Maria Georgievna Faustova & Aleksandr Filippovich Voronov

Maria Georgievna Faustova and Aleksandr Filippovich Voronov both served in the Red Army during the war, and it was the war that brought them together. Maria Georgievna, born 1922 in Yelets (Lipetsk Oblast), volunteered to join the army and was enlisted in October 1941. She served as a radio operator in the 131st Rifle Division that sustained  heavy losses while retreating from Kharkhov to Stalingrad and was pulled out of combat in October 1942 to be re-formed. 

Aleksandr Filippovich, born 1920 in Rostov on Don, was a staff officer in the 38th Army. During the defense of Stalingrad in August 1942 he commanded an anti-tank battery and was severely wounded. After recovery he was sent to the Leningrad front. Voronov and Faustova first met in fall 1941; they were married in 1945. They have three children.

When we visited the couple in their Moscow apartment, Maria Georgievna served us tea and cake, and she spoke emotionally about fellow soldiers from her division who were killed in front of her eyes. Our tape recorder stopped working ten minutes into the interview, and we resumed the recording during a later meeting in the Moscow veterans’ union, where Maria Georgievna works to this day, answering the phone.

In poorer health than his wife, Aleksandr Filippovich barely spoke during our meetings. When we asked him questions, Maria Georgievna would follow up, entreating him to talk about a specific episode or event. Throughout our meetings Aleksandr Filippovich sat by his wife’s side holding her hand. Time and again he remarked on her beauty and his enduring love for her, making her blush.

Maria Georgievna Faustova says:

The Germans were really pressing up against us. It was August 10 [1942]. We were almost surrounded, but the division commander had not received the order to retreat. He was a colonel. Later he’d swim across the river like all of us. Though there were some boats. We were at the river bank, with the division radio station where I worked. There were so many untended wounded.

The medics had crossed earlier on the first ferry. There were two ferries in total. Tank drivers were jumping out of their moving tanks after pointing them into the Don. Even our commander’s car – an Opel, I think – drowned in the Don when the ferry was bombed. Though later they pulled it out. And although one ferry was destroyed in the bombardment, the wounded had been taken across.

But much of the equipment was lost; many tanks were burnt; the smoke was terrible. As our guys were reaching the river, the Germans set the steppe grass on fire – and that when the heat was already suffocating: 40 degrees. So the grass is burning, black smoke and ash are everywhere, and all our armor and machines are on the bank taking fire. One of our radio operators stumbles on someone’s leg, still warm, just blown off. It was horrible! There was nobody to tend to the wounded.

I was bandaging their wounds together with a field nurse. We did what we could: tearing strips from shirts and using them as bandages.So many died there! One lost his arm and died before making it to the crossing. Just fell down. Our radio operator too. Our girls, as they were climbing up the bank, got hit too. They were screaming, calling for their mothers. Torn limbs were flying from the blasts. It was terrifying. The most horrible is not the shelling itself, but to see its result.

Our girls, as they were climbing up the bank, got hit too. They were screaming, calling for their mothers.

So here we are, all bloody. And everybody has already retreated. …  And on this side, already in Pesochnaya, on the 14th we were in the field. They had surrounded us and were shelling. This is when I was wounded in the shoulder (shows the scar). They would later take the fragments out in the hospital. There was no place to hide the radio: we had to dig a pit and stash it there. Covered it with some netting and branches (of shrubs, since there were no trees). We had several decoding lieutenants. One of them jumped out to head for the trench and was killed. And I was thrown against the wall and received a concussion; there was blood coming from one ear. I felt sick after the concussion. We had a driver named Suslin who had a first-aid kit and bandaged my head.

That was at some distance from Stalingrad, but we were coming closer and closer to it. First there was Beketovka and then the sawmill.

There was another case. We had a first-aid instructor who always used to have two hand grenades on him. “For fighting back,” he said. I also had two – fragmentation ones – a  present from a recon guy. We carried them strapped to our belts. So this instructor tells me: “Give me one just in case: I’m going to look for the wounded.” And it so happened that at the sawmill the division’s headquarters were in a half-basement. And they were almost surrounded. Three German submachine gunners opened fire on them, yelling at them to surrender. And the instructor lobbed my grenade at them. They hit the ground, which gave our guys time to escape from that half-basement. Only lost one man. Even managed to save the banner. I even know the one who did it: the Ukranian Ivan Pona. He would later live in Leningrad. He took the banner off the staff and hid it under his undershirt. I think that later he even swam across the river with it. And all is not lost if the banner is saved. [If there was a banner, a unit was considered preserved even if all its members were dead.] Only a handful of people from our division survived – we were fighting until almost all were killed. 124 soldiers were left. I know that because I was on the radio – transmitting this information.

