War on the Eastern Front
Running through the smoke of a battlefield with the German army behind him, Yevgeniy Sirokhin came face to face with every foot soldier’s nightmare: an enemy tank.
The only hope the young Ukrainian had was that the tank would not waste a shell from its large gun, but wait until it was close enough to train its machine guns on him. He dove to the ground, hoping to position himself so the tank would pass over him, unseen.
It rolled closer, then turned. Good, thought Sirokhin, at the time a teenager pressed into service with a militia group. Maybe it will move away from me, and I will be safe.
But it stopped, perhaps 60 feet away, and began shooting other soldiers running across the battlefield.
Sirokhin was trapped. All he could do was wait on the ground, hope the crew in the tank wouldn’t see him and eventually move on.
Then he looked up and saw three German warplanes dropping bombs on the Ukrainian soldiers and strafing them with machine guns. Was he going to be killed from the sky above, or the ground below?
He thought three things in quick succession: He wasn’t yet 17, and he didn’t want to die young; if he did, his mother was going to cry; and most important, although he believed in God he had not yet been baptized, so if he died, “I was going to go to hell.”
“I promised God if I lived, I will praise God and do good, kind acts,” he said recently through an interpreter.
The planes drew closer, and then they pulled up to avoid hitting the tank, and flew away. Eventually, the tank drove away, too, and Sirokhin escaped into the forest.
“The tank saved me from the planes,” said Sirokhin, now 80 and a Spokane resident.
As a mechanic in the Soviet Army, Ivan Chetverikov couldn’t rely on a steady supply of spare parts. Sometimes, he had to make his own nuts and bolts. Other times, he and his fellow mechanics would crawl into no-man’s land between the Soviet and Nazi armies after a battle to scavenge parts from vehicles disabled by the fighting. That often meant putting a German part on a Russian vehicle. Radiators weren’t too hard, Chetverikov explained, but using German rear axles on Russian trucks, that was a challenge.
One day, he was crawling in a trench toward the wreckage from a battle when a shot rang out. A German sniper had seen his hat move and shot it off his head. He picked it up, saw the hole, put the hat back on his head and continued to crawl.
Another shot. Again the hat flew off his head. Another hole in the hat.
“I laid in the trench until it got dark,” he said.
This was a hat, not a helmet?
Chetverikov looked at Sirokhin, and both smiled and shook their heads.
“Hat,” the 85-year-old Chetverikov said. “We had no helmets.”
For a few World War II veterans in the Inland Northwest, the war didn’t start Dec. 7, 1941, with Pearl Harbor. It started on June 22, 1941, with a different sneak attack, the German invasion of the Ukraine.
They didn’t have to go overseas to fight the enemy; the enemy came to their towns and villages. They fought in battles with names unfamiliar to most Americans ¨C Kharkov and Smolensk, the great tank battle at Kursk. They don’t mark V-E Day in early May. To them, it’s Independence Day ¨C independence from Adolph Hitler’s Nazis, although not from Joseph Stalin.
Spokane’s growing Ukrainian and Russian communities include veterans with that different perspective on the war. But when The Spokesman-Review got two of them together to talk about their experiences with the help of interpreter Katy Vatulko, it was clear they shared many things in common with their American counterparts.
The war was horrible, yet they don’t dwell on the horror. They tell stories of good things or odd things that happened to them, the kindness of strangers and even enemies. They remember friends they lost, and they marvel at how the world has changed. Sirokhin and Chetverikov were born in villages in Ukraine, “the breadbasket of Eastern Europe,” and grew up in a Soviet Union controlled by Stalin and the Communist Party. By the late 1930s, the region was suffering from a famine, brought on largely by Stalin’s policy that forced farmers into collective, or communal, farms.
Sirokhin’s village of Sokolova had several thousand people. His father worked for the railroad, his mother worked on the communal farm, and he attended school until eighth grade, when a new policy required students to pay tuition higher than his parents could afford. After that, he went to work on the communal farm, too, he said.
Chetverikov grew up in a village of about 500, where his parents were farmers working a small plot the government gave them. When he was 14, his older sister persuaded him to join her in the county’s main city of Kharkov, about 50 miles away, where he found a job in construction. He started as a laborer and worked his way up to plumber. Because of the heavy lifting, he developed a hernia, which meant he flunked his military induction physical in about 1940. Surgery to repair the hernia was unsuccessful, so he stayed out of the army.
Invasion and hunger
Both recall the shock when they heard Germany was invading the Soviet Union.
“There was an agreement that there would not be a war,” Sirokhin said. Stalin and Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact in 1939 before the Nazis invaded Poland.
Most homes did not have radios, but Chetverikov, who was 19 at the time, remembers the government announcement of war through speakers mounted on poles in each neighborhood.
Within two months, the Nazi army had pushed into eastern Ukraine and captured Kharkov. “They sort of flocked down on us, there wasn’t anywhere to run,” Chetverikov said. The Germans dropped leaflets promising to be kind and give residents food if they cooperated. The Ukrainians were skeptical of such promises, but “we made ourselves believe.”
He eventually went to work as a mechanic for the Germans because “I really wanted to eat,” Chetverikov said. He worked on their vehicles; they gave him a piece of bread or some soup.
Sirokhin, who was 14 when the war started, eventually escaped across the river to an area controlled by the Soviet army, hoping to find food. “We are hungry ourselves,” the soldiers told him. One winter night he crossed over the frozen river to German-controlled Kharkov, hoping to get home. A German sentry saw him and took him to headquarters. A German officer berated him, told him he could have been killed and told him to go home.
