Why is the Russian Army So Cruel? (Part II)

On suffering and the 80th anniversary of Stalingrad

Paul Greenberg

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A Soviet helmet recovered from the Stalingrad battlefield. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

One of the most desperate moments of the siege of Stalingrad occurred in September of 1942 when a battery of female combatants was forced to take over an anti-aircraft position, lower the guns to the horizontal and fire nonstop at a phalanx of approaching German tanks. After holding out for a few heroic days they were slaughtered down to the last woman. Their passing at the time was barely noticed. For during the course of the half-year siege that turned the tide of World War II and saved the entire western world from fascism, over a million Soviets would be killed or maimed. Some would be blown to bits by the Luftwaffe’s incessant carpet bombing. Others would perish in the city’s sewers in hand-to-hand combat so loathsome that the Nazi’s dubbed the battle the rattenkrieg — the rat war.

The validity of the concept of victory at all costs remains profoundly plausible in the post-Soviet mind.

But what makes Stalingrad’s memory still germane during a new period of Russian misery is the way 13,000 of that million met their end. If we could somehow speak to these lost thousands they would tell us of brutal death not at the hands of the Nazis. Rather they would indict their fellow Soviets who murdered them in cold blood.

Following Stalin’s issuing of proclamation no. 227, the infamous “not one step back” decree, the Soviet secret service known at the time as the NKVD was entrusted with the establishment of “blocking units” positioned just a few yards back from the frontline. Empowered with the ability to act simultaneously as both judges and executioners, NKVD blocking agents could make snap life or death rulings over virtually any soldier stationed at the Stalingrad front.

Some decisions were obvious. During the height of the battle’s carnage, whole companies were known to defect and try to cross the No Man’s Land over to the German lines in hopes they might be fed and protected. If discovered these poor souls were gunned down from behind the moment they left their trenches. But other cases were a good deal more gray. Any non-fatal wound could be interpreted as self-inflicted. Were such a…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org