Friday, December 3, 2010

Red Sniper on the Eastern Front: The Memoirs of Joseph Pilyushin

Unlike many memoirs, which feature soldiers and officers recalling their wartime experiences without much observation of the environment around them, in the case of Pilyushin, it sometimes feels as you are reading the account of a naturalist, rather than a book about war on the Eastern Front. But all too often, the realities of combat will once more intrude and thoughts of this being anything but a true narrative of war disappear. Few authors have Pilyushin's literary or artistic ability to portray the juxtaposition of man-made war and how it both clashes with and lives alongside nature on a consistent basis. In examining details that most would readily overlook, Pilyushin paints a picture that's often hard to forget and gives the reader the feeling of being right there with him, be it on the front fighting off another German attack or in the swamps/forests of northern Russia waiting for a target to present itself. It should also be mentioned that despite being first published in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, Pilyushin’s memoir is remarkably free of propaganda and hymns to the Party. He makes it very clear that he considers the men and women of Leningrad, and the soldiers that defended the city, the real heroes.

While this is a sniper's memoir, on more than a few occasions we witness snipers fighting as part of a regular defensive line with other troops, be they riflemen or machine gunners. Furthermore, the author himself took part in fighting tanks with grenades and Molotov-cocktails when the need arose and even went out on reconnaissance missions, something that I'm beginning to see was regularly undertaken by troops with little training (but that does not mean they weren't successful). It needs to also be mentioned that Pilyushin himself is something of a rarity because he loses his right eye and has to train himself to use a sniper rifle with his left eye after recovering.

The actions described throughout 1941, when the Wehrmacht was still attempting to advance on Leningrad, allow for an examination of defensive operations where artillery, engineers and the Soviet Air Force (VVS) were regularly supporting Red Army infantrymen in their struggle with the Germans. This is interesting to note as often times recollections from 1941 note the absence of combined arms operations (granted, this is mainly in reference to offensive operations) and a lack of air support by the VVS. Furthermore, often enough when encountering accounts from 1941, there is usually the perception that the Red Army was regularly 'outclassed' by their Wehrmacht opponents on a regular basis in terms of tactics. But Pilyushin shows that Red Army officers and soldiers were consistently able to set up ambushes for the Germans to fall into as early as the summer of 1941. It might be that the densely wooded terrain of northern Russia helped as well as the fact that Army Group North was the weakest of the three German army groups operating on the Eastern Front, but such accounts are instrumental in showcasing the abilities of Soviet officers and soldiers in the early period of the war.

One of the more humorous episodes recounted, once more from 1941, included the author with a reconnaissance team taking prisoner two men at night only to find out they were Soviet cadets escaping enemy encirclement. Another episode, which speaks to the mindset of Red Army soldiers and officers, was an exchange between a battalion commander and his company commanders. With a German tank attack and an enemy infantry battalion arrayed against them, the Red Army battalion commander was contemplating their next move. One of his company commanders became convinced the best course of action was to attack the Germans, killing as many of them as possible while sacrificing his life. In response, the battalion commander had to remind him that it was not only his life he was sacrificing, but that of his men as well. Considering the doses of Soviet propaganda the citizens of the USSR were exposed to, it should come as no surprise that individual men (and perhaps even women) were ready to risk their lives and inadvertently that of their soldiers for the defense of their motherland, and perhaps even their system of government. One cannot label such men cowards, on the contrary, their ability to readily offer their lives as a sacrifice should be acknowledged and lauded, but the fact that they could not see past their own sacrifice to that of their soldiers needs to be recognized as well. In offering up the ultimate sacrifice, their lives, they inadvertently also expose the lives of their soldiers. In some ways this might explain the numerous casualties Red Army troops took throughout the war (not forgetting that there were ignorant officers and commissars who readily let others risk their lives while saving their own) and the cults that developed post-WWII of 'heroes' and their 'sacrifices' for their motherland.

Additionally, Pilyushin recalling the various conversations about retreats also gives some insight into the mentality of both Red Army men and civilians in regards to withdrawals. It seems that the mentality the majority shared when it came to retreats was that any retreat was defeatist and should be avoided. A fighting retreat, which shortens the frontline or avoids encirclement, obviously cannot be considered the same as a headlong flight for the rear by panicked troops. Yet without a Soviet propaganda apparatus to discuss and explain away such actions, many on the frontlines and in the rear, it seems, simply lamented that any retreat reinforced the idea that the Germans were winning and Red Army soldiers were not holding themselves accountable for their actions.

Aside from descriptions of battles and the day-to-day conversations of soldiers in a combat environment, Pilyushin gives ample space and time to his visits to besieged Leningrad when either attempting to visit his family or when he was wounded. At one point the author receives a three day pass to visit his family. What follows is without a doubt one of the most emotional scenes I've ever read from the war. As well, what Leningraders in general were made to go through is given a brief description. While it is mentioned more than once that Leningrad is a dozen or so kilometers behind the battles on the frontline that the majority of the memoir is focused on, the real meaning behind those words is hard to understand without an actual 'visit' to the city. Additionally, the losses Pilyushin's unit sustains throughout the war also makes for difficult reading; these men and women who readily put their lives on the line pass in and out of Pilyushin's life all too quickly with only his memory of them serving as a reminder for what the war cost the families of the Soviet Union. I'm very impressed with the quality of memoirs that have recently been translated/published dealing with the Eastern Front, and this one makes for a great addition, highly recommended!

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