Sunday, May 09, 2010

Songs of Victory: In The Dugout

VE Day - Den' Pobedy - is a huge holiday in Russia. It is marked on the 9th of May, not on the 8th as in Western Europe. The difference is because of the time zones - what happened late at night on 8 May in Berlin, was already the 9th Moscow time. But I also like to argue that we, Russians, celebrate the first day of peace, while in the West  the last day of war is celebrated.

My correspondents write to me that over the recent years the holiday has become the biggest event in the Russian calendar of official festivities. This is probably connected to the resurgence of Russian nationalism. A multitude of militant nationalist groups practically hijack the event. There is also bitterness and anger in the former Soviet republics where nazi collaborators and nationalists who fought against the Soviet Union freely parade and harass the Red Army veterans.

However, as everywhere in Europe, in Russia the end of the Second World War was a powerful liberating moment. The soldiers returning home stood tall, walked proud, the felt free and not afraid of anything. The feeling was universal - from the private to Generalissimo himself.

Of the war books I've read recently I was most impressed by Antony Beevor's 'Stalingrad' (1998.) It has been waiting on a shelf for a long time. Something in me resisted picking it up. As a Russian, I've read many books, fiction and non-fiction, on Stalingrad. Konstantin Simonov, Vassily Grossman and others. I started on Grossman's 'Life and Fate' and then remembered that Beevor cites him often. Then I saw 'Enemy At the Gates' (Jude Law as the Russian sniper, Ed Harris his German opposition and Bob Hoskins as Khrushev) - and decided to have a go at 'Stalingrad'. It was unputdownable. I read it first in one go, then again with a pencil and a wad of stickies.

Beevor the historian is meticulous. His every sentence is supported by a wealth of documental evidence, and where that evidence is dubious or politically or ideologically slanted, he indicates it.  Beevor the narrator is a brilliant master of multi-angled technique. Close-ups of events described through the eyes of participants on both sides, from ordinary riflemen to officers in the field to staff members to commanders and politicians are then interspersed with commentary and analysis, also by participants and observers. We see the unfolding battle from the trenches, through tank sites and from the cabins of airplanes above the ruined city. We go from Stalin's Stavka (HQ) to Hitler's Wolfsschanze.

The result is both a convincing historical account and an exciting read.

All over Russia today war-time songs are played. Beevor mentions the 'Dugout' (Zemlyanka)  as the most popular song among the Russian soldiers. The words

It is so hard for me to come to you
And here there are four steps to death.

were especially poignant, as the Army commander in Stalingrad Vassily Chuikov ordered the positions never to be farther than 50 metres away from the German lines. That made it impossible for the Germans to use heavy artillery and bomb Russian positions from air.

Here is the Dugout sung by Lidiya Ruslanova in 1942.
Text of the poem in English as quoted in 'Stalingrad' is below the video.

The Dugout (or In the Dugout),
lyrics by Alexei Surkov, music by Constantine Listov

The fire is flickering in the narrow stove
Resin oozes from the log like a tear
And the concertina in the bunker
Sings to me of your smile and eyes.

The bushes whispered to me about you
In a snow-white field near Moscow
I want you above all to hear
How said my living voice is.

You are now very far away
Expanses of snow lie between us
It is so hard for me to come to you
And here there are four steps to death.

Sing concertina, in defiance of the snowstorm
Call out to that happiness which has lost its way
I'm warm in the cold bunker
Because of your inextinguishable love.

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