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‘I can’t watch television — I just cry all the time’. Russian WWII survivors on the war in Ukraine

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The village of Ulyanovo (Kaluga region) after it was burned down by German troops

On the eve of Russia’s Victory Day, Vladimir Putin published a statement that referred to Russia’s “sacred duty” to “prevent the ideological heirs” of the Nazis from “getting revenge” on Russia for their defeat. The Russian authorities have been using the idea of “Nazism” to justify their invasion of Ukraine for almost three months now, and their definition of “Nazi” keeps expanding. To mark the 77th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Meduza spoke to Russians who actually have lived through a war against Nazis.

Boris Lisitsyn

94 years old, Moscow

During the period of mass repressions [1937], my father — one of the first Komsomol members — was arrested for being an “enemy of the people” and was sent to the camps. I lived with my mother and my brother. In 1941, I was 13 years old. A little guy with an empty head. An ordinary schoolboy who was thrilled whenever I got to skip class.

On June 22, they said on the radio that there would be an important announcement at 1:00 p.m. Nobody knew what they would say — there were all kinds of rumors. At 1:00 p.m., we all sat around the radio and listened as they told us about Nazi Germany’s attack.

My family and I lived on Pushkinskaya Street at that time. The residents of our building all gathered for a meeting. Each person was given a gas mask and told to put it on if the air raid sirens went off. They showed us the bomb shelter in the basement. But nobody in Moscow felt that the war had begun until the regular air raids on the city began.

The scariest day of the war for me was October 16, 1941. That’s when the German troops got closer than they’d ever been to Moscow — they stopped 15-20 kilometers from the city. The children who lived in our building were put into pairs and taken to the basement bomb shelter. We could feel the impact of the air strikes from the basement.

At that same time, they were evacuating people from Moscow — they were transporting both cargo and people. Like everyone, our family had to decide whether to leave or to stay. Our mom managed to arrange our departure, and they literally shoved us into one of the convoys leaving Moscow. We traveled in an ordinary freight car with a sleeping platform.

After about 16 days, we made it to Saratov. My family was assigned to the village of Lysye Gory. Mom worked there as a teacher in an evacuated orphanage, and I became a cowherd in a collective farm. I would gather a herd of cows, lead them to the meadow, and herd them back by the evening. Each house would pay me half a sliсe of bread, ten potatoes, and a half liter of milk.

I didn’t study during the evacuation period. It was only a year and a half later, when the Germans had been driven out of Moscow and we returned home, that I started going to school again. We would sit in our lessons, then go to the railroad station to unload firewood from the platforms; then we’d take them back to the school to heat the boiler room.

There was a famine, but during the long breaks at school, they would give each student a cup of tea, a piece of candy, and a small bread ring. That little bit of happiness is the main memory I have of that time. I remembered those breaks for the rest of my life.

On May 9, 1945, as soon as they announced that Germany had surrendered, people went out onto Red Square. My mom and I were there too. Music, dancing, complete strangers kissing. Tears of joy and relief. Everyone kept saying, “Come what may, just don’t let there be war.” We all believed in that slogan and hoped life would be good from now on — though nobody knew exactly what to expect next.

I first learned that war had begun on February 24, 2022, from the television. [They said that] the Russian armed forces had begun a “special operation” in Ukraine to maintain the security of Russia’s borders from NATO forces. I’m not a young person — I’ve lived through war, famine, and multiple monetaries reforms — but I don’t understand what a “special military operation” is. What does that term mean? If you translate it to layman’s terms, it’s a war.

Everyone wants their neighbor to be kind, to behave well. But as far as I understand, things weren’t working out between us and Ukraine. And where diplomacy stops, that’s where gunfire begins. I don’t understand why that’s necessary.

There are almost certainly people in Ukraine who are unhappy to be living on that country’s territory, just as there are people who are happy to live in Ukraine. Some people want to be part of Russia, some people want to be part of Europe, and some people don’t know what they want. I don’t know how that ends. I think you have to be a diplomat, an economist, or a politician to understand it.

I’m old. It’s hard for me to read the news. But I see how sharply prices have risen. Very sharply. It’s not clear why that happened. Foreign companies have left, but I’m confident that if we want to, we’ll have no problem replacing those companies with our domestic resources.

Like any decent person, I’m not indifferent to this war. I’d want any armed conflict to end peacefully. What’s the point of spilling people’s blood? We can and we should solve things diplomatically. One country will make one concession, the other country will make a different concession, and in the end, they’ll reach a compromise.

Svetlana

82 years old

My father went to war soon after I was born — and disappeared. My mother and I never learned where or how he died.

