The Epic Victory
Boris Zubarev, Stepan Karnaukhov, Viktor Mezentsev
The memory of the Great Patriotic War lives in our subtle senses, and recollections of hard battles, tremendous casualties, devastated cities and scorched villages give one a lump in the throat. But at the same time, all things associated with the war acquire an epic nature. The war is more and more perceived as a battle between Good and Evil. And each fact of that war acquires a historical meaning. The Great Patriotic War was marked by mass heroism, and millions of the country's defenders are considered heroes and saviors. On the eve of the 65th anniversary of the victory in that war, the magazine has organized a meeting with war veterans Boris Zubarev, Stepan Karnaukhov, and Viktor Mezentsev, who are senior members of the Irkutsk Community in Moscow. Their lives are a vivid example of the nation's perseverance in the deadly epic struggle.
Boris M. Zubarev,
an honored pensioner, born in 1921 in Irkutsk. In 1942, he graduated from the Irkutsk Flying School. Fought in the 1st Guards Assault Kirovograd-Berlin Corps. After the war, he graduated from the Kazakh Mining and Metallurgical Institute. In 1976-1987, worked as First Deputy Minister of Geology of the Soviet Union. The ministry had its own fleet. Boris Zubarev’s status corresponds to the rank of Admiral of the Soviet Navy. He was awarded Soviet State Prizes three times. Zubarev is a merited geologist of the Russian Federation, the holder of seven combat orders and 26 medals of the Soviet Union and foreign countries.
Stepan V. Karnaukhov,
an honored pensioner, born in 1924 in Cheremkhov, Irklutsk region. In 1942, he graduated from the Cheremkhov Mining College and was drafted into the army. Fought on the Western, 2nd Baltic, and 1st Byelorussian Fronts, stormed Berlin and the Reichstag. After the war, Karnaukhov graduated from the Irkutsk Mining and Metallurgical Institute, worked in the coal industry. In 1961, he started a party career (Irkutsk regional committee of the Soviet Communist Party and then the party’s Central Committee). Karnaukhov has a degree in economics and the military rank of Colonel (Retired). He has been awarded five orders and 30 medals of the USSR and the Russian Federation.
Viktor F. Mezentsev,
an honored pensioner, born in 1926 in Zhigalovo, Irkutsk region. In 1942, he enrolled in the Irkutsk School of Military Railway Technicians, then served in the Railway Troops on the Western Front, has the rank of Captain (Retired). After the war, Mezentsev graduated from a two-year party school in Irkutsk and Irkutsk State University (Department of History). He oversaw the construction of the Taishet-Lena (Irkutsk region) and Reshety-Boguchar (Voronezh region) railways. Mezentsev has been awarded four orders and nine medals of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.
READY FOR LABOR AND DEFENSE
Our war veterans recall that the storm did not sweep the country at once. There were some harbingers: at first fiery lightning strikes flashed in the east (events in Khalkhin Gol) and then the Soviet-Finish war thundered in the west. The signs of the looming trouble appeared in remote Irkutsk, too: military planes brought over wounded soldiers from Khalkhin Gol and some secondary schools were converted into hospitals.
People listened to the radio intently and read the press. It seemed that the youth foreboded the coming hardships. “It was considered prestigious to have at least four defense badges on the jacket,” Viktor Mezentsev recalls. “Those were the ‘Voroshilov Shooter’, the ‘Osoaviakhim’ (Society of Assistance to Defense, Aviation and Chemical Construction), the ‘Red Cross and Red Crescent’, and the ‘BGTO’ (Be Ready for Labor and Defense). The girls and guys who did not have a certain set of badges were simply ignored,” Viktor Mezentsev chuckles.
“I was a ‘Voroshilov Horseman’. I participated in equestrian contests that were often organized in Tikhvinksaya Square in Irkutsk and won some prizes, for example for cutting a grapevine with a sable,” Boris Zubarev chips in. Interestingly, Boriz Zubarev joined the army in 1939 before he turned 17. When his elder brother Yuri had reached the conscription age and was drafted, Boris wrote a letter to People’s Commissar for Defense Kliment Voroshilov in Moscow, asking for permission to serve together with his elder brother. A telegram from Voroshilov became quite an event in Irkutsk and was brought to the Zubarevs by the city’s military commissar personally. It was read out loud. Voroshilov had granted Boris’ request. The brothers were sent to Khalkhin Gol. In 1942, Boris graduated from a flying school and piloted fighter planes during the war. “My heart always longed for the sky,” he recalls.
Reminisces Stepan Karnaukhov: “June 22, 1941 was a stiflingly hot day. I was studying for school exams when I heard a radio announcement about the war. I ran to the dormitory where my friends were living and we switched on the radio. Molotov spoke of Germany’s treacherous attack on our country. We were all excited but filled with unflinching determination. None of the guys realized the real tragedy of what had happened, and we had absolute confidence in the might of our country. A year later I went off to war.”
