In Russia, May 9 is celebrated with great fanfare.
On cobbled squares throughout Russia, shrinking ranks of veterans gather to remember. I’ve met a few of them, women veterans of three female aviation regiments during WWII. They’re proud and bemedaled, and they tend to hold forth with grandiose declarations of heroism during an escalating series of vodka toasts that would end lesser mortals. And my feeling is that anyone who survived the epic war of annihilation that was the Eastern Front deserves to let loose a grandiose declaration or two now and then.
One of the veterans I met was Anna Yegorova, a veteran Il-2 “Shturmovik” pilot of the utmost bad@$$ery. She led a flight group in a men’s attack regiment, won scads of medals, and survived being shot down and imprisoned in a Nazi POW camp. The Soviets then treated her as a traitor for the “crime” of being captured.
I spent an evening at her modest apartment sharing vodka out of a canteen and agreeing, along with my translating partner Margarita Pomomaryova, to edit her memoir and see it published in the U.S. (Red Sky, Black Death was released by Slavica in 2009; to my great joy, Yegorova lived to hold the book in her hands.)
She died later that year, her sadness and troubled recollections undimmed. She never quite recovered from her wounds—especially the pain she felt at being denied her medals for 20 years and interrogated by the NKVD because she’d been a POW. But her fierce pride also remained. She’d lived through the worst of times, but it had offered her the chance to give the best of herself. She’d flown and fought and won, and that experience defined her for the rest of her days. Here are the final words of her memoir, an epitaph of sorts for her and her comrades-in-arms:
Russian literature boasts of our proud Slavic women, who can “curb a galloping horse” or “walk into a burning hut.” Those are big shoes to fill. But I think the war showed the whole world who these “women in Russian villages” are and how their hearts can soar in the name of their motherland.
In those mournful war years, heroism wasn’t any one person’s lot but the destiny of our generation. But how much sorrow can the Russian woman endure? And why must she? I doubt whether anyone could bear more.
And may no one on earth ever suffer such a fate again.
Related post: How I came to edit a Soviet airwoman’s memoir