Ilsa Kurasova returned to Moscow in late September 1941. A packed troop train, boxcars really, carried her and thousands like her over miles and miles of rail-striped countryside to their final destinations in the Russian capital city. Three years as a student in Moscow, before becoming part of the People’s Red Army, had made her more than familiar with the city routine. But by October, the activity she witnessed was more urgent and Ilsa, as part of the Krasnaya Armiya, was right in the middle of it.
The German assault had taken the city by surprise. Local officers of the citizen’s militia organized battalions of women and children into construction units. The damp air seemed to be made damper by the grunting explosions of breath and heat rising from the bodies of row, upon row, upon row of digging women. Efficient and industrious, the Muscovites, from the youngest girl to the oldest babushka, burrowed through the hard soil of the Moscow suburbs, tossing the dirt high over their heads and onto the lip of the deep trench. Other crews wrestled huge concrete spikes and iron “hedge-hogs” of railroad ties designed to impede the progress of both tanks and infantry. A rapidly developing defensive line took shape before Ilsa’s eyes.The effort was indeed impressive. Lacking much in modern construction equipment that Ilsa could see, the civilian workers struggled with a feat no less Herculean and daunting than the crews of slaves building the Egyptian pyramids. And overall a sense of immediate importance punctuated the construction that had, no doubt, been lacking in the construction of the pyramids. The pyramids, after all, had not been defenses against a swiftly advancing enemy intent on total destruction of the Rodina, the Soviet homeland. And this enemy, in the form of General Heinz Guderian’s II Panzerkorps, now raced, almost unimpeded eastward, toward Moscow, along the Warsaw Highway.
Ilsa was accustomed to the military bustle in the Soviet capital. She was accustomed to air defenses, parades, and so forth and had seen Red Square packed and bubbling over with the pomp and ceremony of armed posturing that both uplifted and comforted the citizenry. Ilsa, too, found it both uplifting and comforting. Comrade Stalin’s message to the world regarding Soviet defensive might was unmistakable. But here, now, was a magnitude of preparedness to which she was not accustomed and the air itself crackled with the energy of it. Every Muscovite in the city, it seemed, was part of something. Training in the Home Guard and citizens’ militia, constructing air-raid shelters and anti-aircraft emplacements, digging tank traps, everyone was involved, young, old, male, female, healthy and infirm.Of course, no one born into the Soviet World on the heels of the October Revolution, as she was, could escape the reality of readiness, the doctrine of preparedness and risk. Over the course of her entire life, it was first Comrade Lenin, then Comrade Stalin and every other government official right down to the local schoolteachers and postmen who preached that doctrine. And a simple truth, accepted by every Russian schoolchild, was that because the Soviet Union had successfully thrown off the yoke of the Romanov’s, the brutality of capitalism and the equally oppressive rule of the church, she was the envy of the entire world and therefore the target of every evil nation who both feared and admired the workers’ state and the ideals it embodied.
Beset as Mother Russia was by enemies all around her, the Rodina, had no choice but to maintain the highest military preparedness. Only in this manner, could the more aggressive states of Europe and Asia and the United States of America, be held at bay. Even the recent war with the Finns and the acquisition, shared with treacherous Germany, of the Polish nation was both right and necessary to defend Russian borders and to advance the healing cause of Marxism to a troubled world.
And the world was indeed troubled.
Ilsa’s world was troubled.
She walked in a divided reality of books and rifles, national calisthenics and opera, art and combat training. Like every Russian schoolchild she trained for the ultimate responsibility each Soviet citizen held toward the state and her fellow citizens. Now her world was fractured yet again. After all the preparedness, all the fear of attack, all the readiness, how could the Germans have fallen upon them so totally? So unexpectedly? With winter rapidly approaching, the Germans were less than two hundred miles from Moscow and would likely be within striking range of the city before the first heavy snowfall. Every Muscovite, including Ilsa, readied herself for a bloody winter that none of them might survive with the nagging national question still tugging at their minds. How? How did this happen?
As far as Ilsa Kurasova was concerned, winter had begun June 22, 1941. It had begun with the tinny, distant voice of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov crackling over the loudspeakers in Moscow’s Red Square:“Men and women, citizens of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Government and its head, Comrade Stalin, have instructed me to make the following announcement.
