Unforgettable beginnings: Remembering a childhood colored by war

RBTH publishes the recollections of composer Stepan Sosnin, whose childhood was interrupted by the war: the first bombardments, the evacuation, the hunger, his mother the anti-aircraft gunner and singing his songs on the telephone for the entire squadron.

Stepan Sosnin with his grandmother (center, 2nd row) and family, 1940. Source: Personal archive

Before the war Stepan Sosnin's family had their own workshop: Both parents worked as decorators at the Bolshoi Theater. But in 1941 his father was sent to the front. "That same year we received news that my father was missing in action," says Sosnin.

"My mother told me. She had remained in the city protecting the Moscow skies as an anti-aircraft gunner." The boy was four years old at the time and was well acquainted with hunger, evacuation and life in a dugout with bunk beds.

Something in the air

Sosnin remembers the sirens and how his grandmother used to say "faster, faster." They would go down into the bomb shelters, always at night. "We would descend to the sounds of the bombardments. The windows in our house were sealed with paper so that the glass would not fall out. It was like that in all the houses."

Sosnin remembers the war in fragments. He did not even understand what war was, but now he clearly remembers that something in the air did not give anyone any peace. And it was not only the German airplanes, which flew right above the city. "I felt that something wrong was happening,” he says. “People sat in the basements, all anxious. Although I myself did not feel the shock. I was too small."

Barrage balloons and anti-aircraft gun divisions had been set up to counter the German bombardments. Women would service the tracking devices of the anti-aircraft installations and search for the moving target. "My mother used to service one of those batteries,” says Sosnin.

“My grandmother and I were evacuated in November-December 1941 to Ulyanovsk (890 kilometers east of Moscow), to my aunts. There were only boys there, all being looked after. I was the ninth! Can you imagine that?"

 

‘I was always hungry’

The only thing that saved the family from hunger was that the two women worked and were given ration cards. "One of the boys was entrusted with cutting the bread in a way so that no one would have more. Everyone was left with a small piece. The food was meager. I was always hungry. Even the potato peelings were used as food."

Sosnin was able to return to Moscow in 1943. It was "very difficult getting there" – there was no direct road. First they navigated the Volga, then his grandmother hopped onto a train with soldiers heading for the front (there were hardly any other trains running at the time). Little Stepan was hidden under a bench. Near Moscow they got into a packed truck and drove to their Moscow apartment, where they had a room eight meters square.

Stepan Sosnin with his mother, 1945. Source: Personal archive

By 1943 there were no more enemy planes flying over the capital, but the government had ordered the anti-aircraft divisions to remain in place. Sosin's mother continued living in the dugout: "We excavated the earth, put logs all around the dugout, made a roof and covered it with earth so that it would not be seen from the sky." Sosin lived in the dugout with his mother until 1944.

 

Life in a major key

By then the anti-aircraft installations were no longer being used for military purposes: Each Russian military victory was marked with a salvo. The longer the war continued the more salvos there were. "I will never forget how one day I was sitting with my mother in an American Studebaker, around which anti-aircraft women gunners were flocking, and everyone was listening to the salvos. The explosions and the rumble were so heavy that everything shook. Real cartridges were used. It was very frightening, but I was proud that I was sitting there with them."

Stepan Sosnin with his grandmother, 1946. Source: Personal archive

"In general, life had gained a major key," recalls Sosin. "I remember how they would screen movies on bed sheets. I remember the love affairs between men and women. And how everyone sang war songs. The soldiers asked me to sing. I sang over the phone to the other squadrons – there was a telephone connection between them."

Towards the end of the war the young Sosnin entered a singing school, after accidentally hearing over the radio that they were accepting enrolments. In the beginning he would go to school from the dugout; later he was transferred to a boarding school.

The events of 70 years ago may be receding into history, but for Sosnin, Moscow is still full of reminders of the past. "The field where our dugouts were still exists,” he says. “It is empty. Nearby there are tram rails. Whenever I pass the field, I remember the anti-aircraft squadron that was stationed here."

 

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