There was a feeling that ruins were everywhere, as was the smoke, the stench. All was burning, trembling.

So when we were surrounded they started dropping leaflets – dark ones. Stalin in them was all twisted, and the POWs were eating macaroni. That was propaganda, pure and simple. And our guys were collecting them to roll cigarettes because that was better than from newspapers. And the leaflets said: “If you want to surrender, keep the leaflet.” One trooper kept two to roll cigarettes. And a political officer happened by to ask him what he was using for rollers. And that trooper showed him the leaflets. The political officer was: “Have you lost your mind? Throw them away: what if someone notices and thinks you want to surrender?”

Tell us about Stalingrad. What is the first thing that comes to mind?

Maria Georgievna

All of it… But first of all, the ruins. The way the stones were falling off them, so we had to keep away from the walls.

…There was a feeling that ruins were everywhere, as was the smoke, the stench. All was burning, trembling. So when the barge took us across it was the most frightening of all – more than it was in Stalingrad itself. Some were saying: “It’s better to charge the enemy ten times than to cross the Volga.” Because the shelling was endless, as were the bombers and fighter planes. They shot from their machine guns and killed a lot of the wounded because the barges were open and slow like tractors. It was a nightmare! When we had crossed, everything seemed strange, especially the silence. It was hard to believe. Some were saying “Am I dead?” We had already gotten used to the endless din that never stopped even at night! Didn’t stop for a second! I kept wondering where the Germans were getting all that ammunition: they just kept at it… When we had crossed to the left bank they were even throwing down empty canisters with holes in them that made a terrible whistling sound. And they’d drop leaflets too: “Surrender! Stick your bayonet into the ground!”

Nobody at that moment was telling himself: “I’ll live.”

Maria Georgievna cont.

I don’t know how I pulled through. There was no food there. Though no appetite either. I remember they brought some gruel, and I wasn’t hungry. And they tell me: “Drink 100 grams for the appetite.” In general, nobody at that moment was telling himself: “I’ll live.” No one was even making such a bet, because everyone thought it was the end… The Germans had more tanks than we soldiers

Aleksandr Filippovich

There wasn’t a moment to wind down, to talk, etc., because the fighting was always close by…

Maria Georgievna

…the battle raged non-stop.

Maria Georgievna

Tell us about how you got wounded. What were you guarding in Kalach? The river crossing. Tell about the battle. Did you have to go up against tanks?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Yes, there were tanks… The Germans had more tanks than we soldiers (smiles).

Was it scary to see so many tanks?

Aleksandr Filippovich

What good would it do to admit fear?… And no one ran away from the battlefield. All fired away as best they could…

Fear… Fear… By then one had forgotten what fear was!

But as a commander you must have encountered situations where your soldiers we afraid? Wasn’t there a specific fear of tanks?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Such fear indeed there was. Everyone had it, because a tank is not the same as soldiers with small arms…

Maria Georgievna

So were there cases of cowardice? Running away?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Perhaps somewhere else, in other units. I kept an eye on my soldiers, not least because I myself would have been shot for failing to keep them in line.

Maria Georgievna

That’s right

Aleksandr Filippovich

Shot if your soldiers scatter or hide, or don’t dig in timely.

Maria Georgievna

But you weren’t keeping an eye on them out of fear?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Fear… Fear… By then one had forgotten what fear was!

Maria Georgievna

That’s true! One would be hard-pressed there not to forget everything!

Aleksandr Filippovich

No one thought about the fear that others felt. Sure there were cowards, but those were shot on the spot for leaving the trench.

Maria Georgievna

They were also shot for self-inflicted injuries, but that was it.

And who had to carry out the executions?

Maria Georgievna

Well, he had no such cases.

Aleksandr Filippovich

No such cases.

Did the Special Department people do that?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Yes, the Special Department; there were indeed such “golubchiks” [Russian: “little pigeons,” a term that Aleksandr Filippovich uses ironically] … (turning to Maria Georgievna) Well?

Maria Georgievna

Why me? You try to remember!

