Jan/Feb 2019  •   Spotlight

The Tale of Igor

by Peter Bridges

Image salvaged from public domain

My name, too, is Igor. And I, too, have survived.

I sit now on the porch of my Victorian house at Lake Mascoma, leafing through my old book, looking over the still waters and listening to the lament of a loon far out on the lake. She calls, I think, to me, but I am not quite ready to go for my final swim... though who's to lament me but the loon? My dear wife is no more, my only son is in Brussels and distant in more ways than one, and as professor emeritus I am now just a name in the College where I spent happy decades.

The happiness came after suffering, and it is time to give an account of that. I agree with Pliny, who wrote long ago to Caninius Rufus that we must all transmit to posterity some memorial to show we have at least lived. My story may not be unique, but certainly there are few other Stalingraders in New Hampshire.

I was born and named Igor Vladimirovich Smirnovski, in 1928, in the bustling city on the Volga, once Tsaritsyn and is now Volgograd, but until 1961 was called Stalingrad for the leader and great butcher of his people.

My father, Vladimir Mikhailovich Smirnovski, was a professor of mathematics in the Stalingrad Industrial Pedagogical Institute, a key institution. His work was well known. What was little known—except to the NKVD, later the KGB—was that his father, Mikhail Petrovich Smirnovski, came from a noble family and had been a Tsarist general. Fortunately for the general and his relatives, he had joined the new Red Army in 1918, had become a Soviet general and retired before Stalin executed his top officers in 1937. The general died peacefully during World War II, having escaped execution or the Gulag. His grandson met a different fate.

I leaf further through my old book. It is the rare 1844 edition of what in English is most often called The Tale of the Host of Igor, the Old Slavonic word pl'k meaning a host of soldiers, a regiment. Apart from ancient chronicles, the Tale is the oldest work of Russian literature. It was probably written soon after Igor, prince of Novgorod-Siversky, fought the nomadic Polovtsians, also known as Cumans, in the year 1185.

All young Russians and Ukrainians (Novgorod-Siversky is in the north of modern Ukraine) learn about this Tale. It is a matter of pride. A thousand years ago, the princedoms of southern Russia were key defenders of European civilization.

The Tale was always of particular interest to me. My mother, an elementary-school teacher born Anna Ivanovna Kardasheva, believed her family, who had lived long at Orenburg, on the steppes east of the Volga, had Cuman ancestors. (While my father's family escaped the purges, my mother's only brother was arrested in 1938 and sent to a camp at Kolyma in the frigid Far East. He died there sometime during World War II, but we never learned whether it was from cold, starvation, disease, or all of those. We lost more distant relatives, too, in the Gulag.)

Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941. As the invasion progressed, he ordered the Wehrmacht to take Stalingrad. By then my father had become an infantry captain. He died that December in the battle for Moscow—as I learned much later—leading his company in an assault across frozen open fields.

After my father had gone to the war, my mother and many other women of Stalingrad joined an anti-aircraft regiment stationed at Gumrak airport, north of the city. In August 1942 a German Panzer division approaching Stalingrad unopposed suddenly found its tanks under fire from the guns of the anti-aircraft regiment, depressed to fire horizontally. The Soviet history of the battle says the regiment destroyed almost a hundred enemy tanks before being annihilated. I could never find and bury either of my parents, but I remember them both with pride.

I turned 14 the summer of 1942. As the Germans approached our city in August, I was pressed into service, along with my classmates, in a militia unit. I say "pressed," but we were full of patriotism and joined willingly. I was too young to have joined DOSAAF, the paramilitary organization that would have trained me to shoot. Fortunately, though, DOSAAF had an old bolt-action rifle for each of us. Unfortunately, we got only a day's training before marching to the front, which was not far: the western edge of the city. We were a platoon of two dozen young men with a young Red Army corporal leading us.

I marched, that day, side by side with my best friend, Seryozha. I remember him saying we were getting a different sort of schooling. I'm not sure I replied. We were going to stand up against troops of the Wehrmacht who so far had rolled east across Russia for a thousand miles.

Well, we boys tried, and we failed. That afternoon our little platoon positioned itself in the rubble of a ruined garage, below the west side of the hill called Mamaev Kurgan. We had seen no enemy when night fell, and nothing happened in the night but a long German artillery barrage aimed at buildings to our right.