“I was overjoyed,” Sirokhin said. But on the way home, he passed much destruction and saw a dead Soviet soldier, unburied, lying where he fell. “It pained my heart.”
The tide turns
Most Ukrainians were confident Germany would eventually lose the war, Sirokhin and Chetverikov said. The farther the Nazi army pushed into the Soviet Union, the farther they moved away from factories and supply lines.
“I understood the Soviet Union was going to be saved by territory. The Germans would not be able to conquer the whole thing,” Sirokhin said.
In 1943, the Soviets began pushing the Germans back, pounding them ¨C and the Ukrainians in the occupied territory ¨C with rockets and artillery. When the Germans retreated, Sirokhin, who was by then 16, was conscripted into a partisan or militia group, given about three days of training with a rifle and bayonet. Chetverikov, who was by then 21, was conscripted into the regular army with all the other young men around him. They had no time to change clothes and were marched at a fast pace about 90 miles to a village where they were issued supplies and uniforms. Eventually, he was assigned to a mechanical unit and gained a reputation for finding ways to do things that no one else could do.
One time he was ordered to deliver written orders to a military outpost high in the Carpathian Mountains. “I had to deliver the package or get shot,” he said. When the vehicle broke down in the snow, he had to take out an axle and replace a part during a blizzard.
He received a medal for that, and more for other examples of ingenuity during the war. “I did not have to shoot a single German,” he said.
Sirokhin’s militia group advanced as the Germans retreated, until they were outside the city of Krivoj Rog in south-central Ukraine. There the Germans decided to make a stand against the advancing Soviets. As the Germans surrounded them, an officer on a white horse told them to lie on the ground and wait. Anyone who took even one step back would be shot, the officer said.
When battle started, the officer rode away and left them. Artillery shells began falling all around. One hit a medical wagon and blew it up, and the white gauze drifted down on them like snow, he said. Eventually, the soldiers got up to retreat, and he ran with about five others until he realized that as a group, they were a bigger target. He veered off and was going to yell to the others to scatter, when out of the corner of his eye he saw an artillery shell land in the middle of the group. It was then he saw the tank coming toward him.
Saved by strangers and friends
Sirokhin escaped capture for awhile. He worked for a farm family that gave him shelter, but when he contracted measles he had to sneak into Krivoj Rog, which the Germans still controlled, for treatment. He was given medicine to be spread all over his body, but the weather was so cold that he needed to apply it indoors. He walked to a poor section on the city’s outskirts, and finally knocked on the door of a small house. A woman came out, and when he told her his story, she cried because she had a son in the army.
“Maybe my son is out there walking, just like you and needs help,” she said. “Come in. I could help you.”
Eventually he was captured and sent to a prison camp. There he met a friend from his old village, who was in charge of feeding horsemeat to the German commander’s dogs. The friend slipped him some of the dogs’ food. Prisoners were put to work building a road. Work hard and you’ll get more soup, the commander told them; work little, eat little. Sirokhin worked hard.
The Germans took the prisoners with them as the Soviet army pushed them back. Sirokhin contracted typhus, and was put with other sick prisoners in a school being used as a hospital.
“One morning, we woke up and saw all our soldiers walking outside,” he said. The Germans had left in the night, and the Soviets had caught up with him.
But they didn’t send him home with honors for surviving the battle, disease and a long captivity; they kept him in the unit. Although some other soldiers knew he’d been a prisoner, he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Stalin had said that anyone who was captured was a traitor. If his prisoner status became too well-known, he would have been shot.
Chetverikov’s unit was part of the Soviet army that pushed the Germans all the way back into Czechoslovakia. The mechanics were right behind the front lines, and often could not travel on the roads because they were filled with broken equipment. They moved through fields filled with soldiers, some of them dead, some so badly injured they were crying, “Finish me off.”
On May 9, when the Germans surrendered, his unit was in Prague. He was a young man from a small Ukrainian village in one of Europe’s great capital cities, but he doesn’t remember being awed. “In war, you live minute to minute, you don’t have time to think,” he explained.
He survived the war without a scratch, despite having his hat shot off his head twice within a few minutes. The only thing that kept him safe were the prayers of his parents, he believes.
“I was not a God-fearing man at that time, and yet God kept me safe.” He later became a devout Christian.
Of all the countries or regions involved in World War II, which the Soviet Union called The Great Patriotic War, Ukraine arguably suffered the worst. By some estimates, it lost 6.8 million people ¨C soldiers, civilians, prisoners and residents sent to slave labor in German territories where they perished. That was about a fifth of its total population. By comparison, the United States lost about 300,000, almost all in the armed services.
Chetverikov and Sirokhin eventually returned home from war. Chetverikov got a job as a mechanic and eventually became what Americans would call an inventor ¨C there’s no good Russian equivalent of that word, interpreter Vatulko said ¨C but he did invent a device used to measure natural gas that was used all over the Soviet Union.
There was no GI Bill, no system of Veterans Affairs programs in the Soviet Union, but because he was a veteran, Chetverikov was granted a small plot of land on which he built a house in 1950 with the help of his neighbors. He immigrated to the United States in January 2001, where his wife has family. He wants very much to become a citizen, but he’s struggling to learn all the things necessary to pass the citizenship test.
Sirokhin’s eyesight was damaged by disease and captivity, and he went to a special school in Kharkov where he learned to make things with his hands like bread racks and mailboxes.
He kept his wartime promise and became a good Christian, and the choir director at his church. He even spent more than two years in Soviet prison because of his faith, but because of that was granted refugee status when he applied to come to Spokane, where his granddaughter and her American husband live.
Both delight in their new home. “These are the best years of my life, ever,” Sirokhin said.