“At four A.M. without declaration of war and without any claims being made on the Soviet Union, German troops attacked our country, attacked our frontier in many places and bombed from the air Zhitomir, Kiev, Sevastopol, Kaunas and other cities.”
Ilsa stood silent in the warm summer sun that bathed Red Square and felt the chilling effect of the proclamation as it rolled over the throng jammed around the speakers in the shadow of the Kremlin. She was as breathless and terrified as any of the Moscovites who listened to the Armageddon trumpet of Molotov’s words.
“The attack has been made despite the fact that there was a nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, a pact the terms of which were scrupulously observed by the Soviet Union.
“Our cause is just. The enemy will be crushed. Victory will be ours.”
That day, no one thought so.
That day, men and women scrambled to acquire anything and everything they could that might help them survive the coming storm. That day, terror, not patriotism held sway in Red Square. That day, Ilsa Kurasova cried out and wept in her own terror.
But things had changed in a few short months.By the end of September, much of Russia had been lost and the German forces were relentlessly marching toward Moscow. By the end of September, the student, Ilsa Kurasova, had dropped her books for a rifle and was a soldier in the Red Army. By October, she strolled through the busy suburbs of Moscow where thousands of women and young people dug trenches fifteen feet deep and thirty feet wide to halt the advance of Hitler’s Panzerkorps. Thousands of citizen militia stood between the Germans and the city of Moscow. And the Red Army stood between the Germans and the citizens.
Ilsa was a part of that army.
The women on the shovel brigades looked up at her as she made her way past the mounting piles of earth and through the focused bustle of activity. She could feel their eyes on her as she stopped to light a cigarette, her uniform crisp and clean, her boots still shining. Small and trim, Ilsa wore her uniform well. The military tunic pulled tight at her waist by a broad black belt accentuated her figure and her blond hair, tied back and topped by her cap–worn at a cocky angle–made her the recipient of more than just the casual glance. But she knew the glances, however they were drawn, would eventually focus on the long, gleaming barrel of the rifle she had slung on her back. The Mosin/Nagent was almost as long as she was tall. Equipped with a six-powered scope, it was an impressive weapon and Ilsa felt herself a most impressive figure carrying it.
It had not been long ago when the idea of even carrying such a weapon, much less using it, would have been a totally ludicrous proposition for the twenty-one-year-old student from Stalingrad. She had lived in cities all her life, first Stalingrad, then Vyasma, briefly in Kiev and finally Moscow, never for a moment–despite the training she had received in the young communist organizations–entertaining thoughts of soldiering. But that was before June 1941.And before June 1941, her world was the university, her studies, the theaters, the streets, broad boulevards and open squares of the Russian capital city where the architecture and culture still spoke to the history of ancient empires while the “modern” forms of Comrade Stalin attempted to define his own empire. It was an exciting and dangerous world of knowing the right people, cultivating the right alliances, and moving up in a society where politics were everything and nothing mattered more than one’s connections. But that world had changed and was continuing to change. Faster now, since Hitler had sent troops pouring across the border into her homeland.
These were desperate times. The most desperate. Internal political upheavals, revolution, counter-revolution, border wars, strikes, shortages and civil unrest had been threatening the country for decades. But they were nothing, nothing compared to the task of driving out the German invaders. Desperate times, desperate measures, desperate people, and desperate single-mindedness held sway.
Ilsa, a product of the society that spawned her, did not believe in God. Every day that she lived, particularly since the invasion, she saw proof of His non-existence. And proof was there, written in blood on every page of Russian history since the October Revolution–a bloody revolution to replace a bloody dictator with a new leader that some whispered, if only to themselves, was an even bloodier one and now yet a third, a foreigner who might prove the bloodiest yet, was pushing in from the west. The German dictator viewed all Russians, not just Jews, as sub-human. Proof fell from the sky and whistled on the wind to explode in Russian cities and tear through Russian flesh.
Ilsa could not and did not rely on God for her salvation. Killing Germans had become the sole focus of Ilsa Kurasova’s short life and her only redemption. And she was proud.A youngster of about thirteen stood on a ladder, looking up at Ilsa with unabashed admiration and Ilsa smiled down at her.
“You’re a soldier?” the girl asked, ignoring–or confirming–the obvious.
“And you fight?”
The youngster’s grin grew wider.
“Maybe some day I’ll fight, too.”
“Maybe. Stranger things happen these days.”
“Aliyana, to work, daydreamer. You’re holding up production.,” a graying man of about fifty interrupted the conversation. Aliyana made no move to hurry and was in no way upset by the rebuke.
“A shovel today, a rifle tomorrow,” Aliyana said, still looking at Ilsa. “Stranger things happen these days–even for girls.”
“Yes, even for girls.” Ilsa said.
“Aliyana,” the man, obviously Aliyana’s father, insistedIlsa moved on. She did not need to listen. She had heard the speech before. Everyone had. “Heroes of the Soviet Union fight with picks and shovels as well as guns”; “Workers! Production kills Fascists! Death to the Nazi Beast!”. It was true enough but the slogans were repeated so often that they were rapidly losing any power as actual concepts. And also true enough was the concern a father had for a daughter. But, despite the fear and hardship, the war was one of the best things ever to happen to Ilsa Kurasova. She did not for a moment rue her part in it nor did she fail to relish the unexpected power it brought her. It would be the ultimate hypocrisy to deny that reality, to the child, to herself, to anyone.
Ilsa tossed her cigarette aside and gave a slight shiver. The temperature was dropping. Though still early in the year, the sky looked like snow might be in the offing. She increased her pace as she moved along the anti-tank ditch. Before she reached the end of it a few flakes began to fall. By the time she crossed the bridge into the neighborhood where her unit was housed and rejoined her companions, a light snow was falling steadily.
Her boots crunched upon the thin ice covering the steps as as she quickly and carefully entered the building in which they were billeted. The outer door opened onto a long, wide hallway that ran the length of the building. At each end of the hallway, large windows allowed light to spill through and spread across the wooden floor. Doors spaced an equal distance apart on both sides ran the length of the hall. If the building had not been designed to be a barracks, it should have been.
Each of the spacious rooms could easily accommodate ten soldiers and the sparse sleeping mats and wooden frame cots were very comfortable especially when given the alternatives. Porfiry Andropov and Yuri Bezukhin barely looked up as she entered. The smell of tea and tobacco filled the room and covered some of the more obnoxious odors that a group of people thrown together in less than hygienic situations were bound to share.
“It’s snowing,” Ilsa announced to no one in particular.“Good,” said a young man, a newcomer whom Ilsa did not know. as he bundled himself in his blanket. “I hope it buries us.”
* * *
The snow, a light accumulation, buried no one.
And then the rains came again. Hard, driving, saturating rain turned everything to mud. October 13th the town of Kaluga eighty-five miles south of Moscow fell to Guderian’s forces. October 14th, the town of Kalinin 75 miles northwest of Moscow was abandoned. Amid even more frantic scrambling to fortify defenses, critical members of government were evacuated and all eastward roads jammed with traffic. The rail stations were a mess as civilians flooded into them seeking an escape that was not to be. Nazi leaflets, announcing great German victories and exhorting the Muscovites to abandon the Bolshevik leadership which was abandoning them, fell from the sky amid rumors that the Jews were fleeing the city and everyone, so it seemed, knew at least one person who could verify the rumors.
Terror returned to Moscow in full force.Ilsa rocked along in the back of the slow-moving truck with her squad as they rumbled westward out of the city toward the front. The roads to meet Guderian, Hoth, Hoepner and the advancing panzer armies were jammed as well. Refugees fled to Moscow, driven by the unimaginable slaughter of mechanized warfare. The Red Army convoy passed the Lubyanka, the prison headquarters of the NKVD secret police, where overheated chimneys fairly glowed as records were burned in such numbers that huge showers of burning embers and partially burnt documents floated on the air like confetti at a parade. October bled away into November and the populace trembled, quaked, and held.
Now, as November drew to a bloody close, Ilsa Kurasova once again stood between the Germans and the citizens of Moscow.
Or more precisely, she lay between the Germans and the citizens of Moscow.
She knew, from the Germans’ perspective, the field, covered smooth with snow, would for the most part appear to be even terrain.
But that was hardly the case.
Swathed from head to foot in thick, white coveralls and matching white boots Ilsa pressed herself against a small rise in the frozen field. The flattened remains of plowed furrows, eroded by wind and rain, lay like ancient ruins, the furrows as solid as stone walls. Though only ten inches or so in height, the earthen barricades provided more than a foot of solid cover where the plows had dug shallow channels between them. The small breastworks ran parallel to the tree line. That, too, was fortuitous. By rolling over the mounds and crawling the channels, any disturbance she made in the covering of snow would be negligible. A heavy white cloak trailing behind her smoothed the ground she covered. Her movements would not be visible from the trees nor could she be tracked by a trail like a rabbit. The low mist was an added bonus.
