Anatoliy Grigoryevich Merezhko

Anatoly Grigoryevich Merezhko was born in 1921 in Novocherkassk. Drafted into the Red Army in 1939 he was shortly thereafter admitted to an officers’ college. Before concluding their studies, he and fellow cadets were sent to the front in the Crimea in May 1942. They were then brought to Stalingrad and transformed into a cadets’ regiment within the 62nd Army. During the Battle of Stalingrad Lieutenant Merezhko served in the army’s headquarters. Promoted to captain, he took part in the Battle of Berlin. Among his wartime awards are the Order of the October Revolution, three orders of the Red Banner, the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky, the Order of the Patriotic War 1st class, and four orders of the Red Star.

Merezhko’s military career soared after the war – he enrolled in the Frunze Military Academy, graduating from it with highest honors in 1948. During the 1950s he was a top commander within the Group of Soviet Forces stationed in East Germany, and as such he played a key role in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. From 1969 to 1983 Merezhko served as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Warsaw Pact Troops.

A retired colonel general, Merezhko is the highest-ranking surviving Soviet Stalingrad veteran. I was introduced to him by Aleksandr Chuikov, son of Commander Vassily Chuikov, in whose 62nd Army Merezhko served during the Battle of Stalingrad. Together we visited Merezhko, who lives wih his wife Tatyana Glebovna (born 1928) in a stately apartment building allocated to Russian generals on Moscow’s Kutuzov Prospect. Aleksandr Chuikov took part in our conversation that proceeded over several hours, ending with a festive dinner.

August 23 was the day when our hatred for the invaders reached its peak.

Our hatred for the invaders reached its peak around the time of the retreat to the other side the Don, and especially on August 23. This is how that day began for us: we were on the defensive around Bolshaya and Malaya Rossoshka – now legendary places, with the monument “Field of Cadets’ Glory.” This is where almost our entire battalion perished. Not just the battalion – the whole military college. The morning began with the return of four of our TB-3 bombers: medium range, with a big payload capacity. They had no fighter screen whatsoever. That’s 4 AM. The dawn is upon us. And all of a sudden two Messerschmitts appear from the clouds. One fires at our first TB-3, another at our last one. Both our planes catch fire, and go down. The Messers turn around and go for a second run – two more of ours are down. Then a third run. So within minutes eight of our planes are down. We can see giant bonfires at the crash sites, and the August steppe itself is already scorched, the grass is on fire everywhere…

And the Messers start shooting at the crewmen who have parachuted out of the planes. There are maybe five of them. The Messers fusillade those pilots almost point-blank. We jump out of our trenches, but what can we do? It’s all taking place two to three kilometers away from us. We see it all, gnash our teeth, almost cry, but are powerless to help. Hardly has the sun finally risen, the 14th Panzer Corps is barreling down towards the north part of Stalingrad from the lodgement it took the day before around Peschanka. And a cadets’ battalion next to us finds itself in its way. German tanks enter the trenches where the cadets are dug in, spin around on one track, burying the cadets alive. That’s our neighbor to the right, and all we have is anti-tank rifles. We can’t help them. We can only look on…

Around 14:00 the same day an armada of planes arrived and the bombing of Stalingrad began. And after it got dark, forty kilometers away from Stalingrad, we saw this endless burning wall, a fire of such magnitude that the flames could be seen from 40 kilometers away, and the whole sky was lit up by it. The planes went this way: coming low to bomb Stalingrad and returning back high. Those pilots did three or four bombing sorties. So that’s why August 23 was the day when our hatred for the invaders reached its peak.