At dawn they came at us in hundreds, with grenades and fast-firing rifles. In five minutes most of the boys were dead. A grenade exploded on the far side of Seryozha, who was standing a few feet to my right. He fell dead in a bloody heap, but his body had protected me. I was dazed, but I lived. Two Germans came running at me. I dropped my rifle and put up my hands. Stalin had told us surrender was a form of treason, but my death that morning would have accomplished nothing.

Wartime Germany needed workers, and I was sent there. I walked west with hundreds of other prisoners for two long days, then spent three weeks crammed into a railway freight car. I was, at 14, healthy and strong, but when we were finally unloaded from our boxcars on the edge of Munich, I was thin and famished and suffering from thirst. Many others had died.

We were marched a mile to a camp encircled by a high fence topped with barbed wire. There were hundreds of shoddy barracks. They fed us, finally, but then and later it was never much, mainly poor soups and small amounts of black bread.

The Germans interviewed each of us during our first week in camp—and discovered I knew German. It was accented and far less than fluent, but probably better than most American undergraduates learn.

I had acquired my German not in school but from a neighbor in Stalingrad named Viktor Kress. He was a Volga German, one of the million descendants of the German farmers whom Catherine the Great had settled on the Volga in the 1700s. Kress had come to Stalingrad as a youth and acquired a higher education. He had then gone to work as an interpreter and translator. Although he never said so, we had no doubt his employer was the NKVD. Kress took a liking to me and began to teach me German. He told my parents perhaps when I was grown, I, too, could serve the state—guess where—and a knowledge of German might prove useful, as it had for him.

In any event, my knowledge of German saved my life in the camp where so many were shot or died tortured, sick, or starved. I was made a sort of junior clerk, to help translate for SS officers who were interviewing prisoners.

Does that make me complicit in the horrors brought about by the SS? I think not. I might have refused to work for them. They would have killed me, and that would have done no good for anyone. I have occasional nightmares, but not because of the translating I did for an evil regime.

Nor do I feel guilt because they fed me a little better than they did other prisoners. Was I taking food from starving men's mouths? Again, I think not.

Finally came the spring of 1945. American troops were driving deep into Bavaria. Clearly even the most diehard of the camp's SS staff knew the end was near. One of their officers was a young captain named Wolff for whom I had been translating Russian documents found on prisoners. He was an educated man—as were, I have read, other younger SS officers guilty of the most extreme atrocities. In any case, while the SS were torturing many thousands and exterminating millions of Jews and others, Wolff treated me humanely and not as an Untermensch. He gave me a little volume of Goethe to improve my German, paid me a few Reichsmarks, and sometimes gave me chocolate. One day in late April, when the SS were preparing to take camp prisoners on what became a death march, he ordered me to walk out of the camp with him. Once into the nearby woods, he told me to flee. I fled, wondering whether he might shoot me from behind. He fired a shot into the air, and I kept going.

Just where should I go? I was perhaps 20 kilometers from Munich. I might have a better chance of finding food in the countryside than in the city—but also more chance of being shot, by either the SS or, say, a farmer seeing me as a thief.

I walked overnight to the city. Four days later, at the very end of April, American army units entered Munich, meeting little Wehrmacht resistance. The city had been heavily bombed, and I think almost half of the inhabitants had fled. There was little food to be found, but with my small store of Reichsmarks I bought some black bread and survived.

Soon I was watching columns of American tanks roll slowly through the streets. Their hatches were open, and I had my first glimpses of Americans. The tanks, I saw, were organized in units of four tanks each. That gave me an idea.

I followed one such tank platoon, walking and sometimes jogging to keep up with them, for several kilometers beyond town. They stopped together with several other platoons in a large pasture no doubt intended to be their bivouac. I watched the men of "my" platoon dismount. One of them, in his late 20s, was apparently the platoon commander. I made my way toward him. He and another man pointed pistols at me, but I raised my hands and said in my best German that I was not German but Russian, and a friend.

The young commander fortunately spoke about as much German as I did. His name was Putnam, I soon learned, Captain John Putnam. Fighting continued in distant parts of Bavaria for several days, but Putnam's platoon stayed at the bivouac. In succeeding days I became a sort of orderly, or perhaps better said a mascot, for the platoon and its commander. They fed me, and I ran errands for them. I slept in a corner of Putnam's tent, and he gave me a tanker's leather helmet I wore proudly.

Then I learned Soviet repatriation teams had come west and were roaming Bavaria. Western leaders had agreed with Stalin at Yalta that these teams might locate and send back to the USSR the two million or more Soviet citizens who were in the West, most of them either prisoners of war or like me, forced laborers.

