graphic about the massacres reported from the occupied territories. The Germans loathed all Slavs and communists, the officers said, but word was that Jews faced mechanical liquidation with ruthless efficiency. Jewish enclaves in historic cities were vanishing overnight, soldiers either whipping up the local anti-Semites (who never need much encouragement) or marching Jews into the nearby woods.

    Lev hated the Germans, even though it was an irrational hate. He had never met a German in his life; all the wrongs done to him and his people were secondhand, in the abstract, known but not empirically. Yet the anti-Semitism of the Germans, like all anti-Semitism was also irrational. Their hate was an article of faith. It did not matter that some of them were less fanatical than others; as with most religions, faith started and stopped with attending services. In exchange for putting a racist government in power, they eluded responsibility by placing all their problems on the Jew, the outsider, the Other. So, he returned that hatred, and in turn received his own warm blanket, his own security against uncertainty and doubt. He was not only unbothered by the thought of killing Germans; he fiercely wanted to kill Germans, to exact revenge for his people.

    This thirst for vengeance had led him into a false optimism that his resolve in battle would be ironclad. The opposite was true. He stood frozen, the neck of his rifle perched steady on the window. The rifle was cold. His first shot had led to a volley of fire in his direction, and since then, he had only spectated from cover. He was confident that at any moment a German would see his ducking helmet, take aim, and shoot him in the temple, killing him instantly. He tried to work up his courage, even to fire blindly, but whenever he came close, a new series of shots would splatter near his window. Once, he raised his head and immediately saw another soldier in khaki take a bullet to the dome, slumping forward like a marionette with cut strings. Gradually, he noted, the rest of his colleagues stood paralyzed by fear; most were erring on hiding behind cover than firing at their enemy. Any observer would have rightly guessed that the Soviets were the green, inexperienced troops, and yet they were the ones tasked with the Herculean mission of preventing the complete loss of Stalingrad – when the Germans held everything but a smattering of buildings across the Volga.

    A body crashed beside him. It was Semyon, another private in his squad. Although they had trained together, they had not gotten to know each other well. Semyon was a country boy, a farmer, and he seemed to mistrust the more urbane Lev. There was also the possibility of anti-Semitism; even though they had never discussed religion, everyone in the platoon – probably the entire company – knew Lev was Jewish. His fellow Jews failed to see the novelty, but for those who had only heard about the chosen people in rumors and canards, it could be a confusing experience. Despite their ignorance, though, could they not see that the Germans were the actual threat? With a plaintive look on his face, Semyon at least seemed to have concluded that any ally in a firefight was a welcome one.

    “What do we do?” he asked, glancing around helplessly.

    “Shoot,” Lev said, and as if to illustrate, pulled the trigger on his rifle. He ducked beneath the window as a hail of bullets trimmed the pane.

    Semyon closed his eyes, inhaled, and gripped his gun. Picking himself up to a crouch, he fired at the rail station, but with more care than Lev would have expected. The hayseed knew how to shoot. A little too energetically, he lowered his rifle and gushed, “Got him!” His glee turned to panic just as quickly. “They’re coming this way!” He raised his rifle again, but the burp of submachine gun fire accompanied several shots to his chest. He collapsed on his back, wide-eyed and barely still sucking air, Lev paralyzed by the sight – and his inability to help.

    The thought of calling for a medic passed through his mind, but it was soon replaced by a charging squad of German soldiers sprinting from the rail station toward the warehouse. Semyon was right; the Germans were counterattacking. Lev backed away from the window, watching the advancing Germans while searching for an exit. He saw a door over his right shoulder, but just as he turned to run for it, a private in a field-grey uniform and a black coal bucket helmet burst through it. He was not expecting a Soviet soldier on the other side, judging by an expression revealing regret at his aggression. More out of reflex than premeditation, Lev slammed the butt of his Mosin-Nagant on the German’s nose. The German slumped forward, dropping his gun and grabbing his busted face. Lev fired from the hip; he missed, quite widely. With a roar, the German lunged forward, grabbing Lev around both legs. He was broad-chested, and with all the strength in his upper body, Lev – much scrawnier by comparison – could not withstand the pressure. He crashed to the ground, and right away the German had mounted him, yanking at Lev’s rifle. Blood dripped from his nose as he glared down at Lev with a furious loathing. It seemed so bizarre that some stranger would despise him so much, would be so devoted to snuffing out his life.

    As they grappled over the rifle, footsteps sounded behind them. The German glanced up and froze; a bullet tore through his right shoulder. He rolled off to his side, moaning in agony. Lev sat up, took aim, and fired. He could not miss. Luckily, he caught the German in the rear of his head, and the contents of his skull sprayed out on the ground beneath him. Lev’s savior, a Red Army private he did not recognize, offered a hand up Lev was glad to accept.

    “We have to get to the rail station,” the private said, and Lev did not question him. It was easier just to go along. The idea that staying in the warehouse was any safer than assaulting the rail station seemed risible now. Both sides were on the attack, pushing hard to blunt the other. For the first time, Lev realized just how this battle was going to be fought, what Stalingrad would be.

    Just for one room the Germans and the Soviets had each given up one man. How many rooms would change hands in the coming days and nights? How many more men would die for worthless, decimated buildings and barricades? The best a Soviet soldier could do was try and take some fascists with him. Holding on to the prospect of survival seemed hopelessly naïve and childish.
     

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