So we were closing the rear, retreating under exceptionally heavy bombing by the aviation – from morning to night. And under pressure from their infantry and tanks, too. What’s more, we were crawling with lice and starved because we had no kitchens. The college had its own canteen and waiters, but there were no kitchens at the front. We also had to bear the attitude of the locals: “Why are you abandoning us!? You, poor excuses for soldiers! You brought the Germans to the Don! Have you forgotten our grandfathers!? What a disgrace!” Well, the Cossacks, you know, weren’t too fond of Soviet power…

There’s more. We’d reach a habitable place, and there’d be no water in the wells. Only silt. A mass of troops had passed through a Cossack’s village. There’d be four wells there, fifty meters deep, with nothing but bitter brine, even though it’s in the steppe. And what’s left of that was a layer of silt this thick. We drew that silt and dumped it into bowls, from which a thin layer of water could be poured into one bowl and given to the wounded. A second bowl – for the machine gun, a third – already mostly silt – for ourselves. It’s embarrassing to admit what we ate… The wheat had already ripened. As we retreated we’d pull an ear of wheat (demonstrates how an ear of wheat was rubbed between the palms, shucking the grains and blowing away the chaff) and chewed the grains. For chow they’d given us wheat and buckwheat concentrate. But you need water to prepare it, and there was none. You need fire to cook porridge or soup. But there isn’t a twig in sight: it’s the steppe…

That’s how we were becoming commanders. I was a young officer. Became one in October, when they pulled the college from combat. I had a company of 120 men. Only 21 cadets made it across the Volga. The rest had perished or run away. Because the retreat was very disorganized. There was almost no management from the top. Some big shot from the division would arrive – may be head of operations or recon in the rank of major. “Comrade lieutenant, take the defensive! And till 2 AM hold the line along the whole front. The division will start the retreat, but you can start retreating only at 2 AM. A battery and five tanks there and there will support you”. The big shot takes off, you go looking for that battery and those tanks: none is to be found… And all we have is anti-tank rifles, maybe two or three for the company, some mounted machine guns (I commanded a machine gun company) and rifles. Not all cadets had rifles. Those would counterattack attack with entrenching spades.

The front line would fix bayonets. By the way, when Germans saw bayonets they forgot all about their weapons. Normally they shot from the hip, they’d spare no bullets, scatter them all over, but when they saw a bayonet they’d backtrack real fast, forgetting to shoot.

That is to say, they respected the bayonet?

They sure did. And the entrenching spade too. Because once that one is within reaching distance of the head it’ll take it right off.

Germans didn’t fight with spades?

They had submachine guns… They hardly even had any bayonets. They had carbines,  knives: dagger-like but short. And our bayonet was impressive in size. …

The Germans had those storm groups, but their resolve was far from ours. Our last soldier standing would still fight to his last bullet. But they were always in groups. Alone a German wouldn’t fight. And before the Volga or the Don they were used to advancing: first the planes would bomb, then the artillery, then the tanks, and only after them the infantry. That was the mass approach they kept at Stalingrad, too. But there they had to deal with high-rise buildings, solid brick, and all their “sea wave”, powerful as it was, broke down into rivulets. The buildings, like wave-breakers, broke them; they had to take the streets where they were shot at from every building. And, what’s important is that the tanks were afraid to go deeper. And the infantry wouldn’t advance without them. And it turned out this way: they’d do the artillery preparation… What would give us a chance is the strategy of closing in, introduced by Vassily Ivanovich [Chuikov]: cutting the distance to a minimum.

The thing was that no-man’s-land would be only 30-40 meters. Close enough for a hand grenade exchange. And the German one wouldn’t always reach the target. Say, a German lobs his grenade with a long wooden handle. It has a 9 second fuse. It drops into our trench, our guy grabs it, throws it back and it explodes there. But on our grenades there were 4-5 second fuses. So our defensive or offensive grenades would go off in enemy territory. But theirs, with a twice longer fuse, would often be lobbed back.

You mentioned that during the retreat many had run away. Does that mean that the blocking detachments (introduced by Stalin’s Order # 227 in July 1942) weren’t performing their function?

Well, during the entire retreat (I entered combat 120 kilometers away from the Volga, to the west of Stalingrad) I never had to deal with blocking detachments. In the first place, they’ve made up too many stories about those units. In the second place, they were only beginning to create them at the time – the order mandating their creation appeared only on July 28. At first they were being created only from the army cadres – army barrier troops. Through the counterintelligence department they followed the orders of the commander-in-chief of the military council. Plus, at first they were formed from combat officers themselves – those with experience. Such an officer wouldn’t shoot his own soldiers willy-nilly.

