A LIEUTENANT FROM ODESSA: ALEXANDER AVERBUKH

The following interviews with Senior Lieutenant Alexander Averbukh and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gerasimov depict a regiment of the 35th Guards Rifle Division as it defended the city against German panzer troops advancing from the Don in August and September 1942. The division was formed in early August from troops of the 8th Airborne Corps near Moscow and immediately deployed to the Stalingrad Front, where it was to merge with the 62nd Army. The journey to Stalingrad lasted five days and was repeatedly interrupted by enemy air attacks. Almost every station on the route had been destroyed in the bombing. Gerasimov caught sight of the bodies of Soviet soldiers in burned-out railway cars along the embankment. This was the first time many of his soldiers had experienced enemy bombing, requiring that they, as he put it, be “worked over.” In the interview excerpts Gerasimov describes the chaos of the following weeks, noting the poor coordination between the army leadership and the commanders in the field and the poor quality of Soviet enemy intelligence.

His regiment was first stationed on the eastern bank of the Don. After a brutal day’s march of twenty miles in searing heat—the soldiers had to carry all their equipment and weapons, including a 45mm regiment canon—they reached their destination: Peskovatka. There the regiment was to build a bridgehead on the other side of the river. By that point, the Germans had already massed together multiple divisions on the riverbank, so a new command was issued: stop the German advance near Kotluban, twelve miles farther northeast. Shortly after they were ordered to halt the advancing Germans who had since broken through near the village Bolshaya Rossoshka, eighteen miles west of Stalingrad.86 In the confusion, they lost contact with the supply train.

Though the regiment was depleted of food rations and ammunition, divisional commander Vasily Glazkov received an order from front command to take a nearby hill. He informed his battalion commanders by telephone that he would personally execute them if they did not succeed. Meanwhile, a telegram from army headquarters arrived praising the soldiers and commanders of the division for their “bravery” and “heroic courage” and urging them to destroy the “fascist pack.” Gerasimov had the telegram read to his soldiers immediately before combat began. The regiment took the hill but lost 350 men in the process. A few days later the regiment abandoned the hill when the German 24th Panzer Division pushed past it to the right and left, threatening to surround it. Senior Lieutenant Averbukh’s account covers the subsequent withdrawal and continued fight against the 14th and 24th Panzer Divisions in the southwest suburbs of Stalingrad.

A Red Army

A Red Army unit near Stalingrad, August 1942

The twenty-two-year-old lieutenant was talkative and spoke frankly about his dissolute past as young vagrant and thief. It was not until he entered the institutions of the Soviet state that he became “human.” His biography resembles those of the homeless youth in the writings of the Ukrainian reformist educator Andrei Makarenko, men who found their “path in life” through targeted disciplinary and motivational measures.87 Other Soviet institutions from the prewar era, among them the NKVD, spoke of “reforging”: the sometimes violent reeducation of “class enemies” into sensible Soviet citizens. Averbukh’s testimony makes clear that Red Army soldiers continued to think in the revolutionary-era categories of transformation and self-realization.

The Averbukh interview is unusual in that it was not conducted by a representative of the Historical Commission, but by a politruk from Averbukh’s company, Innokenty Gerasimov.88 In a letter dated November 1942, Gerasimov came to Isaak Mints with the idea of writing the history of the Guards regiment. Mints wrote to the reserve administration of the Red Army asking for Gerasimov to be released from service for two months so he could help the commission. The collaboration between Gerasimov and Averbukh recalls the duo of Commissar Furmanov and Commander Chapayev in the Civil War. Just as Furmanov helped the rough-cut Chapayev learn self-control and conscious action, Gerasimov served as a mentor along Averbukh’s path to becoming a model fighter. Gerasimov was certainly involved in the decision to induct Averbukh into the party after he was wounded on August 28, an event that at the time marked the climax of Averbukh’s personal development.

Dated December 17, 1942, the interviews with Averbukh and regimental commander Alexander Gerasimov (not to be confused with Innokenti Gerasimov) were the first transcripts on the defense of Stalingrad made by Mints’s commission. The interviews likely took place in Moscow, where both soldiers had been sent to receive awards: the Hero of the Soviet Union (Gerasimov) and the Order of the Red Banner (Averbukh). The stenographer, Alexandra Shamshina, was part of the delegation that conducted interviews in Stalingrad with many other eyewitnesses of the battle beginning in January.

