Chapter 1Born Into a Season of Darkness and Promises
The little girl whose parents named Lidiya but called Lilya or Lil’ka was born into a chaotic epoch, and into a land racked by violence, war, revolution, and famine. It was a time of immense upheaval in which an established order, entrenched for three centuries, was overthrown by forces that were unique to history in the scale of what they did and what they brought into being.
Also born into this turbulent time was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the renowned chronicler of this period in Russian history. Recalling that it was also a season of grand promises, he wrote of his and Lilya’s generation that “we marched in the ranks of those born the year[s] the Revolution took place, and because we were the same age as the Revolution, the brightest of futures lay ahead.”
Within the darkness, there were promises.
The Russian Empire that had been ruled by the Tsars of the Romanov Dynasty since 1613 crumbled, fragmented, and finally coalesced into an entity unlike any that had existed on such a scale before. It was that place that nationalist Vasily Shulgin would call “a form of state with no name.”
It all began early in 1917, and when it ended nearly six years later when Lilya was barely a year old, the vast empire was unrecognizable as the state into which her parents had been born.
After humiliating defeats by the Germans in World War I and a general economic collapse, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917. In November of that year, the ensuing provisional government was itself overthrown by a band of determined revolutionaries called Bolsheviks, in the tidal wave of the October Revolution (so named because Russia still used the old style Julian calendar until 1918). By the color of the Bolshevik banner, it was a red tide. Though they quickly renamed themselves the Communist Party, the name “Bolshevik” lingered for some time, especially in Western media. Their other, obvious nickname, “Reds,” lingered even longer.
The message of the Bolsheviks, gleaned from The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx, resonated with the proletariat, the working class. They were the workers and peasants who had been most abused under the Tsarist system and who would fight the hardest to put the Bolsheviks into power. “Workers of the world unite,” Marx said. “You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Under the red banner of the Bolsheviks, a proletariat with nothing to lose toppled an oligarchy with everything to lose.
However, just as there had been an almost universal desire within the Russian Empire to be rid of the Tsar, there was no universal fondness for the Bolsheviks. Almost immediately after the Bolshevik Red Army seized power in 1917, they were challenged on all sides by a host of anti-Red factions—from capitalists to former monarchists to fellow revolutionaries—who coalesced under the banner of the “White Army,” plunging the former Russian Empire into yet another round of bloodshed, a bitter and bloody civil war.
On December 30, 1922, as the Red Army was wrapping up its victory over the disunified Whites, the “state with no name” was named. The Communists called their new empire the Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik (SSSR), or in the Cyrillic alphabet, CCCP, meaning the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The “republics” were the former dominions of the Tsar, which were not liberated but merely folded into a new empire. The largest of the dominions, Russia itself, became the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).
Through all of this Revolution and Civil War, the crumbling, fragmenting and coalescing was generously marinated in oceans of mostly Russian blood. As military historian Grigoriy Krivosheyev writes in Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, there were 6.1 million Russian casualties in World War I (1914–17), and almost 2.7 million in the Civil War that followed the Revolution. This is not to mention those who died in the Revolution itself, or millions more who died of disease, starvation, and wholesale murder.
As millions died during those six years, so too were millions born. In this generation, along with Lilya Vladimirovna Litvyak and Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, were the millions who would grow up to be the young people who would make up the nineteen through twenty-four age group in 1941, the year that the Soviet Union entered the Great Patriotic War.
They were a generation born into chaos but who grew up with the promise that the brightest of futures lay ahead. They were promised that when the Tsar, the old nobility, and the landed gentry had been overthrown, and the chains of oppression had been cast off, a new world would emerge and that it would be a paradise for the workers and peasants.
Vladimir Litvyak and Anna Vasil’yevna Kunavin were in their late teens when the Revolution shook their homeland, and they believed in the promises. As indentured peasants working for a Russian nobleman on his farm about 50 miles northwest of the center of Moscow, they and their families were ready for anything that represented a change.
For most peasants living the lives of medieval serfs, the promises of the Revolution were like shafts of brilliant light illuminating the future. The future parents of Lilya Litvyak saw this light, and they believed.
For a moment, it seemed to be a dream come true, a dream that had been dreamed by drawing room and coffee shop revolutionaries since well before Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto in 1848—but this dream come true was literally a dream, and only a dream. The promise into which Aleksandr and Lilya and the millions of others were born was an illusion. It was more like one of the stories in the tradition of Russian fairy tales than something that the Reds would be able to deliver.
