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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: May 11, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Update: Comparing Different Versions of Putin's Stories of His Father Before and During WWII
7 years
The Irony Of Russia's Victory Day Celebration That Putin Hopes You'll Miss
The Origins of the 'Immortal Regiment' are in the Now-Closed Independent TV-2 in Tomsk

All of Russian state TV and many Western outlets had the stills and the video yesterday May 9 of President Vladimir Putin on Victory Day, carrying a portrait of his father in a naval uniform. The event was the "Immortal Regiment" march, a popular action now coopted by the government which once began as a grassroots action conceived by the now-closed independent TV-2 in Tomsk.

Putin has had very little to say about his father -- there is only one line in the biographical section of his home page on kremlin.ru, that his father was "a participant in the war."


Putin-and-Father-Immortal.jpg

A book of interviews by Russian journalists made of Putin early in his first term in office called First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait published by Public Affairs in 2000, which we translated, has more detail. He describes how his father was drafted into the army in 1932 after marrying his mother at the age of 17, and served in a submarine fleet. But that was before World War II.

When war broke out in 1941, his father "went to the front as a volunteer," said Putin in this version. His mother was left then in the blockade of Leningrad, where his brother died.

The following is an excerpt from First Person, in which Putin describes his early life to journalists, and an excerpt from his school teacher's memoir is also included.

I know my father was born in St. Petersburg in 1911. After World War I broke out, life was hard in the city. People were starving. The whole family moved to my grandmother's home in the village of Pominovo, in the Tver region. Her house is still standing today, by the way; members of the family still spend their vacations there. It was in Pominovo that my father met my mother. They were both 17 years old when they got married.

Why? Did they have a reason to?

No, apparently not. Do you need a reason to get married? The main reason was love. And my father was headed for the army soon. Maybe they each wanted some sort of guarantee... I don't know.

Vera Dmitrievna Gurevich (Vladimir Putin's schoolteacher from grades 4 through 8 in School No. 193):

Volodya's parents had a very difficult life. Can you imagine how courageous his mother must have been to give birth at age 41? Volodya's father once said to me, "One of our sons would have been your age." I assumed they must have lost another child during the war, but didn't feel comfortable asking about it.

In 1932, Putin's parents came to Peter [St. Petersburg]. They lived in the suburbs, in Peterhof. His mother went to work in a factory and his father was almost immediately drafted into the army, where he served on a submarine fleet. Within a year after he returned, they had two sons. One died a few months after birth.

Apparently, when the war broke out, your father went immediately to the front. He was a submariner who had just completed his term of service...

Yes, he went to the front as a volunteer.

And your mama?

Mama categorically refused to go anywhere. She stayed at home in Peterhof. When it became extremely hard to go on there, her brother in Peter took her in. He was a naval officer serving at the fleet's headquarters in Smolny. He came for her and the baby and got them out under gunfire and bombs.

And what about your grandfather, the cook? Didn't he do anything to help them?

No. Back then, people generally didn't ask for favors. I think that under the circumstances it would have been impossible, anyway. My grandfather had a lot of children, and all of his sons were at the front.

So your  mother and brother were taken from Peterhof, which was under blockade, to Leningrad, which was also blockaded?

Where else could they go? Mama said that some sort of shelters were being set up in Leningrad, in an effort to save the childrens' lives. It was in one of those children's homes that my second brother came down with dyptheria and died.

How did she survive?

My uncle helped her. He could feed her out of his own rations. There was a time when he was transferred somewhere for awhile and she was on the verge of starvation. This is no exaggeration. Once my mother fainted from hunger. People thought she had died, and they laid her out with the corpses. Luckily Mama woke up in time and started moaning. By some miracle, she lived. She made it through the entire blockade of Leningrad. They didn't get her out until the danger was past.

And where was your father?

My father was in the battlefield the whole time. He had been assigned to a demolitions battalion of the NKVD. These battalions were engaged in a sabotage behind German lines. My father took part in one such operation. There were 28 people in his group. They were dropped into Kingisepp. They took a good look around, set up a position in the forest, and even managed to blow up a munitions depot before they ran out of food. They came across some local residents, Estonians, who brought them food but later gave them up to the Germans.

