From Russia Without Love: Letters from the Russian Front – 1942 (Part 1)

On the Luganskaya Front

An endless column ahead of me is standing still on the frozen trail to Lugansk. It is a column only in a manner of speaking. It would be better to call it an infinitum of wrecks lined up one behind the other. Wrecks… Everything is decrepit, worn out, perforated, consumed, and dented – a perfect match with the world of desolation surrounding us.

At Lugansk there is a checkpoint. All those retreating from the front must pass through it. There is no other checkpoint on the Donets for a few hundred kilometres. None of this matters, except to our commanding officers. Only a handful of military police are enough to report on the remains of an army. What do they care if the column continues to grow? What do they care if someone’s feet and hands will freeze?

It matters not if someone sits on the snow, shoulders against a tree, dreaming of the warmth of home, the perfume of her hair, the table set for days of celebration – slowly slipping into the rigidity of a frozen death, the sweet and torpid death of hypothermia, forgotten by the living who grasp at life and have no time for their dying friends.

Thousands upon thousands have already died, and thousands more have been taken prisoner. Here are the remnants, the miserable remnants – all thinking that a few kilometres ahead, after Luganskaya, lies Warshilograd with many caserns. A town where it is possible to keep warm, eat and sleep. I do not want to think ahead for fear of going mad.

I walk back and forth observing my unfortunate companions. They are riflemen, bersaglieri, engineers, all in the same condition – long beards, eyes shining with fever, shrunken by the cold, tired and sleepy. I feel sorry for them, for a moment forgetting that I am in the same condition.Unfortunate men who do not know how long they will live.

Now it is dark. The wind whistles between the trees along the roadside. The litany of cursing, swearing and lamenting increases in volume. Darkness has brought into our souls the mistrust and discomfort of desolation that daylight keeps at bay. The checkpoint is not yet in sight.

Ahead of me a derelict horse pulls a sleigh. The sleigh carries two freezing soldiers who could not stand on their feet any longer. They cannot jump up and down to keep warm and they lament the cold and the pain. The starving horse keeps pulling toward the shoulder, pounding his hoof on the snow searching for food, but there is nothing to eat. His neighs join the lament of the two melancholy passengers.

Further ahead a light shines from a half-twisted and perforated truck. I move a little closer and hear a chorus of moans from the wounded inside. I move away as fast as I can and rejoin my group. We are walking now. I hear cursing but no lamenting.

Half-broken vehicles, men, sleighs, horses – they are all here after kilometres of fighting the elements and their own anxiety – surviving because of their will to survive. On the other side of the Donets they may be met by some bullet that will perforate their belly without a chance of mending.

A few soldiers stand guard around a simple building transformed into a headquarters. Four stoves keep the officers warm. Meanwhile, we have to wait out in the cold for hours until the controllers register all those passing through.

Disorganization and confusion has taken hold of our commanding officers in the command centre a hundred kilometres from the front. What is the purpose of this checkpoint? No one knows. What do they control? No one knows. Even the common soldiers in my battalion come to the same conclusion. Chaos, chaos, nothing more than chaos. Commands and counter commands without any consideration for the lot of the poor soldiers from whom all is required and nothing is given.

We proceed at a snail’s pace. It is about an hour that we have been idling on this trail. It is so dark that I do not see this blessed river and have no idea of how much longer we have to wait. I still do not know when I will find something to put under my teeth. When will I find a hole to sleep in without fear of freezing to death?

Meanwhile, I look for a distraction in order to avoid thinking of what lies on the other side of the river… the warm caserns. I do not want to resign myself to blindly follow our leaders like horses, whose will is malleable and does not allow for alternatives. We must see Italy again. We must escape from this frozen hell. Die if we must, but in Italy… caressed by our sun and consoled by our flowers.

The moon has risen adding more sadness to the scenery. We all resemble ghosts moving in a surreal landscape, where the white of the snow disappears far ahead into the grayish shade of fog illuminated by the moon.

Periodically, the murmur of the voices subsides. It seems that a wave of sadness invades the men with memories and regrets. Everyone becomes silent. The only sound comes from the distant cannons and from the engines kept running for fear they will freeze.

Hungry men, immensely tired, ambulate in this boreal scenery, helpless and hopeless, counting on luck alone to save them. How sad. The thundering of the cannons around us elicits a desire for peace, warmth and the good things in life. It brings a lump in my throat.

It was dark at four o’clock. It is now 11. Step after step, I arrived at the river – a slab of ice reflecting the moon. A moon indifferent to our pain and misery.

I remember when we crossed going in the opposite direction. It was the beginning of July. It was nighttime. We came to the front at the same time as a squadron of Russian bombers. Instead of crossing, we positioned the cannons and fired. The bombers disappeared after releasing their cargo at random.

We then crossed the river singing, exuberant and enthusiastic, saved by the strength of our cannons and the force of our youth. It seems like a century ago. Since then, something diabolical has turned the universe, our existence, upside down.

Now it is cold. We are at about 40 degrees below zero. We have almost no change of clothes and the food supply is low. We have lost our beautiful cannons – we are escaping. We have only darkness ahead. The Russians are pressing close behind with their Katushkas and Parabellums. Above all, they are better adapted to the cold.

What will become of us? What will we find on the other side of the river. Will we make it to Italy? Will they send us back to the front if we do? A terrible alternative, the thought of returning to the front in the present conditions, with hardly any weapons. The idea intensifies the cold – it makes me shiver.

It is my battalion’s turn. My captain gives the requested information to the military police: where we came from, how many we are. We are given instructions to continue on to Warshilograd where we will find an artillery post that will provide for our needs.

It is about midnight. Finally they give us the go-ahead to cross the bridge. I feel a jumble of emotions. I look at the bridge, thankful that I’ve made it this far. I believe the Russians will not get past this point. Or at least, they will not pass it with ease. In the meantime, we will rest on the other side of the river. Maybe we will be repatriated. And, if they will not repatriate us, they will at least give us something to keep warm and something to eat. And should we fight again, they will give us weapons. Then, we may come back to being soldiers. They will not let us die, as they have done until now.

Translated from the Italian. Read Part II in the next issue of Accenti.

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