May was a month of several postings filled with the spirit of World War II at the Poemas del río Wang: Little People about children in the war, Graffiti displaying wall inscriptions in the fallen Berlin and Two Images, which was a reflection about the Church through two wartime photos. For many years May for me was starting with the Victory Day celebrating 9 May 1945 – the day of capitulation of the Nazi Germany in the war that was called no less than Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) in the Soviet Union, the day that is still a public holiday in many post-soviet countries. So here is my next posting inspired by that May spirit at Poemas del río Wang.
Katyusha is one of the iconic songs of the Great Patriotic War, although it was actually written quite earlier and performed for the first time in 1938. Katyusha (Katie) is a tender version of Katya (Kate), which is a diminutive of Russian female name Yekaterina (Catherine). This song is about a girl singing for her beloved one, who is far away on a military duty.
Музыка: Матвей Блантер
Расцветали яблони и груши,
Выходила, песню заводила
Ой ты, песня, песенка девичья,
Пусть он вспомнит девушку простую,
Music: Matvey Blanter
Apple trees and pear trees were a flower,
By the river’s bank she sang a love song
Oh, my song, song of a maiden’s true love,
Let him know that I am true and faithful,
There are several English translations of the lyrics on the Internet. Above is one of the versions that although not most accurate but can be sung with the music. Composed by Matvey Blanter (1903-1990) it was very popular at the frontline, actually on the both sides of it. There were cases when German soldiers hearing the song from their trenches were asking to perform it again. A very popular Italian partisan song Fischia il Vento (The Wind Blows) was written in 1943 for the same music.
Katyusha was translated into many languages and is still performed in many countries from Israel to China. I knew this song by heart and as a child was singing Katyusha in Russian, but I never heard it in Azerbaijani language. Being a professor of mathematics my father writes poems from time to time and in 1999 he read us his poetic translation of Katyusha with a short epigraph – “Dedicated to my uncle Mustafa”:
|Artıq çiçəkləmiş alma-armudlar,
Çayın üzəriylə sürünür duman.
Bu dəmdə sahilə çıxır Katyuşa,
Dayandığı sahil yüksək bir yarğan.
Ey nəğmə, ey məsum qızın nəğməsi,
|Çıxır, söyləməyə başlayır nəğmə
Haqqında çöl oğlu, cəsur qartalın,
Haqqında kimi ki sevmiş ürəkdən,
Sahibin qorunan xoş məktubların.
Qoy o xatırlasın sadə bir qızı,
Great-uncle Mustafa’s Katyusha
My father’s uncle Mustafa was the youngest, that is probably why also the most beloved brother in the family. A bright village boy he pursued an army career and after finishing a military commanders’ school started his service as an officer in Baku. Mustafa met his future wife Valentina Andreyevna at a hospital while was on service in Stavropol region of Russia in 1930s. His family gave their blessings to his marriage with that Russian girl, and blessed they were with four children.
The Nazi Germany invasion in June 1941 caught them on the western borders of the Soviet Union. Wife and children were evacuated back to the native village in Azerbaijan. The Nazi troops following their blitzkrieg tactic were advancing with a speed of lightning. Soviet Red Army was retreating and for the autumn 1941 bloody battles were going already in approaches of the capital Moscow. A successful soviet counter-offensive in winter 1941 threw the enemy back, but Moscow still was in a danger. Mustafa was wounded two times and while at hospital he was able to write letters to home. The last letter was written in July 1942, then after a long silence in 1943 Valentina received the last news about her husband – gara kaghyz (black paper in Azerbaijani) is how people were calling a “killed in battle” notice. For a long time I was actually thinking that those papers were really black, but in fact they were not:
No information about where, how major Yusufov was killed and where he is buried. Later his name was found in the official list of “missing in action”. So there always was some confusion about Mustafa’s fate and he was remembered from time to time with a smoldering hope for his survival.
Thus the gunpowder smelling spirit of May at Poemas del río Wang brought back also the old memories about my great-uncle. I started to search the Internet for information about army major Mustafa Yusufov, and it was about the right time. It turned out that in 2008 the Ministry of Defense of Russian Federation made the soviet archives about “irretrievable losses” of the Great Patriotic War available online through its project called OBD Memorial. It was periodically supplemented and now this huge database contains about 11.8 million digital images of archive documents. I was planning also to search the online database of the German Center of Documentation on soviet prisoners of war.
