More than courage:
Russian WWII veterans remember
the heat of battle
Yekaterina Sinelschikova
Nights in the trenches, rusks, tinned food, vodka, shell shock, injuries, death, courage, duty - stories from the Great Fatherland War often share the same horrific details. All those lucky enough to have survived (around 11 million Russian soldiers died) have been praised with medals, orders, honorary badges, and certificates of merit.

And all of those who came back, without exception, say: "For Heaven's sake, don't turn me into a hero. I was an ordinary participant in the war." The insignia are sewn onto their uniforms or kept in a shoe box wrapped in polyethylene somewhere at the bottom of a cupboard - a family heirloom that only sees the light of day on special occasions. For instance, on May 9, to attend a military parade, although for many it is too painful to remember the war.

It is not the done thing to wear awards in everyday life. But behind each of these awards is a story of someone's life or death, of incredible bravery, and the worst of memories. RBTH asked two participants in the war what they recall when they look at their medals.
Mikhail Yakovlevich Buloshnikov, aged 95
'People were ferried there but neither the injured nor the dead were brought back'
The Germans did not so much advance as squeeze Leningrad in a deadly grip, starving it into surrender
I was born in Odessa in 1921. I spent 900 days in Leningrad under siege. The war had started only two and a half months previously but fascist troops had already entered the Leningrad Region. The Germans did not so much advance as squeeze Leningrad in a deadly grip, starving it into surrender. The fascist leaders believed that the city would fall at their feet like an overripe fruit: Leningrad did not have the reserves to last the three years of siege; everything was in short supply. Before the war about four million people lived in the city; many were evacuated but many didn't manage to leave.

Our task was to break the siege. The most vulnerable place where that could be done was the so-called Nevsky Bridgehead or the Nevsky Pyatachok. It was a short stretch of land on the enemy side, on the left bank of the Neva River. We needed to build a temporary crossing to the other bank. Only how to get close to the edge of the water? You had to cross just 17 km, but on peat soil. It was a real swamp. As soon as you thrust a sapper blade into the soil to make a trench, water would appear. Heavy machinery could not get there. And iron boats - pontoons - had to be used to get to the other side. And they weighed one and a half tons. We loaded them on lorries and somehow drove off-road to take them to the very edge of the water, trying to camouflage our presence with silence, although, in fact, when a lorry was on the move, it was like an alarm bell going off.

We did this only at night. In daytime the pontoons could be hit with pinpoint accuracy. But at night it was also a frightening picture. On the other side the Germans fired flares that came down slowly, producing an eerie light. The water was seething with fragments of mines and shells. People were ferried there but neither the injured nor the dead were brought back. That's what the crossing was like.
'I liked the risks, not the awards'
The medal dearest to me is "For Battle Merit." I received it at the beginning of 1942. It was my first medal, with the citation "For courage displayed in defense of the state borders." They wrote about it in the front-line newspaper and I proudly sent a clipping to my parents. Later I was awarded the medal "For the Defense of Leningrad."
Medals "For the Defense of Leningrad," "For the Capture of Budapest," "For Victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War"
I also received the "Order of the Red Star" in 1942 during a ceremony in front of my comrades. Sometimes it was awarded for performing a very difficult mission and sometimes for showing endurance under fire. The thing is that the majority of my medals are so-called jubilee medals - mass produced for all war veterans to mark 40th or 50th anniversaries. Recently I have been sent more medals - "For the Breaking of the Siege of Leningrad" and "For the Lifting of the Siege."

Separate medals were awarded for taking every capital. After Leningrad we entered Tallinn, and from there, via Belarus and Ukraine, Romanian territory. Then there was Hungary, Budapest. People were afraid of us; they thought Russian soldiers looted and killed.
When we entered Pest, which is on the eastern side of the Danube, we stayed in the houses of local people. There was a woman there, she was crying. She had sent her 16-year-old daughter Sharlotta to her uncle in Buda on the other side. "And now I have heard that in Buda people are starving and cutting up dead horses," she said.
Other soldiers were laughing at me, saying that I was carrying a skeleton
The bridges had been blown up, we had to make a forced crossing of the Danube and I offered to find the girl and return her to her mother. And I found her. The man had six more children to look after and there was no more food left to feed them. The girl came out very thin, green in the face, a backpack on her shoulder, and very frightened. Other soldiers were laughing at me, saying that I was carrying a skeleton. She was praying the whole journey, saying "My God, my God." They screamed with joy when they met. But I had to go, I just sounded the horn and that's all.