Aleksandr Filippovich

(Perking up) You are beautiful! That’s why I fell for you!

Maria Georgievna

(Also perking up) Head over heels he did!

How about vodka? Did people have it?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Everyone was receiving 100 grams.

And when did people drink: before or after a fight?

Aleksandr Filippovich

After it wouldn’t be of much use…

Maria Georgievna

(interrupting) Whenever they distributed it. There was no prescribed time.

Aleksandr Filippovich

Sure, when they distributed, though people tried to enter a fight a little bit “lit.”

Maria Georgievna

Though sometimes after. It depended on the commander. Our starshina [staff sergeant] would say: “Don’t even ask for it now. After the fight!” And they even wouldn’t always feed us before a fight, even if the food had been delivered.

Aleksandr Filippovich

That’s just sheer disregard for the soldier.

Maria Georgievna

I disagree! The only ones who were protesting were the Asians (they didn’t like to fight on an empty stomach). And what if there is a stomach wound? Then it’s certain death. That was the point.

Did you personally hear Order 227?

Maria Georgievna

I remember it well. The 28th [The order was issued on July 28, 1942]. When they read it we were on the right bank of the Don. Everyone had to stand at attention. The political officer was the one reading it. I even remember it was not our first one, commander Pesochin who had fought with Zhukov somewhere in the Far East. … So that one was pacing up and down, looking everyone in the eye.

He stopped right in front of me, nose to nose: hadn’t see me before, since I worked at the radio station. “Who is that citizen?” Though that didn’t faze me: I’d seen the war, so he wasn’t scary to me. … So this head of Political Department read to all of us standing at attention the order, “Not a Step Back.” They would even add (I don’t know if that actually was in the order): “And if you’re wounded, fall with your head toward the West,” which is to say, to show that you were attacking. And no one objected or complained about the order. Not a soul. Just the opposite. The soldiers were saying: “There’d be more order.” And they were right.

And what did you think yourself?

Maria Georgievna

I personally thought that we would no more retreat. Draw the line. Fight to the last. To the last soldier… And we would all repeat: “Even a single soldier on the battlefield, if he is a Soviet one, can put up a fight.” It boosted our morale. It unified us. One thing that surprised me was that there were no longer extra rations for commanders: all ate together and divided everything among all. That meant something: we were one family…

And after the Order we thought: that’s the right way. There was no other way! Or else the whole people would perish or become enslaved. That’s what the command was saying. Fight to the last. And everyone understood and agreed with it. I never heard anyone complain or object: and not only because they were afraid. No one was afraid any more anyway: neither officers nor soldiers… And there was no curtness or unfriendliness. Everyone understood everyone else. And all smoked together and passed the cigarettes after making a drag. All were one. And even if there was a scoundrel or thief there, he’d soon straighten out. All were good, all were great. All were heroes. Sure enough, there’d be an occasional surprise. Once a strange soldier who saw me was surprised to see a girl, but I told him there was nothing to be surprised about. And another one in his forties told me that I deserved a spanking and being sent home. Though when he learned that I was working at the radio station he said: “You’re a champ, though I feel sorry for you all the same.” And I told him: “There is no reason to feel sorry for me.” You know: death is not half bad when the world is watching [wording of a Russian proverb]. Now if you were alone, with your back to the wall, maybe that would be scary, but when there are people around you… And there were laughs and jokes too, some friendly ribbing… If a man is seen running, there is sure to be a joke that he had chickened out – ha-ha-ha! There was a soldier who was afraid and others were dropping little pebbles on his helmet. But soon enough he got over his fear and even was laughing at himself. And we laughed and reminisced. And all was taken in good part, wasn’t it? And they treated girls nice too.

Once the porridge I brought was gritty with sand: couldn’t be helped since the field kitchen had been bombed. So I said, “Lets strain it, we are bound to salvage something!” Isn’t that right? I said: “It’s good that it’s my tin bowl that is with a hole through-and-through and not me! And the soldiers said, “Bully for you, champ.” They all liked me for my cheerfulness.
There was love too. There was a girl named Masha who, I think, served in our division’s recon. Her husband was a company commander. He was killed. And she was assigned to the headquarters. We had retreated and he was left behind. So she asked her commander to grant her leave and was gone for a week-and-a-half. Then she appeared – all gaunt and exhausted… She had found his body and had hauled it across the frontline. How had she managed? Must have hauled him during the night: that’s love for you… Somebody had told her where the fight had taken place. She had slipped in there, recovered him, dragged him out of there and gave him a burial.

