Grigory Afanasevich Zverev

Grigory Afanasevich Zverev was born into the family of a Petrograd (St. Petersburg) military doctor in 1923. He grew up near Vladivostok and was drafted into the Red Army in August 1941. The reserve unit in which he served as a sublieutenant was relocated from the Far East to the Don steppes in July 1942. During the Battle of Stalingrad Zverev worked as a cryptographer in the headquarters of the 15th Rifle Guards Division (64th Army). After the war he entered the Military Aviation Academy.

During our first visit with Grigory Afanasevich hе introduced us to his friend Boris Kryzhanovsky, who was a young boy in Stalingrad when the Germans attacked. We interviewed both men in Zverev’s stately Moscow apartment.

We all went to the military commissariat to volunteer.

I was just finishing school in Vladivostok in 1941. Right on the day of the graduation party (I have kept pictures of it), they announced that the war had just begun. That was in the morning. We had been aware that the country was preparing for a war, we were getting ready ourselves: we had military student groups like the “Voroshilov Sharpshooter,” a medical service, the “Ready for Labor and Defense” group… So we had been doing all that, but the war still came unexpectedly, out of the blue. Perhaps some people “upstairs” had known that something had been brewing, but for us it was a bolt from the blue. We all went to the military commissariat to volunteer. But they told us: «Fellas, go home, we know how to handle this, so prepare yourselves and be ready to come here when requested.” It turned out like they said: a couple of weeks later I received a notice by mail to present myself at the military commissariat in two days at the appointed time, which I did. I was in the first group of draftees and my military service began.

They transported us to Stalingrad. It took about ten days, which is relatively fast, considering how slow trains were at that time. Before that there was a six-months’ training in Khabarovsk after which they gave us the rank of sublieutenant and 2-3 months later we were at the front. They put us on the train in the town of Svobodny, in the Amur region, as part of the 204th  Division. We thought we were going to Leningrad, but when we reached the Urals, the train went south, across the Volga. So then we thought we’d go to Astrakhan, as if the war was with Iran. But they took as far as lakes Elton and Baskunchak (I remembered those names from geography classes) – and from there turned West, toward Stalingrad. At that time there was no bombing. That was the end of July, 1942.

But when we arrived in Kalach they bombed us. That was quite a shock, and it finally sank in: it was the war…

«Volunteers from School No. 13. Of the twenty seniors who left for the war only three are still alive». Grigory Zverev with a 2002 article from a Vladivostok newspaper (he is pictured on the right). Sitting at the right is Boris Kryzhanovsky

And I saw this tree with a gas mask hanging from it, some shreds, and a shirt-tunic with captain’s insignia.

Was it the first time that you were under bombardment?

Yes, the first time. … When we got to Stalingrad, they took us across the Volga and as far as the Don. We slept in Kalach, a messenger woke us up in the morning and told us there were mobile canteens in the yard, about a hundred meters away. The bombing began on our way back from breakfast. I hit the ground face down. They weren’t bombing us, but the troops and supply vehicles on the road to the river crossing. But when we reached our house we saw that a bomb had hit its yard. And there I saw this tree with a gas mask hanging from it, some shreds, and a shirt-tunic with captain’s insignia (a red and gold stripe on the sleeve). And I thought to myself: “Who could that be?” Turned out it was an artillery captain stationed in our house, and the explosion had torn him to bits.

Next day the regiment’s chief of staff, a lieutenant colonel, comes and tells us to fall in. “Now you will hear Order № 227”. That order was a nasty piece of business, though after that day I would never see or read it in its entirety. They announced that the Germans had taken Kharkov and were going full-tilt toward Rostov, that Moscow was holding out for the moment. I remember they read the list of names of those who had been captured, who had turned out to be traitors. And as they were reading, artillery fire was getting close and closer, and we saw the units that had been retreating from Kharkov, many without weapons… Tension was mounting. I can’t say I was shaken or in a state of panic, though some of my hair may have turned grey.

You were a cryptographer during the Battle of Stalingrad. Do you recall any memorable episodes connected to your work?

That was war. There were no pleasures or pastimes. There was only one goal: doing your duty. Do it with total commitment, day or night, fair weather or foul. “Car-ry it o-ut!” A soldier on guard duty may not seem to be doing much, yet he is discharging his duty. My duty is documents. Always documents. That comes with a high sense of responsibility: that’s what I’m doing for the war effort, for bringing the victory closer. That was almost my… (does not finish the sentence)

Did you ever fight against the Germans face to face?

No, and never went over the top with a “Hurrah!”

So the first Germans you saw were POWs?

Yes, they would be brought to division headquarters, interrogated, processed, but I never saw any of them being shot. Don’t know what the case was during the fighting itself on the battlefield, but there were no executions at headquarters. And they were always screened. Probably special departments had their say on the matter. Field commanders perhaps would try to receive some information from the prisoners, but those of no interest were sent to the rear, I can’t tell where exactly.

One more question. What was a “Fritz” the way you understood it at the time? 

Well, a Fritz was a German! We were trained to see him as an enemy that was to be destroyed. Though at the same time we realized that it was a simple soldier – not an enemy by nature. Not every German, I think, was convinced that what their high command was doing was right – beginning with the very fact of attacking the Soviet Union. So I personally didn’t feel this primeval, murderous hatred for them. I understood that an enemy soldier was the adversary –not necessarily the enemy. Like in chess, where there is also an adversary. So I never felt the urge to put a bullet in one, let alone a POW.

Zverev’s division was to the South–East of Stalingrad. It took part in the encirclement and the destruction of the German 6th Army.

