Russia Rebuilds

by ANNA LOUISE STRONG

1

DURING that desperate December of 1942 when Stalingrad fought with its back to the Volga while the Donets basin, the great southern center of coal and steel, was for the second winter in enemy hands, far in the northern woods Russian loggers began cutting timber for the repair of those German-held mines.

It was an act of faith — preparing for a future which depended on the fortunes of war. But that faith was universal in the Soviet Union, one which all Soviet people shared. They believed their Red Army would soon retake those coal mines. They knew the Germans would destroy them before retreating. They knew the Soviet land needed coal and that they must prepare for rebuilding. So the timber was cut.

With the spring floods it was rafted down the Volga, staked, transshipped, and rafted down the Don. Through all the long summer months of high water, the mines towards which those timbers journeyed were still in Nazi hands. But when the Red Army’s summer advance drove at last through the mining regions, storming them town by town and mine by mine, timber for mine repair followed barely a week behind the Army, brought to this ruined prairie country all the way from the northern woods.

In the cruel winter of 1941, when the Germans’ iron ring closed around Leningrad and its citizens lacked food, then water, then electricity, then fuel; when German bombs and shells hit the finest historic buildings and when every man, woman, and child was working for defense, the city’s committee of architects began surveying the city for the repair of future damage that the Germans would do.

Leningrad built a road and a railroad over the ice of Lake Ladoga to bring in the scanty food and to take out hungry children. The road was bombed daily, and daily refroze. On this road, museum curators secured space in desperately needed trucks to evacuate the most valuable treasures from the city’s sixty famous museums, taking them far into the interior of the country. Other treasures were buried deep in cellars. In the city’s hardest hour, three hundred men and women were released from digging fortifications to bury four famous groups of equestrian statuary by Ivlodt on the Anichkov bridge. They dug at thirty below zero and saved these great groups.

“The hardest thing,” says Nikolai Belekhov, Chief of Monument Preservation, “was to save palaces and other structures designed by famous architects of the past. These couldn’t be buried or covered with sandbags and were special landmarks for shells. Therefore our architects made the most exact drawings of them in all their detail for replacement.”

The architects worked under artillery fire and often on empty stomachs. They designed with frostbitten fingers. They not only faithfully copied every detail of artistically and historically significant structures for rebuilding, but also planned for improving the city, increasing public convenience, recreation, and health. Whenever bombs destroyed ordinary buildings in congested areas, the architects considered turning the space into parks and playgrounds.

Restoration began even before the siege was broken. The heavily damaged St. Isaac’s and Kazan Cathedrals were repaired by February of this year. Repairs continue to the Hermitage Museum, to the Mariinsky Opera designed by Cavos, and to the Yelagin Palace, designed by Rossi, which was burned to the ground by incendiary shells. The new plans include a 500-acre park three miles long on the Neva and the Gulf of Finland, which will include several present parks and partly compensate for the destruction of the famous ancient parks in the environs of the city, Peterhof, Pulkovo, Pavlovsk, and elsewhere, in which the Nazis chopped down the trees.

9

IT WILL never be possible for Americans to picture either the extent of the ruin left by the Nazis or the Russian passion for rebuilding. Americans tend to assume that the German tactics in retreat resemble the “scorched-earth policy” of the Russians. This is untrue. The Russians never used the term “scorched earth.” It was applied in American newspaper headlines. The Russians had a well-planned strategy of evacuating or destroying objects with military and economic value, in order to prevent their use by the enemy. The Nazis, on the other hand, destroyed the homes of the population, the water supply, and all the necessities of life, deported the able-bodied as slaves to Germany, and often murdered wholesale or infected with disease those left behind.

Nazi actions are so far from anything that modern human beings consider normal that the mind refuses to believe even when one sees the evidence of them. I have personally met the twelve Jews remaining in Minsk of the 120,000 who passed through that city’s ghetto. Day after day my old friends mention briefly that wife, sister, or child was murdered by the Nazis. The Soviet investigating commissions list the names of the Nazi officers and the dates when they drove tanks over babies to make their mothers betray partisans, or dropped uncounted civilians down mine shafts in the Donets basin. These tactics were a premeditated plan to prevent the healthy revival of “inferior races” even after the war.

The passion for reconstruction that fills the hearts of Soviet citizens when publicly owned properties are again in their hands thus derives from the national will to survive. To this is added that devotion to construction in which Soviet youth has been brought up for twenty years and which war painfully interrupted. In almost every area of reclaimed territory, the Soviet people are performing miracles.

The first steps in reconstruction were taken by the Army engineers in the steady advance. These included rebuilding railroads which the retreating Germans destroyed. Konstantin Simonov, a correspondent traveling with the Army, reports on the furious rebuilding of a bridge: —

“On a dark winter night in wet sleet I met the First Railway Brigade repairing a bridge. This brigade went through the entire retreat from Kiev to the North Caucasus, destroying tracks and bridges behind them with a heavy heart. Now they worked not with heavy hearts but savagely, throwing off greatcoats and padded jackets despite the severe cold, filling every minute to the utmost, not because of Army orders but because it was necessary to their souls.

“The more completely destroyed the bridge, the more devotedly did they fling themselves on the broken ruins and the merrier was their work. Thus they rebuilt in eight days a bridge that took the Germans thirty-five days to rebuild.”

The stages by which the Soviet people restore ruined territory are now fairly well standardized. They include a complex program beginning with the removal of mines from the ruins and continue to the rebuilding of ruined farms and industries according to new plans. They include also the healing of infected populations and the moral regeneration of adolescents who have lived several years without parents, without normal social life, and often under the worst possible pressures.

The first task in any city freed by the Red Army is to clean it of mines and filth. This is done partly by the Red Army quarantine advance. Army sappers de-mine the main thoroughfares, and Army burial squads dispose of most of the corpses left by battle (Soviet figures on enemy dead are thus obtained). But the Army does not stop; the advance swiftly moves beyond the city. Control of life and reconstruction passes at once into civilian hands.

Cities are invariably not only badly ruined but at first are almost devoid of people. But as soon as a city is freed, people begin rapidly returning. All along the roads to Minsk I saw them plodding, carrying babies and household goods. In the city itself they crept from holes in piles of debris. They were ragged, often barefoot, and weak from hunger and neglected ailments. The city’s population was increased daily by many thousands of such people. Nobody knows for sure how many, for they cannot be found at home.

Finding their homes blown up or in ashes, they moved in with neighbors or made shelters under the ruins. Thousands camped nightly outside the city to avoid bombings, since Minsk was still close to the front. Meanwhile they scrawled messages on the walls of smashed homes: “Darya, where are you? Find me at the Bondrachuks’.” Or, “Mother, drop in to the City Soviet. They know where to find me. Olya.” Scattered families were striving to reunite.

The city, however, was not in chaos, although it might appear so. Many members of the pre-war city government had never left the job even though they were forced to leave the city. They acted under orders and by a common plan. Some went east, evacuating industries, institutions, and children. Some became leaders of the neighborhood partisan bands, communicating constantly with the city through underground agents. These partisans were especially numerous in White Russia, where swamps and woods provided natural shelter. White Russian partisans held over half the Minsk district continuously.

The mayor of Minsk, for instance, led a large partisan band which included many members of the city’s former police force. He helped harry Germans throughout the war and then assisted the Red Army in retaking the city. His partisans entered with the first Red Army units and immediately began de-mining buildings and policing streets.

Within two days, the City Soviet and three Ward Soviets were listing the population and assigning jobs for the repair of the city, paying for it in money brought in by a branch of the Stale Bank. All workers got food cards for themselves and their families. This fact alone made everyone hasten to the City Soviet or the Ward Soviets for listing and for work.

Signs blossomed all over the city announcing either “Danger — Mines — Keep Off” or “Mines Clear.” Over fifty German supply depots containing wheat, leather, cattle, and other commodities were discovered and placed under guard for common use. Transport workers, electrical workers, and plumbers were repairing carlines, power plants, and waterworks. A special commission was checking accounts of Nazi atrocities and also the claims of patriotic citizens who had saved various municipal structures and who would receive public awards and local fame. (One historic building in Minsk was saved by smudge fires, whose heavy smoke made the Germans believe the structure already aflame.)

De-mining a large ruined city is a long, complicated job. It requires expert supervision, which was supplied by Army sappers and by partisans. In Stalingrad and its suburbs, nearly a hundred thousand mines were discovered. Mines were found in water pails and in desk blotters. In one apartment, coat racks were mined to explode when a coat was hung up. Pianos and victrolas were set to explode when played, and desk drawers to explode when opened. One large mine was connected in an attic with the electric lighting system. The mine was dormant since the power plant had been destroyed and the electric system was not working; but when the lights were repaired the mine would explode, presumably when many residents were in the house.

A year and a half after Stalingrad’s liberation, mines were still being discovered at the rate of three hundred a month. Mines are especially dangerous to children, who like to explore and to pick things up in the debris. The utter destitution of the inhabitants also drives them to hunt in the ruins for a knife or broken utensil for cooking food. Such a hunt is very dangerous. Undoubtedly it would often be safer and easier to build a new city in the open prairie than to rebuild a ruined and mined city. But a city site is usually historically determined by factors of convenience and transport. The moral factor, the grim will of the population to rebuild precisely their own city, must also be considered.

3

PIERRE COT, the distinguished Frenchman who recently finished a four-month survey of Russian reconstruction methods, told me the health problem created by German filth is most serious. “The Germans contaminated the entire territory which they occupied,” he said.

First of all, the Germans were physically very dirty. This fact will surprise many Americans, who know the reputation of Germany for cleanliness and order. Cot explains that the German mind is stereotyped and unable to adapt to new conditions. For whatever cause, the fact remains they were physically filthy in Russia.

“Russians can clean themselves with snow or with sand in an emergency,” explained Cot. “War creates filthy conditions which bring lice. The Red Army had bath trains touring the front. Men enter one end, strip, and proceed naked through several cars of steam baths until they are thoroughly clean, then get clean underwear, and wait in club cars reading and playing games while their outer clothing is fumigated. But if bath trains are unavailable, Russian soldiers will strip and jump into a snow bank, cleaning themselves thoroughly. The Germans won’t do this.

“The Germans also wear much woolen underwear which collects lice when it gets dirty. The Russians wear linen next to their skin even in winter. Russian winter footwear consists of long strips of linen wound around the feet, which are then thrust into felt boots.

“From all of these causes the Russians were physically clean while the Germans were not. Typhus spread wherever the Germans were.”

The Germans used back yards and streets as latrines. A village woman near Bryansk told me one of the hardest things was “the humiliation of German habits. They’d take down their pants in the middle of the street even in the presence of women, as if we were all animals.”

Every city occupied by the Germans has an accumulation of several years’ filth. Sometimes the Germans apparently deliberately tried to degrade fine places with filth. Thus in the beautiful health resort of Essentuki they made long lines of latrines down the middle of the fine avenues and put a soldiers’ cemetery next to the town water supply.

Whatever measures of health protection the Germans use for their own soldiers, considerable evidence shows that they systematically tried to infect the places they were leaving. They made a habit of dropping corpses in village wells, and in Smolensk Province they poisoned the wells with cyanide. They turned patients from the hospitals, telling them they were uncontagious when actually they were in the highest stage of contagion. They often brought typhus cases from isolated villages and planted them in crowded houses along the highways, preventing physicians from attending them. One case is reported in which the Germans enclosed large numbers of weak, aged, and children in a barbedwire camp and then added many cases of typhus infection.

In every area liberated by the Red Army, health has been the most immediate concern. Often nine tenths of the population have needed some form of treatment, not only for epidemics but because of long hunger and the deprivation of all medical care. Physicians and medical workers therefore entered liberated areas close behind the Red Army.

Pierre Cot especially admires the realistic manner of handling venereal disease like other infections. “The Germans contaminated the country with this. It was a pity, for the Soviet Union had practically got rid of it, which no country ever did before. It is now rampant again in occupied districts and presents a serious problem. Fortunately, doctors have power to enforce the compulsory examination of any suspects and to compel them to tell where they got the infection, thus tracing it back to its source.”

Contagion controls have been brilliantly handled. No epidemics whatever spread from the liberated districts, where diseases were rapidly brought under control. However, health reconstruction is a long-range problem.

Long-range health reconstruction includes the problems of malarial regions where the Germans not only destroyed hospitals and laboratories but the entire network of drainage and irrigation canals. In such areas, Soviet health authorities in 1942 examined over fourteen million people for malaria, and dusted nearly a million acres of swamp land with paris green. Similarly, endemic goiter again became widespread under the Germans in areas of the North Caucasus where the Soviets had controlled it before the war by prophylaxis, including iodized salt. This work is beginning over again.

4

HEALTH, of course, is only one of a hundred problems. The entire fabric of modern civilization — industries, farming, schools, theaters — must be rebuilt. Hence every government commissariat, whether of health, education, or heavy industry, has a special section for liberated areas. The federal government devotes attention to large-scale enterprises but expects local authorities to rebuild houses and municipal utilities, and to produce consumers’ goods, for which, of course, they get government credits and some materials. Public sentiment takes pride in doing the maximum of reconstruction with the minimum of federal help.

Local heroes — and sometimes national heroes — are workers who through cleverness or persistence create something from scrap and debris. Electrical workers along the Dnieper celebrate a worker named Duz who collected from scrap enough wire to make seventy miles of electric cable for interurban communications. Stalingrad tractor plant workers are tremendously proud that they succeeded in reconstructing machine tools from bolts and bits picked up from the wreckage of the tractor plant.

In Istra, sixty miles from Moscow, the people had to rebuild the entire town. Neighboring woods supplied timber but a sawmill was needed. Instead of asking help from the government, they found a car wheel in some railway wreckage, parts of a ruined tank somewhere else, and other bits of machinery left after the Red Army had salvaged everything it could use. From these miscellaneous remnants they created a sawmill which was the local pride.