They had almost no chance of surviving. The Germans had them surrounded on all sides, and only a few people, including my father, managed to break out. Then the chase was on. The remnants of the unit headed off toward the front line. They lost a few more people along the road and decided to split up. My father jumped into a swamp over his head and breathed through a hollow reed until the dogs had passed by. That's how he survived. Only 4 of the 28 men in his unit made it back home.

Then he found your mother? They were reunited?

No, he didn't get a chance to look for her. They sent him right back into combat. He wound up in another tight spot, the so- called Nevsky Pyatachok. This was a small circular area [like a 5-kopeck coin or pyatachok]. If you stand with your back to Lake Ladoga, it's on the left bank of the Neva River. The German troops had seized everything except for this small plot of land. And our guys held that spot through the entire blockade, calculating that it would play a role in the final breakthrough. The Germans kept trying to capture it. A fantastic number of bombs were dropped on every square meter of that bit of turf -- even by the standards of that war. It was a monstrous massacre. But to be sure, the Nevsky Pyatachok played an important role in the end.
Don't you think we paid too high a price for that little piece of land?

I think that there are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That's inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking that everybody around you is always making mistakes, you'll never win. You have to take a pragmatic attitude. And you have to keep thinking of victory. And they were thinking of victory then.

My father was severely wounded at the Pyatachok. Once he and another soldier were ordered to capture a prisoner who might talk during interrogation. They crawled up to a foxhole and were just settling in to wait, when suddenly a German came out. The German was surprised, and so were they. The German recovered first, took a grenade out of his pocket, threw it at my father and the other soldier, and calmly went on his way. Life is such a simple little thing, really.

How do you know all this? You said your parents didn't like to talk about themselves.

This is a story that my father told me. The German was probably convinced that he had killed the Russians. But my father survived, although his legs were shot through with shrapnel. Our soldiers dragged him out of there several hours later.

Across the front line?

You guessed it. The nearest hospital was in the city, and in order to get there, they had to drag him all the way across the Neva.

Everyone knew that this would be suicide, because every centimeter of that territory was being shot up. No commander would have issued such an order, of course. And nobody was volunteering. My father had already lost so much blood that it was clear he was going to die soon if they left him there.

Coincidentally, a soldier who happened to be an old neighbor from back home came across him. Without a word, he sized up the situation, hauled my father up onto his back, and carried him across the frozen Neva to the other side. They made an ideal target, and yet they survived. This neighbor dragged my father to the hospital, said goodbye, and went back to the front line. The fellow told my father that they wouldn't see each other again. Evidently he didn't believe he would survive in the Pyatachok and thought that my father didn't have much of a chance either.

Was he wrong?

Thank God, he was. My father managed to survive. He spent several months in the hospital My mother found him there. she came to see him every day.
Mama herself was half dead. My father saw the shape she was in and began to give her his own food, hiding it from the nurses. To be sure, they caught on pretty quickly and put a stop to it. The doctors noticed that he was fainting from hunger. When they figured out why, they gave him a stern lecture and wouldn't let Mama see him for awhile. The upshot was that they both survived. Only my father's injuries left with a lifelong limp.

The neighbor also survived but his name was not given. Putin said in this earlier version that his father went to work at the Yegorov Train Car Factory after the war, and they were given a room in a communal apartment in a fifth-floor walk-up on Baskov Lane. It was here that Putin had his indelible experience of cornering a rat and having it attack him, and also encountering a Jewish neighbor chanting prayers which first intrigued him but then when the Talmud was explained to him he said he "immediately lost interest."

UPDATE:

Just recently, as Hanna Thoburn reminded us, on April 30, Putin gave an account of his early life and his father's war-time service, evidently for the first time since the 2000 interviews, in a column for the magazine Russkiy Pioner.

There are some important discrepancies between the two accounts.