To begin with, the Bolshevik leadership consisted mainly of men who were not, nor ever had been, either workers or peasants. They had no idea what it was like to toil in field or factory, or to work at a trade.
Their leader was a charismatic professional revolutionary named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who had changed his name to “Lenin” in 1902. He had grown up a member of the privileged middle class, his father an educator who had risen to a prominent place in the Tsar’s bureaucracy. Lenin himself earned a law degree rather than pursuing a trade, and was a member of the well-to-do class of campus revolutionaries whose concern for the workers and peasants was an abstraction, pursued initially almost as a hobby.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks were men who were long on theoretical abstractions and short on practical experience. When they won their Revolution and were faced with having to put their abstractions into practice, they turned to the Marxist dogma that had provided the theoretical underpinnings of the Revolution.
Even as the Civil War was still raging, the Bolsheviks imposed a sweeping regime of nationalization and state control called “War Communism.” Under War Communism, private property and private enterprise were banned and all industry was nationalized. Those who had supported the Revolution’s aims of seizing the vast estates of the landed gentry were surprised to find that the state seized everything—including the surpluses from the peasants.
In explaining this, Lenin said that “the confiscation of surpluses from the peasants was a measure with which we were saddled by the imperative conditions of war-time,” suggesting that it was imposed as a wartime expediency. Fellow revolutionary and party elitist Nikolai Bukharin clarified this by remarking that “we conceived War Communism as the universal, so to say ‘normal’ form of the economic policy of the victorious proletariat and not as being related to the war, that is, conforming to a definite state of the Civil War.”
Vladimir and Anna had nothing, much less anything to confiscate. They had nothing to lose but their chains, and the Bolsheviks had made good on that promise.
The more substantial promises were harder to fulfill. For the peasants in the field, War Communism didn’t work. It was like trying to turn a fairy tale into reality. Agricultural production imploded to 60 percent of prewar levels, producing a famine in which as many as 10 million people died. Having liberated the rural peasants from their virtual enslavement by the Tsarist landowners, the Bolsheviks quickly made steps to reenslave them by confiscating their produce.
Beginning in 1918, Solzhenitsyn writes, “the countryside, which had already been strained to the utmost limits, gave up its harvest year after year without compensation. This led to peasant revolts and, in the upshot, suppression of the revolts and new arrests.”
Author and humanist Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko watched this happen and observed that “the hardest-working sector of the nation was positively uprooted.” A longtime critic of the Tsars, a disillusioned Korolenko had turned the animosity of his pen to the Bolsheviks amid the postrevolutionary repressions.
That to which Korolenko and Solzhenitsyn refer was a series of revolts by the peasantry against the Bolsheviks, notably those that unfolded in the Tambov region south of Moscow in 1920 and 1921. These were brutally suppressed by a Red Army contingent under Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky, who utilized poison gas against the peasants.
As Solzhenitsyn writes, “throughout the province concentration camps were set up for the families of peasants who had taken part in the revolts. Tracts of open field were enclosed with barbed wire strung on posts, and for three weeks every family of a suspected rebel was confined there. If within that time the man of the family did not turn up to buy his family’s way out with his own head, they sent the family into exile.”
As his source, Solzhenitsyn cites Tukhachevsky’s own article, “Borba s Kontrrevolyutsionnymi Vostaniyami” (“The Struggle Against Counterrevolutionary Revolts”), in the summer 1926 issue of Voina I Revolyutsiya (War and Revolution).
While things were bad in the countryside, they soon grew even worse in the cities. For the workers in the factories, War Communism didn’t work. Industrial output fell to just 20 percent of prewar levels, overall factory production to 10 percent, and coal production to barely 3 percent. The urban working class who had supported the Revolution’s promise of a workers’ paradise were surprised when the state announced that strikers would be shot.
Forced labor sounded more like the feudalism that had allegedly been overthrown than paradise.
An exodus of urbanites suddenly abandoned the cities to find employment in the economically devastated countryside. The population of Moscow had increased from around a million at the turn of the century to nearly 2 million on the eve of World War I, but declined by half during the Civil War.
In the turbulent aftermath of overturning the Tsar, things grew only worse. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens writes of the period following the French Revolution that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the Season of Light, it was the Season of Darkness.”
For Russia after her Revolution, it was simply the worst of times.
