President Putin’s recollection of his family’s experience during the Leningrad siege.
Frankly, father did not even like to touch the subject. Rather, it was like when adults were talking to each other and remembering something, I was just around. All the information about the war, about what happened with my family, came to me from those conversations between the adults. Although sometimes they addressed me directly.
My father served in Sevastopol as a sailor in the submarine squadron, having been drafted in 1939. After returning from service, he worked at a factory in Peterhof where he lived with my mother. I think they even built a house there.
He was working at a military enterprise when the war started, which gave him the so-called ‘reservation’ that exempts one from conscription. However, he applied to join the party, and then applied again to go to the front. He was dispatched to a sabotage squad of the NKVD. It was a small detachment of 28 people who were deployed into the near rear to carry out acts of sabotage – undermining bridges, railway tracks, etc. However, by an act of betrayal, they were almost immediately ambushed.
They came to a certain village, subsequently left it, and then later returned only to find the Nazis waiting for them. They were chased through the woods. My father survived by jumping into a swamp where he spent hours under water breathing through a reed. This I remember from his own story. He said that while he was in the swamp breathing through the reed, he could hear the German soldiers passing by, just a few steps away from him, and how the dogs were yapping.
This happened in the beginning of autumn when it was already very cold. I also remember well how he told me that the head of their group was a German. A Soviet citizen, but German nonetheless.
And here’s what’s curious: a couple years ago, the archives of the Defence Ministry handed me the case of this group. I have a copy of the case in my home in Novo-Ogaryovo. There is a list of the group – names, patronymics and brief descriptions. Yes, 28 people, and at the head – a German. Everything as it was told by my father.
Of the 28 people, only 4 crossed the front line back to our side. The other 24 were killed.
They were then reassigned into the active army and sent on to the Nevsky Pyatachok. It was probably the hottest place during the whole of the Leningrad Blockade. Our troops held a small bridgehead four kilometres in width and some two kilometres in depth. It was supposed to be a springboard for the future breaking of the blockade, but it never got used for this purpose.
They broke through the blockade elsewhere. Still the spot (Nevsky Pyatachok) was held for a long time and there was very heavy fighting there. There are commanding heights above and all around it; it was shot at throughout. Of course the Germans were also aware that it’s there that a breakthrough may be attempted, and tried to simply erase the Nevsky Pyatachokto from the face of the earth. There is data about how much metal there is in each square meter of the land. There’s still metal all over the place there.
My father told me how he was wounded there. The wound was severe and he lived the rest of his life with shrapnel in his leg as not all the fragments could be taken out. His leg always ached and he could never move his foot properly after that.
The medics preferred not to touch the small fragments so as not to shatter the bone, and thank God, the leg was saved. Because he had a good doctor, they did not have to amputate and he received second group disablement. As a disabled veteran, he was eventually given an apartment. It was our first separate apartment – a small two-room place.
Before we were given the apartment, we lived in the city centre and now we had to move, not quite to the outskirts, but to a newly-built area. That did not happen immediately after the war, but when I was already working at the KGB. I was not given an apartment then, but my father finally got his, and it was cause for great happiness. He recounted how he got wounded: He, together with a comrade, did a little sortie into the rear of the Germans, crawling, crawling, and then it becomes both funny and sad at the same time.
They got to a German bunker, from which a huge guy emerged and looked straight at them. They could not get up because they were under the machine gun sight. My father told me that the man looked at them very carefully, then he took out two grenades and threw them at them. Well, life is such a simple, yet cruel thing.
What was his biggest problem when he woke up? The fact that it was already winter. Neva was icebound, and he had to somehow get to the other shore to medical care. But, of course, he could not walk.
There were few people willing to drag him to the other side, because Neva was in full view there and exposed to fire both from artillery and machine guns. The chances of reaching the opposite bank were almost non-existent. However, purely by chance, a neighbour of his from Peterhof was nearby, who pulled him over without hesitation and managed to get him all the way to the hospital. The neighbour waited for him at the hospital, made sure that he was operated on, and the said, “All right, now you’re going to live, and I am off to die.” And off he went.