The hardships of war reached Irkutsk quite quickly even though it was five thousand kilometers away from the frontline. Trainloads of people and equipment from evacuated industrial plants headed eastward in one big continuous flow. Ration cards were issued in the city, and supplies became more strained. All men literally besieged military enlistment offices. War veterans’ accounts of that time have one common point: Irkutsk was more and more flooded with the white color, the color of medical bandages and hospital clothes worn by the wounded soldiers, and the color of cleanness.
The white color will go through all of the Siberian war veterans’ stories. It is the painfully white color of the snow-laden fields outside Moscow in the cold winter of 1941–1942 when Siberian divisions fought to death, defending the capital. And it is the pristinely white snow heavily drenched in blood. Boris Zubarev, Stepan Karnaukhov, and Viktor Mezentsev recall that one trainload of Siberian soldiers after another pulled up at the Shakhovskaya and Istra stations near Moscow, from where they went off straight to the battlefields. They were no different from the soldiers who had fought there before, but wore dazzlingly white half-length fur coats. Now it’s a well-known military history fact: the Siberian reinforcement allowed the Red Army to give the first battle to the Nazi invaders and bring about a crucial change in course of the war.
Each storyteller recalls his own battle days and wartime experience, seasoning them with strong personal impressions. Threads of personal feelings weave into a tapestry of war history. Viktor Mezentsev remembers his feelings during the first days and even minutes of the war: “Having lost my father, I lived with my sister’s family in Byelorussia, on the very border, in Brest-Litovsk. Everyone knew that the war was imminent and all people talked about that all of the time, but with caution as it was a taboo. The Germans had started infiltrating subversive groups into our territory long before the war, and I could see them being trussed up by our security forces in the streets many times. I also remember our freight train run across the Southern Bug on June 21, at around six or seven o’clock in the evening, carrying coal for the Germans (under economic agreements) who then attacked us in the morning of June 22. There is a whaleback bridge spanning over the tracks near the railway station Brest. My uncle, a military man, had taught me to drive a car, and I often ran different errands. So one day I drive onto this bridge (in the morning of June 22, 1941 I was delivering military summons to draftees), reach the top and see German tanks rolling at me. I don’t even know how I managed to turn the car around and speed away... I came back to the base, but the military enlistment office was gone. There was only a smoking crater where it used to be.”
Stepan V. Karnaukhov states a position of a man with extensive infantry experience. “Combat is not the most important thing in a war (there were countless combats: face to face, with explosions and fire, terrible strain, some got killed and others wounded, someone had his luck). The most important thing is the hard soldier’s work: grueling marches during which we had to carry everything on ourselves – a heavy PTR rifle, a radio station (I was a radio operator), and our rucksacks; we also had to build dug-outs and dig trenches. In a new place there is no time to waste as you have to dig in, and the deeper you go, the better... When a German tank rushes at you in a counterattack, inexperienced soldiers run away, but the experienced ones hide in a trench and let the behemoth of a tank crawl over you. It’s good if it just rides across the trench and goes on, but it may turn over it time and again, burying you in dirt up to your ears at best, or else … we built lots of roads by chopping our way through the woods, laying skids or logs in marshlands. The instinct of self-preservation is used to its utmost in a war.”
“Sometimes we slept on the ground,” Viktor Mezentsev picks up. “There were no dug-outs in the railway troops because we were on the go all the time. After hours of work to rebuild railway tracks we felt so sleepy that couldn’t help falling on the frozen ground and, after a brief nap, sprang back to feet from cold; clothing got all soaked wet in the spring and we warmed ourselves up as best we could. This drove the soldiers to the point of complete exhaustion and many even wished they were wounded or killed to stop the unbearable ordeal! But then they put themselves together and got back to work again.”
“Nazi tyrants crushed railway tracks in a particularly deliberate manner,” Viktor Mezentsev goes on. “They had these special sinister trains: two steam engines pull several platforms, the last of which had a cord with a sharp hook spooled out into the middle of the gauge to wreck the ties (they were wooden back then), while magnetic mines were rolling off channel sections from the other platform and clinging to the tracks. The train moved on, followed by one explosion after another that tore the tracks into pieces. So many kilometers of railway lines were destroyed this way. The Germans destroyed, and we rebuilt, they destroyed, and we rebuilt... We took deformed pieces of tracks, straightened them out and built new roads. Everyone had a strong feeling that we were building a road to a victory.”
“It’s remarkable how much our aircraft industry had achieved by the end of 1941 as if helped by some superior force,” recalls Boris Zubarev. “Totally new fighter planes, such as Yaks (Yak-1 and Yak-2, and subsequently Yak-3, Yak-9, and Yak-9t), began to be supplied to the army. While before, our fighter aviation was falling behind the German ‘Messers’, Yaks exceeded them in speed and maneuver. Then Il-2 attack planes appeared. It’s a flying tank. The Germans called them ‘black death’. This plane can fly at a very low altitude, conducting machinegun fire and bombing at the same time. An attack plane cannot be shot down from the ground because it flies very low. Later, three 12-, 18-, and 30-kilogram projectiles were attached under its wings. The plane would suddenly come out from behind the woods and start pounding away in all directions, dropping bombs and firing missiles, making the Germans flee in panic.