TRANSCRIPT

of interview conducted with comrade Senior Lieutenant Alexander Shapsovich AVERBUKH

Commander of a company of antitank riflemen, 8th Guards Airborne Regiment

Interview conducted by I. P. GERASIMOV, Hero of the Soviet Union

December 17, 1942

Stenography by Shamshina89

(Nominated for Order of the Red Banner)

I was born in Dubossary in the Moldavian SSR, and later I moved to Odessa, where I then lived for many years. When I got to Odessa I was eleven years old. I ran away from home, I was on my own. I met some street children and started being friends with them. The first time I got involved in petty theft I was still going to school. Later I gave up the small stuff and got on to more serious jobs. I became the leader of a gang. I was fourteen or fifteen. I quit doing the stealing myself. They brought all the loot back to me, and I distributed it around, and all the while I was still going to school. I’ve been everywhere in the Soviet Union. There’s not one city in the Soviet Union that I haven’t been to.

Then I left secondary school, took some night classes, passed some exams—all while still being a thief. Then it became impossible for me to stay in Odessa any longer. I moved to Tiraspol, where I passed the last of my exams and decided to become a proper human being. I was studying all summer, but I kept up with the drinking, going out, seeing girls. In 1938 I was admitted to an industrial institute. The competition was tough: eight people for every slot. I was one of the top qualifiers. During the second year I decided to quit that life, I wanted to be someone better. I volunteered for the army. All my friends had been locked up. I was the only one left. Then I found new friends and started going out on the town once again.

I loved my mother very much, but I didn’t love my father. I loved my little brother. They all had an influence on me. But most of all I loved this girl from the medical institute. She loved me too, but only on the condition that I give up my former life. In Odessa they started calling me Sashka Blot. After that I decided to put aside that former life and started studying. I was doing well at the institute and had stopped stealing; but my old friends were helping me. There were times when I’d be out and I’d see my friends out having a good time—but I couldn’t. I loved this girl and decided to give them up.

In 1938 I volunteered for the army. I requested to be in the tank corps, but I didn’t get in because of my age. I was enlisted into the local regiment, the 138th Rifles. I spent a year as a private in the personnel office and graduated from the regimental school. Then I was a squad leader. Later, by order of the People’s Commissar, those who had completed secondary school and had some third-level education could be sent to a military academy. I thought I might go to the aviation institute. I submitted my application, and it was approved. But just then I was asked to go with a group to the 1st Kiev Artillery School. I liked it there, and I decided to stay. I graduated from that school and stayed on as a platoon leader. I was part of a cadet regiment that left for the front at 9:00 P.M. on June 22 [1941].

We were encamped at Rzhishchev.90 There was a three-gun salute, and then we set off for the front. (We were all in high spirits before we left for the front.) The first time we were fired on by enemy aircraft was on the 26th. We were in a big forest, so we turned off the road and took cover. We took some casualties—about ten wounded in the regiment. Nothing serious. But we had more serious casualties in the village of Zhulyany,91 where the enemy came right up to us. At that time I was the commander of the 1st Cannon Platoon. I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve never been a coward. I was worried that I might show my fear in front of my subordinates. This battle ended in success. The enemy was defeated.

The Germans were persistent. My battery fired on them at close range with canister shot. I got wounded. After that battle I was promoted to lieutenant, when we left Kiev for Krasnoyarsk. We were fighting for three months. Our regiment was relieved by other units. [ . . . ] From August [1942] I was a company commander in an antitank rifle regiment, and I went with them to the front.

I trained my battery when we were still in the rear. I tempered them, had them do night exercises, hundred-kilometer night marches over uneven terrain, through swamps, water, and so on. We had an inspection. During a live-fire exercise my battery got a rating of excellent.

It was a great joy to me when the brigade was named a Guards regiment, first of all because the regiment, not being [ . . . ] had gotten this Guards title, and second because we were now on our way to Stalingrad, where my mother and sister were living.

