Prologue: We Bury Our Own PROLOGUE We Bury Our Own
The most memorable event in my grandfather’s life was, of course, the Battle of Stalingrad. [When he died] he wanted to lie in the ground next to his soldiers.”1
As we talk on the phone, Nikolai Chuikov’s voice suddenly breaks, lost in his memories of the day the citizens came out onto the streets of the city that had decided the fate of the Second World War in Europe, to say farewell to their adopted son.
Nikolai is a direct descendent of one of the greatest military names in Russian modern history, Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov. Every child in the country, and indeed the majority of military history students across the globe, know his name—the commander of the army that saved the “Hero City.” A peasant boy from outside Moscow,2
Chuikov commanded a regiment of revolutionaries at the raw age of nineteen and would eventually rise to become a highly decorated marshal of the Soviet Union. He had led his men of the 8th Guards Army from Stalingrad, through the Ukraine and Poland, defeating the best armies Hitler could muster before accepting the Third Reich’s unconditional surrender in Berlin in May 1945.3
A hard, stocky, belligerent man, he was known for an explosive temper. The stick he carries in images from the celebrations at Stalingrad in February 1943 was well known to the backs of many of his subordinates. His own bravery was without question, but one could argue that his carelessness with his men’s lives was perhaps a different matter. His relentless counterattacks in the defense of Stalingrad bled Nazi Germany’s Sixth Army, but also almost wiped out his own. Despite this, after the war, he was beloved. With tousled black hair, deep-set eyes, and a sullen expression only brightened by his gleaming gold teeth, Chuikov’s was a face one certainly remembered.
Joseph Stalin himself wanted this man to command the Soviet Union’s premier formation of the Kiev District in 1949—a barrier to any western attack in the future.4
Elevated to high office in March 1969, Chuikov was sent by First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to head a four-man delegation to represent the Kremlin at the funeral of fellow warrior and ex-President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, DC. On a windswept winter’s day by the Volga it was now his turn to be given a soldier’s farewell from the people of the city that had made all this possible.
Chuikov had been ill for some time, his eighty-two-year-old body still ravaged by the shrapnel wounds he’d received in active service fighting the Finns in the Winter War of 1940, as well as the multiple mini-strokes he had suffered later in life. However, it was a heart attack on March 18, 1982, that finally claimed his life. His dying wish was to be buried in the city.5
It was a unique honor, granted by a Kremlin used to burying its generals’ ashes in its own walls within Red Square. The Mamayev Kurgan6
(“Hill of Mamai”) or “Height 102,” one of Chuikov’s most famous command posts during the battle for Stalingrad,7
right on the front line, had been dug into the earth at the city’s highest point. For weeks it had been fought over with artillery, duels, aerial bombing, and brutal hand-to-hand combat. The ancient Tartar burial mound was now a giant memorial complex dedicated to the tens of thousands who had perished there as well as the hundreds of thousands of others who had died in the battle overall. The grassy hill had been scorched black during the fighting, was devoid of vegetation for years after the battle, and remains littered with the detritus of warfare and human bones to this day. When Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, commander of the German Sixth Army, surrendered at the end of January 1943, his first question of his Red Army captors of the 64th Army had been where was “CP 62”?8
By that he meant the command post on the Mamayev Kurgan.
Bestowed with honors, and twice a hero of the Soviet Union, Chuikov had been heavily involved in the postwar reconstruction of the site in the late 1950s, working alongside the renowned sculptor Evgenii Viktorovich Vuchetich9
to produce a now world-famous memorial complex, the Motherland Calls.10
He was a man who knew his place in the history of the Great Patriotic War, and like many of his contemporaries he ensured that he would be chief among equals when it came to celebrating the heroes of his country’s greatest victory. The giant statue that dominated one of the squares in the Mamayev complex was unmistakably the face of Chuikov, much to the chagrin of his Stalingrad contemporaries.11
He had stolen the show at the complex’s official opening back in October 1967, when the people of the city cried out for him instead of the local politicians to address them. Reluctantly, he was permitted to speak, last: “My brothers, the Stalingradians!” he began, to be met by a tidal wave of shouts and cheers. Now his last wish had been granted: to be buried with his men on Height 102, the commander of the old 62nd Army to lie forever with his troops.