Love is love, what can I tell you… Though Stalingrad would seem the unlikeliest place for that. If Chuikov was ever up to any fooling around, I don’t think that Stalingrad was the place. He made it to Berlin after all and in Stalingrad he must have had his hands too full for that business. Sure, he may have liked someone, but hardly more than that.

Then he would send me his regards. First just regards, then warm regards, then regards with kisses.

(turning to Aleksandr Filippovich) – When did you first meet Maria Georgievna?
[They recall that it was in 1941 on the South-West front, while he was in the 38th Army, 617th Regiment]

Maria Georgievna

And that’s where it was. I was a radio operator, fresh after finishing a three-month preparation course. In October I had been sent to the division. Their operator had been killed. I remember they were decorating several people, including the commander of the 617th Regiment. And I was just a young girl; they asked me to organize some kind of little concert for those who were being decorated. They received a piece of bread and a mug of vodka to mark the occasion. That was taking place in a school. There were some instruments there. I gathered several nurses and a lad to improvise a little concert. I myself sang some wartime songs including this one: “Tell us, o seagull where have you been, how many super-Arian Fritzes did you run into the bushes. [Maria Georgievna is singing re-made lines of the song by Yu. Milyutin and V. Lebedev-Kumach, “The Seagull”: Tell me, o seagull,/ If you’re my friend, / Take you, o seagull,/ My regards to my beloved.] And other songs too, mostly about love…
Aleksandr Filippovich dropped in, he was the duty officer and because he headquarters he wore a velour greatcoat, a fur hat and gloves, that’s how he was dressed!

Aleksandr Filippovich

Honored to meet you!

Aleksandr Filippovich

And our greatcoats were pretty rundown by then, since there had already been some fighting. So Аleksandr Filippovich walked in and sat down. I came up to him and said: “Comrade lieutenant, you’ve sat down with your hat on.” And he said: “You don’t know the military code well! It doesn’t mention hats.” That was the start… And then I was on guard one night and had to wash my boots the morning after and met Sasha Martemyanov on horseback who told me that the duty officer had come to the radio station –that was him [Аleksandr Filippovich]. And the next time he saw me he said: “Let’s get acquainted.” Right?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Right so far. Was touch-and-go for a moment too.

Maria Georgievna

So we got acquainted. He asked me: “Why are you limping?” I tell him it’s the leg injury. Just picture me at that time. He just up and lifts me off the ground like this. All in plain view of the station commander. I tell him: “Put me down, what are you doing?! Is this the way to behave!” And then I left. And then he would send me his regards. First just regards, then warm regards, then regards with kisses. Then I was sick with a throat inflammation, because it was cold and we had no felt boots. And he managed to find a chicken somewhere and sent it to me. The soldier who arrived with the chicken told the woman of the house: that’s from Lieutenant Voronov. Feed this girl.” So that’s the kind of friendship it was. And then when it was Stalingrad, …he came up and said: “I want to say good-bye, it’s unlikely that we’ll make it…”

Aleksandr Filippovich

Did I?

Maria Georgievna

Yes, you did. And then you hugged me. There weren’t any kisses. Just this solemn farewell…

(turning to Aleksandr Filippovich) – Do you remember that?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Of course I do. Because there was no other beauty like her there.

Maria Georgievna

(a little embarrassed and cross) – Enough with that! Sasha, my dear!

Aleksandr Filippovich

(agreeing) Your dear…

Maria Georgievna

“A beauty is she who is liked by her dear, not she who is famed to be one.” You happen to like me, so you keep going on and on about it… Enough about my beauty! Really!

Aleksandr Filippovich

She can’t…

Maria Georgievna

(interrupting) In fact, you know what he was saying? Way back then? “Just look at you!” he’d say. “You’re this tall, and I’m this tall” (meaning she is short) – “So?”

Aleksandr Filippovich

I’ve grown, and you still haven’t (laughs)

Maria Georgievna

(And I would tell him): “You know the tale about a lion trapped in a net? А little mouse gnawed through it and saved him. So, being little doesn’t mean a thing!

Aleksandr Filippovich

(tenderly) At-a-girl.

So you said good-bye in Stalingrad, and when did you see each other again?

