800 Days on the Eastern Front - Litvin

We stumbled upon this review while reading our Wall Street Journal this week. I found the review online also, so was able to share it with you.




A Red Army Memoir of World War II


June 30, 2007; Page P6


800 Days on the Eastern Front

By Nikolai Litvin

University Press of Kansas, 159 pages, $24.95



It is June 1944, and the Red Army is pressing its offensive against the German Wehrmacht in the Soviet Republic of Belarus, roughly 200 miles east of what is now the Polish border. In the late afternoon of June 29, a Russian assault battalion reaches the outskirts of the city of Bobruisk, along the Minsk highway, where thousands of German defenders have been caught in a Red Army noose. The only escape route for the Germans is across the highway and into the woods beyond, but first they must traverse a large field of rye overlooked by Soviet machine-gun emplacements.


One such emplacement is manned by Nikolai Litvin, a Russian soldier (then 21, now 84) who recounts the experience in "800 Days on the Eastern Front." Mr. Litvin's memoir is a vivid reminder, for those of us understandably transfixed by D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, of the brutal fighting that was taking place on the other side of Europe in the final phase of World War II.


Intense gunfire, on that June day, signals the start of battle. Mr. Litvin looks out and sees a large mass of German soldiers, "perhaps 10,000 strong," emerging from a village and moving toward the highway. "They were marching in a column, as if on a parade ground." When this "human wave" rushes forward, the Soviet machine guns begin their deadly business. "The Germans were packed so tightly together, and in such a mass, that it was simply impossible to miss." A Soviet antitank battery moves up in support, with 12 cannons opening fire. Fierce fighting continues until nightfall, leaving perhaps half the German force dead.


"In the morning, we woke up and looked out upon the field of carnage," Mr. Litvin recalls. "It was quiet. There was no shooting. The rye field was a mousy color from all the fallen Germans in their field gray uniforms. The corpses lay piled upon one another. It was another hot day. Our machine gun remained pointed toward the village to where the remnants of the trapped German force had retreated. By 11:00 a.m., a stench began rising into the air."


A grim aftermath to this mass slaughter unfolds as Mr. Litvin and his comrades enter the village and find German soldiers sitting around everywhere, looking up at them in wary resignation. Grisly episodes follow, including the savage revenge killing of a German soldier by aggrieved villagers and the summary execution of a Soviet collaborator. Mr. Litvin, already distressed over the rye field's carnage, recalls that he was afterward "tormented by these cruel and gory scenes of violence." But the gore does not end there.


Farther on, Mr. Litvin and a comrade are ordered to escort six German prisoners of war to corps headquarters, though the divisional commander has obliquely sanctioned their execution. En route, Mr. Litvin -- yielding, he says, to the pressure of his importuning comrade -- manages to convince himself that "six more prisoners were worthless, especially in this brutal war." The doomed Germans, mobilized reservists, are led away from the road and understand what is about to happen. "They showed us their calloused hands." Like Mr. Litvin's father, they had evidently been metal workers before the war, and he feels sorry for them. Some cry for mercy. Machine guns are raised. Mr. Litvin's comrade fires first. Then Mr. Litvin himself pulls the trigger. He passes out briefly, waking up to find that he has fired several rounds. For days he is haunted by what he has seen and done. "I was sickened by this war," he writes. His memoir, although hardly a pacifist tract, is in its most intense passages a personal record of war's horror.


Born in 1923 to a peasant family in Siberia, Mr. Litvin was sent to the front in February 1943, after the war's tide had turned. He fought in the Battle of Kursk that summer -- a second major German defeat on Soviet soil, after the Battle of Stalingrad -- and then moved westward into Poland and across northern Germany. At various times he served as an antitank gunner, a machine gunner, a driver and a chauffeur. Three times he was wounded in action.


Mr. Litvin -- now living in Krasnodar, Russia, near the Black Sea -- completed his memoir in 1962, during the Khrushchev thaw, but the political temperature had cooled again before he could find a publisher. "800 Days on the Eastern Front," translated into English by Stuart Britton, appears now for the first time in any language. Mr. Britton has supplemented the original text with contextual commentary, maps, passages from his interviews with the author and explanatory endnotes.


While Mr. Litvin's understated style can be affecting, it can also induce tedium when he moves away from combat. The running account of his heroic efforts to resuscitate and maneuver his Willys Jeep -- an American import, thanks to Lend-Lease -- tends to bog down in detail. When Mr. Litvin crosses into Poland and beholds scenes of affluence that belie the Kremlin's propaganda about the death agony of capitalism, his prose is disappointingly terse. His snapshot of prosperous Polish farms and the "spirit of individualism" feels more prompted than remembered. We know from the research of historians that this late phase of the conflict on the Eastern Front was marked by rampant looting, rape and killing -- as if the Russians were claiming retribution for the 1941 invasion and the Nazi occupation. Mr. Litvin handles such aspects of the war briefly and, one senses, dutifully. He does, though, include a rape scene, a rarity in Soviet war memoirs.


The Russian lust for revenge had long been inflamed by Konstantin Simonov's hugely popular wartime poem, "Kill Him!", and by Ilya Ehrenburg's widely known exhortation: "If you have killed one German, kill another. Nothing gives us so much joy as German corpses." Mr. Litvin killed the enemy in combat without hesitation, but his memoir makes plain that he took no pleasure in making corpses out of German prisoners. "After all," he tells a fellow Red Army veteran who complains when the Germans are allowed to erect a monument to their fallen servicemen at Stalingrad, "they were only soldiers, just like us."


Mr. Patenaude is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"

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