To be honest with you, awards were of little interest to me. I liked to serve. I was a young man and was somewhat adventurous. I enjoyed taking risks. I enjoyed reconnaissance assignments, if I was sent. All of us were far more inspired by the fact that we were in the middle of the fighting.
Valentin Sergeyevich Barmin, aged 90
'Look death in the eyes. It might turn away from you'
"Valka, war is a very hard thing. In war people get killed; we are all doomed. Or people get maimed or captured. But it is better to die than to be captured"
I was the youngest in my company. I was 18 on the very day when on Jan. 14, 1945 all forces of the Belorussian Front went on the offensive. I remember how the Katyushas (multiple rocket launchers) started up their whine. We then all lived in dugouts: We dug a large pit, laid wood, and then put soil on top. Often there was water underneath, right under our plank bed. But that was not the worst thing.

My captain took me under his wing, treating me like a son. He used to tell me: "Valka [short for Valentin], war is a very hard thing. In war people get killed; we are all doomed. Or people get maimed or captured. But it is better to die than to be captured. And you must know that, if you are afraid of death and run away from it, it will catch up with you. Therefore you must look death in the eye and it might turn away from you."

I remembered these words well, and they saved me. We entered East Prussia; there were mainly towns and country estates, and no big villages. The civilian population of East Prussia had all been evacuated to central Germany. And these estates were already prepared in advance for defense. They were made of stone or brick, and there was a gun slit at basement level, and there would be German soldiers inside. There we encountered strong resistance; too many were wounded and killed. The driver was thrown quite a distance and he had part of his foot torn off. The commander was wounded. I rushed there and back between them, doing dressings, and lost consciousness for a while. And when I came to and looked around, there was no-one there; everyone had moved forward and to the right. And 12 to 15 Germans were moving in a line towards me. There were 50 meters between us. I thought I was definitely going to die. But I decided I must take someone with me - it was also important not to die in vain.
There was a rock and I hid behind it. I had always been small. I had 32 cartridges in my automatic rifle and two grenades in my backpack. I was always a good shot - after finishing my training at military camp I could hit the target 29 out of 30 times with a small-caliber rifle. And I decided to fire single shots since I would not have time to reload anyway. The Germans began to fall to the ground and then everything went quiet. And then I heard the rustling of bushes. Two more were there, making their way towards me. Then I fired a burst and fainted. I was found by our soldiers. They tried to talk to me. And I was shaking all over - I couldn't believe I was alive and couldn't say anything. I had been hit in the leg, my boot was full of blood but I couldn't feel it. "The lad is a hero," they said. For that I was awarded the "Order of the Fatherland War, First Class." It was given only to those who were concussed or wounded in battle.

But at that moment I had been thinking about something else. I had been thinking: Death is not the worst thing - the worst thing is that they may not find me. What if they think that I have deliberately fallen behind and that I am a deserter? Anyone could be killed, but a cowardly soldier or a deserter could mean a guilty verdict for relatives. I had my mother and two little sisters. My father also fought in the war and was killed near Leningrad during the breaking of the siege. His death notification came in January 1942.

I continued to make dugouts in which to sleep, and every morning that summer I woke up confused, thinking "Where
am I? Maybe in captivity?"
We took Koenigsberg, I was there for just one day. I remember a moat filled with water, fortifications, towers, and a city lying completely in ruins. It was a month before the end of the war. And then there was the meeting with the Americans on the Elbe. Our boots were in tatters and we were unwashed, and our commanders decided not to show us. They fed us with plenty of tinned meat. For us it was a delicacy. And it emerged later that they didn't eat it themselves. Soldiers who had just arrived in their clean uniforms went to meet the Americans instead of us. We envied them, but what could we do?

After the Elbe, from Berlin we returned home on foot. We covered the 2,340 km of the return journey, it took us the whole of the summer of 1945. The Germans planted trees very close to the roads and it was like walking in a green tunnel.. It was summer, and everything was in bloom. And we the victors were walking through the tunnel. Some had no-one to return to and after the solemn words "Comrades, the war is over, we have won" they started crying. And I continued to make dugouts in which to sleep, and every morning that summer I woke up confused, thinking "Where am I? Maybe in captivity?"
Text by Yekaterina Sinelschikova
Edited by Max Korshunov
Images credits: Maria Ionova-Gribina
Design and layout by Anastasiya Karagodina
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