…When we entered Stalingrad, there was a German hospital there. In earthen huts – big ones, for 100 people each. There was an unfortunate incident: our guys were going through those huts and somebody fired a shot. And those Germans who could walk began to scatter and Russians started to gun down those who were running. That was when I saw people dropping dead. The snow was deep, they couldn’t get far…

That was in January?

Yes, in January, when things were coming to a close. The encirclement had been completed. Although perhaps they started shooting because before that they had seen a Soviet POW camp full of corpses. And then just happened upon this hospital…

I started as a sublieutenant in 1942; during the Battle of Stalingrad I received the rank of lieutenant. … In February 1943 when the battle was over, we received additional manpower, new uniforms, shoulder straps.And already as a senior lieutenant I was transfered to Seversky Donets, near Belgorod and the area of the Battle of Kursk. … I was transferred to corps headquarters, and in June I assumed my duties in time for the Battle of Kursk. We found ourselves right in the Prokhorovka area. Then the offensive began and in August-July of 1943 we forced a crossing of the Dnepr and on August 7 they promoted me to captain – so there I was: a twenty-year-old with shoulder-straps.

“Why don’t we first make it to the end of the war and then decide what to do?”

How did the Battle of Stalingrad determine your life? Did it mean a turning point in personal terms?  

No. I arrived as a sublieutenant and went two grades up. That was an advancement. It meant that my work was needed and there was no doubt that military service would be my life and I’d contribute what I could to bring the end of the war and the victory of our people closer. That was at the level of realization rather than planning. At that point I didn’t entertain any plans regarding my post-war life. First I had to make it. I had a girl back in school. We wrote to each other. But I didn’t even dream back then… She wrote: “Keep on fighting, and we’ll see each other!”

And when did you meet your future wife?

In October of 1944. She had finished a professional school and came to us a sublieutenant. And I was a captain. So we served together for a month or so. But, as I recall, the head of the Political Department was beginning to put moves on her. And to avoid a scandal, the command decided to transfer her elsewhere. That was when I wrote a request to the chief of staff: “I request to register my marriage with Lieutenant Frolova, consider her my wife and leave her to serve here.” But he responded: “Due to the fact that the decision by the corps commander already has been made and the absence of vacancies, she will be transferred.” And so she left. Later that winter and spring we would see each other. I served in the corps headquarters and she in the division within our corps. So, we’d sometimes be within reaching distance of each other – as in neighboring  settlements. And being connected with communications, I always knew where her unit was. So I’d go there on horseback (laughs) or catch a ride. We’d see each other and I’d go back. Back then I didn’t even touch her, we just met – didn’t even kiss. So it was a proper and respectful pastime. I was quite green in that department. Though when I was writing that marriage request, she had given her consent. But then I told her: “Why don’t we first make it to the end of the war and then decide what to do? Who knows: either of us could die. Then it’s widowhood…”  So that’s what we agreed upon. …In May 1945 we were married, and by New Year’s she was pregnant.

Have you had dreams, nightmares about the war? 

There have been nightmares. I didn’t fixate on particular events or moments. It’s not that I tried to forget, but I had other things on my plate, plus I was a family man. Though it sometimes happens even now when in my sleep I see what I think is the war – in kind of “snapshots.” I don’t think what I went through caused me much psychological damage, though.

It’s very upsetting that the city still hasn’t received back its name “Stalingrad.”

(Shows pictures) This is from a meeting of our “Stalingrad diaspora.” It’s of course very upsetting that the city still hasn’t received back its name “Stalingrad.” At our last meeting a Hero of the Soviet Union read an excellent poem about that…

I myself witnessed how they put this question to Putin at the Stalingrad Museum in 2004. It was like that: Merezhko and I arrived at the celebration. … We got to the Panorama Museum and saw that they weren’t letting people in for some reason. But we were in uniform, so they let us in. Some people in civvies approached us there and asked if we had passes, which we did and showed to them. A meeting with Putin was scheduled for the evening – either at the theater or at the officer’s house. They told us politely: “You do have passes, but these are for the evening meeting, not for this one.” But they probably felt ill at ease about asking us to leave, so they told us: “You can stay, but keep a low profile.” So we waited. Suddenly Shvidkoy, our Minister of Culture, entered briskly. The museum answers to the ministry. And a little later, sure enough, Putin himself showed up. He asked where he could take his coat off – he had a thin black one, no hat – probably had just stepped out of a car. And they led him past us to the coat hanger. We of course stood up. He saw Merezhko and me standing there, approached us and asked: “And where are you from?” We said we were from Moscow. “Well, then join me, let’s have a look-see!” So, on he went, and we went a bit behind him. And the Minister of Defense, who was also there, nudged us a little: “He has invited you, go ahead.” Other people joined the group, including Matveyenko [Governor of St. Petersburg] – about ten people total. We passed to the second floor, then to the Panorama itself where the guide gave explanations. And then we crossed to the other side, where there were some members of the press and veterans. I later realized that those had been the employees of the museum who were supposed to meet with Putin. So there we sat down and the conversation began. It turned out he’d been there a year or two before and they were thanking him for the aid they’d received. And then they asked him: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, how about our request to return the name Stalingrad to the city?” But he immediately began to maneuver in the same sly manner that’s used to this day. He said: “You see, it’s not up to me to decide. It’s for the highest power in the land, the Duma [Russian parliament], and for that there needs to be a petition supported by the majority of Volgograd citizens, and currently, as far as we know, only about 30% of them are in favor of returning the old name to the city.” Which is to say: you may want it, but that’s not the will of the majority: “So it’s up to you to have your local government do a survey and so on.” I don’t know if such a survey ever took place. That was it, and the issue is still unresolved. It’s the darnedest thing… For us, veterans and especially for Stalingraders, it’s very upsetting indeed.

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