During the war, my mother and some other women ran a farm. And then we won! After the war, every man’s return was a cause for celebration. Mom got married again, and we moved to a different city.

Things used to be fine. We had the Soviet Union. And we defended ourselves from the Nazis once. Now Russia is doing the same thing. The fascists should have left the Russian people alone.

Everyone in Ukraine should be allowed to speak their own language: whoever wants to speak Ukrainian should be allowed to speak Ukrainian, and whoever wants to speak Russian should be able to speak Russian. But no, there turned out to be Nazis. They banned everyone from speaking Russian. Russian people are hated there. [There are] fascists who get paid for spreading anti-Russian sentiment — but now they’re being punished.

Russia won’t give up — we have a lot of people. A lot of soldiers will die. Let them die. At least Russia will win. [Ukraine] shouldn’t have betrayed Russia.

We don’t want war. I had a dream that my daughter was trying to choose what cherry to pick. And I tell her, “Don’t take it, don’t take it.” I looked in my dream book, and it said cherries are a sign of sorrows to come. And I asked my daughter, “What, are you worried about the war? Are you worried because your daughter (my granddaughter) left Russia because of the war? Don’t worry. We’ve eaten cherries worse than this, and we’ll eat this one too. And the war will end, we’ll be victorious, and everything will be okay.”

Why do russians support the war?

Valentina Cheskidova

89 years old; at the beginning of World War II, she lived in the Leningrad region, but her family was evacuated to Novosibirsk, where she’s lived ever since.

During the war, I was a six-year-old child. We lived in the Leningrad region, in the village of Sergeyevka. It was divided into two little parts by a creek, with a bridge going over it and a lake nearby. There were a lot of bears — they wouldn’t even let the bears out. Women would say, “No German will come to our swamp.” They came.

German paratroopers appeared in our village. They asked us, the children, “Tell us, kids, where are the russischer soldat?” The Germans didn’t do anything bad to us. They gave us biscuits and chocolate. We’d never seen anything like it.

Then their unit left, and Russian soldiers started retreating through our village. They would stop and stay the night there. A Red Guard soldier stayed in our house. I remember how he took us in his arms — six-year-old me and my brother Kolya, who wasn’t even two yet. The soldier cried and said, “Back in Siberia, I have children just like you.” Early the next morning, the soldiers left.

Then, in October, both sides appeared in the village. The fighting began — the bullets were like peas. Our guys were firing at the Germans from their rifles, and the Germans were firing at us. Soldiers would die, and we, the children, would laugh: “Another guy fell!”

Then they started evacuating us. They took us to the forest, to the pine trees. It was snowy, cold. That night, my older sister went with some women into the village to get whatever food they could. But there wasn’t anything left — the soldiers had left, and taken everything with them. They’d burned down the whole village. Then they sent us by train to Siberia.

We settled in; it was a small room. You go in and there’s a stove to your right and a table to your left. Above the oven and under the table were sleeping platforms. The Siberians were bullies — bad ones. I even quit school, stopped going. They called me names. They picked on me like I was a foreigner.

Everybody was hungry at that time. We’d pick up dead animals we found, and we’d collect peels from the trash. Our mother traded all of our clothes and silver spoons for clothes. When my sister, Galochka, was a year old, we buried her. That’s how bad the famine was. We washed floors for food, and we scavenged. It wasn’t until later [after the war], when my dad found us, that things got easier.

I’m against the war [between Russia and Ukraine]. I know how awful it is. I can’t watch television — I just cry all the time. Every war is a nightmare. A tragedy for everyone — Ukrainians and Russian. These caskets of these 200s, these boys, these children, going by. I feel sorry for everyone.

Nellya Kuznetsova

78 years old, Novosibirsk region

I was born in August 1944. I turned nine months old on Victory Day. My parents lived in Ukraine — in Luhansk, where all these events are currently going on.

That’s where my father was when he was called to the front. He worked in a factory, then he fought for a year. In a battle for one of the villages, he lost his arm. He came home with a medal.

When they took Dad [to the front], Mom lived in Luhansk. There was a famine, and she had to trade her things in nearby villages for small buckets of wheat. When my father was injured and returned home, my family moved further away from the front, to Siberia, where I was born. It’s easier to live in the village: you can just plant some potatoes, and then you’ll have something to eat. Life was harder for people in the cities.

And now [, 77 years later,] we have this “special military operation.” I think Putin made the right move. But I do feel bad for our boys again. Do our guys have to die everywhere? We should be helping everywhere, but there’s so much blood…

They were our most brotherly country, and what have they turned into now? That Zelensky, his connections to America… as I understand it, the president there was a poor choice. It’s like how Hitler had his henchmen. But not all Germans were our enemies, right?

