Veterans Return

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Traumatized by years of frontline violence, endowed with tremendous moral status for their sufferings, veterans of the Great Patriotic War returned from their long campaign to homelessness and poverty, and perhaps most tragic, to a society that refused to talk about its wounds. Numbering eleven million toward the end of the war, the Soviet Army demobilized 8.5 million veterans over the next three years, starting with the oldest. An economy in ruins had little work for them, and in many regions unemployment reached fifty percent. Many veterans had nowhere to live, and moved into zemlianki, huts dug into the earth, which they might have remembered from the front.

Healthy veterans had the prospect of starting a family. Women vastly outnumbered men in the postwar cohort, making healthy men a valuable commodity. Marriages and illegitimate births both boomed. Wounded veterans managed as they could, depending on their wounds. There was a shortage of prosthetic devices, a shortage of hospital beds, and shortage of time to listen to grieving men and women. Some of the deepest wounds were psychological, since the Red Army, unique among the warring armies, had no furlough policy during the war. Soviet Russia knew no such institution as the psychologist.

Veterans represented a vast social resource for postwar reconstruction, but inspired fear from a government still subject to resentment, whose leaders remembered the example of the Decembrists, who had once used their status as heroes of the Napoleonic Wars to challenge the Romanov autocracy. The emotional bond shared by frontline fighters overwhelmed any allegiance to the party. Authorities struggled for ways to channel this powerful force. Writers provided models of the rehabilitated invalid in Boris Polevoi’s Story of a Real Man (1946), and of the vigorous and productive veteran in Semen Babaevskii’s Cavalier of the Golden Star (1948). The latter work was particularly trite, and received the Stalin Prize for Literature. More profound writing that dealt with the unhealed wounds of veterans and their families, such as Andrei Platonov’s Homecoming (1946), brought down the wrath of the authorities.

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