The Interpreter has translated an expert:

Father did not like to even touch upon that topic, to be honest. Most likely it was like this. When the adults talked among themselves and remembered something, I was just nearby. All the information I have about the war, about what happened with my family, appeared from these conversations of adults among themselves. But sometimes they spoke directly to me.

Farther was drafted into the service in Sevastopol, in a submarine detachment, he was a sailor. He was drafted in 1939. And then, when he returned home, he just worked at the factory and lived with Mama in Petrodvorets. They even built a little house there of some sort, I think.

War broke out, and he was working in a military plant, where there was so-called "armor," and was exempt from the draft. But he wrote a statement about joining the Party and then another statement that he wanted to go to the front. They sent him to the diversionary detachment of the NKVD. This was a small detachment. He said there were 28 people in it, they were dropped behind enemy lines to conduct diversionary acts. Blow up bridges, railroads...But they almost immediately were ambushed. Someone betrayed them. They came to a town, then left it, and then came back to it in a little while, and the fascists were waiting for them there. They hunted them through the forest, and he stayed alive because he crawled into a swamp and for several hours sat in the swamp and breathed through a reed. I remember that from his story. In fact he said that when he sat in the swap and breathed through that reed, he heard how the German soldiers passed nearby, literally a few steps from him, and how the dogs barked...

Furthermore, likely it was the beginning of autumn, that is, it was cold...I remember well how he told me that there was a German at the head of their group. In fact, a Soviet citizen. But a German.

And what is interesting, a few years ago, I was brought the file on this group from the archive of the Ministry of Defense. I have a copy of that file at home in Novo-Ogaryovo. The list of the group, the last names, the first names and patronymics and brief references. Yes, 28 people. And at the head, a German. Everything as my father had described it.

Out of the 28 people at the front line, 4 returned home to us. Twenty-four were killed.

Then they sent them to be integrated into the acting army - and to the Nevsky Pyatachok. This was likely the hottest spot in the whole blockade. our forces were holding a small beachhead. Four kilometers wide and two and a little bit more in length. It was supposed that this beachhead was for a furture breakthrough of the blockade. But it didn't turn out to be used for these purposes. The blockade was broken through in another place. Nevertheless, they held the Pyatachok, they held it for a long time, and there was heavy fighting. Very heavy. They surrounded him from the commanding heights , and they shot him straight through. The Germans also, of course, understood that a breakthrough could come from here and tried to wipe the Nevsky Pyatachok from the face of the earth. There is information how much metal lies in each square meter of that land. It is filled with metal there to this day.

And my father described how he was wounded there. His wound was severe. He lived his whole life with shrapnel in his leg; they did not take it all out. His leg ached on and off. He was unable to straighten his foot. They preferred not to touch the small pieces of shrapnel so the bones would not fall apart. And thank God, his leg was saved. After all, they could have removed it. He happened to get a good doctor. He had second-group disabled status. As a wounded war veteran he was given an apartment finally. It was our first separate apartment. A little two-room apartment. True, before that we lived in the center, and we had to move. Not completely to the outskirts, to be sure, but to a new apartment complex. This happened of course not immediately after the war but when I was already working in the KGB department. And I was not given an apartment then, and my father finally was allotted one. This was a great happiness.

And as for how he got the wound. He and a comrade made a small raid to the rear of the Germans, they crawled and crawled...And then it was both funny and said: they got up to the German pillbox, a big German guy, as my father said, came out of there, looked at them...and they couldn't get up because they were in the target sights of a grenade. "The guy looked at us attentively," he said "he took a grenade, and then a second one and threw them on us. Well and..." Life is such a simple thing, and cruel.

And what was his main problem when he came to? The fact that it was already winter. The Neva was frozen solid with ice, they had to somehow get to the other side, to help, to qualified medical help. But he himself naturally couldn't walk.

To be sure, he could get to his family on that side of the river. But there were few who wanted to drag him to the other side, because the Neva was exposed and there was shelling with artillery and grenades. There were almost no chances of getting to the other side. But completely by coincidence, a neighbor was nearby from Peterhof. And without a second thought, that neighbor dragged him to the other side and reached a hospital. Both of them reached there alive. The neighbor waited for him at the hospital and after he wsa assured that they would operate on him said, "Well, that's it, now you will live, but I'm off to die."