There was a German family that had lived across from us [in Siberia] their entire lives; they had eight children. I would ask my dad, “How do you feel about the fact that there are Germans living there, and it’s because of them that you’re missing an arm?” And he would always tell me, “My daughter, don’t confuse Germans with fascists. Those were Hitler supporters, fascists, and these are people who have lived their whole lives in the wrong place, outside of their homeland.”

It’s the same here. Not everyone in Ukraine is a Nazi. They were a peace-loving country, and now they’re dying there, the poor people. How many of them were sent here [to Russia after the war], and how many stayed there? How many of them died there and how many more will die? Back then we had Hitler, and now Zelensky has these guys surrounding him, these… what do you call them? His henchmen, who enjoy all of this, and so people are dying.

Viktor Naumchik

89 years old, St. Petersburg

I was born in 1933 in Gatchina. My mom worked in the Roshal factory, where they’d previously made umbrellas, but they started making parachutes during the war. My dad left Moscow, and then they sent him to the front.

When the war began, I was seven years old, but despite my age, I understood there was something terrible coming. I saw the German planes flying over Gatchina — I remember the German paratroopers. They had special camouflage uniforms and brown boots. We wanted to stay in Gatchina, but my aunt insisted we move to Leningrad.

When we got there, we lived near the Warsaw and Baltiysky train stations. My mom went to work for the railway company, and sometimes I helped her unload the wagons. Then I started going to school — I liked studying.

In those years, we were always living close to shelling and bombing. You could orient yourself in the city and figure out where the shelling was coming from. We often hid in the hallway, lying right in the wooden doorway — the building was strong, brick, and had very thick walls.

The Germans attacked the city often, but in different ways. Sometimes they would fire for an hour or two from long-range guns, but sometimes they would fly over. One time, the shelling started when Mom and I were going to sign me up for school. We were walking towards Moskovsky Prospekt and it happened near the Kapranov Palace of Culture. When the shelling started, people ran inside to hide, and eventually it started to quiet down — and Mom and I went out the other side. Then a shell hit the building — and everyone who was inside died.

Times were tough. The only thing that saved us was the fact that there were no problems with firewood — we always had hot water and warmth. That’s probably why we survived.

The hardest period was 1942-1943. When the blockade began, everything started to disappear at once, and they instituted a ration card system. There was no food at all, and it scared us. They gave us 125 grams of bread — it was awful. There was very little flour in the bread. Mom would go pick it up in the morning. She would bring home a tiny piece and we would divide it into four pieces and eat it with water. Since Mom worked, her work would sometimes give us rations, too, but we’d clean the potato and it would turn out to be frozen and rotten. A terrible smell would spread through the kitchen. We would eat the food crumb by crumb. They would bring us oil cake [a type of livestock feed made of seeds], too, and we would eat it.

We had a neighbor, a driver, who always helped us. One time, he called me over; I came and watched with hungry eyes as he ate some meat. He offered me some, and it turned out to be cat meat. It really scared me.

Closer to the end of the war, life got a little bit easier. They started bringing vegetables on freight trains and people started keeping vegetable gardens. And when the war came to an end, it was a true holiday. We felt an immense sense of unity and happiness. We couldn’t believe this nightmare was finally over. Dad didn’t come home. He was a pilot, and he died in 1944.

After the war, I wanted to go into medicine, so I graduated from medical school. But after my first few surgeries, I realized it wasn’t for me. After that, I was given a chance to go to the Naval Communications School — I’d been interested in radio engineering since childhood — and I immediately agreed. From there, I joined the Black Sea Fleet and served there for many years. After I was discharged, I took part in missile tests at Baikonur and Kapustin Yar. Then I work in a submarine assembly factory.

Now I’m keeping up with the events in Ukraine. The technology has already jumped far ahead. It’s all very scary, dangerous, and complicated. This entire war is a huge blow against our economy. I’m worried for the younger generation. It’s impossible to compare this war with that one. In my view, Ukraine currently depends on America, which has a lot of weapons. If some crazy person provokes a large-scale war, it’s going to be the last one — I know full well what a nuclear weapon is. But I don’t think it will get to that point.

All of this is scary stuff. People are dying. A lot of wars throughout history have been caused by stupidity. I’ve always dreamed that what our generation had to go through would never happen again. Naturally, I want this war to end as soon as possible. 

meduza’s readers on the war

Interviews by Alyona Istomina, Alexey Slavin, and Anastasia Larionova

Translation by Sam Breazeale

https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/05/09/i-can-t-watch-television-i-just-cry-all-the-time ‘I can’t watch television — I just cry all the time’. Russian WWII survivors on the war in Ukraine

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