December 7, 2015

1943. What Makes the Russians Fight the Way They Do?

The Fighting Spirit of the Red Army
Soviet pilots on vacation in 1943 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

January 1943 (Cablegram to New York - reformatted from telegram style)

Not many months ago, when the rest of the world would not have bet a dime on Russia's chances to survive the greatest military blow ever launched in history, the people of the Soviet Union staked their existence on their chances and have come out on top.

Today, those ten-cent chances of survival have now become a million dollar certainty, but one question remains to be answered. That question is: "Why do the Russians fight the way they do?"

The ability of Russia's John Q. Public to fight has endowed the people of Russia with almost legendary character—in the eyes of the world, and particularly Hitler. The Russian people have been shown to fight like fiends with the conviction of warrior angels.

And some place between heaven and hell lies the answer to that question, "Why do people in Russia fight the way they do?"

The best way to find out is to ask the people themselves. Ask experts—they ought to know just what the secret is behind the Soviet Union's resistance to the Nazi onslaught and the inspiration behind their tremendous winter offensive.

Out at the Soviet Union's Academy of Sciences is collected some of the nation's smartest men. Here's one way Russia's leading physicist and agriculturalist, Sergey Vavilov, explained it: "I think there are some extant factors present in the Russian people from past fights, such as those which resulted in German defeat on Lake Chud as well as the defeats, one after another, of Mamai, Charles XII of Sweden, and Napoleon. Our peoples' passionate love of country provides valor and tenacity in our troops, fighting to the bitter end. Those are some reasons for Hitler's failures at Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad."

But science oftentimes doesn't get down to the guts of people. It's better to ask a woman—an ordinary housewife. They know. They learn more what makes the nation tic from the corner grocer than a dozen experts.

One housewife is Aleksandra Nikiforovna Ryabtseva, which is a mouthful of a name in any language. Her husband, who is now fighting west of Stalingrad, calls her Sashenka. He used to work in a Moscow garage, but now he's a sergeant and a truck driver in the army who helped take supplies into Stalingrad. I told her that the American people would like to know why the Russian people fight the way they do.

Sashenka said: "How could my husband and the Red Army fight otherwise? My Oleg knows what I would tell him if he didn't fight well. And remember, most of our soldiers have wives at home. Take my Oleg. We were living very happily before the war. All of our efforts were concentrated on the education of our son. He is ten now and he played violin well at age seven. He's practicing now; you can hear that he's very good. We dream some day that he will become a great musician, and we still dream despite the war. My husband is at the front. He knows our boy won't be a musician if the Germans win. But I honestly can't tell you the exact reasons why Oleg and his comrades fight like they do."

Missus Ryabtseva had the right slant all right, but there must be something more behind the story. What's the reason behind partisans who risk their lives to blow up bridges, throttle sentries, wreck trains? Only the other day I read about a thirteen-year-old boy who developed into one of the guerrillas' best snipers. He had already gotten a dozen notches on his gun. Why do kids fight that way? What do kids feel about this war? Better ask one.

Moscow schools look like any other schools in the world—they are usually built with red brick and are not too interesting in appearance. I caught kids just after school let out. One boy was Messerschmitt; another was Yak. The boys ran about with arms extended while antiaircraft batteries of snowballs tried to score hits on Messerschmitt. Needless to say, Yak always won over Messerschmitt, even if a couple of boys had to temporarily transform themselves from antiaircraft batteries to Russian fighter planes. The kids said that I should have been around yesterday when they played "Battle of Stalingrad."

Military training is now an organic part of Soviet schools, ranging from physical culture and games for the youngest up to drill and rifle practice and hiking for older students.

We were interrupted by a two-headed Russian fighter plane who was slightly out of breath. He said his name was Boba Azarov. He is eight and a half years old. His mother works in a Moscow munitions factory while he's in school. He could spare me a few minutes until he had to go home to meet her.

I explained that American kids are interested why Russian people fight the way they do. I wanted to know his thoughts. Boba told me in no uncertain terms:

"Our Red Army men are the best, bravest soldiers in the world. Russians are always good fighters. My father is a pilot. He's a senior lieutenant. Nobody can lick him. He writes me in all of his letters, 'Bobik, don't be sad while I'm away from home, and take care of your mother and sister. Remember that I'm fighting for you all. I have seen what the Germans have done to children in some of the front line villages. It's not good. This means that I can't come back until all children are safe.' You see, mister, that means that my father won't come back until after victory—and my father never tells a lie. Now I'm training for the army in my school. I never miss a gym lesson because I want to be a pilot too and go give my dad a lift. You see, I hate Germans—hate 'em."

If anyone can give a definite answer for the reasons behind the fighting spirit of the Red Army, it should be Russian soldiers themselves. I managed to corner two husky privates en route through Moscow to join their units. They were surprised being stopped in the Red Square, where they were sightseeing because it was their first visit to the capital. They were also suspicious about this foreign-looking stranger. I had to show credentials before talking. Security is second nature with the army. They've heard of fifth columns and spies before.

One soldier is a former factory worker at Kharkov named Piotr Sukhanov. The other is Fyodor Nazaryan, who is the nearest thing Russia has to an American cowboy in his native Armenia. Both had checked their Tommy guns somewhere. They had just been relieved from the Leningrad Front.

I explained what I wanted to know, after which Sukhanov said: "You want to know why we fight Germans the way we do? Well, we just don't like them." Nazaryan said: "Most of my people in Armenia had never seen a German before, but we have been taught what fascism means. We don't like Germans either—or anyone like them."

I interrupted: "What I want to know is why has the Red Army been able to stand up under years of pressure, being pushed back and making such stands as you have at Kiev, Odessa, Sevastopol, Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, and hundreds of other small villages which fought the same battles in miniature—why?"

Nazaryan: "It might be because we Armenians are mostly farmers and cattlemen. We know what acre land means. The Red Army has a lot of farmers fighting in it."

Sukhanov: "Don't pay too much attention to him. There are a lot of factory workers in the army too, and they have never been shown up by anyone."

Nazaryan: "That's right. A factory worker saved my life once. He pulled me from in front of a streetcar. That's about the nearest to death I've ever been."

Sukhanov: "A good soldier never thinks about death. When your number is up, it's up."

Nazaryan: "Anyway, I know I'm lucky. My number is not yet up. Besides, I've got to go back to Armenia with a medal. I got a girl in Leninakan, and there's a factory worker who's got his eye on her."

Why do the Russian people fight like they do? I suggest you go down to the corner grocery store and ask the first housewife you meet a similar question. And ask your high school principal. And ask the kid next door. Then ask the first two United States Army privates you run into.

Ask them why MacArthur held out in the Philippines, and ask them about the Marines on Guadalcanal and about the Air Force in Burma and England and New Guinea and North Africa.

They'll tell you.