Of Russia’s season of darkness, historian and longtime Soviet insider Dmitri Volkogonov reminds us that the words “dislocation, desolation, starvation,” do not do justice to “the degree of the shock, the deformation and the shattered state of society that existed at the beginning of the 1920s. Russia was a vast revolutionary island in a sea of hostile states. The country was convulsed as whole provinces and districts openly rebelled against or passively resisted the new order. The revolution had won, it had survived and consolidated the power of the Soviets, but the new regime could still do almost nothing for the workers and peasants.”
Vladimir Litvyak and Anna Vasil’yevna Kunavin were married in 1918, their peasant wedding a bright moment within the Season of Darkness. No matter how dismal things were during the convulsions and famine of the Civil War years, the young couple maintained optimism about their future. They had grown up as virtual slaves, and now they were free.
Loosed from their bonds to the rural earth, they relocated to Moscow. With the old landlords suddenly gone and peasants denied ownership of the soil they once had tilled, there was nothing for them in the place where they had been born. They saw only promise in the great city.
Vladimir and Anna were lucky. They found themselves in the right place at the right time. Their arrival in Moscow just as a million citizens were abandoning the city actually worked to their advantage. Thanks to the declining urban population, they were able to find both employment and housing. They procured a tiny apartment, and Vladimir took a part time factory job. To help make ends meet, he worked nights as a railway clerk. Anna worked on and off in a retail shop in Moscow.
Finally, on March 21, 1921, when Anna was about three months pregnant with Lilya, Soviet leaders finally retreated from the failure of their earlier interpretation of pure Marxism. Lenin unveiled the Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Politika or New Economic Policy (NEP). While government would still retain ownership of banks and major industries, as well as foreign trade, the NEP opened the door a crack to allow limited private ownership of small businesses.
On the first day of 1922, when the Soviets also introduced a new, more stable currency, Vladimir and Anna were among those who lined up to trade 10,000 of their 1919 rubles for each of the new ones.
Foreign investment was now encouraged, a circumstance which greatly affected the aviation industry, a component of Soviet commerce that would play a role in Lilya’s later life.
Having essentially ground to a halt during the Civil War and its aftermath, Soviet aviation received a jumpstart in 1923 when the German firm owned by Hugo Junkers cut a deal with the Soviet government to open a factory at Fili, near Moscow, to produce three hundred aircraft annually. Though this project never fulfilled its potential, it did bring advanced aviation technology into the Soviet Union.
In turn, the familiar German company BMW began manufacturing aircraft engines in the Soviet Union in 1924, and Germans were imported to help train Soviet military aviators. As with the Junkers operation, the Soviet skilled labor working in these ventures became part of a new generation of Soviet aviation innovation.
As Lilya was opening her eyes to the world, the Soviet economy, under the NEP, slowly retreated from the precipice of disaster as the men within the new Bolshevik oligarchy maneuvered among themselves for control of the Soviet state.
Emerging as the most powerful of Lenin’s cohorts were two men who, like Lenin, were professional revolutionaries rather than workers or peasants. Also like Lenin, neither of them used the name with which he had been born. Lev Davidovich Bronshtein was a Ukrainian with a fiery and eloquent tongue who changed his name to “Leon Trotsky.” The other man was a moody Georgian who had been born Ioseb (Josef) Besarionis Dze Jughashvili (in Russian, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili). He changed his surname to “Stalin,” because it is the Russian word for “steel.” He wanted to be known— in Russian, tellingly, not in his native Georgian—as the “Man of Steel.”
The internal struggle to succeed Lenin began sooner than anyone had expected. In 1922, Lenin was on top of the world politically, but he was fighting a losing battle against a revolution inside his own body. Two strokes suffered in 1922 left him haggard and partially paralyzed. A third in March 1923 left him a mute invalid.
Lenin had envisioned a power-sharing arrangement among his successors, but each star in the galaxy of would-be red Tsars imagined himself as the one. Trotsky and Stalin became the leading contenders, and the most bitter of rivals in their contention for the top job.
In January 1924, when Lilya Litvyak was just two and a half, Lenin died and Stalin made his move. Among all the men in the upper echelons of the Bolshevik oligarchy, Stalin was the most single-mindedly assiduous about consolidating his power. Long before Trotsky was finally forced into permanent foreign exile in 1929, Stalin’s face became that of the party and of the Soviet Union.