Most of them did not want to go. I did want to go. I had a case of toska po rodinye, yearning for the homeland. I wanted to get out of Germany, to go back to the Volga and hope to find my parents alive. I said farewell to Captain Putnam and reported to a Soviet team. They treated me roughly and put me and perhaps 200 other men and women in a temporary holding camp—and shaved our heads. They said it was to help rid us of lice, but I thought it was a decidedly bad sign. Security at this camp was not tight, at least not yet. At four the next morning, I found the single guard asleep at the gate and ran out and down the road.

My tankers' cap hid my shaved head, but I was clearly not a tanker. What was I? Well, so far I was a survivor, and I aimed to keep on being one. If someone should stop me for questioning, I would say I was a German citizen by birth, born to Russian émigré parents in Breslau, where I attended a Russian school and so never became fluent in German. Someone had told me all the municipal files in Breslau, including records of births, had been destroyed in an air raid.

No one stopped me. There were many people on the roads then, people of every sort, some in rags and some in decent clothing, and my look was perhaps not remarkable. There were not many vehicles, but when I sighted one coming, I dived for a culvert or clump of bushes. In two days I reached the tank bivouac—and my tankers were not there. And none of the other Americans there could or would tell me where they had gone.

I will not say I despaired, but I was sad. Then I heard that with the fighting over, the American Army was sending units to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the mountain resort 100 kilometers south of Munich, for "R&R," which I learned meant rest and relaxation. Putnam's platoon had, I knew, seen months of fighting; perhaps they had gone to Garmisch. I took a train to Garmisch. I had no ticket, but the conductor took pity on me.

And there, camping with many other units at the edge of Garmisch, in Alpine meadows full of flowers, under the high peaks of the Alpspitz and Zugspitz, was my platoon.

It was the beginning of a new life for me. John Putnam and his men said they were pleased, indeed relieved, to see me. They had heard bad stories about the forceful repatriation of other Russians; some poor people had killed themselves to avoid the Gulag. One Soviet team came to Garmisch for a few hours, two days after I arrived there, but failed to find any of their citizens. I spent that day sitting hidden in a tank.

The time came when Putnam and his men and tanks left Garmisch and me, to go by train north to Bremerhaven and take ship for America. By then the repatriation teams had ended their dirty work and gone back to the USSR. I went into a Displaced Persons camp near Munich for a few months. It was not, I may say, very pleasant, but conditions gradually got better, and on occasion I could go into the city. It was there one day when I came on a little shop with old books for sale and bought The Tale of the Host of Igor for next to nothing. It became my tangible link to Russia, especially after I learned both my parents had died in the war. I suppose the book is still my link to Russia: a sort of totem or emblem, a vestige of a society that lost its way in brutality and horror.

Good John Putnam was discharged from the Army in early 1946 and went home to Woodstock, Vermont, to his wife Joan and two young sons and the law practice his grandfather had founded. Later that year he sponsored my emigration to America, a good two years before the Displaced Persons Act brought so many other poor refugees to this country. I was 18 when I came here and went happily to live with the Putnams. Joan Putnam was very kind to me, and young Tom and Burt accepted me, after a while, as a kind of older brother.

My recent schooling had been in survival and not academics, but in the DP camp I had worked hard to master English, and after a year of tutoring in Woodstock that John paid for, I was admitted to Dartmouth College on an exceptional basis. This came, I know, after John—a well-known alumnus of the College and the son of another alumnus—had lobbied hard for my admission. There was at least one precedent, he told the admissions people. His friend Dick Durrance had come back to America in 1934 from a boyhood in Germany in which he became an expert skier but never acquired a secondary education; Dartmouth admitted him and he became one of the best skiers in America. Durrance was unique but, said Putnam, so was I, in a far different way.

The rest is known. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and seventh in my class, went on to earn a doctorate in Slavic studies at Harvard, and became an instructor at Cornell, where Vladimir Nabokov was working on his translation of the Igor tale and on occasion let me provide him some minor help. Frankly, he didn't need any help from me; I think he mainly wanted to encourage me in my own career. And he did so. In three years I came back to Dartmouth as an assistant professor, and some years later I became chair of the Russian department and remained so until I retired. I published a lot, as one may see in my CV on the College website. And that's enough of a memoir. The loon on the lake has gone quiet. I am going to bed. God save America from such tyranny as I have seen.