The Kremlin had signed his public obituary celebrating his military and political deeds, with First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, though himself too ill to attend the funeral, sending his key men from the Central Committee to pay homage alongside local Volgograd Party dignitaries. As the easterly breeze cut through the gathering crowd waiting along the banks of the river, some sitting in trees and atop parked buses to get the best view, the most senior men in the Soviet Union had flown in from Moscow, and now they stood solemnly next to Chuikov’s coffin, lying in state in the Central House of the Soviet Army on Suvorovskaya Square. The head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, gazed past Chuikov’s family and the honor guard around his coffin, toward the double-fronted glass doors. The crowd was pressing toward the entrance to get a better look. Next to him stood Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, lost in his thoughts. Representing the Soviet Armed Forces was the defense minister Dimitry Ustinov, who amiably talked to the younger man on his right, a rising star of the Party, recently elevated to secretary of the Central Committee—Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.
Brezhnev had long admired Chuikov, the “Legendary One.” While he himself had made his way up the ladder during the Great Patriotic War as a political commissar, it had not stopped him from inflating his own contribution to the war effort, awarding himself the military honors that commanders such as Chuikov had spilled blood for. Both men had endured an uneasy relationship with Brezhnev’s predecessor as first secretary—Nikita Khrushchev. Brezhnev respected Chuikov’s bluntness, and laughed at the way he had publicly questioned where Khrushchev had been during the fighting in Stalingrad.12
And more important, Brezhnev had counted on his support when the time came to oust the erratic leader and take control of the Central Committee himself in 1962. He owed Chuikov.
After a morning of lying in state, it was time. The procession, in step with the Red Army brass band, followed the coffin, now atop a polished metal gun carriage and drawn by an armored car. The cold snap had struck the steppe countryside surrounding the city the week before, blanketing it in snow, with the numbing cold still holding Volgograd in its grip. Moisture rising from the flowing river created an eerie mist along the riverbank, adding to the funereal scene. Chuikov’s family led the way, followed by the Central Committee men, other local dignitaries, a column of young Soviet guardsmen who would carry Chuikov’s coffin, and finally a growing mass of civilians, including hundreds of Stalingrad veterans. The entire route was lined with thousands of residents of the city, standing five deep in some places, all wishing to see the commander’s last journey.
Nikolai Chuikov continued: “My grandfather, of course, remembered and talked about veterans all his life, until the very last days, when, after multiple strokes, he was already very unwell. At his eightieth birthday, a full courtyard of veterans gathered under the windows of his apartment on Granovsky Street in Moscow. He saw them, went down, and they literally clung to him. Then he invited them home in groups to clink glasses with each one. ‘We remembered our dead comrades!’ my grandfather declared, as if addressing ghosts: ‘I will come to you soon.’ It was a moving sight.”13
The procession had arrived at the pathway to the enormous memorial complex, which covered 1.3 square miles of the eastern slope of the Mamayev. Before they would reach their destination, the mourners were now faced with a series of terraces to ascend, each with sculptures eulogizing a stage of the battle.14
They began by walking up the 100-meter (328-foot) path, before climbing up the two hundred steps, representing the two hundred days of the battle, which took the cortege and the multitude of followers up to the Avenue of Lombardy Poplars. They were now walking through a circular piazza enclosed by birch trees, giving the mourners a dominating view across the Volga that emphasized how crucial in commanding the high ground this position had been to both sides.
Without stopping, the procession climbed a second set of granite steps past Heroes Square and then through the cavern-like Hall of Military Glory (the Pantheon), built into the hillside, with grass covering its roof. The vaulted ceiling, marbled floor, and brick walls of the hall created a deliberate reverential atmosphere. In the light of the large, eternal flame, they could see the paneled walls where more than seven thousand of the fallen names were inscribed, a fraction of the battle’s death toll. How many faceless comrades had disappeared into the fires of the battle? Following a pathway winding its way up the side of the Pantheon took the mourners into the Square of Sorrow. Now, as the mourners blinked into the natural light, there she was! Seemingly towering two hundred feet above them stood the giant statue of the Motherland Calls, sword in her hand, pointing toward the west, dominating the skyline. The wind blew in from the east over the Volga, against the backs of the mourners. Flakes of snow began to fall. They were almost there.
The young guardsmen came to a halt. A murmur now rose from the throng behind them, as dozens of elderly men emerged from the crowd. Some were in their old olive-drab dress uniforms from their service days, others in their smartest civilian dark suits. All were festooned with medals, buffed and dazzling in the wintry light, and hanging from their ribbons in three, sometimes four, rows, stretching in some cases from their collar lapels down as far as their last jacket button, showcasing a lifetime of service to the Motherland. The unsung heroes of the 62nd Army, silent and dignified.
Quietly they made their way alongside the young coffin bearers, now standing stock-still, and stepped in to replace them. They were the survivors of the 62nd Army, who had fought for Chuikov, beaten the finest modern army of its day, and driven it back to Berlin. They would carry their commander to his final resting place on the eastern slopes of the mound. A dozen formed up, flanking the coffin, with a man at the front to lead the way and another bringing up the rear. Another group would walk behind them to step in should one, or all, become unable to carry the load. Their faces betrayed nothing other than grim determination to carry out their task, though they walked slowly, much slower than the younger guardsmen whom they had replaced minutes earlier. The atmosphere was now charged as they brought their old general to his final resting place and the ceremonial music filled the air. The leader of the pallbearers turned his head back toward his men and let out a command. The procession came to a sudden halt. Two men stepped out of line and were replaced in order that the coffin be held securely—perhaps, more than the physical exertion itself, the ceremony had been too much for them. They stepped back into the crowd, one wiping his brow with his jacket sleeve. His old comrades surrounded him, squeezing his arm and patting his head in thanks.
The band had stopped playing. As family and dignitaries formed up, Marshal Kulikov, commander in chief of Warsaw Pact Forces, now stepped forward to give the farewell speech from a grateful nation and Party. Chuikov’s wife, Valentina Petrovna, and extended family stood alongside local Party bosses and the veteran sniper and hero of the Soviet Union Vasily Zaitsev.15
A friend of the family, Zaitsev reached to comfort Petrovna, pointing back down the hill toward the giant statue in the circular piazza, of a bare-chested giant clutching his PPSh-41 machine gun in one hand and a hand grenade in the other, guarding the entrance to the square they had just walked through.16
The statue’s face uncannily resembled the granite features of her husband in his prime, during the battle of 1942, his slogan declaring, “Stand to the Death!”
After four hours, it was time to lay Chuikov to rest. The final eulogies were spoken over his grave. Shots rang out as volley fire broke the silence in tribute. The local police had tried to keep the public back a respectful distance, but as the family and officials returned to their cars, the onlookers broke ranks to quietly make their way to the graveside to pay their own tribute in silence.
“To the heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad,” a lone voice proclaimed.
The snow turned heavier as mist now shrouded from the mourners’ view the dense forests on the eastern bank of the Volga. As the ordinary citizens walked back into the city center shielding themselves from the biting wind, the derelict monument of a red-bricked four-storey warehouse loomed in the distance. It had been the scene of what they had all been taught over the years was one of the final defensive redoubts of Chuikov’s army as it clung to the western shore during the battle. Standing nearby was a series of modern apartment blocks overlooking the large open park—9th January Square. One apartment block in particular was pointed out by parents to their children as they walked by, the place where a small band of Chuikov’s men had performed superhuman heroics to thwart the German Army’s push to the river and capture the city—“Pavlov’s House.”