A brilliant example of municipal initiative was given by Kharkov, a great industrial city with a prewar population of over 800,000, which dwindled under the Germans to about one quarter of that number. The Red Army stormed Kharkov on the evening of August 21, 1943, entering before dawn on August 23. By nine in the morning, city departments had already arrived with food which was distributed throughout the afternoon under shellfire.

The first equipment to rehabilitate radio, telephones, and telegraph — all communications were of course destroyed by the Germans — was brought in by aeroplane the day after liberation and included switchboards, high-frequency apparatus, and a 1500watt radio station to give the people news. Temporary public telephone stations were set up in various sections of the city pending the general repair of the telephone system, which took much longer. Four days after the Germans were driven out, a newspaper appeared and two motion picture theaters opened, while a concert troupe from the famous Vakhtangov Theater arrived from Moscow to give a concert. This was not the first, for a troupe from the Kiev State Opera — the best dramatic organization in the Ukraine, but evacuated to Irkutsk in Siberia for the duration — performed in Kharkov two days after the entrance of the Red Army.

To anyone who knows the exlrcme difficulty of individual travel from town to town in the wartime Soviet Union, the sudden appearance of a concert troupe from Irkutzk at Kharkov seems little short of a miracle. This combination of individual initiative with national planning is the linest flowering of Soviet experience gained during the three five-year plans.

5

THE most spectacular example of centralized planning combined with local action was in the reconstruction of agriculture. At the end of August, 1943, the federal government issued a decree ordering approximately 600,000 head of livestock returned from eastern areas to the liberated districts from which they had been evacuated two years before. Representatives of the liberated farms traveled eastward, where they checked cattle with the veterinary and delivered them to herders for delivery a thousand miles to the west. The entire transfer was controlled by the Commissariat of Agriculture, which planned routes providing water and fodder.

Within ten days, hundreds of thousands of animals were traveling by train, by boat, but mostly on foot. The eastern farms which had used the animals for two years returned 40,000 additional head as gifts. Also over a million head were bought on credit from the eastern areas where livestock breeding had been especially stimulated in expectation of this need. By January 1, 1944, — some four months after the decree, — the liberated farms had received 1,700,000 head of livestock. Meanwhile, timber from the state forests was given to the farmers to rebuild stables. In the Oryol district alone, farmers in ten days built winter shelter for 26,000 head. Remember, these farmers themselves were halfstarved, half-clothed refugees just escaped from Nazi hands.

All the architects in the Soviet Union are working overtime planning future Soviet cities and rural areas. Soviet cities already had city plans, but the present plans provide for wider streets and more lakes. For instance, several factories in the center of Odessa will not be rebuilt, since the space can be better used for parks and cultural buildings. Krcschatik, the most famous central street in Kiev, will be widened from 115 feet to 165 feet. Stalingrad, formerly a mushroom industrial giant, will acquire an enormous central park and four fine parkways paralleling the river, including a wade recreation parkway on the Volga bank.

Architects are also replanning typical modern villages for the Ukraine and White Russia, where thousands of villages must be entirely rebuilt. The chief feature is the separation of the residential area from the production area. The residential area includes homes with space for a garden and orchard and a small barn, while workshops, machine shops, granaries, and livestock farms are located in the production area near large, coöperatively farmed fields. The entire south shore of the Crimean peninsula is being replanned as a unit, including much reforestation, since the Germans cut down the trees. The vineyard belt, from sea level to 800 feet in elevation, provides for maximum use of this fine grape country. Chains of sanatoria and health resorts at various levels will enable doctors to move patients up and down according to the season and the patient’s health. Incidentally, Soviet, plant specialists have devised a method to hasten the regrowth of valuable trees. They make grafts in the trunk, using a growth-promoting substance, thereby giving the new growth the use of the extensive underground root system of the old tree.

The tasks of restoration are infinitely complex. Not only must the Soviet Union rebuild ruined factories and cities. Around Stalingrad, for instance, the Russians must even restore the earth, so extensively have repeated bombings upturned the sterile soil. Still deeper are the wounds in the souls of children who saw their mothers killed and their sisters ravished and who, months afterwards, still awaken screaming from nightmares in the children’s homes. In every Soviet family are losses that can never be compensated, of loved ones who will not return.

The Soviets, therefore, seldom speak of “reconstruction,” but rather of “construction.” They seek no mere restoring of the past. They are building on the present — which includes ruined lands and greater lands unruined — a future better than anything before. To this they dedicate all the resources of the Soviet land, its individual initiative, and its socialist economy. Those resources, both material and spiritual, are very great — so great in fact that Pierre Cot, after a four-month survey, expressed to me his conviction that fifteen years hence all the ruined country will be more advanced than if there had been no war.