Searching the archive is not always straightforward, since there are different spellings of names and misentered data either in the original document or in the digitized record. It did not take long to find bunch of documents concerning major Yusufov. Not only I learnt his last duty station – the 88th Rifle Division of the 31st Army and the place where he was buried, but also read how his wife was struggling and lost her two youngest children during the lean years of war.
In spring 1942 the 88th Rifle Division was formed for the second time, because after devastating battles in the North, near the border with Finland there were only three thousand people left from the initial 17 thousand in the first formation. The newly formed division got baptized with fire in August 1942 in the Rzhev-Sychevka offensive – the second soviet operation in Battles of Rzhev also known as “Rzhev meat grinder”. This controversial episode of war is not as well known as Kursk or Stalingrad, although it was at least as bloody as the latter.
The first operation in January-April 1942 threw the Nazi troops further back, but by counterattacking they encircled and almost completely annihilated two soviet army groups, they also kept Rzhev and other strategic positions in the Rzhev-Vyazma salient that looked like a fist threatening Moscow. In June 1942 Hitler ordered his troops to advance in South towards two strategic cities – Stalingrad as an important transporting center on the Volga river and Baku as the major soviet oil producer at the Caspian sea. Stalin did not foresee such a turn, operations around Rzhev continued also to deter Nazis from transferring troops to the South. In July-September soviet forces started a new offensive, but although they advanced further at the expense of great losses the main objective was not achieved – Nazis held Rzhev and the salient. It was followed by another unsuccessful operation in November-December. Soviet troops entered Rzhev only in March 1943 to find out that the enemy almost insensibly retreated.
According to the official data, soviet losses in “Rzhev meat grinder” exceeded one million killed and wounded. For decades military historians and generals passed these battles over in silence, but the memory lived with those who survived. One of them was a famous Russian soviet poet Aleksandr Tvardovsky (1910-1971), who was in Rzhev on an assignment as a war reporter for Krasnoarmeyskaya Pravda (Red Army Truth) newspaper in autumn 1942. His poem “I Was Killed Near Rzhev” written in 1946 tells the story of thousands of soviet unknown warriors lying in Rzhev soil:
|Я убит подо Ржевом,
В безымянном болоте,
В пятой роте,
При жестоком налете.…
И во всем этом мире
Я — где корни слепые
Я — где крик петушиный
Где — травинку к травинке —
Летом, в сорок втором,
|I was killed near Rzhev
In a nameless bog,
In the fifth company,
On the Left flank,
In a cruel air raid.…
And in this whole world
I am where the blind roots
I am where the cockerel cries
Where – small stalk to small stalk –
In the summer of forty-two
The name Mustafa Yusufov too is not in any name list of buried, neither there is an official memorial grave in a village called Nosovo. In fact you wouldn’t even find such a place around Rzhev if looked at most of the maps.
There are many voluntary search groups finding every year remains of hundreds of unknown soldiers, sometimes even whole tanks or planes buried in bogs. The saying “war is not over until the last soldier is buried” by a great commander, the invincible Russian generalissimo Alexander Suvorov (1729-1800) is their unofficial motto.
My inquiry about the place where major Yusufov was buried at several online search group forums was answered quite quickly. It turned out that Nosovo is a small village near Pogoreloye Gorodishe center in Tver oblast of Russian Federation with a population that was 83 people in 2008.
Exactly in that area on 4 August 1942 the 88th Rifle Division together with the 212th Tank Brigade forced a crossing of the Derzha river. But the most important information was received on 24 May 2010 from Aleksey Sdvizhkov, deputy chief of the Gorizont Tourism-Searching Club at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute. He wrote that in 2007 their club was on a field trip together with the local search groups from Zubtsov and Pogoreloye Gorodishe and they found two sanitary burials with about 20 men in each exactly at the place indicated in the document: 500 meters to North-East from Nosovo. The remains were reburied in the memorial cemetery in Pogoreloye Gorodishe with military honors and religious ceremonies. Aleksey was very kind to send an official letter from their club to the local administration about adding army major Mustafa Yusufov to the name list on the memorial. He also sent me a photo of a view on Nosovo with a monument in memory of soviet break-through, which struck me – it was Katyusha overlooking the village from top of the hill.
