After just over three years of bitter struggle the Soviet Red Army was now making dramatic advances. Operation Bagration had been launched on the third anniversary of the war. In less than a month they had burst through the German lines, smashing apart German Army Group Centre. Around 300,000 Germans lay dead, another 150,000 had been taken prisoner – large numbers were now paraded through Moscow before being led off to labour camps. Only a minority would survive to return to Germany many years later.
Whilst Hitler had tried to characterise his war as a crusade against Bolshevism, Stalin had appealed to national pride to motivate the Red Army – it had become ‘The Great Patriotic War’. So the point when the Germans were pushed off Soviet soil was a highly symbolic moment for those involved.
Boris Gorbachevsky was one of the first of the Soviet troops to reach the border, on the 17th July:
Reconnaissance troops scouting ahead of our main force were the ﬁrst to reach the national border. Out of breath, one of them ran back to meet the marching column of our division, shouting: “The border! The border! Ura-a!”
The column sped ahead, and then we all came to an abrupt halt.That strip of land that is called “the border” lay before our common gaze. At first all of us, soldiers and officers, quietly took in that which had always seemed so menacing and unattainable, and which people always sensed to be strongly and permanently defended.
Literally like crazy men, we looked all around, asking the same questions: where were those traditional attributes that in our imagina- tion we always associated with the Soviet border? Where was the barbed wire? Where were the long, deep ditches that separate two countries? Where, ﬁnally, were the border markers and guard towers? What of the barriers? There was none of this. It had all disappeared somewhere.
Later we learned that the residents of the nearest village had wanted to carry off the dismantled border markers for ﬁrewood, but the local authority had refused them permission, possibly foreseeing that they might be needed again one day. We even saw them, these symbols of the border: they were lying near to a patch of woods, arranged in neat stacks, in anticipation of their renewed life.
The border! How many times had artists painted it! How many songs and verses had poets and composers created about it! As school kids, we had tried to forget the song that had been drilled into our heads at lessons:
The borders of the Soviet Union He has closed to the black ravens, He has garbed them in concrete and stone And forged them in cast-iron. So let us sing the song, comrades, About the greatest sentry, Who sees and hears all— Let us sing the song about Stalin.
We wanted to forget these lyrics as quickly as possible.
But now each of us sensed with our entire being the greatness of that which we were experiencing! We knew it was a special moment in our lives. Then. without any command, men began ﬁring into the air to celebrate and salute our accomplishment.They ﬁred from submachine guns and riﬂes, carbines and pistols.
Then the unbelievable started! Everybody rushed to embrace each other. Some fell to their knees, raising their arms toward the sky. Others rushed to the solitary border marker that had been raised and emplaced for this ceremonial occasion, and were hugging and kissing it, and tearing off chips as keepsakes.
A few men were gathering soil and wrapping it in handkerchiefs. And everybody was dancing! And how! What dance didn’t they do—Russian, the lezginka, and the Ukrainian hopalel. They were doing the chechetlea [a tap dance] so adroitly and creatively that everyone was delighted, applauded, stamped their feet, and started dancing themselves. Accordionists and guitarists were by now playing and men started singing ditties.
Everybody strained to catch the clever words and clapped along. Men would step into the ring of clapping men from their place in the circle and perform a newly improvised ditty.
Soon the war will end,
Soon Hitler will be kaput, we vow.
Soon our temporary wives
Will be bellowing like a cow.
Oh you, pigeon-toed Hitler,
You’ll surely pay for your sin.
For just a few minutes, people became completely different – unfettered, they straightened their backs and stood taller; pride appeared on their faces, and their eyes sparkled. If only for a short while, the terrible memories of the days of retreat and death slipped away, the years we endured together, the tears over those who passed away — all vanished in this moment of common triumph and joy!
How splendid that we had lived to see this hour! That we were among the ﬁrst of the ﬁrst to cross this ﬁxed geographical boundary, which was so precious to us all, and toward which we had all been striving so long! It seemed to all of us that the end of the war was now just a stone’s throw away.
It was a truly unforgettable day. It was as if orchestras were playing and drums were banging in our souls! Our hearts, intoxicated with victory, were bursting with pride at the duty we had fulﬁlled.