On August 5, 1942, we left for the front. My company was made up of three platoons. 1st Platoon was commanded by Junior Lieutenant Kanonetko, 2nd Platoon was commanded by Myasnikov, and 3rd Platoon was commanded by Kopeykin, who had been wounded in one leg. My deputy commander was Junior Lieutenant Novoshitsky, and Gerasimov92 was the company’s politruk. We all left for the front. Classes were organized on the way there. Gerasimov led discussions, and my deputy and I took care of the combat training.

We reached Stalingrad on the 10th. Once we’d gotten off the trains, our company marched to Gavrilovka, where we dug in and took up positions. The first battle started on August 21. I grabbed some newspapers from politruk Gerasimov and drove out to the units to hand them out and talk with the men. But before we’d made it as far as 2nd Battalion, two of our vehicles were disabled by machine-gun fire, and the drivers were wounded. Their hands were all shot up. I dressed their wounds. We decided to run to the battalions, but one of the drivers grabbed hold of me, he wouldn’t let me go.

Not too far from our vehicles was an airborne group that had scattered during the bombing. Some of them were wounded. I gathered them all together and put Lieutenant Sosnin in charge. I told him that he was responsible for every one of these men, and that when the bombing stopped he was to report to the regimental command post.

Of course I didn’t get a chance to hand out the papers. It was some heavy fighting. I got back to the regimental command post. I was ordered to move forward to find out where the enemy tanks were and destroy them. I went with a detachment belonging to Aratyunyan, a senior lieutenant. At the start of the tank battle it was four of our tanks against eight of theirs. Two of ours were on fire, but the crews couldn’t get out. I went with two soldiers, Leonovy and Matyukha, crawled up to the tanks, and pulled out a junior lieutenant and two sergeants. We couldn’t get to the second tank because it was too close to the Germans. We also managed to rescue one man who’d been badly burned. Bondar and Karpenko crawled up to the next tank and pulled him out. He was sent to a medical unit in Grechi, and the others went to the 101st Regiment’s command post.

Then we shot at the tanks with antitank rifles and they retreated. After that we got the command to fall back, so we did. [ . . . ]

Then I went to the battalion command post. A very difficult situation had developed there. There weren’t any artillery spotters on the front lines. A motorized column was advancing on us, and there were tanks flanking us on our left, where we had antitank crews in place, but we didn’t have anyone protecting our right flank. All of this was taking place on Hill 137.2. I took aim, determined the initial deflection and proceeded to destroy the column.

I was calm the whole time because I got so caught up in the work. The column was destroyed. Then I shifted our artillery fire to an infantry column that was coming around our left flank. There were half a dozen tanks and a couple of infantry platoons. We repelled their attacks, we completely eliminated them. Incidentally, it was a warm, sunny day. Two in the afternoon. Clouds of dust and smoke—you couldn’t see a thing, the sun could barely get through. The entire column was destroyed. Our men had taken out four tanks and obliterated two infantry platoons.

To mark our success in repelling the German attack, Captain Klashin put together a celebratory dinner on the front line. They brought sour cream and milk, some vodka, and roast mutton. We drank to our having defeated the column. Politruk Klashin even kissed me.

My greatest joy came that same evening after the battle when I was accepted as a party candidate member right there on the front line. That night I went to the command post to see Colonel Gerasimov.93 He’d been told that I was dead, and everyone was surprised to see me when I showed up safe and sound.

On September 8 I was ordered to defend a particular sector together with Captain Lizunov’s battalion. We walked around to have a look at the sector. We really didn’t have many people. My company amounted to twenty-two men and six rifles. I took some men from the 20th Tank Destroyer Brigade into my company.

We inspected the firing positions, and everything was just as it should be. Lieutenant Kashtanov and his platoon were assigned to outposts. Lizunov stayed on the left flank, and I went with a platoon to the right. We agreed that in the event of an attack we’d fight to the last, neither of us would make a move without the other. We were going to complete our combat mission or die trying. I briefly explained our task to the men, saying that we had to keep up the defense despite the enemy’s superior strength. At night we made sure the soldiers were all fed and then we tried to get some rest.

