First a general observation, borne out by the entire history of Russia.
When waging war, the country’s rulers always see the Russian people as their secondary – and sometimes primary – enemy. That’s why every Russian war, whatever its official designation, is also a civil war.
Hence, even though the harrowing stories told by Russian POWs have much shock value, they have no novelty appeal. Apparently, Russian officers routinely shoot their wounded soldiers rather than retrieving them from the battlefield.
For example, one lieutenant-colonel solicitously asked a wounded private if he could walk. When the man replied he couldn’t, the officer shot him without giving the matter a second thought.
The colonel might have been a sadist aroused by killing. More likely though was that he simply didn’t want to waste time just to save a useless human life. After all, a seriously wounded soldier was unlikely to return to the ranks before the war ended. So he had no value. Unlike industrial waste, he couldn’t even be recycled.
You may think that captured soldiers are saying what their captors want to hear. Perhaps. Yet the salient thing about these revelations isn’t that they are unquestionably factual. It’s that they are eminently believable.
For Russian people aren’t sovereign human beings to their rulers. They are bricks, a material the rulers can use to build whatever structure they desire. When a brick is broken, it becomes useless. The builder tosses it aside and picks up another brick.
Just look at the two wars meriting the soubriquet of ‘Patriotic’ in Russian historiography. The first one was fought against Napoleon in 1812. Except that it wasn’t just fought against Napoleon.
Before retreating from Moscow, the Russians burned the city to cinders on orders from Field-Marshal Kutuzov and Governor General Rastopchin. Yet no attempt was made to evacuate the 20,000 to 30,000 wounded soldiers in Moscow’s hospitals who all perished in the flames.
At the same time, peasant uprisings broke out in practically every province of the country. The people were killing their masters, not the French. They were burning down manor houses, not Napoleon’s supplies.
Though Kutuzov’s army was depleted, he had to dispatch large units to fight peasants armed with pitchforks. Celebrated heroes of 1812, Paskevych, Deibitsch and Wittgenstein, had to lead thousands of much-needed soldiers to kill their fellow Russians.
Yet the Russia of Alexander I was irredeemably liberal compared to the Russia of Stalin. In the ‘Great Patriotic War’, Stalin had to defeat not only the Germans but also, and not necessarily in that order, his own men.
The Red Army was surrendering en masse in 1941, with the Germans taking four million POWs in just five months (my father among them). Many of those soldiers didn’t put up any resistance – they’d drop their guns, tear off their insignia, run away into the forest and keep running until picked up by German patrols.
Whole columns of Soviet POWs were marched into captivity by a handful of Wehrmacht soldiers, who were frankly perplexed by that kind of warfare. Even the French had put up a stiffer resistance.
That wasn’t a situation Stalin could countenance. He declared that every Soviet POW was in fact a traitor, to be treated as such.
Thus, instead of fighting the Luftwaffe, the Red Air Force began to strafe columns and camps of Soviet POWs. At the same time, the NKVD was busily – and sadistically – murdering inmates kept in the prisons of the cities the Soviets were abandoning.
Many prisoners, including those not yet convicted of anything, weren’t just shot. They were nailed to the wall, eviscerated, flailed, had various parts of their anatomy cut off. Even the Nazis were appalled when entering cities like Lvov, to find them reeking of the stench of decomposing corpses.
Stalin also explained to the population that the soldiers’ families were hostages to their men’s valour. The family of a soldier taken prisoner was deprived of ration cards, which usually meant a death sentence. The impetuous Zhukov actually ordered that such families be executed, but Stalin countermanded the directive. That was too much even for him.
Zhukov was also too much for Eisenhower. In his memoirs, the Allied commander describes his shock when his Soviet counterpart casually mentioned that, when his armour was bogged down in a minefield, he’d simply march some infantry across to clear the way.
The gallantry of Soviet soldiers was also enhanced by the so-called ‘blocking detachments’, at least a company for each regiment. They were positioned behind regular units and used machinegun bursts to block any retreat.
Plus, Soviet commanders and commissars were encouraged to execute any soldier whose courage they deemed below par. Soviet war novels are full of such stories: a heroic commissar or a SMERSH officer shooting a broken, shell-shocked soldier.
How many were killed by their own officers and the blocking units? No one counted because no one cared. Most guesses run into hundreds of thousands.
But those executed by court martial verdicts were indeed counted. There were 157,593 of them during the whole war. Ten full divisions. And a half.
To be sure, no army in the world has ever treated traitors and deserters kindly. Some are always executed, and the other warring nations were no exception.
Still, Descartes taught (wrongly, by the way) that all knowledge is comparative. So let’s compare.
The Nazis executed 7,810 of their own soldiers, to be outscored by the Soviets 20 to 1. And the scores of Britain and the US, 346 and 147 respectively, don’t even register.
Any army is a microcosm of society. A country where human beings have no value is a natural breeding ground for cruelty and sadism. When those corrupted in that manner find themselves bearing arms, they get what they see as a legitimate excuse to indulge such tendencies.
The army raping the Ukraine acts in the fine tradition of Russian history. Even the universal, millennia-old custom of carrying the bodies of fallen comrades back for honourable burial is wantonly ignored.
The fields of the Ukraine are strewn with the rotting, putrid corpses of Russian youngsters left behind like so much refuse. So when Russian POWs say that officers slaughter their own wounded, I believe them. Why wouldn’t I?
If they behave that way towards their own, their casual sadism towards Ukrainians isn’t surprising. Thus, 650 civilians were shot in Bucha alone, and thousands more elsewhere. Many had been brutally tortured before they died; women have been found raped and mutilated (I’ll spare you the details).
We all have good and bad qualities. We are all capable of kindness and brutality; love and hate; charity and crime. The difference among nations isn’t that some are genetically angelic and others are diabolical.
It’s just that some societies encourage our good qualities to come out and the bad ones to remain dormant. Some others have it the wrong way around, and Putin’s Russia is one such.
She has committed heinous crimes against the Chechens, Georgians, Syrians and Ukrainians. But perhaps her worst crime was committed against the Russian people, turned by totalitarian brainwashing into a stampeding herd of rampaging beasts, bleating along with Orwell’s animals “Four legs good, two legs bad”.
Heroic holdouts exist. They go into exile; some accept the martyrdom of prison, or worse. But Nazi Germany also had her Bonhoffers, Reck-Malleczewens and Stauffenbergs. Yet that didn’t change the satanic nature of that regime.
A Col. Stauffenbergsky may yet place a bomb next to Putin’s chair. But that won’t undo the colossal moral and mental damage done to the nation, not quickly at any rate.
The Germans took decades to expunge Nazism from their bloodstream, but they were helped by the Allied occupiers. Because Russia won’t be occupied by Nato, she’ll take much longer to heal the disease of Bolshevism, Stalinism and Putinism. A century for sure, several centuries possibly. If at all.