Vera Dmitrievna Bulushova

Vera Dmitrievna Bulushova was born in 1921 in the town of Pushkino, near Moscow. She was the oldest of five siblings. In 1941 she volunteered to serve in the Red Army. A brother and a sister followed her example; all three survived the war. She worked as a typist in the military prosecutor’s office. The rifle corps to which she belonged took part in the defense of Stalingrad and was later integrated into Vassily Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army (the re-named 62nd Army). She finished the war in the rank of captain.

In 1946, while working in occupied Germany, Bulushova became married to a reconnaissance officer from her former unit; together they had two children. After the couple returned to Moscow with their first child in 1947 they lived in the apartment of her mother, together with one of Vera’s brothers and his family. Bulushova’s husband died in 1970. Only in 1974 did the Soviet state allocate her an apartment of her own. When we scheduled our interview with Vera Dmitrievna she insisted that we meet at the offices of the Moscow Veterans’ Union, rather than in her modest home.

“I just volunteered to do my duty,” Vera Dmitrievna remarked on her war effort during our conversation, “I didn’t marry until after Berlin.” Expressed in her terse words is an understanding, widely shared among Russian war veterans, that state interests unquestionably take precedence over personal desires. This hierarchy emerges vividly in the image that photographer Emma Hanson captured of Bulushova standing below the woven portrait of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who directed the defense of Stalingrad.

Three of us went to the front. I was the first to join up.

We were a big family and very poor. Mother, at 35, was raising us alone after Father’s death in 1932 at the age of 36. She remained a widow. I, at eleven, was the oldest; the youngest one was three. Three of us went to the front. I was the first to join up. Set an example for them.

The war started and soon enough started the evacuation from Moscow. Mother said, “If we should die, let’s die all together, I don’t want any evacuations.” So we stayed.

They only allowed me to join up on my third try. They was always some reason to turn me down, such as lack of any military training, etc. I finished the medical aids’ courses to become eligible – for the frontline or recon, but again I was told they had enough medical staff. But I’m pushy. The third time it was already September 1941and the Germans were getting close to Moscow. I again went to the military service board where they told me: “we are taking heavy losses, there are requests for secretaries-typists for unit headquarters [HQ].” Thanks to this coincidence I finally was taken. I was literate (10 years of primary school, plus one year of university) …So they told me it was up to me to find a typist course in Moscow and to finish it. After three or four months they invited me to check on my progress and told me to improve further (the typing speed was too low)…

Finally, already in March or April 1942 the draft office informed me to be ready: somebody would be there to pick me up. Mother had no idea what I was about to do. So a Willys from the 5th Tank Army arrived at five in the morning. Mother was at a loss – had no idea what to pack for me. So they took me. We drove to HQ in Sukhinichi where I had been accepted as a volunteer typist.

The 5th Tank Army was destroyed. Its commander, Major General Lizyukov was killed. What was left of us was collected at Front HQ, re-formed into new units and I was assigned to infantry. For some time I worked as a typist-secretary at the military tribunal. Also short-lived. Again there was fighting, losses and re-formation. More fighting, the Bryansk front, then the Voronezh front and further down south. Finally I ended up in the 15th Rifles Corps at the military prosecutor’s office.

What is the war for me?.. I felt responsibility. I volunteered. I didn’t know what exactly the war would be, but I knew that everybody around was joining up. The trenches, the hardships…There were all kinds of them! Frostbite, hunger – and that at headquarters! Sure, it was less frightening than face-to-face with the enemy, but I had my own heavy Parabellum in a wooden holster.

Military service was then perceived as a duty, as a matter of course, as part of being a patriot. Though people were falling right and left. I was wounded by a shell fragment –lightly, but in the face – there are still marks.

What is the war for me? I felt responsibility. I volunteered.

But many comrades were killed. Headquarters had their own recon detachment, with its own assignments and training program. We saw them coming back from missions, sometimes unsuccessful, for instance, if they happened onto a mine field. I remember a terrible case. During a night-time recon, the commander at the head of the group lost his way, stepped on a mine and lost a leg. His name was Captain Anatoly Mashkov. The troopers managed to bring him back and save his life. Another one lost both legs and an arm. He shot himself right after, realizing he wouldn’t be able to live like that.

My sister, my junior by a year and a half, wrote to me (I still have the letter), asking me to have her transferred to my unit. I talked to the command, and through the draft office she received a referral for our detachment. We served together for a month, but then were separated.

So eventually we rolled all the way back to Stalingrad. First Kantemirovka, Kharkov, Dneprodzerzhinsk… There was fighting everywhere. Kantimirovka had been held by the Germans for a while. They had large stores there, some of which had been left behind, but booby-trapped – often with deadly results for us. After Kantemirovka we were right at the South-Western front, right next to Stalingrad. All but a handful of people were decimated there. They were finally taken out of action, and the headquarters personnel was transferred to Front HQ. The fighting in the outskirts of Stalingrad continued. This was when I had problems with my legs, caused by boots as I recall, and needed treatment. At that medical point where they were bringing the wounded from the Stalingrad front I became acquainted with a major, who was there with a leg wound.

Later, toward the end of the fighting near Stalingrad the wounded were rounded up and sent to new units. This is how I ended up at Chuikov’s HQ. We had our own recon unit there. It conducted in-depth recon missions, night-time searches and probing attacks. And what do you know: that very Мajor Sukhanov from the hospital was the unit’s commander. He also fought at Stalingrad and has the medal for the Battle of Stalingrad. Later, in 1946 he became my husband. In Germany he was appointed head of division recon.

No one was making passes at me.

Tell us about your first meeting with Major Sukhanov.

He fought in Stalingrad in the reconnaissance and twice sustained a leg wound there. Like me, he was born in 1921 (on June 29; I – on August 12). After tenth grade of school in the Urals, in 1939 he went to a military college. He finished it and was sent to the Finnish front where at nineteen he was already a recon commander. He received the medal for liberation of the Transarctic. He was also wounded there. He died in 1970.

What were the relations between guys and girls like at the front?

Normal!

Were they getting fresh?

No! If somebody was getting fresh it was the higher-ups [the officers]. For that they used their “authority.” But no one was making passes at me: whether because of my…conservative upbringing at home that reflected in my baring or because I had learned to avoid creating problems. Or perhaps because I wasn’t that sexy… Don’t know… Some were indeed showing me signs of attention, but no more than that… The main objective was just to return home alive… Though I returned with a baby…

But how did soldiers treat women? Sure enough, women were treated as comrades, but still there must have been a difference…

I didn’t feel a difference, though one could overhear some remarks about certain girls. They would refer to them as “field wives.” I myself never heard being referred to this way. I had professional, “military” relations… Another interesting fact. I had been an Octobrist, then a Young Pioneer, than a Komsomol member [junior Party member]. Another time a Polish woman expressed surprise at seeing me: “How can they call up young girls like you?” She asked that in Polish, but I understood. I told her that nobody had called me up – I had volunteered.

About that Polish woman. I remember her to this day. She really said that with concern and compassion, which is something, keeping in mind that the Poles don’t take too kindly to us. But there are kind people everywhere: “When we see off our children we give them an image of the Matka Boska [Polish: Mother of God].” And she offered me a Matka Boska as a gift as if she were seeing off her own child. I’ve kept that icon with me to this day. I treasure it still, because now the times are hard and no one knows what can happen.

These may be trifles, and yet… [She shows contemporary icons] And this is my guardian angel Vera on Karelia birch. Here is the Savior. And here in this case is the Matka Boska. I wasn’t a believer back then. Such a tiny icon, probably made of tin. But the Polish woman gave it from her heart and I accepted it in the same spirit – the Komsomol member, the communist, and atheist that I was. That was in the summer of 1944, before the liberation of Warsaw.

When we see off our children we give them an image of the Mother of God.

He proposed in the September of 1945. He received a six-weeks’ furlough and went to the Urals, and I was pregnant. We’d been living in a common-law marriage, because there was no civil registry office there to make it official. He went to see his mother. He knew that I was pregnant and must have supposed they could demobilize me. Which they did in 1946; his second-in-command came to pick me up and take me to divisional HQ. There I worked as a typist in the personnel department.

The landlady fed the baby at precise intervals, as she did her chickens.

V-day they left us in Germany in the occupation force. We stayed there for a year. Our daughter was born there. The two-story house in Eisenach where we lived was on the pretty Karl Marx Street. The owners, a German family, lived on the top floor. The German landlady was talking to me in German, she tried to reassure me as I was pregnant. I understood her a little, though could say nothing myself. When they brought me back from a private maternity ward, everything had been prepared by her, including a lovely little bed.

I observed how punctual they were – punctual in everything. I was amazed that they were picking up kids there one by one to drive them to the kindergarten. The landlady fed the baby at precise intervals, as she did her chickens. That was quite a learning experience for me.

Did you dream about the war?

Not exactly, though sometimes when I wake up I think back to the war… To this day… How it all happened, those who died… It takes some emotional adjustment, some firmness to handle it.

Mother died at 85, having lived a hard life. A widow with five kids at 35. Three went to the war, but thankfully all came back. Mother lived with me and died with me by her side. And whatever problems crop up, they don’t get me down, but instead give me strength. And going to the war for me was simply part of being a patriot. And I signed up not for anything specific, but for whatever service branch or unit where they’d deem me useful. And I had to be persistent too, since they weren’t taking girls.

I want to ask about the role of Stalingrad in your life.

I just volunteered to do my duty. Didn’t marry until after Berlin.

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