Sometimes I just need to write something.
I see things that stand still as though they are in motion. Really, I do. And it can be almost intoxicating to see a single word or a snapshot image open up to reveal a lively narrative of thousands of words working together to deliver all that the tiny remnant seeks desperately to be remembered, to not be forgotten.
To describe what I mean, consider the following.
While in Russia in 2008, I visited a particular monument. Carved and smoothed in granite, standing still, it’s motionlessness spoke. Here’s what it said.
The year is 1941. There is a young man. He is only eighteen, a new student at the military college in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). He is like other boys his age. He has a family. He has friends. When the class day ends, he sits beside the Negev with his classmates, listening to the boats call out to one another. He has ambitions, one of which is to do well in his training, to advance his military career.
Hitler has drawn the whole world into chaos. Russia has been swept into the misery. The leader, Joseph Stalin, adored as strong but benevolent, has executed or imprisoned his top generals for fear they would rise against him. In paranoia he has refused to replace them with equally competent men thereby maiming his military. The young man does not know this. He does not know that the leader he so recklessly admires has provided no barrier for he and his compatriots. They are completely ill-equipped for meeting the demands of war.
Nevertheless, the political machine moves forward with its propagandizing, letting loose the floodwaters of empty words, convincing this boy and his brothers to courageous combat in order that they would defend the homeland from the treacheries of a vicious enemy. And this enemy, the Nazi regime, was until recently, a friend.
The lack of military leadership becomes evident to the front-line fighters when the battle finally ensues. Even though Stalin’s ministry of propaganda is determined to refresh the spirits of the party and deceive this young man into believing that Russia is strong and ready for the fight, it just isn’t true. In reality, the frontline fighters are starving and being easily crushed by a well-fed, well-armed, and well-trained Nazi jack boot.
The Panzer tanks sweep through the country-sides subduing every resisting force. The front lines are bloody as the Russians swiftly lose nearly two-thirds of its male population. The truth depicts a grim scene of one rifle for every five men, and the military commanders are exacting orders that as each man with the weapon is killed in battle, the next in line is to pick it up and continue the fight. Multitudes of front-line soldiers become wise to the dire circumstances. They turn to run from the pressing Nazi force. They are not cowards. They are men are unarmed, with wives, with children, with a desire to live. But Stalin has already given the order that any man retreating is to be shot. And so they are.
The young man training at the military college doesn’t know these things. He hears of nothing but victory. He hears of nothing less than honor and integrity by officer and foot soldier alike. He hears nothing except the Russian army is strong and proud and pressing the Nazis toward retreat.
But the inevitable truth cannot be palled. The call goes out that the Nazis are advancing toward Leningrad. The young man hasn’t finished his training, and yet he is called to a defensive position southeast of the city of Gatchina. There he and others from the college join a small regiment, only a few hundred — the youngest, fifteen. Their task — to hold at bay the two enemy regiments approaching from the south. These forces must not be allowed to advance to Leningrad. They must be held until the city’s defenses can be constructed and the people secured. These young men, these boys, will be given only a few tanks, a few rifles, and the impossibility of victory.
The boys are terrified. This young man is terrified. Why so few? Why so little?
Like the Spartan drama at Thermopylae, the Germans number in the thousands. The Russians, only three hundred.
The battle begins and the boys are hammered by the German force. Shells rain down on the three hundred from across the lines, lighting up the ground and sky with fiery bursts of thick, shattering blows. With the first wave of German troops, surprisingly only a few of the boys fall. They find themselves pushed back to the bunkers. The young man has now experienced battle for the first time and it has led to retreat. In the bunkers, they dig in and begin an arduous returning of fire. Surprisingly, their tanks are accurate and those with rifles are precise. The Nazis are unable to advance.
Behind the line, 30 km north, their families are building similar defenses designed to protect the city while the three hundred boys hold the line. They must hold the line. It must stand long enough lest the city be lost.
The battle is fierce. The supplies are low. The young man fights alongside his brothers to save the city. And they hold the line. In fact, the line is held so tightly that the Fascists are pushed to retreat several miles in order to gain a better positioning, in order to rest and gauge a new approach. It isn’t long before these German ranks are reinforced with new men and supplies and they return forward in an aggressive onslaught against what they have since learned is merely a pitiful little troop of boys.
The tide does turn. The young man sees his fellows fall. Around him, three hundred becomes two hundred. Two hundred becomes one hundred. In the end, two hundred and seventy die. Thirty are taken prisoner and the Germans sweep toward Leningrad.
But the southern defenses of the city have been built successfully. The Russian inhabitants have gathered momentum and solidified the perimeter of the city with steel, concrete and courage. They defend not because they seek to be faithful to their political leader, but because it is their city, their home. They survive a siege of over nine hundred days, eventually delivering an enormous and embarrassing defeat to the Germans.
The words inscribed on the monument tell the tale of three hundred boys who fought as men, immortalized as the saviors of the city of St. Petersburg.
The names of the 270 killed in battle are etched into the granite. Perhaps the young man survived. Perhaps his name is among those carved into the monument’s rock.
The monument itself, towering, majestic, is that of a young man leaning forward as in a run, a readied grenade in one hand and a rifle in the other. The monument is overgrown with weeds and the carefully cut stones have been damaged by the elements and vandalism.
It would seem that its story has been forgotten, and yet, it has whispered its narrative to me.