October [1942] was the turning point in my service. We had sustained colossal casualties in the latest fighting and the remnants of the cadets’ regiment had been taken across the Volga in mid-September. And at that time they graduated those cadets who had survived – in the rank of lieutenant. … We – the main body of the college, platoon and company commanders with more serious military training – were assigned to different posts in various corps and headquarters of the 62nd Army.

After a concussion I was stuttering. So, imagine I’m reporting [to Army Chief of Staff General Nikolai Krylov] with a stutter, when he suddenly interrupts me and asks:

“Do you sing?” I’m reporting about the situation at the Stalingrad tractor plant where fighting is horrific, and he goes:

“Do you sing?” I’m taken aback, I tell him that I used to sing while fishing with the guys in the evening. And he says:

“Why don’t you try speaking in a sing-song manner: it will be easier to report”.

For me, who at some point commanded 100 boys (our cadets were 17 – 19 – 20 years old) in full view of everybody (and with the world looking on, as they say, death is not half as bad) being here [in Stalingrad] was a big change: to act alone or with just one or two submachine gunners, depending on where I was heading. By and large I was on my own. During one such trip to Smekhotvorov’s [193rd Rifles] Division we were returning from the frontline – I was accompanied by a submachine gunner. We were somewhere in the factory district, where there were a lot of train tracks and damaged freight trains inside the plants: empty ones or the ones that had been loaded with coal and ore at some point. So we are lost in that labyrinth, we see some people scurrying nearby, identify them as Germans. I tell my guy to take cover behind a wheel and protect the rear. Take a position myself… They open up on us, we fire back. I feel they are not firing too accurately. They must have determined that it’s just two of us and decided to take us alive. They are getting closer and closer… And I have my Party membership card in my pocket and my senior lieutenant’s ID. If I’m captured – a communist – I’m done for… I have a grenade prepared… Just about to set it off [to kill himself]. And at the very last moment, when it’s some 50-60 meters to the Germans, I hear “What the hell! Goddamn it!” “Don’t shoot at those” Turns out it’s our own sailors who had engaged [the Germans] from the rear.

This is why I thought that death could be glorious when I commanded a company, always marching in the front line:

“Onward! For the Motherland! For Stalin!” There, to die wasn’t terrible, but here – you don’t even know on which list they’ll put your name down: missing in action, captured, killed … only God knows… If killed, will they find your papers? Such was the attitude… Although I never thought about whether I’d live to see tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Everyone knew it could all end at any place, at any moment. And so I’m thinking:

“I’m gonna set off the grenade…”. And tell my submachine gunner:

“If something happens to me, fall back. If you make it, tell them we fought here”.

There were plenty of non-standard situations, too. There were times we’d swap items with the Germans: we, sitting on lower floors, would send them water in a pot upstairs, and they from the second or third floor would send us cigarettes and watches. Yeah, we’d swap with them. A fifteen-minute armistice. Drove political officers crazy with this informal fraternization. Imagine that!

Anatoly Gregorevich, did you have an amulet of some kind during the war? Something you carried in your pocket?

No. But Stalingrad gave birth to a tradition that spread to the rest of the army:

“Blind swap!” So, imagine there is a soldier passing another soldier or officer on the street. And one of them puts his hand on his pocket and says “Blind swap”, which is to say, “let’s exchange two items without looking.” And let’s say you have some money in your pocket and he has one measly cigarette: still, you swap them. Or a lousy watch for a sterling one. This tradition appeared because in Stalingrad life was measured not even in minutes, but in seconds. That’s how dense enemy fire was. Their aviation was especially bothersome, though other types of forces were hardly better. That’s why the valuables of ordinary life no longer had any value, any meaning. They weren’t worth anything. You could be dead in a second, with your gold watch and pocketfuls of money. Sometimes a banknote was less valuable than a scrap of a newspaper. Because you could roll a cigarette from it, but not from a banknote. Hence, this custom.

As I was standing there on a Volga scarp, I decided that I would stay alive to the end of the war! I ordered myself: “stay alive to the end of the war!”