I later asked my father if that man really did die. He said that he never heard from him again and believed he was in fact killed. He was never able to forget that episode and it tormented him tremendously. I remember that sometime in 1960s, I don’t remember the exact year, I was still very young then, but sometime in the early 60’s, he suddenly came home, sat down and and began to weep. He had run into his saviour in a shop in Leningrad. Like their earlier encounter, it was purely by chance, a one-in-a-million coincidence that both men were in the same store at the same time.
They would meet again later at our home. My mother told me how she visited father at the hospital where he lay after he was wounded. They had a small child who was three years old at the time – that time of blockade and hunger. My father gave her his hospital rations secretly from the doctors and nurses. She would then take them home to feed the child. When he began fainting from hunger in the hospital, the doctors and nurses figured out what was going on and prohibited my mother from visiting him again.
It was at this time that her child was taken away from her. It was done, as she later recalled, in a compulsory fashion in order to save small children from starvation. All the children were collected in orphanages for further evacuation. No consideration was given to any of the parents.
It was there that he fell ill – my mother said that it was with diphtheria – and didn’t survive. My parents were not even told where he was buried, and they never came to know afterwards. It was just last year, without my knowledge, that people working on their own initiative, searched through the archives and found documents about my brother. And it really was my brother, because I knew that after fleeing Petrohof from the advancing German troops, they lived at one of their friends’ place – and I even knew the address.
They lived, as we call it, on the “Water Channel” (Vodnyj Kanal). It would be more accurate to call it a “Bypass Channel” (Obvodnyj Kanal), but in Leningrad it’s called the “Water Channel”. I know for sure that they had lived there. Not only did the address where he was taken from coincide, but the name, surname, patronymic, and date of birth coincided as well. It was, of course, my brother. The stated place of his burial was Piskaryovskoye Cemetery. Even the specific area was given.
My parents were told nothing of this. Apparently, other things were of higher priority back then.
So everything that my parents told me about the war was true. Not a single word was invented. Not a single day was moved. Everything told to me about my brother, the neighbor, and the German group commander – everything matched, all confirmed in an incredible way. After my brother was taken away with my mother all alone, my father was finally able to walk with crutches and was sent home. When he made his way to his building, he saw that there were medics carrying corpses out of the entrance.
He identified one of them as my mother. He came up to them and it seemed to him that she was breathing. He told the medics: “She’s still alive!” “She’ll pass away along the way”, said the nurses. “She’ll not survive now.” He said that he pounced on them, attacking them with his crutches and forced them to lift her back into the apartment. They told him: “Well, we’ll do as you say, but know that we will not come here for another two, three, or four weeks. You’ll have to sort it out yourself then.” My father nursed her back to life. She survived. She lived on until 1999. My father died in late 1998.
After the blockade was lifted, they moved to the homeland of their parents in the Tver province and lived there until the end of the war. Father’s family was quite large. He had six brothers, five of whom were killed in the war. This was a disaster for the family. My mother’s relatives also died. I was to be a late child as my mother gave birth to me when she was 41 years old.
Our situation was not unique. There was, after all, not a family where someone didn’t die. And out of all the grief, misfortune, and tragedy that my parents endured, they still harbored no hatred for the enemy, which is simply amazing. To be honest, I still can not fully understand it. My mother was a very kind and gentle person.
I can remember her say: “Well, what kind of hatred can one have toward these soldiers? They are simple people and also died in the war.” It’s amazing. We were brought up on Soviet books, movies, and hatred. But she somehow did not have it in her. I can still clearly remember her words: “Well, what can you have against them? They are also hard workers, just like us. They were simply forced to the front.”
These are the words that I remember from my childhood.
© 2015 Vladimir Putin
Translated at stanislav.org