Jean Turner reviews For The Motherland! For Stalin! by Boris Bogachev
For The Motherland! For Stalin!: A Red Army Officer’s Memoir of the Eastern Front, by Boris Bogachev (Hurst, £25)
WHEN he retired in 1985 Colonel Boris Bogachev commenced writing these memoirs of his service for his country as a Red Army officer in WWII.
He had been in military service for 43 years and been a member of the Communist Party, as his parents were, since the age of 17.
Using his connections with his father, a long-serving military officer, he volunteered for service in 1941 when he was 16 and fought in three decisive battles as a platoon commander, in each of which he was wounded.
That service began from October 1941 to August 1942 on the Ryzhev/Sychevka front, north of Moscow, where he was wounded.
He returned after treatment and further training to become, at the age of 17, a mortar platoon commander on the north-west Kalinin front from November to December 1942. Both offensives were under the command of Marshal Konev. Their objective was to stem the German advance on Moscow and Stalingrad.
Stalin’s order “Not a Step Back” meant that there could be no retreat. The slaughter of the under-equipped and hastily trained Soviet recruits appalled the Germans occupying Ryzhev but they slowed the German advance. Those who survived were as heroic as the defenders of Stalingrad.
Once again wounded, Bogachev was sent to the rear. This time he managed to contact his family and spent time with them recovering and, as a senior lieutenant, taught other officers. Eventually he was sent as an assault engineering sapper to serve in Konev’s 1st Ukrainian front, when the nazi invaders were retreating into Poland.
His memoirs are full of the horrors of war and sometimes its humour and humanity. The efficiency of the medical officers, mainly women, often working under combat conditions, is recognised throughout and he also pays tribute to the animals that were recruited to serve in the war. He has a chapter on the trained dogs and horses they relied on, including a fearless Bactrian camel to pull the kitchen wagon into Germany.
Bogachev, who died two years ago, has written a book which does not whitewash the Red Army and it contains serious criticism of the injustices of military tribunals that penalised front-line troops for actions which were the result of the stupidity of some commanding officers.
He is bitter about the loss of various awards he was given in combat and subsequently denied by bureaucrats. After the war, he trained to be a military lawyer and as a senior officer served on tribunals rehabilitating Stalin’s victims.
His revelations are those of an honest and brave man and, as his daughter and translator says in the opening, he wrote this book to dispel any illusions about the nature of war and to oppose any future such horrors.