Germans just wouldn’t surrender to us. [In other armies, in other sectors of the front] there were thousands of prisoners, here – mere dozens. Only in the final days of January [1943] did we begin to take them by the hundreds: the ones in the basements, who’d been really dug in and living there. They held out to the last, were scared to death. Their propaganda had it that “in Stalingrad Russians take no prisoners, shoot everyone on the spot.” But the fear itself was of course justified… I think it was on the 3rd [of February], just a day or two after combat was over, when I happened on the square where the big theater was. So in that huge theater in the basement they had their hospital. I went down to that basement to have a look at the conditions their wounded were lying in. Our conditions were tough, but still, we could either send our wounded across the Volga, if possible, or at least shelter them from the frost in the tunnels. And the German hospital was with blown-out windows, stone floor, some strange pallets at best… Their clothes were simply wrong for the weather… The winter of 1942 in Stalingrad was unprecedentedly cold. Locals said it was the coldest one in many years. Windy, too: when those winds from the Kazakh steppes would start… This is what we wore: regular underwear, thermal underwear (made of cotton, but thick), then a shirt-tunic, then regular pants and on top – quilted ones, a cotton wool-padded jacket (officers had them from goat or sheep wool), then a sheep-skin half-coat, felt boots over two or three layers of foot cloths. Sometimes, when completely exhausted, people would lean against the wall, and doze off right there in the frost. Just pull down the ushanka’s [trapper’s hat] ears before…

So when I got there [to the hospital], to take a look, they were there under threadbare blankets… I don’t know how they managed… How long had they been lying there? And it looked like there were a couple of thousand wounded there. The officers were laid up, too.

What a metamorphosis of feeling! Before, I had thought I could rip their throats open with my bare teeth, but when I saw them convoyed across the Volga, in those tattered pathetic overcoats, knowing that the nearest habitable place where they could rest was 10-15 kilometers away… Habitable place… Really, at most a hundred little two-room village huts. For thousands of prisoners. And so this column marches… Into this endless Kazakh steppe… And you think to yourself: “you’ll never make it, fellas…” And at the same time you experience the triumphant feeling of victory… As I was standing there on a Volga scarp, I decided that I would stay alive to the end of the war! I ordered myself: “stay alive to the end of the war!”

This is how I started service as a private (shows a photograph). As a Red army trooper with a budyonovka [Soviet soldier hat during the Civil war]. So that was a journey from private to general (speaks with some embarrassment). And this is the only Stalingrad picture: before the fighting in the city. The command of the cadets’ company: Chernykh, the commander, I, his second-in-command, a political officer, his other second, the commander of the fourth platoon. The picture was taken around May-June, 1942. All these five were killed in action.

Lieutenant Merezhko (bottom left) and other commanders of his cadets’ company, May or June 1942

…For me Stalingrad is holy ground.

Anatoly Merezhko

(proposing a toast) I thank you all for deciding to meet with me and including me in this project..

I wish you success with it, I wish this project to receive proper recognition. And please, understand this right when I say that Stalingrad for me is the place where I cut my teeth as a commander, where I acquired those qualities that a real commander has to have: persistence, calculation, foresight. And also, love for the common soldier, for the subordinate, as well as the remembrance of the fallen friends whom we sometimes weren’t even able to burry. We had to abandon the bodies as we retreated, couldn’t even pull them into a bomb crater or a trench, to cover them with earth, and when we were able, the best monument we could give them was a shovel with a helmet on it stuck into the burial mound. We could offer no other monument. Therefore for me Stalingrad is holy ground. And when I meet people from Stalingrad or those really interested in the history of its battle, I have nothing but great respect for them and try to assist them in any way I can, to help them remind our people and the world at large about the Battle of Stalingrad.

To you, friends! To your success!

