I have an interesting piece for you in the lead up to the May 9 holiday in Russia. American readers may or may not be aware, that Russia celebrates Victory Day one day later than Europe, which celebrates it on May 8. Reason being the time difference, with Russia being a couple of hours ahead: When Nazi Germany signed the capitulation late in the evening on May 8, 1945, it was already May 9 in the Soviet Union! Anyhow, 72 years later, and May 9 is still a big deal in Russia. A nation which lost untold millions of lives — both soldiers and civilians — to put an end to the Hitlerite plague that had swallowed up Europe and threatened all of mankind with ethnic-based murder and slavery.
The piece in KP features a list of popular Soviet actors who fought in the war and then went on to make it big on the silver screen or theatrical stage. This is a fascinating chronicle of individual lives swept up in the war.
Having only time enough to translate one of these vignettes, I picked an actor whom (a) I have heard of; and (b) have actually seen a couple of his movies. Namely, the Soviet Russian actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky. He had a huge repertoire on stage and screen, with roles ranging from car thief to Hamlet. In fact, one of his films, Берегись автомобиля (“Beware of the Automobile”, 1966) is still a perennial favorite in re-runs. And viewers are still charmed by Smoktunovsky’s portrayal of the idealistic insurance salesman, Yury Detochkin, a child-like Robin Hood character who steals the cars of people he considers corrupt. This film is also the source of the internet meme “сухари сушить…” popular among Russians. The reference is to the scene, where the grizzled old veteran Sokol-Kruzhkin (Anatoly Papanov) tells his crooked son-in-law Dima (Andrei Mironov) how to prepare for serving inevitable jail time: “Dry some biscuits,” he advises, referring to the hard-tack taken along in military campaigns, which basically lasts forever.
Sokol is particularly funny because of his lower-class accent: “Oh yes, they will put you in jail,” he jokes, pronouncing the Russian verb по-со-дят: “Тебя посодят, а ты не воруй!” “Yes, they will put you in jail, and so you should not steal.” A sentence which has also entered the “winged phrases” segment of the Russian lexicon. Mironov, by the way, went on, 10 years later, to portray the Russian-Jewish literary rogue, Ostap Bender in “The Twelve Chairs”. To many viewers, all these years later, he is still THE Ostap Bender. Although my own personal favorite Bender remains Sergei Yursky, who, in his youth, reminds one of a young Humphrey Bogart.
But returning to our war hero, Innokenty Smoktunovsky, here is his story of wartime exploits, as translated from the KP piece:
Comrade Smoktunovsky Destroyed 20 Germans
A difficult soldier’s task fell to the famous actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky. In 1943 they sent him to Infantry School, and already in August, before graduating as an officer, he becomes a foot soldier of the 75th Rifles. In this capacity Smoktunovsky participates in battles on the Kursk salient (bulge); he storms the Dnipr River, he liberates Kiev. For which he is nominated (October 19, 1943) for a medal: “For bravery: Under the direct fire of the enemy, he crossed the Dnipr River to deliver military intelligence to Division HQ.”
However, Infantryman Smoktunovsky was not able to receive this medal in person…. until 2002! on the stage of the Moscow Theater of the Arts (МХАТ), to a man who had since become a “People’s Artist” of the USSR!
The reason Smoktunovsky could not receive his medal back in 1943, was because he was taken captive, by the Germans. A month later he was able to escape from the POW camp. He was taken in and hidden by a Ukrainian woman named Vasilisa Shevchuk, to whom Innokenty would remain grateful, and whom he continued to assist in every way, up until the day of her death.
It was in Shevchuk’s home that Smoktunovsky also met the Deputy Commander of a Partisan Detachment based in Kamenets-Podolsk, and quickly enlisted in it. In May of 1944 this detachment combined with the regular forces of the Red Army, and Smoktunovsky once again found himself in a military unit. Now a young Sergeant and in charge of a unit of Machine Gunners, Smoktunovsky helped to liberate Poland and received a second medal “For bravery: In battles to break through the enemy’s defenses on January 14, 1945, around the village of Lorcin [spelling?], his unit was one of the first to break through into the enemy’s trenches and were able to destroy around 20 Germans.”
Smoktunovsky finished the war in the German town of Grevesmühlen with the rank of Senior Sergeant.