Katyushas in the war
Katyusha is how soviet soldiers named this new BM-13 rocket launcher, just after that girl from their beloved wartime song. The most probable reason is the letter “K” on board of BM-13 indicating the producing Voronezh Komintern Factory. Katyusha was tested in battle for the first time in July 1941, its mass production and use started to the end of 1941. German troops called it with a not less musical name of Stalinorgel, meaning Stalin’s orgán. That organ music was a funeral one indeed: in ten seconds an artillery battery of Katyushas could fire a salvo delivering more than four tons of explosives to an impact zone larger than four hectares in a distance farther than five kilometers. Thus new couplets for the good old song were borne, now about the other Katyusha:
|В мраке, в тьме лесных опушек наших
Смерч несется к небу огневой –
Это наша русская «Катюша»
Немчуре поет за упокой!…
Все мы знаем душечку-«Катюшу»,
|In the gloom, in dark of our forests
Storm of fire is rushing to the sky –
This is our Russian “Katyusha”
Sings her song so Germans will soon die!…
We all know our dearest “Katyusha”,
Katyusha rocket launchers went through all the war till Berlin, and Katyusha the song did not fall behind. On the doorsteps of the smoldering Reichstag it was sang by Lidiya Ruslanova (1900-1973), a popular Russian and soviet singer, one of the greatest Russian folk song performers.
|Расцветали яблони и груши.
По тропинкам, через лес густой
Выходила смелая Катюша
С автоматом на берег крутой.
Выходила, без пощады била
|Apple trees and pear trees were a flower.
By the paths through the dense wood
Brave Katyusha came out of the forest
To the steep bank with a sub-machine gun.
She came out and fought enemies grimly
These frontline couplets tell the story of another Katyusha, one of the 800 thousand women who served in the Red Army during that war.
Women were not only in auxiliary roles, such as nurses or signalers; there were women-snipers, machine gunners, tankers and even pilots.
Among them was Zuleykha Seyidmammadova – the first female pilot of Azerbaijan. She went through the war starting as the regiment navigator and ending as the second in command at her 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment that was one of the three soviet women air regiments formed in 1942.
Involvement of women in combat on such a large scale was something unprecedented and shocking for Germans and in the first years of the war ironically Nazi propaganda was using it as an evidence of inhumanity of the soviet regime, but when the end was close they did not stop at sending even children to battle.
World War II was the most brutal and bloody war in the history of mankind. Pushing the limits of human atrocity, it also revealed the heights of heroism and self-sacrifice. So dual is also the story of Katyusha – the story of devoted love and fierce hostility.
Most of the photos are from War Album digital archive of World War II images. The images of the wartime soviet posters can be found at My-USSR.ru, Krasnoye Znamya (Red Banner), 1941-1945 and Electronic Museum of Domestic Poster.
Other interesting links
Фронтовые судьбы песен. «Катюша» (Frontline Destiny of Songs. “Katyusha”) – an interesting collection of stories about the song, its various versions (includes sheet music):http://www.a-pesni.golosa.info/ww2/oficial/katjucha.htm
Ржев: Неизвестная битва Георгия Жукова (Rzhev: Georgi Zhukov’s Unknown Battle) – a 2009 documentary directed by Sergey Nurmamed, and narrated by Aleksey Pivovarov and Konstantin Goldenzweig caused lots of controversy in Russia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lv_8AbQJyuk
Searching for military burial places around Rzhev – a short video by a local military-historical center Oryol (Eagle): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mskUclqiUQ4
VESTI Moscow 23 September 2007 TV news reportage about search work around Moscow http://www.vesti-moscow.ru/videos.html?id=9430
Женское лицо войны. Катюша (Female Face of War. Katyusha) – a 2008 Russian documentary directed by Aleksey Kitaytsev based on a book by Svetlana Aleksiyevich: http://rutube.ru/tracks/1895638.html
Женя, Женечка и ‘Катюша’ (Zhenya, Zhenechka and ‘Katyusha’) – a popular 1967 Russian soviet movie (with English subtitles) directed by Vladimir Motyl and co-written with Bulat Okudzhava tells the touching story of a romantic young man (Zhenya) going through the war together with his division of Katyusha rocket launchers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsvveaPoUlk