Victory Day commemorations are over… no longer the topic of front pages, news stories and radio programs. Of course, other subjects — such as Teachers’ or Medical Workers’ days pale into insignificance in the weeks afterwards. The day is over and life goes on… however ‘unfeeling’ it may seem.
Every day, our magazine and newspaper covers swarm with popular faces, honoured by today’s world. Many are TV celebrities, sports figures or, even, figures of scandal. Many are far more worthy of recognition, having made sacrifices in their own lives for others, yet go largely unremembered. Most prominent among this group are our veterans, who gave so much and now live quietly. We know so little about them and only a small number remain. I only heard the name of Alexander Silvashko a few years ago, despite his huge symbolic significance. Undoubtedly, others are just as ignorant as I.
Few living people embody the legendary symbolism of Lieutenant Silvashko — perhaps, the most famous Soviet soldier. To be exact, he is well-known in the West, where our Victory is seen as part of the common struggle against Hitler, within the coalition. His famous shot, where he hugs American Lieutenant Bill Robertson on a half-ruined bridge, on April 25th, 1945, is known worldwide. Both the event and the shot are legendary.
He inspired his Red Army soldiers to attack, placed a Soviet banner over the Reichstag and saw action on the Elbe. Silvashko personifies the heroism of soldiering, although, now, he lives a simple life and never recalls his ‘symbolic’ nature.
In May 2001, we visited Mr. Silvashko alongside another veteran, Aleksey Polianskikh. They once fought shoulder to shoulder. Polianskikh’s name never found the limelight, despite his equal efforts. He was partially disabled during the war, which left him almost deaf. Afterwards, he became a reconnoiter-dog breeder, giving loud commands despite being unable to hear much at all. As a colonel, he retired from service in 1957. Even in 2001, he was still working as a teacher — skiing each winter (and complaining that, last season, he had only managed 42 trips to the slopes, due to sleet). He was over 80 at that time!
When I arrived at the village of Moroch in the Kletsk District eight years ago, Silvashko was not at home. His wife, Zinaida, told us that he was attending a village council meeting. Who can tell if fame turns us into remarkable people — or if those who become famous are inherently remarkable? Does fate play a role or is it a matter of nurture? Perhaps those remarkable wartime years inspired heroism in many — desperate times breed desperate measures.
Today, our veterans are sometimes haunted by what has gone before. They live as if all that is important is in the past. We cannot imagine their burden. Open any internet page and you will see thousands of stories detailing the trauma suffered by soldiers in Iraq. Many commit suicide every year. It can be impossible to adapt to a comfortable and quiet life.
Alexander shares the same hardships as his peers, although he once had a hectic schedule giving interviews to journalists from Western Europe, America and Russia, travelling widely. Once a year, he still visits the German town of Torgau — where the famous photo was taken. On the 40th Victory anniversary, at a new bridge crossing the Elbe, he met Lieutenant Robertson, his sworn brother — an honorary citizen of Torgau. Robertson had gone on to become a famous neurosurgeon and Professor of California University, owning a chain of private clinics. He died in January 1999…
Alexander had just a few copies of that well-known shot in 2001; he signed one for me as a gift, which has since been proudly on display in my home — my greatest relic ever.
It feels like yesterday that I last saw Mr. Silvashko — but eight years have passed. I’m quite afraid to disturb him, as he is now 87 years of age — but the regional military enlistment office informs me that he is in good health and even travelled to Germany alone recently, without any companion offered by the Ministry of Defense.
On the day of my visit, Mr. Silvashko is talking to children in the neighboring village of Drobovschina. It was a noisy encounter — one that most elderly people would find overwhelming — but he coped admirably. I drive quickly, to try and catch a precious photo at the school, but I’m too late.
Mr. Silvashko had asked the teachers to hold his meeting earlier — in order to meet me at home. He takes off his uniform overcoat laden with honours and we chat. However, he soon receives a call and promises to be there in half an hour. Our interview comes to an end, as he insists on being punctual. Clearly, he treats everyone alike, without regard for their position.
Some facts about Alexander Silvashko.
He has lived alone since the death of his wife Zinaida; his daughter and grandsons live in Minsk. He does his housework himself, with the help of Svetlana (a social worker) who calls in daily. He recently travelled to Germany, where he has been traditionally invited since 1946 by the magistrate of Torgau. On this day in 1945, he almost shot his future sworn brother; now, he retells the event to local reporters. When Silvashko, a sub-machine gunner troop commander, reached the Elbe, Lieutenant Robertson was on the far bank waving the American flag on the roof of a church, shouting across the water. During wartime, Germans sometimes pretended to be Americans, so Silvashko was about to fire. Fortunately, Robertson crept down towards the bridge and made himself known properly.
They hugged and then went to make reports to their commanders. Silvashko reported to Deputy Commander Major Larionov and a small delegation was sent to invite the American command staff to join them — a move for which they were later punished. Larionov was dismissed from his post and soon died — Silvashko believes from a broken heart at the unfairness of it all.
Five years ago, the veteran visited Torgau to meet the others present at Elbe. This time, he was alone; all the other former participants had died. Silvashko represented them all — making the visit incomparable.
Every person deserves his laurels! Alexander Silvashko is already 87 years old, but his mind and memory are clear; he works hard and remains in good health. He preferred to fly to Germany rather than travel by road — and did it all by himself. He is still a good driver though, having two Ford cars (one for spare parts). All his medical tests show that he’s in good health for driving.
On parting, I take his photo in his ‘civvy’ gear; the war is over and life goes on.
…Silvashko went to the front in the Cherkassy Region of Ukraine, where he was born in the village of Kovunovka. He joined the infantry on the 1st Ukrainian front and was wounded three times — once suffering concussion. Torgau was followed by Dresden and Prague, then he was back to his homeland, which was starving dreadfully. Soon, he travelled to Belarus with the aim of exchanging some of his possessions for food — and stayed there, living in Zelva. He was employed as a teacher and still receives letters.
Alexander Silvashko is one of the most famous soldiers of the Second World War. Unfortunately, I have nothing to add about his fellow veterans — who often go unnamed and who are so few in number.
Nina Moiseichik, Head of the Labour, Employment and Social Security Department of Kletsk District Executive Committee tells me that local veterans are listed in certain groups. Silvashko, for example, is a disabled veteran (having been wounded). He is one of 52 people on the list. Those who took part in the war but were not wounded and have only a certain degree of disability are listed separately: 78 people. There are 21 ‘base area soldiers’ — awarded medals for dedicated service in wartime. Concentration camp prisoners and those who were children in the war years (so were not greatly involved) also suffered for our happy future.
Roads of Alexander Silvashko
Victory Day commemorations are over… no longer the topic of front pages, news stories and radio programs. Of course, other subjects — such as Teachers’ or Medical Workers’ days pale into insignificance in the weeks afterwards. The day is over and life goes on… however ‘unfeeling’ it may seem