- Toward a Sociocultural History of the Soviet Second World War
When Elena Kozhina arrived in the Cossack village of Koshevka, 80 kilometers outside of Rostov-on-Don in 1942, the eight-year-old was close to death by starvation. One of the survivors of a family that had endured, first, the blockade of Leningrad, then flight across frozen Lake Ladoga, and finally a lethal journey in cattle cars across the war-torn Soviet Union, the girl was at the end of her powers. A cart brought the evacuees from the train station to the house of the Cossack woman who was supposed to give them shelter, and Kozhina was just able to drag herself to the entrance of the hut.
When I reached the threshold of the house and tried to step over it, I could not. With surprise, almost with shame, I stared at this small wooden hurdle over which I could not raise my foot. I tried again, wobbled, and had to grab the doorjamb. Inside the house, on a bench along the wall, sat a row of old Cossack women: all straight and unflinching, with grim, unfriendly faces that were strangely dark under their white headscarves. They watched me dispassionately.1
The sons and husbands of these women were at the front, fighting in the Red Army against the Nazi invaders just as Kozhina’s father did at the time. Yet they expressed no sympathy for the ragged Leningraders who had been placed among them. Starving children were not new. The Cossacks had seen them before, during the great famine of 1932–33. Only then, it had been rural children who collapsed from malnutrition. And the last cattle cars they had [End Page 829] witnessed had been full not of city people but of family members of “kulaks,” exiled to their northern plight and often to their deaths. Kushevka’s train station had been a transit point for such trains, full of unfortunates like the Cossack women themselves: villagers, peasants, people of the land; some of them neighbors, relatives, friends.2 Why should Cossacks now feel compassion for these city people? The Leningraders were fools at best. “Why do you stand up for your damn Bolsheviks?” the local women would say. “Look, they starved your whole city to death, and those of you who survived were thrown in railcars like cattle and driven for months so that hunger could finish you on the way. Then they dumped you here without even a piece of bread. If you want to obey such people, go ahead, but we think differently. We remember our Cossack freedom.”3 To the locals, city folk were accomplices of “the Bolsheviks,” and indeed Kozhina’s father was a Communist and an officer—that is, one of those cursed people who had imposed the devilish kolkhozes on the Cossacks.4
As time went on, however, and Kozhina and her mother integrated into village life, they became, if never locals, then at least respected guests. As it turned out, the new masters—the Germans had occupied Kushevka on 31 July 1942, the eve of Elena’s ninth birthday—brought neither Cossack freedom nor the abolition of the collective farms, but new miseries.5 Greeted with bread and salt by the villagers, the Germans were soon despised as exploiters, occupiers, and murderers.6 Under the pressure of shared deprivation, the gap between the communist Leningraders and their unwilling hosts began to narrow. The locals “had changed noticeably,” wrote Kozhina in her memoirs, “both in their demeanor toward us and in general. They asked about our lives more often and with more interest, and talked about their own more willingly. Their remarks about the Germans became increasingly hostile.”7 After liberation by the Red Army in February 1943, the two worlds finally met in a common life: letters from the front arrived for both the Leningraders and the Cossacks, and reading them together formed a new bond between people who initially had felt “separated by barriers without entrances and exits.”8
Kozhina’s experience encapsulates several essential features any socio-cultural history of the Soviet Union’s Second World War has to grapple with.9...