Lilya took her first steps in Moscow, the epicenter of climactic moments in the Revolution and the seat of power, both for the Tsars and for the new Soviet rulers who succeeded them. Around the time that Lilya was taking those first steps, she and her young family moved to the apartment house at Number 88 Novoslobodskaya Street, about a mile west of the Kremlin, where she would grow up.
The narrow world of Lilya Litvyak and her younger brother, Yuriy, was sheltered from the madness of the Civil War and its disastrous economic aftermath. The shooting that reverberated in these streets during the Revolution had long since died away. The little girl with the big ribbon in her blonde hair, such as was the favored style for young Russian girls, looked out her window at an outside world which at least appeared peaceful.
In the comfort of their home, Lilya’s first daydreams took shape to the sweet sound of her mother’s voice. Lilya’s mamochka sang her the songs and spun the fairy tales that had comforted her in her own childhood. These now served as the first building blocks of Lilya’s imagination.
When Anna Vasil’yevna was a little girl, she heard from her own mother the stories such as that of “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” and she shared these tales with little Lilya. Vasilisa was a self-confident girl who faced and overcame serial adversity and triumphed. Ingenious and resourceful, she was unafraid to face the darkest shadows that lurked in a cruel world. In the legend of a mythical heroine, there is an allegory for the heroine that Lilya would become.
As the story goes, Vasilisa was barely eight years old when her mother died. Her father, a merchant, married a woman (coincidentally named Lilya) with two daughters.
As with the stepmother and stepsisters in tales such as Cinderella with which we in the West are more familiar, Vasilisa’s new family members were spiteful and mean to her, in part because she was unrelated, but mainly because she was beautiful, and the jealous stepsisters were not. All the while, though, Vasilisa had been comforted by a small wooden doll that had been given to her by her late mother.
Aleksandr Afanasyev, the nineteenth-century folklorist who became the Russian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm for his eight-volume anthology Narodnye Russkie Skazki (Russian Fairy Tales), interpreted the symbolism as peasants having created tales personifying nature. Storms and dark clouds were represented by the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, while Vasilisa herself was the brightness of sunlight.
One day, when Vasilisa’s father failed to return from a long trip, the stepmother sold the family home and took everyone to live in a shack in a dark forest. The stepmother then extinguished all the fires and candles, and sent Vasilisa to obtain fire from the home of an old woman named Baba Yaga, an old woman sometimes portrayed as a witch, who is a recurring archetype in so much of Slavic folklore.
Guided by her doll, Vasilisa went into the dark woods, where she was passed by two horsemen, one dressed in white and one dressed in red. As night fell, a black rider passed her just as she reached a house surrounded by human skeletons. This was the home of Baba Yaga.
When Vasilisa asked for the fire, the old woman demanded that the girl complete a series of household chores under threat of being eaten. Aided by the magical doll who cleaned while Vasilisa cooked, the tasks were completed from top to bottom. Vasilisa said her prayers and went to sleep, but more chores were assigned the following day, and again they were satisfactorily completed.
When the girl asked the old woman about the three horsemen whom she was seeing each day, Baba Yaga explained that the white rider personified dawn, the red man the sun, and the black rider was the night.
Finally, when Baba Yaga asked by what magic Vasilisa had accomplished all the tasks, the girl answered that “my mother’s blessing helped me,” by which she meant the doll that her mother had given her. The witch replied that “I want no blessed daughters near me! Your mother’s blessing hurts my very bones!”
Angry with competition from the sacred insinuation of the blessing, she sent Vasilisa away, giving her a human skull with fire glowing magically in its eye sockets.
When Vasilisa returned to her stepmother’s house, she found her and the two stepsisters sitting in the darkness, for no light would burn there since Vasilisa had gone away. Frightened by the skull, they ran away, but the skull pursued them, its burning, vindictive eyes locked upon them until they caught fire and burned to ash.
Vasilisa buried the skull, and accompanied by her doll, she returned to her original home, where she was reunited with her father. In a later story, Vasilisa became a weaver, impressed the Tsar, and married him.
In the version Anna Vasil’yevna told to Lilya, there was no Tsar.
Like the Bolsheviks, Baba Yaga made promises but demanded servitude. After all was said and done, though, it was the perseverance and bravery of the young heroine herself that ultimately prevailed.
Excerpted from The White Rose of Stalingrad by Bill Yenne. Copyright © 2013 by Bill Yenne. Excerpted by permission of Osprey Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.