Maria Georgievna

We no longer saw each other in Stalingrad, he was sent to another front. In 1944 I was wounded and so was he, though he was an ambulatory patient who came in for treatment daily.

That means that for over a year you didn’t see each other?

Maria Georgievna

Yes, till 1944.

Maria Georgievna

I’m glad that I’m short. If there is a bombardment, it’s harder to hit me! I’d hit the ground in a second! I wore pants, had a boy’s haircut and a cap. From a distance they took me for a boy.

Aleksandr Filippovich

It’s a great calamity that girls and women had to be called up.

Maria Georgievna

(passionately) – We went ourselves! As volunteers. I was a college student. Had lots of beaus too. Could’ve had them now too if I wanted: those little old men (she laughs). All our veterans are old now. Few still get around. There are no people to work in the Veterans’ Committees. I had many wounds too. There is shrapnel in my leg with 17 stitches. When I was young and wore nylon stockings I recall waiting for a train somewhere and a woman sitting in front of me asked: “Dear, where did you manage to stick yourself on barbed wire?”

Do you dream about the war?

Aleksandr Filippovich

Not any more.

Maria Georgievna

I used to, but it passed. Now it’s something else! Very strange too. I’m by some river, don’t know which. And all our guys are there, telephone and radio operators, all alive and young. And I’m young myself and am looking at myself in the mirror. Just think about it.
There was a moment when there were so many wounded; German machineguns were hammering away, they told us to blow up the radio station, though we were taking our time about it. And the wounded around us are begging us no to leave them, and Valya Kovaleva and I are bandaging them, though we are already being surrounded. I wasn’t thinking about myself: how can you abandon them if they are begging? A young handsome guy for example, with a gash so deep so that the bone is seen. Or a field nurse, with a terrible wound – all ripped open here (she shows the area); I later saw her in the hospital lying on her stomach. Another one had her breast torn off… Аnother one lost her arm and teeth. She was later hysterical in the hospital: throwing her bowl against the wall, crying out “Enough of your peas flour.” I felt for her…

Are you proud of your work as a radio operator?

Maria Georgievna

Not just proud – I was ecstatic when they would announce: “three steps forward: you receive a commendation!” Because when the radio was low on battery power and that with already poor sound, not everybody was able to hear, but I was, thanks to my excellent hearing. Plus, others could have been deafened by the blasts, though I myself had a hemorrhage from my ear for two weeks… So I did my best to receive and take down all those numbers from those communications, no louder than a mosquito’s buzz. So once they I was lucky to start my shift with a new battery. It’s great when there are no interruptions in communication. Sure, they praised me, and I would just say: “Honored to serve the Soviet Union!” I was proud that they praised me and that I, a young girl, was useful at the front, that I was in demand and helpful! You could say that was happiness for me!
As for the fear… It was always frightening. The worst was to see… When they were burying a field nurse, with her braided hair… Put her on top in a common grave. That was frightening. Or when our recon guys were found, all dismembered –not simply killed…
I’ll tell you the truth. When we were taking back the villages, some locals were telling us that not all Germans were bad. I swear to you! Some, they said, had been showing them family photos, saying: “We didn’t want to fight, they sent us, we ourselves meant no harm…” There was even a story about a dying girl they were bringing medicine to. Not all Germans were butchers. Our people realize that.
We were scattered all over! Here I have a leg fracture, here an injured vein that had to be stitched and a knee wound. At the hospital there were no pain killers. There was a sailor there to whom they gave some watered-down alcohol. So what good does it do? He’d pass in and out of consciousness and when he’s out, they’d hold him down and start sawing away. It was terrible! Compared to him I considered myself lucky. Though when they were putting a stent into my knee I screamed: “Ooo!” And they just said: “Quiet, you screamer!” Well, enough of that! At least I made it! And when they ask me what my greatest military decoration is, I tell them: “Guys, I don’t wish anyone the kind of decorations that I have. The only one I wish you is the Order of Badge of Honor – for your work and study and I wish you to never see a war. I can’t say I like military decorations. The only real reward is remaining alive after Stalingrad. As for the decorations, it’s good to take a break from them, since they are heavy (laughs). Especially the anniversary ones. Here I have the Order of First degree for those wounded at the front line. Then there is the Medal for Battle Merit –for Stalingrad. I think that’s plenty. And the Order of Badge of Honor – but that’s already for labor. And here is more. My daughter carried them all once and said: “How heavy they are!”

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