Legendary Colonel-General Nikolai Kamanin commanded the nascent assault army, and no less legendary Lieutenant-General Vasily Ryazanov was in charge of the assault corps, where I served in a fighter cover unit. I remember the filigree Lublin Offensive campaign (near Warsaw). The place was full of German tanks. Our tanks tried to move forward, but failed... So Ryazanov ordered attack planes up in the air, but they had just come back from a mission and had no ammunition left. ‘Go ahead all the same!’ he orders. And off they went. The attack planes advanced like an avalanche, forcing the Germans to leave their tanks behind, run away and squeeze themselves into the ground. Meanwhile our tanks rolled forward. So the attack planes helped our tanks break through the Nazi defense lines without firing a single shot, just by giving them psychological support.
Almost 600 fliers died in our corps during the war, and there was a constant shortage of pilots. So this is how I became one. I believe that one of the reasons why the Germans lost the war is that they had underestimated our aviators, designers and pilots.”
Veterans recall that there were many natural occurrences during the war, but there were also a lot of unpredictable and accidental things. “The Germans often went on the offensive in the Smolensk region in 1943, and we had to fight back,” says Stepan Karnaukhov. “One day I had to deliver an order to my superior officer received from the commander by radio. I was in one trench, and he was in the next one. So I decided to dash forward. And suddenly a mine went off near me. Ordinarily I would have been killed, but I only got cut by small fragments of the mine. The division medic removed them and daubed the cuts with iodine. The guys said, ‘Stepan, you will live one hundred years now!’ Or here is another story. A signaler was carrying communication equipment in a horse cart when a shell exploded nearby. The horse, the cart, the wires and the equipment remained intact. And the signaler himself survived but got his eyes scorched. Dying in a war is the most natural of all things. Man fights in a war to kill or to be killed. Surviving is accidental. So I think it was a pure accident that some people survived and they should be grateful for that accident.”
Let us add that “an accident” is an absolutely epic term, akin to “fate”. Such war episodes and the passage of time give an epic ringing to those events. A phrase said by one of the guests cut into our mind: “The disaster that had befallen our country was particularly palpable at nighttime when the face of Evil was especially clear: the purple glow of the blaze flooding the sky from left to right across the horizon, the night haze blurred from smoke, and the air filled with repugnant and nauseatingly sweet burning smell.”
THE LIGHT OF THE VICTORY
Evil cannot win. It can only lose. Completely and irrevocably. This is what always happens in a fight between Good and Evil. The evil that had captured half the world was thrown back by our army out of our country first and then crushed in its own citadel.
The last strikes at the devil incarnate were very illustrative and symbolic. Viktor Mezentsev ended the war in Koenigsberg. This is what he recalled of his last offensive in East Prussia: “We built a railway ‘belt’ road around Koenigsberg, and an axial one attached to it. The command had ordered truck-based Katyusha multiple rocket launchers and guns from seized German ships to be mounted on flatcars. Those ‘fire trains’ with a large number of guns could move in any direction and use all of them against the Germans. The roar was so deafening that one could neither speak nor hear. It lasted for quite a while. There was a legend afterwards, or maybe it was a true story: a nun from the nearby nunnery came one day and told our troops that the sisters had prayed so hard before the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God that the heavens opened and the Germans fled their trenches every which way like mad, bleeding from the nose, ears and eyes.”
This story was told by Stepan Karnaukhov: “Our offensive was gaining momentum and eventually reached the border town of Bromberg (Bydgoszcz in Polish). Huge traffic jams created by German civilians who were fleeing God knows where. Beyond that was German land, or so said a road sign with an emphatic ‘Here is this damned Germany!’ written by someone. We had finally reached the destination that had been so many hard and bloody years away! But I had no vengeful feelings for the German population. On the contrary, my heart was filled with pity for the unfortunate refugees brought to such miserable state by their tyrants. I also remember the Berlin offensive, the brightest operation filled with pre-victory excitement and some special uplift. At 5 o’clock sharp on April 16, 1945, Katyusha salvoes cut through the serenity of the dawn, followed by the pounding of powerful mortars, artillery guns and howitzers. And suddenly white light flooded the battlefield. So bright it was that it hurt to look at it. Many thousands of spotlights placed along the frontline were directed at the enemy. They blinded and suppressed the Germans. The powerful beams of the spotlights flooded the area, paving the way for our advancing armor heading to Berlin”… towards the final victory.
Our guests -- Boris Zubarev, Stepan Karnaukhov, and Viktor Mezentsev – are undoubtedly among the numerous heroes of the Great Patriotic War epic, who wrote their own crucial chapters in this drama. The war ended, and fighting heroes became working heroes. It is people like our veterans that rebuilt the national economy and ensured its further development. Boris Zubarev became an internationally recognized specialist in geology; tens of thousands of kilometers of railway roads were built in our country by Viktor Mezentsev and under his supervision; Stepan Karnaukhov became a writer and wrote books about the war and contemporary times. Our friends-war veterans often meet with young people to share their profound life experience with them. The VIP-Premier Editorial Board joins the numerous congratulations to our beloved veterans. We bow our heads to you!
By Yuri SHILOV