The first shots came at 4:00 A.M. from a Vanyusha, the six-barreled German mortar system.94 The enemy launched his attack. There was a continuous wall of tanks with infantry following close behind. We had a platoon of antitank riflemen in trenches, but they weren’t in a good position to fire at these tanks because we’d been expecting them to come on the right, while they were actually coming around a hill on the left, so we couldn’t get a good line on them. We had to give up on the trenches and shoot at the tanks out in the open. We disabled eight tanks. The Germans towed them back right away. Those tanks were taken out by Privates Nikolayev, Bereznikov, and Nikitin. Even though Nikitin was a quartermaster clerk, he knew how to use a gun.

We fought to the last. When we ran out of ammunition, we used grenades to destroy the tanks. Men were dropping off left and right. We’d lost contact with the battalion. I moved to Lizunov’s command post. All I had left was one rifle and eight cartridges. I ordered the men to hold on to them.

I crawled to the command post. On the way the magazine of my Mauser was shattered. I reported the situation to Lizunov. We’d lost all communication with the companies and with regimental HQ. The moment you’d send a runner he’d be dead. But seeing as we swore we’d hold out to the very end, that meant we were going to hold out to the very end. It was just me, Captain Lizunov, and his runner in the bunker. We didn’t have anyone else. We weren’t in contact with anyone. German infantrymen had passed us by, and we were now in their rear. They discovered our bunker. I had my Mauser, a pouch of cartridges, and a submachine gun. Lizunov had a submachine gun and three antitank grenades with no fuses. We decided to leave one at a time. I was going to cover him. He’d go two hundred meters, and then I’d go. There were three of us left.

I threw the antitank grenades. They didn’t explode. By then Captain Lizunov had run about 150 meters and got hit in the left thigh. He said to me: “Don’t come out, they’ve got it covered. They got me in the leg.” I ran over and bandaged him up, but I was tying it so tight that it kept tearing. I was trying to hurry because the Germans were on their way. Eventually we got it tied, but the blood kept coming. I lifted him on my back and crawled about fifty meters. There was an antiaircraft emplacement. I was bracing myself to lift him over the parapet when I took a hit to my right thigh. I’d used the bandages on Captain Lizunov, so I had to go without. Once I’d recovered a bit, we started moving forward, with me helping the captain. We kept moving for two hours. Captain Lizunov was showing little sign of life, but I could hear him whispering, saying that I should leave him and save myself. Obviously I didn’t leave him.

We crawled to Verkhnyaya Elshanka,95 in the area of the radio station. I sat up to get my bearings and got hit again. Submachine-gun fire to the left side of my chest and my left arm. I lost consciousness. I don’t know how long I was out. I woke up because it got really cold. It was late, around four in the morning. It was already starting to get light. I could hear people speaking German all around me. I couldn’t see Lizunov anywhere. I decided to crawl toward a building. This was on the 9th. I could see there were Germans inside. I decided to shoot myself because I didn’t have any strength left, and I didn’t want to let them take me alive. I figured there was no way out. I pulled the trigger, but the Mauser was clogged with sand and wouldn’t fire. My right arm was still okay. With my right arm I crawled away and by some miracle made it to the divisional command post. It was already midday. There I met Colonel Yudin and the military lawyer Truppe. I didn’t manage to find Colonel Gerasimov. I asked for the general. They told me he was dead. I thought they were joking, but it turned out to be true. I gave my report on the situation to the divisional command post.

I wasn’t able to get any bandages there. German submachine gunners were already coming right up to the command post. I asked only that the staff give me a weapon or else take me with them. They didn’t give me a weapon. The Germans were advancing, and the divisional staff fell back farther. I had to crawl away on my own. On the second day I somehow managed to just about make it to Stalingrad—only three hundred meters left—and then for the first time in my life I cried: Stalingrad was so close, but I couldn’t make it. I crawled another 150 meters, and this old man and his daughter picked me up and carried me to their home in Stalingrad. The daughter dressed my wounds and gave me some milk to drink. Her name was Zoya. Later I was sent across the Volga. I kissed both the man and his daughter good-bye. He cried for me like I was his own son. After that I was in the hospital.

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