Anatoly Merezhko

(Turns tо Aleksandr Chuikov) This story is more for Sasha’s sake. What does a man feel when they are marching him to be shot? Surely it’s much harder for him than when death is sudden. During counterattacks, leading a hundred men, there was always a «

“Hurrah!”, “For the Motherland, for Stalin!” and “Onward!” Though then, of course, the expletives took over… As they say, with people by your side, death isn’t half as bad [wording of a Russian proverb that Merezhko cited further above. Maria Georgievna Faustova also refers to this proverb in her interview]. When others can see you die for your country. … But it’s a different death when you are marched to be executed, when you know that right is on your side, but can’t prove anything…

It so happened once that Vassily Ivanovich [Chuikov] ordered me to be shot.

It was in Poznan. I was the duty officer of operations. So one night there is a call on the secret high frequency line: «

“Where is Chuikov? A man from [Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Marshal] Zhukov is on the line”. – “With the troops”, say I. Though I know that he is asleep in the house next door. “Where is Belyavsky?” – “With the troops”. And Belyavsky is in the next room with some dame. Drunk like a sailor and asleep. “Who am I speaking to?” – “Major so-and-so, operations duty officer”. – “Hold the line”. Two minutes later. “Zhukov’s here. Tell Chuikov to organize storm groups by the morning, including tanks, KVs [Soviet heavy tanks], and 203 millimeter howitzers, breach the walls of this goddamn fortress (there was a citadel in Poznan), take it and be done with it. Do you understand?” – “Yes, sir, comrade marshal!” I go to Belyavsky: “Comrade general, Zhukov has telephoned and told to do this and this”. And he in reply: “Get lost, goddamn you!” Eventually I give up trying to get anything out of him, call Dukhanov in Poznan (and we are right at the town border): “Comrade general, here is the order from Zhukov”. Dukhanov was Vassily Ivanovich’s second-in-command. He says: “My good man, how can I organize these groups with 203-mm howitzers in several hours? …”. I reply: “Don’t know sir, this is the order of the marshal”. At 9 I’m finally relieved at my post, knock down a glass of vodka to fall asleep because the tension is immense, and here Fedka wakes me up: “To the commander, quick!” So I enter the room (Chuikov occupied the priest’s house). The bedroom is on the second floor, the telegraph and telephone equipment on the first. Hardly have I entered I hear “You, traitor!” and he is there with a whip in his hand. “What’s wrong, comrade commander? Hear me out”. I start telling him: “Zhukov called, I addressed myself to Belyavsky who was drunk”. And Belyavsky is standing right there, interrupts me and says: “Nothing of the kind, he didn’t talk to me”. Finally I say: “You were sleeping with Irina!” And Chuikov goes: “Goddamn you, you’re slandering the general now!” And my hand unconsciously went to my holster. “Disarm him!” The commandant took away my pistol. No matter how I tried to prove that I had indeed attempted to wake Belyavsky up, had asked the permission to see Chuikov but was told not to bother him under any circumstances – nothing helped. “For failing to obey the order of Army Commander, Marshal of the Soviet Union Zhukov – death by firing squad! Commandant: process the order through tribunal! Proceed!”

So we are walking through the settlement – two submachine gunners and commandant Kireyev. He tells me: “Listen, Tolka [diminutive for Anatoly], how am I going to execute you? We are friends! Shoulder to shoulder from Stalingrad almost to Berlin, and it’s my job now to put you up against the wall… I’d rather stand next to you myself.” And I think to myself: “Why couldn’t I prove to them that I was in the right? And now they’ll write up a letter that won’t say that I died the death of the brave (as they usually do in death notices to the family), but died a traitor’s death! Died as someone who didn’t obey the order of the front commander! Not of a company commander, not of a regiment commander, but of the commander of the front! They’ll put me down as a traitor. What will become of my parents? Of my wife, of the memories that I leave after me?” That was the only thing on my mind. And Kireyev keeps on: “How am I to execute you?” It’s a long street. The settlement is flat, with nice houses, there are about 100 – 200 meters left to walk. Suddenly, there is the sound of hooves behind us. It’s Fedka [Chuikov’s younger brother who served as Vassily Ivanovich’s orderly] on horseback: “Tolka, go back, you! To the commander!” Kireyev breathes out: “Thank God!”. And I say: «And imagine what I feel?”

