THE EASTERN FRONT
Garip Sultan lay flat in a machine-gun nest, his stomach pressed to the ground. He craned his neck forward, looking out into the grasslands for the enemy. His superiors had ordered him to hold one of the Red Army's forward positions outside the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. It was May 1942, and the Germans were launching a giant counteroffensive. All around him he heard shells roar and panzers rumble. The nineteen-year-old swept his binoculars left and right across the Ukrainian steppes but saw nothing. He felt doomed. (This book is a work of history, based on interviews and documents. Unless explicitly noted in the text, sources are listed in the notes at the back of the book.)
He thought back unhappily to how he had ended up here. Sultan was a minority in Stalin's Soviet Union, a Tatar from the district of Bashkir. Turkic peoples had settled this region when the last great wave of nomadic invaders swept out of Central Asia in the thirteenth century, under Genghis Khan. As Russia expanded, the Tatars had lost their independence, becoming one of the many non-Russian peoples who made up nearly half the vast country's population.
Under Soviet rule, oppression of these peoples had increased, especially for those like Sultan's parents who had run small businesses. Soviet cadres called them capitalists and took everything. They nationalized his father's transport business and confiscated the family home. Even their horse was taken. The family, once rich, was able to keep just two pieces of furniture bought during a trip to England: a mirror, now cracked, and a clock, now broken. Before Sultan's father died, he encouraged his son to join the Young Pioneers, then later the young people's organization Komsomol, and eventually the party. This was the only way to survive in Stalin's Soviet Union, the older man had said. Sultan followed his father's advice. He joined Komsomol, attended high school, and had planned to study metallurgy. He tried his best to become a new Soviet man.
Then came June 1941 and the German invasion. The Red Army wasn't yet the formidable fighting machine that would eventually destroy the bulk of Hitler's armies. In the first year of the war it suffered enormous casualties and surrendered huge territories. Every available man was called up and thrown straight into action. Sultan was conscripted and quickly assigned to a ragtag group of non-Russians like himself, miserably equipped and poorly led. They were set to disintegrate upon contact with the enemy.
As his unit took up position outside Kharkov, Sultan keenly felt his status as a minority. When the troops lined up for inspection, the commanding officer, a Russian, asked minorities to step forward. The officer gave four of them, including Sultan, the suicidal task of creeping across the no man's land between the two armies and throwing German-language propaganda toward the enemy lines. According to this quixotic plan, the German soldiers would read the pamphlets, revolt against their officers, and surrender. No one anticipated that the Germans had set up tripwires. Sultan's group was cut to pieces by the ensuing machine-gun fire; Sultan was the only survivor. He hid for two days in the high grasses of the steppe before creeping back to his lines. For his bravery, his commanding officer promised him a medal. But Sultan felt the honor was hollow. His loyalty to the Soviet system, which he had honestly tried to cultivate, was evaporating.
Then his unit was ordered to make ready for the German offensive. Again, Sultan observed the brutality of Stalin's regime. Soviet officers forced prisoners from the gulag labor camps to work in the open, digging anti-tank trenches while facing German fire. One old prisoner, also a Tatar, talked to Sultan during a break. Gaunt and weak, he told Sultan how he had fought in World War I and been captured by the Germans. Life in the German camps had been better than in the czar's army. The prisoners had even fought for the Germans against the Russians. Sultan listened carefully and went back to work. The officers finally selected soldiers to man various positions on the front. Sultan felt that the minorities were selected for the most hopeless placements, but he trudged to his post.
He was lying in a shallow foxhole with another minority soldier, who manned the machine gun. Sultan had nominal command - he had served in Komsomol. But he had no idea how to stop the tanks with machine guns or what the point was of holding one piece of land at all costs in a fluid, mobile front. Sultan put his binoculars down for a moment and listened carefully. He could hear gunfire getting closer but couldn't see any movement. Suddenly, a squad of Germans burst through the grass from one side. The gunner swung partway around, but at the same time another group of Germans rushed from the opposite flank. The young Soviets had been surprised; if they fired at one group of Germans, they would be cut down immediately by the other. A hero's death: Sultan's officers expected soldiers to attain it. He had a split second to choose his fate.
“No, don't do it,” the German squad leader yelled as his men flung themselves to the ground and took aim. “Don't fire. Surrender!” Sultan hesitated. In his mind flashed images of the gulag slaves and his own family forced from their home; this didn't feel like his war. He raised his hands and the gunner did too. They became prisoners.
“Shoot them,” several of the Germans shouted. This often happened; the eastern front was brutal and both sides ignored international protocols for the conduct of war.
As the soldiers debated, an officer walked up, and Sultan sensed an opening. He could speak a bit of German - he'd learned it in high school - and decided to give it a try.
“Sir, you are an educated man,” Sultan said, addressing the officer. “What did you study?”
Surprised that a Soviet soldier could speak German, the officer smiled and answered: “Law.”
“Judges are supposed to show mercy,” Sultan said. “Don't kill us.” The officer laughed. He was wearing the Nazi swastika, but he was old-school Prussian. The men were his prisoners, his responsibility. Duty bound, he sent them to the back lines to be processed.
Sultan's surrender formed a small part of the Red Army's colossal collapse. Already, a staggering three million Soviet troops had surrendered to the Germans. Demoralized by Stalin's reign of terror, Soviet soldiers were capitulating wholesale. Many supposed the Nazis couldn't be worse than the communists. Soviet minorities were especially unenthusiastic about the Russian cause. To them, the Soviet Union was nothing more than a more brutal version of the old Russian Empire. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russia had expanded south and east. By the time the czar was deposed in 1917, almost half the country's population was made up of non-Russians.
The Soviet Union inherited from the czar two large regions where Russians were in the minority: Central Asia and the Caucasus. The former is made up of present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Back then the region was simply known as Turkestan, a Muslim part of the world whose various peoples spoke Turkic dialects. It encompassed nomadic peoples and great cities like Samarkand and Tashkent. Located far from the fighting, the region held little appeal for the Nazis.
The Caucasus lay closer to Nazi interests. It was the mythic home of the Caucasian people, important in Nazi lore, and a region of impenetrable hills and mysterious legends. Noah, it was supposed, landed here after the Flood. The Greeks saw it as one of the pillars of the world, its mountains holding up the sky and marking the edg...