And he went back. And then I asked my father, "Well, then, did he die?" And he returned to this story several times. This tormented him the most. They lost touch with each other and my father thought after all that the neighbor had died. And some time in the 1960s, I don't remember exactly, I was still little, but some time in the early 1960s he suddenly came home, sat down on a chair and broke down crying. He had met his savior. In a store. In Leningrad. By accident. He went to the store for groceries and saw him. Imagine, both of them went at the same moment into that exact store. One chance in a million...They they came to our house and met now and then...But Mama told how she visited my father in the hospital where he lay after he was wounded. They had a little child, three years old. And there was hunger, and the blockade...And my father gave his whole hospital rations to her. In secret from the doctors and nurses. And she hid it and brought it home and fed the child. But then he began to fall into faints from hunger in the hospital, the doctors and nurses realized what was happening and stopped letting her through.

Putin then describes how after his brother died and his parents fled the Germans, they lived at the Vodnoy Canal, he said, more correctly called the Obvodny Canal in Leningrad -- a different address than he gave in the earlier version.

There are some clear discrepancies between the version told in 2000 and the version told 15 years later:

o In the earlier version, Putin says his father was married at the age of 17 which would have been in 1928 and that he was "headed for the army soon." Putin's teacher said that he was drafted soon after moving to St. Petersburg in 1932 in the earlier version. So in the same earlier version, there are two possible years, and in the later version Putin says his father was drafted in 1939.

o In the earlier version, according to Putin's school-teacher, his father first is drafted in the navy "almost immediately" after coming to St. Petersburg in 1932; he served his term and returned home, then went back to the front when war broke out, which was June 1941. In the later version, he was drafted in 1939, served his term, then returned to work in a factory, then went to the front when war broke out.

o He does not mention that the diversionary group was thrown behind enemy lines in Estonia in the later version.

o In the earlier version, he does not mention the Soviet citizen who was an ethnic German at the head of their diversionary group, but says somebody betrayed the group. In the later version, he mentions the German and also says that someone betrayed them.

o In the earlier version he mentions that he waited in the swamp while the dogs passed; in the later version he waited in the swamp while both the Germans and dogs passed.

o in the early version, he says his mother was laid out in the morgue with dead people while still alive and she is discovered to be alive while there; in the later version, his father sees the medics taking her away from the house, barely alive, and urges them to take her back home.

It's possible that these tales were embellished, but in his account for Russkiy Pioner, Putin makes a point of emphasizing the corroboration of his father's story with documents from the archives:

Everything that my parents described about the war was the truth. They did not think up a single word. They did not move a single date. About my brother. About the neighbor. And about the German who was the commander of the group. Everything was exactly the same. And all of this was later confirmed by incredible means. And my father, when his child was taken away and my mother remained alone, and he was not allowed to walk, he got up on his crutches and went home. When he got to the house, he saw that the orderlies were carrying corpses out of the doorway. And he saw Mama. He went up and it seemed that she was breathing. And he told the orderlies, "But she's still alive!" "She'll make it there," the orderlies told him."But then not live." He told how he threw himself on them with his crutches ad forced them to take her back to the apartment. And they told him, "Well, as you say, we'll do that but keep in mine that we will not come here again for another two-three-four weeks. You are on your own then." And he took care of her and she lived.

Perhaps Putin did get the true story from his parents about the war, but he himself decided to move the dates around about the time before the war -- possibly because his father went to work for the NKVD for longer than Putin admits, or some other unknown reason.

It's possible that Putin was mindful of the Russian attitude toward the NKVD, which was a secret police even more hated than the KGB, and preferred to associate his father's time in the NKVD with war service.

There's also the ignominy of being betrayed to the Germans; in the first version of the story he doesn't say where they are or that they had an ethnic German in their group; this becomes a central in the later version of the story.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick