Leonid Shchemelev: “Life is the greatest value”

People’s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev has always been open and sincere: in his art and personal assertions.
People’s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev has always been open and sincere: in his art and personal assertions. Criticised for his strong and stubborn character — especially in youth — he has never ignored his principles. Celebrating his 92nd birthday in February, art and culture remain his passions and he continues to fascinate others with his thoughts on life, history and modern life. His rich experience has made him clear-sighted and, of late, the Ukrainian situation has perturbed him. He is almost lost for words, saying, “How has this occurred? How can it have been permitted? It’s a war and people are dying…”

War is a subject of which he knows much, having fought for Ukraine’s liberation from Fascists in the 1940s. His sincerity, honesty, and blood-won right to tell the truth of ‘what happened’, his talent and great professionalism informed his pictorial war chronicles. Here, he shares stories on military life.


People`s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev and his picture “The Farewell to the Homeland”

The Sunday morning of June 22nd, 1941 was sunny and joyful for Leonid, aged 18. He was in high spirits, as life was wonderful: he had his parents and friends nearby, and was surrounded by the beauty of nature. He enjoyed Polotsk’s bustling streets and market, the horses were hurrying to their watering place and the river was calm and clear. All was serene and joyful.

That morning, Lenya went to the Vitba River (a left tributary of the Western Dvina) with his friends, to go rowing, as in the song ‘Across the seas, the waves, here today — gone tomorrow’. Suddenly, at noon, the black speaker of the boat station announced that the Deputy Chairman of the Council of People`s Commissars of the USSR, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Mr. Molotov would deliver a speech.

As war was announced, people fled in panic in all directions. Lenya ran home, as did his friends, consumed with horror at what might be happening. Only a week previously, TASS Agency had reported that war wouldn’t break out… yet here it was! The next day, German Junkers dropped the first bombs on Vitebsk, near the airfield and oil facilities. One exploded near the LUX department store. Most disturbingly, the armada of ominous black birds went unchallenged, with Soviet anti-aircraft guns remaining terrifyingly silent. Leonid recalls his mother’s nightmare the day before: of a huge flight of birds covering the sky over Vitebsk. Nobody had believed her mystical dreams.

A few days later, Leonid’s father was called to the army and, as part of a railway battalion, went in the direction of the Surazhsky highway, unarmed and with only a knapsack on his back. His last words were: ‘Wait, I’ll be bac ...’ He never returned and it remains unknown where or how he died.

On July 3rd, Vitebsk residents heard Stalin’s speech on the radio: ‘Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters!..’ The phrase ‘it smells of kerosene’ became a bitter joke [much like ‘all hell is breaking loose’]. Between July 5th and 6th, 1941, an infantry division held back the onslaught of the enemy near the villages of Gnezdilovo, Lipno, Parnevo, Moshkany and Alexandrovo. By July 10th, they were forced to leave Vitebsk.

Two days beforehand, with most residents remaining in the city, Leonid’s sister Galina received a visit from her Soviet officer husband, whose regiment was about to be sent to the front line. She was in the seventh month of pregnancy and was horrified to hear her husband say that the German colossus was unstoppable. He urged her to flee, so the family went to the city commandant, Major General Trostenko, who issued Leonid a pass for exit, accompanying his pregnant sister and mother. At that time, it wasn’t easy to leave the city, as the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs strictly controlled the evacuation process. Grandmother Alexeevna, and Polina Alexeevna, with her husband and Anna — sister to Agafya Venediktovna — remained in Vitebsk.

Leonid and Galina, with their mother, took a train travelling east and came under attack near Rudnya, by German planes. It was then that Leonid first saw human death and grief. The train held mostly women and children; those who survived buried those who had not, and helped the wounded. Afterwards, German paratroopers appeared in colourful parachutes, the men wearing ‘sinister black — as if death itself rained down from heaven’. He notes, “Paratroopers bombarded us, with bullets whistling close; fortunately, we were not wounded.”

The family stopped a passing military lorry, hitching a lift to the little station of Kardymovo (in the north-east of Smolensk), reaching a Moscow railroad station on July 21st, from where they took a freight train — passing Yartsevo, Safonovo, Vyazma and Mozhaisk, under endless bombing.

L. Shchemelev. “At the halt”

The same day, the capital underwent its first raid by enemy aircraft and the first air raid was declared. Moscow and the territory of the Moscow Military District were on a war footing. Muscovites formed divisions of national militia and destroyer battalions: a disturbing picture, which made a strong impression on arriving refugees.

Belarusians and those arriving from Smolensk — half-dressed, dirty, hungry, exhausted, without money or documents — were welcomed warmly by Muscovites, fed and bussed to temporary settlement in apartments and clubs. Money was then raised for them to travel further into the deep rear. The Shchemelevs settled in the Millers’ Club, opposite Kazansky railway station, receiving coupons for food, mattresses and blankets — and were offered a bath.

This was Leonid’s first time in Moscow and he sought out Lavroushinsky Lane, where the Tretyakov Gallery is situated. Huge barrage balloons dragged by ropes created an impressive picture. Sadly, wardens at the entrance to the gallery refused to allow anyone inside, obliging him to wait until after the war to view the world`s largest museum of Russian art. Pleasingly, he managed to visit Ostankino’s All-Union Agricultural Exhibition shortly before its closure (it only opened again in1954).

The family then moved to Ivanovo, where they briefly stayed with relatives of Galina’s husband, but did not feel welcome. They continued their journey, to the south-east, eventually stopping in Semenov and taking a private apartment. Galya had a teacher’s diploma, so easily found employment at the local elementary school. By that time, she had given birth to son Vilya: primarily cared for by Agafya Venediktovna.

Leonid enlisted in the military and was employed at the ironworks, making F-1 hand grenades. He quickly mastered welding and soon replaced experienced master-electric Nechayev, who was sent off on active duty. Meanwhile, Leonid and his peers anticipated mobilisation, undertaking general military training, and primarily mastering the trilinear Mosin rifle, of which there were few, even at the front.

In December 1941, in accordance with the August decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on the mobilisation of conscripts born in 1923, Leonid was at last mobilised with those from Gorky and Leningrad (who had fled from the besieged ring several months before). The future artist received his final factory salary, said goodbye to his family and arrived at the recruiting office in Semenov exactly at the appointed time, having just a 1.5kg loaf of bread in a small bag.

Leonid was sent to the school of sergeants, to be trained by Commander Plashchinsky: an experienced officer who underwent a baptism of fire early in the war, being seriously wounded in one eye. Despite the bitter cold, military training continued from morning until evening. Some couldn’t stand the pressure and were demoted, while others waited impatiently for the arrival of spring and summer. However, the warmer seasons brought ever-biting mosquitoes.

On December 2nd, 1942, Leonid took the oath of military service and received the rank of junior sergeant. He then began training young recruits; almost all were his peers, constantly arriving to join the regiment. Those were hard times, in all respects, with never enough food: a daily ration of cabbage, beets and 650g of heavy, watery bread. It was obviously insufficient for a young body but Leonid, as a junior commander, received some benefits. Moreover, he had inherited a strong constitution from his grandfather and had always had a passion for sports: acrobatics, football and swimming. He gained respect from subordinates and commanders. The soldiers anticipated the front with hope, expecting to receive not only medals but better meals.

There were many hours of inactivity, resulting in organisation of amateur performances at the dugout club, where they gathered to sing, dance and listen to the radio. They heard the latest frontline news from the Soviet Information Bureau and eagerly anticipated film reels of events. The lack of opportunity to meet girls was bemoaned, and they had nowhere to go in their spare time.

L. Shchemelev. “Self portrait”

By June 1943, the first march squadrons and battalions were formed and Junior Sergeant Shchemelev was appointed Squadron Commander, heading to the front line.

Mr. Shchemelev recalls:

“I’m not a historian or a researcher of military events but, as a man of action, I was strangely impressed by the infantry: their actions aroused deep sadness rather than frustration. Although I was only 20, I understood already that such severe battles, claiming thousands or millions of lives, would not bring happiness to the winners. The fate of the losers was even more tragic. Subconsciously, I felt the peril of such war for humanity — regardless of who was right or wrong. Even pre-Christian Roman poet Virgil understood that ‘war can do no good’, while Frenchman François Fénelon stated openly in the early 18th century that ‘war is an evil disgracing humanity’.

Probably, this feeling inspired me to paint Justify (which was later renamed Court Martial) three decades later. The picture attempts to reveal the inner turmoil of a confused young man: a soldier in the brutal slaughter of war, failing to understand events around him. I met men in this state, near Rovno, Rilsk and Konotop a lot of times. Many died in their first battle — failing to take a single shot.”

The main character in the picture is a young soldier, confused during battle and perhaps scared, who has lost heart and shown cowardice. He awaits a verdict from three members of a court martial. Of course, others in this situation might became real fighters, justifying the confidence of their comrades, commanders and homeland, overcoming confusion, weakness of spirit and natural fear. The picture’s key theme is human confusion and hope: it was a ‘trench’ truth of the war but failed to be developed by Soviet easel painting.”

Leonid Shchemelev was one of the first artists to show the real face of war, rather than simple patriotism, and the true cost of the 1945 victory.

In September, 1943, Central front regiments approached Chernigov. During severe fighting for the city, two-thirds of its houses, around 50 enterprises and some unique cultural monuments of culture were destroyed completely. On September 21st, Soviet soldiers secured the city and, after crossing the Desna River, went over to the Dnieper, seizing a bridgehead on the right bank of the Pripyat River: the Chernigov-Pripyat operation.

Over 70 years have passed since then: the length of a whole human life! However, Mr. Shchemelev remembers everything: how Fascist self-propelled gunfire hit our soldiers; how Germans built barricades at intersections of Chernigov streets; and how they hid tanks in ambush and threw gunners to our rear. He remembers how his fellow soldiers attacked, without heroism or fear. Protecting their Motherland was their key goal; they fought without thought of acting differently, battling for their land. He also recalls being warmly greeted by residents of released Ukrainian towns and villages, and given all that was available: bread, milk, sour cream and bacon.

At the workroom

Mr. Shchemelev recollects:

“Of course, the war had a different appearance for top commanders. It’s only now that I know where and how fronts, armies, corps and divisions were located. At that time, I commanded a machine gun section and ‘my’ war was on a small section of land. I had no idea of what was happening farther afield. However, I knew that I was defending my country, my language, my spirit and my comrades.”

In crossing the Pripyat River, towards the Belarusian town of Kalinkovichi, the infantry regiment had no more than a hundred active soldiers: exhausted, they were forced to keep moving forward. They approached the silent bank of the Pripyat and nobody could guess what was occurring on the opposite side. The company commander, Senior Lieutenant Gladky, announced their mission: to clarify the topography of the water, so that they might reach the opposite bank. Four soldiers were named responsible, including Leonid, swimming across the river, to reach the far bank. Looking around, they saw thick forest not far away, as well as craters, trenches filled with dirty water and a mutilated German 88mm self-propelled ‘Ferdinand’ gun. Everything was fine, so the soldiers gave the signal to the others, allowing them to cross the Pripyat safely. The operation was Leonid’s first on Belarusian land since July 1941.

Something amazing, incredible and, almost, mystical then happened (one of many such events in the artist’s life). On returning from a reconnaissance, his group of four (of various nationalities) slept for a while and each had the same dream: of a very beautiful girl, slightly differently attired for each. Leonid’s had a long golden plait and was dressed in white. On waking, they shared their dream, interrupting each other. Suddenly, they looked at the opposite bank and saw what they thought was a real girl. Alas, it was just their imagination, being only a slim birch swaying in the breeze.

This is how Belarus welcomed Mr. Shchemelev after two years of absence. Forests and swamps surrounded them, with no Germans visible, although they heard their voices, showing that the enemy was close. Our soldiers had no idea of how to behave, not having been taught tactics in forests.

Mr. Shchemelev recalls:

“At 4am on October 6th, our attack failed, as the Germans defended their position stubbornly and desperately. However, one of us, a guy from Dmitriev-Lgovsky, managed to knock out a German armoured vehicle. Attacks continued throughout the day, bringing heavy losses, including that of our company commander, Gladky — a high-spirited and bright person. He was more than our commander; he was a friend and father. Dressed in a greasy shirt, he was energetic and strong, inspiring us to fight ‘justly’. He was killed in a swampy forest, taken down by a machine gun before my eyes. I must admit that it was people like him who actually led us to victory.

It was very hard: the terrible fatigue, with extremely little food. We waited in the dark: at night, German counterattacks ceased but continued throughout the evening. Not far from Kalinkovichi, our division began its last battle of the day — deep in the forest, surrounded by marshes. I remember what happened well: bypassing a broken 45mm anti-tank gun, we were counterattacked by drunk Fascists: all extremely strong and tall, with machine guns, sleeves rolled to the elbow and helmets on their belts.

One, a middle-aged, tall, fair-haired man (I remember this well) — hit me on my left forearm. Initially, I felt little more than a blunt blow, as if hit with a stick. Then, I saw blood gushing and heard whistling; I thought that a bullet had entered my body, so took out the first aid kit and bandaged my arm. Then I crawled on my belly to our soldiers, where a nurse bandaged me anew: my bone and ulnar nerve were shot through. Immediately, without delay, I received a document describing my injury and was sent to a field hospital in the rear. A medical service captain examined the wound, shook his head and immediately ordered his staff to take me to the field hospital in Kursk. I was diagnosed there: a bullet wound on the left forearm and a fracture of the ulna, which placed me on the list of seriously wounded.”

Leonid was sent to the heartland. There were trains full of wounded soldiers and junior officers from various fronts. Living conditions were quite tolerable: good food, clean clothes, clean sheets, and an amazingly warm and respectful attitude towards the wounded on the part of female staff. Interestingly, Mr. Shchemelev tells us about ‘women of the war’. Doctors, nurses and ward maids did not merely treat the wounded (regardless of their position or rank) but filled them with hope for recovery and for reaching Berlin. The artist calls them ‘a unique phenomenon of the human race’.

On November 6th, they arrived at Moscow’s railroad station and, the same day, the Soviet Information Bureau reported that Kiev was occupied by the 1st Ukrainian Front; people were indescribably happy. On this occasion, even the wounded were treated to wine!

The city of Gorky followed, with the train standing at the station for a long time. Finally, late in the evening, it resumed its movement north. The small railway station of Bor passed behind them, and Leonid decided to ask the nurse about their destination. On hearing the answer, he was stunned! They were heading to the hospital in Semenov!

The train arrived in the city at night and, not waiting for dawn, Leonid and his friend, a second lieutenant, put on some ‘civilised clothes’ and set off to find the address he had for his family. They were told there that Agafia Venediktovna was alive but living at a new address. Perky teen Vanya, living in the flat, volunteered to show the ‘military men’ the way, despite the late hour. Ivan knocked on the door, which was opened by Leonid’s mother. Seeing her son’s plastered hand, she was worried but Leonid quickly reassured her that everything was ok and, most importantly, he was alive.

Leonid’s mother was living there with her grandson, Bilik, as Galya was lecturing at a school in Saransk. She had divorced her first husband and married another: Captain Kuzmin — whom she had met in Semenov. At dawn, the men returned and, an hour later, wrapped in blankets, were taken to the officers` evacuation hospital. In the afternoon, Leonid’s mother visited, as did Leonid’s former colleagues from the ironworks, bringing news, presents, a huge bouquet of flowers and a bottle of vodka (hidden in the bouquet).

L. Shchemelev. “The End of the War”

Mr. Shchemelev recollects:

“In hospital, I was nursed by Katya, from the nearby village of Dyatkovo. We got talking and I mentioned that I knew a guy from Semenovo District in Ukraine, who was working with a partisan group. Our detachment had come across them. On learning that I was from Semenovo, he was overjoyed. He was a career officer who had been captured early in the war. He had escaped and, after many misadventures, had joined the Sumy partisan detachment, led by Sidor Kovpak.

Katerina listened without saying a word then ran out. After a while, I was invited to speak with the head of the hospital and the major, who told me that an old man wanted to meet me, to clarify something. One of the Old Believers, the gentleman resembled a merchant, with a red beard, piercing eyes, a warm coat and a raccoon hat. He asked me if I was Shchemelev, but his face remained expressionless.

He showed me photos, hoping that I could confirm the identity of his son, whom he believed I’d met at the front. He asked me to indicate whom I knew and, among the dozens of pre-war images, I recognised the face of a young man of 17 or 18. It was the friend I’d met in Ukraine. He looked younger in the photo but I knew that I recognised him. I told the old man that he looked a little different now, having a scar. The gentleman then invited me to spend a few hours with him at his home in Dyatkovo. As it was an unusual situation, I was permitted to go.

We travelled on his sledge, with me wrapped in his fur coat. We arrived at a big house packed with people and covered in dishes and drinks. The old man immediately told all those present that he had brought a dear guest, who had met his son. I was carefully offered a seat at the table. Interestingly, as soon as we raised the first drink, a post officer rushed into the room, joyfully shouting that she had a letter from the host’s son!

Life is full of coincidences, without logical explanation. The young man wrote that he was alive and fighting against the enemy, as his heart dictated. He noted that he would probably soon be moved to Kharkov: the headquarters of the partisan movement. He also mentioned having met me: ‘a dear countryman from Semenovo’, near Vorozhba, in Sumy District. The letter made an extraordinary impression on everyone. I was so hospitably fed and watered in Dyatkovo that I thought I’d fail to return to hospital in time, causing a scandal. However, those people were wise and safely delivered me back. The old man and his family visited me with presents throughout December 1943.”

Leonid was discharged on the eve of 1944. However, some time beforehand, another interesting meeting took place, playing an important role in his further life.

During a personal exhibition at the National Arts Museum

Mr. Shchemelev tells us:

“In hospital, I met a cavalryman who had been discharged and was dressed in full cavalry uniform: an overcoat, boots and spurs — everything as it should be. We began talking and I mentioned that I’d always wanted to join the cavalry, being fond of horses since childhood. He warmly supported my desire, without hesitation, and urged me to write an application, giving me the address of the Supreme Command’s reserve office.

The next day, with little faith in any positive result, I sent a letter to Moscow, requesting transfer to the cavalry after my recovery.

Surprisingly, the answer came quickly and, pleasingly, it was positive; after discharge, ‘Junior Sergeant Shchemelev should be sent to the 2nd Cavalry Brigade’, in the city of Kovrov. Naturally, before going, I registered at Gorky’s quarantine station, passing the relevant medical and other commissions. It wasn’t easy but I was lucky.

Eventually, on receiving a travel order, I went to cavalry school, which was located near the River Klyazma. Some time later, I was given the rank of sergeant and was appointed commander of the department. Of course, I had my own horse — named Bambukovy: a clever 3-year old chestnut who was utterly beautiful — a feast for the eyes.”

The small town of Kovrov was part of Ivanovo Region until August 1944, with a pre-war population of about 70,000. It differed little from other towns but became the USSR’s largest centre for producing small arms, including machine guns, during those war years.

Mr. Shchemelev adds:

“One day, during my duty with the machine-gun and mortar squadron (which united three divisions), the Commander of the Cavalry of the Red Army, Marshal Semyon Budyonny, arrived, accompanied by the Commander of the Moscow Military District, Colonel-General Pavel Artemiev, and his assistants. They wanted to inspect our cavalry brigade and other mobile forces. Dressed in a beautiful winter overcoat, with a fur cap and marshal`s uniform, he came up to me, listened to the report, shook my hand and said, ‘Well, sergeant, demonstrate your unit to me’. Afterwards, they thanked me.”

In early 1945, the 2nd Cavalry Brigade was sent to Ukraine (not far from Rovno). The special group of ‘forty-five’, under the command of Major Solodovnikov, was formed on its basis, under the personal supervision of Colonel-General Oka Gorodovikov — the Deputy Commander of the Cavalry of the Red Army at the time. Among its members was Sergeant Shchemelev. The group had been created to anticipate enemy sabotage, including the destruction of Germans and Bandera parachute columns, who were hiding in forests. After Ukraine`s liberation from the Nazis, they launched an active struggle against Soviet power.

Before the group’s departure towards Hungary, Leonid suddenly fell ill with tropical malaria, causing him to have fainting fits and experience memory loss. With a temperature rising up to 40 degrees and a harsh fever, as for dengue fever, doctors were baffled as to where he had contracted the illness. The fate of the ‘forty-five’ remains unknown; most likely, they died. In April 1945, Mr. Shchemelev was sent to Moscow, returning to his ‘native’ military unit, the detachment in Kovrov’s hospital, where he celebrated Victory Day.

His memories found form 38 years later, in his memoir, entitled First Day of Peace (1983). Deeply moving, it tells of the heroism of his fellow soldiers, bitter losses and new hopes. The book tells of the happiness of a man who survived this terrible war.

Mr. Shchemelev notes:

“I’ve been lucky in meeting good people — especially during my cavalry service. I will never forget a certain man of great courage and generous heart: my direct commander, Captain Piotr Sergienko. All that I’ve achieved in life is largely owing to him. I’ve met people who knew him well, including Major General Lev Dovator — a commander of the 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, who died heroically on December 19th, 1941. Many years later, I tried to paint Mr. Dovator’s portrait but I kept thinking of those whom I had the honour of meeting during those difficult war years.”

His personal connection to the character and the time when he lived and struggled created the picturesque heroic and romantic man-legend.

L. Shchemelev. “Dovator”

The painting shows a man standing, wearing a grey fur hat, a black cloak and a red cowl, gripping his sabre handle and field binoculars. His posture looks natural, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. However, his smartness, elegance, nobility and passionate aspect are impressive. He radiates inner strength, appearing as a man trusted by his cavalrymen. In the background, we see energetic and restless riders’ silhouettes, against the Moscow forest. Silver-blue tones are set off by punches of golden ochre, flame red, purple, black, green and pink. Specific details conjure the winter of 1941: a machine gun cart behind the general, a frozen well with an ice-bucket, and residents standing before their homes.

Somewhere, in the invisible depths, Mr. Dovator’s last battle is waiting. The enemy occupied an advantageous position, making it impossible for the Cossacks to attack. He waded waist-deep through the snow, down the Ruza’s steep bank, inspiring by personal example. As a result, he came under heavy fire from German machine guns...

On looking at the canvas, you can almost hear the voice of the Great Patriotic War: an epic song about the glorious fighters of Moscow’s fiercest battles, when the cavalries of Mr. Dovator carved their names into immortal time.

The war shaped Leonid Shchemelev’s heart and soul. Without doubt, it exacerbated his feelings, making him feel every nuance of life’s tragedies.  

By Victor Mikhailov
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