Ilsa’s movements were slow, deliberate. Her’s was a business where there was no such thing as too much patience, too much caution. Her crew had been in position most of the day, waiting for the Germans to arrive at the most logical place to stop for the night. The ever-logical fascists had not disappointed them.She raised her head until her eyes were just above the edge of the snow line. The white parka hung down to cover her forehead and a face already concealed by a white gauzy veil over a white scarf that covered her from the nose down. Unlike the German soldiers, Ilsa was adequately dressed for the harsh conditions. In fact, she was quite comfortable. With her warm portyanki foot cloths wrapped tightly around her feet and felt boot-liners, fur-lined clothing and gloves and covered by the cloak, she was warm and protected from the bitter cold. The only physical discomfort occurred when she would occasionally get an icy trickle of snow invading the gloves or parka and that was short-lived. In the depression between the windbreaks of the furrows, she could have wrapped the cloak around her and slept comfortably through the night if she had to.
But there would be no sleeping today. Not here.
Her movements were almost imperceptible as she glanced around her, her eyes taking in every bit of visual information she could gather. The fires in the forest were visible to her naked eye, as were the dim figures huddled around them. But only dimly because of the mist. Sergeant Porfiry Andropov, along with Yuri Bezukhin and the rest of the squad were all within two hundred meters of her in a more or less ragged line and she could not make out one of them.Ilsa focused her attention in the general direction of her partner Bezukhin, who should be nearest her and waited, watching. When he moved, so slightly she could not be sure at first, he was no more than thirty meters away. Watching her comrades as they changed position in the open was watching the pot and waiting for it to boil. At least on the initial attack. When the firing began and it was time to shift position or withdraw, they could move with incredible speed while losing little in the way of stealth. They were a good crew. A very good crew.
The icy wind howled across the field and Ilsa squinted her gray eyes as she peered over the slight embankment of the furrow. Blond wisps of hair, defying the restraints of scarf and parka, tickled insistently against the bridge of her nose, playful as cats in the first chill of fall. She made no futile attempt to bring them under control. She slipped her right hand out of her fur-lined mitten and flexed it. A second glove, made of cotton, would prevent her flesh from sticking to any exposed icy metal parts of her weapon. An unnecessary precaution really, since the rifle, sheltered as she was beneath her cloak, drew from her body heat. Still, from force of habit, she held the weapon close to her face and blew warm breath on the trigger. The trigger guard and bolt were cold but not freezing cold. But for the lenses on the scope, the rest of the rifle, from barrel to butt-plate, was wrapped in snowy camouflage.Ilsa levered the bolt, arming the weapon and pulled the butt firm against her shoulder. It felt good there. So very natural. The fabric-wrapped wood of the stock caressed her face like a lover. From her first training as a young citizen school girl the weapon battered her and bruised her shoulder as if she had been beaten. She had jumped and flinched at the noise and the recoil. But she got over the soreness. She grew accustomed to the roar and kick of the weapon and came to appreciate it. She came to appreciate everything about it. She came to love it. From the first day she had fired a rifle, she had learned something about herself she never would have suspected. She was an extremely talented marksman. After the first week or so, the instructors felt there was little they could offer her in the way of instruction on the firing range. And, indeed, there was not.
But in the Red Army there was much other training, special training. She was one of hundreds of women selected for their marksmanship. Alongside the men, they had to learn ballistics, trajectory, range calculations and adjustments, shadow effects and much more than the common soldier ever had to learn. Sight adjustments for firing conditions, compensation for wind and temperature, leading a target at a distance, all the mechanics necessary for success as a hunter had to be learned, as well as observation skills. Noting everything was an extremely important part of her duties. Often, the passing on of firing coordinates to artillery batteries was the most important duty she could carry out. Then there was stealth, how to use available cover, how to become invisible, a hard, remorseless angel of death.
And Ilsa knew that she was that.
“Anyone can be trained to shoot,” an instructor had lectured them early on. “Anyone can be taught to point a rifle, pull a trigger. You’re here because you learned that well. But a sniper is will–pure will. A sniper is the will to kill without feeling, without hesitation. We cannot create that will but we can harden it if it exists inside you.”