So that’s two deaths for you. One – defending yourself and the motherland, another – just us unfair as inescapable. I, by the way, reminded Vassily Ivanovich of this at his 70th birthday in 1970. There was a birthday party on Granovsky street with about twenty of us. And after knocking down a few I say:

“Vassily Ivanovich, do you remember this occasion when you ordered me to be shot?” – “I remember” (Merezhko makes a face; laughter in the room). “And why?” “You see, the case reached that extreme where I felt that you were telling the truth, but Belyavsky was denying everything. And I thought to myself: is it possible that a superior can have it in him to condemn a subordinate to be shot in order to prove that he was telling the truth, that he is in the right and the subordinate is a do-nothing and is in the wrong? So it came to this extreme for me to make this gamble. And I ordered you to be shot. Of course nobody would have shot you. But I didn’t know that and was ready to have your life at stake.”

Aleksandr Chuikov

Did Belyavsky confess then?

Since Fedka was dispatched to get me, Belyavsky must have indeed felt his guilt. After that our relationship with Vitaly Andreevich [Belyavsky] was of, hmm, this sort [probably strained].

I have many friends among the Germans. The military men, of course. Yesterday there was the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And I was the one in charge – not of the Wall itself, but of the “A to Z” plan of the Berlin barrier. The wall went up in about a month. Before, there were wire barriers.

The night of August 12 was the one when it all happened. Two German divisions under Hoffmann [Minister of Defense of the GDR] enter Berlin, entire regiments spread along [the border] to seal it (before there were small company- or battalion-sized garrisons), trucks loaded with wire arrive and the construction of the barrier begins.

Being made of wire, it could be breached by a regular car, though some “athletes” could manage to get over it and leave for the West with the help of wood planks. So they started building the barrier taller. But then buildings were used to slip through the border. A street could sometimes serve as the demarcation line. The main entrance of the building could be on our side, and the back one on the Western. One could often get to the West by crossing the yard. So they started walling up the entrances. Our German friends on the first night even moved all the rolling stock of the local railway to our side. When the ones in the West realized it, it was too late: both locomotives and carriages had been gone.

It was done in a classic fashion, in secret. And then they just went on building things up, solidifying… I didn’t see the construction of the Wall itself, because by that time I had been transferred to Hungary and made chief of group operations command.

What were your thoughts on that matter?

Aleksandr Chuikov

I was against our troops leaving East Germany.

And if it were now?

Merezhko interrupts

Anatoly Merezhko

Excuse me. If I may… Back in 1961 our Russian people still lived in the aftermath of the war. They were just starting to rebuild many cities. Food rationing had just been abolished. I remember how POW’s were building these houses. This very house was built by them in 1949-50. The country hadn’t recovered yet. And then Nikita [Khrushchev] carried out the monetary reform: reduced denominations tenfold, which hit people hard. So my sympathies were with … [doesn’t say with whom], I couldn’t think otherwise. And for a military man, an order is not to be discussed. No way around it.

And when you look back now?

Anatoly Merezhko

They put on shows, too. For example, a specially chosen “athlete” would climb to the fifth floor, a fire engine would arrive on the Western side, and they would hold a canvass for him to jump. And the film crew would be right there recording it. He’d jump, they’d catch him and report that he was escaping from East Berlin in this unusual manner. Though such cases were few and far between.

I understand your position back in 1961. But what are your thoughts now, on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Anatoly Merezhko

The fall of the Wall itself is probably an inevitable result. It had to happen sooner or later. No doubt about it. Whatever they do, a nation cannot be divided in two. But I’ll never reconcile myself to the way our leadership – Gorbachev’s – carried it out. Because it was done without the consent of England, France, Honecker. … Moreover, West Germany was willing to pay 95 billion marks for unification. But in fact they settled for only 5 billion. So Russia or the Soviet Union lost 90 billion marks. But now we are moving on to talking politics.

Aleksandr Chuikov

I also think the process was predetermined: the fall of the Wall, unification. It was bound to happen sooner or later. And thank God it did.

2014 © Facing Stalingrad. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise stated, all text by Jochen Hellbeck, photos by Emma Dodge Hanson.
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