Subject essay: James von Geldern
Romance, the high-flown, sentimental, overwhelming passion between a man and a woman, pulled people into its orbit during the war as it had not for many years. The heightened atmosphere of wartime, when couples met with the very real knowledge that they might never see each other again, threw people into each other’s arms with a sweetness and sadness rare in less dangerous times. Although such feelings had been dismissed as bourgeois nonsense by the revolutionary generation, the retrenchment of traditional gender roles during the 1930s had accustomed young men and women to the forgotten rituals of courting and mating. The war simply raised the stakes.
Several voices spoke most deeply to yearning hearts during the war. Konstantin Simonov, a young party journalist who worked his way up during the purge campaigns of the late 1930s, developed a voice of direct emotion that touched millions. Covering the disastrous retreat of summer 1941 from the frontlines, he wrote beautiful poems of sadness and love, most importantly “Wait for Me.” Klavdiia Shulzhenko, who had vaulted to stardom in a song contest in 1939, sang such popular hits as “Blue Scarf” or “Let’s Have a Smoke”. Her voice, pleasant but not overwhelming, held a conversational intimacy that won the hearts of radio listeners across the country. A magical intimacy rang in the voice of Mark Bernes as well. In the movie “Two Soldiers”, he sang the lovers’ anthem “Dark is the Night” on the eve of battle in a dugout, accompanied by a raw guitar.
The romantic mood of the war played upon the traditional gender roles that socialism was to have made obsolete. Men defended their motherland in the abstract, their mothers, wives and lovers in the concrete. Women relied passively on the martial valor of their men. The traditional roles that evoked such deep sentiment in songs, films and poems was strikingly at odds with the real life roles that women assumed during the war. The full-scale mobilization of men to the front placed women in leading roles in kolkhozes and factories, in families and communities. The Soviet Union was unique in placing women in harm’s way in combat roles, as pilots, transport drivers, and anti-aircraft gunners. Women would not easily forget their leadership roles in the immediate post-war years, when the few families that did not lose a spouse or parent needed to reconsolidate themselves.
Romance has consequences, as state and society recognized fairly soon. Illegitimate births skyrocketed, and although the state had tried to reinforce family life in the 1930s, the need to bear future soldiers for the army and workers for industry, and to recover the precipitous population drop of the previous decade, forced the state to acknowledge and support unwed mothers. In fact, a tax was imposed on childless families. No laws could ease the grief of widowed women, and women who had reached marriageable age during postwar years, when healthy men were in great deficit.