And, for Ilsa, that will existed.The stealth came more slowly, as did patience. But, in spite of her training, she had not been sure what would happen when she was eventually called upon to fire at another living human being, especially when the other human beings were doing their level best to kill her. Surprisingly, at least to her, the first had not been hard at all. It was an almost academic experience, an extension of her training, distance and wind adjustment under field conditions. The most difficult aspect of that first kill had been selecting the target. She had held several Germans at her mercy, unable to decide. Once one was hit, the others would naturally take cover. One clear shot was all she could ever truly expect, maybe two if luck was with her.
She had made the first one count.
Her first had been one of a group riding in an open half-track. Her training involved targeting officers and men of importance but Ilsa felt a true angel of death was nothing if not capricious and arbitrary. The randomness of selection, in her estimation, was the true method of instilling terror in everyone. So it was not a matter of priority that targeted her first kill. He looked over the side of the vehicle and seemed to be looking right at her. She knew, he could not see her, that the feeling was simply an illusion, but he seemed to have a contemptuous expression on his face. This angered her, as if she could feel that contempt, the disrespect, the insolence of the entire German nation from several hundred yards away. But she did not select him for those reasons.
A cigarette dangled from his lips and, as he inhaled a puff of smoke, he removed the cigarette and spat. The sudden motion of his head was all it took. A movement that separated him from his fellows was all it took. A loose grain of tobacco was all it took. The M91/30 bucked and the soldier’s head snapped back as the round struck him in the face.
And that was all it took.Now, Ilsa looked toward the campfire that flickered beneath the trees. The forest wrapped itself in gray light, in a cloak of darkness, of invisibility, of illusion until the swaying spires were no more than a slowly moving blot against the horizon. Like trees in an oil-painting that bled over into one another in an opaque blur of thick strokes if one inspected them too closely, they lost their identity in shadows.
Ilsa snugged her weapon and looked through the scope.
The dim images of the men were now in sharper focus. She could even see the lips of one of them moving as he squatted by the fire. An Oberfeldwebel–a sergeant. Not a bad target. Her finger tightened on the trigger as she moved the cross-hairs to center on his chest.
There was a wonderment to this she could not articulate to anyone. A power that was heady, intoxicating and frightening all at the same time. She was an angel of death with free-reign over how it was dispensed. Choose this one, choose that one, choose another and, with each choice of a man–not just a target but a living breathing man–she spared another. More often than not, many others.Fifty-seven confirmed kills and she remembered them all. Perhaps, in time, she would feel some regret, perhaps not. That was the future and she was no Gypsy fortune-teller. But something about not letting the memories run together, fade into some sort of sameness was very important to her. She could place each kill in a context of vivid memory and feel a deep sense of satisfaction from each. Though her duty required ruthlessness and held no room for second thoughts, it was important to her to never lose sight of the fact that each squeeze of the trigger ended everything for someone. It was both an awesome awareness and an almost giddy thrill. Her power was unimaginable.
She kept the cross-hairs on the Oberfeldwebel’s chest. She did not need to. It was within her power and her ability to arm her weapon, aim and fire in less time than it takes to think about it. The German could just as easily be dead the very instant he came into her gun sight and sometimes necessity demanded such speed. But that was not Ilsa’s way. Killing was too important to treated in such a calculated manner. It was too important to reduce the act to a reflexive strike, to practice it as if one was swatting at a mosquito. Killing had to be experienced as deeply as possible. She had to savor it.
Ilsa bit at her lower lip, a nervous habit as much a part of her routine as anything else. Arm the weapon, snug it, bite at the lower lip while sighting, take three deep breaths while flexing the right hand, hold the third breath, steady, exhale, squeeze the trigger.
One breath, flex. Two breaths, flex. Third breath, hold. Before she could exhale, the torso of another German soldier blocked her view. Fuck him. If he wanted to volunteer, who was she to argue? After all, one Nazi was as good as another and, besides, if she played her cards right, she could take them both out with one shot. He took a canteen from his belt and tilted it, one breath, flex; took it down again, two breaths, flex. He held the canteen out to his comrades and said something, three breaths–hold. He wiped his nose with his sleeve.
Exhale. Squeeze.The harsh report of the rifle echoed across the distance as the concussion of the muzzle blast kicked up a small cloud of snow in front of her position. The wind caught the snow and whipped it away as the German tumbled into the fire.