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The Commander’s Angst

Pictured: Lieutenant-General V.I. Chuikov on the banks of the Volga, 1943.

A Red Army soldier on the Eastern Front during the Great Patriotic War, Ivan Philippovich Makarov, wrote his memoirs about his experiences which were later published under the title Born Under a Luck Star. Makarov served in the 112th Siberian Division, in the 524th Regiment. The 112th Siberian Division was assigned to the 64th Army in the summer of 1942, and then transferred to the 62nd Army in Stalingrad. In the book, Ivan relates the story of when he witnessed General Chuikov at the front enforcing the “Not a Step Back!” Order #227:

“Our regiment came to a halt. A black car approached us and stopped in front of our platoon. Three military men got out of the car. The first one was General Chuikov. The second was divisional commander Sologub, and the third was the commander of our 524th regiment. Our commander was without his hat and belt. We all turned to face them.

I think this was the first time our men saw the general responsible for the life and fate of thousands of soldiers. I fixed my eyes on General Chuikov and watched his every move. His face showed no emotion. ‘Comrade soldiers and commanders, we have just captured a traitor of the Motherland. You all know this man very well. He is your regiment commander. The deaths of your former regiment commander and commissar were his handiwork. His transgression was that he independently ordered the withdrawal of our troops on the opposite bank of the River Don.’

General Chuikov unbuckled his holster and pulled out a small pistol. He slowly

pointed the pistol at our regiment commander, who stood with his head bowed low. The gun shuddered twice and fired two shots. The ‘traitor,’ now with two bullets in his head, dropped dead at the feet of the general. […] Chuikov tried to be outwardly calm, but his face and eyes betrayed great angst. It was clear to everyone that he'd done this dirty work for the first time.

The general walked away from the corpse and spoke to us again, ‘Comrades! Stalin and the Motherland have ordered us Not One Step Back! There is the River Volga, where our Stalingrad lies! Stalingrad is the city of Stalin. The Volga is bread and fuel for us. I order you to attack, not retreat!’”

Before making a judgment on his behavior, I think it behooves a person to place himself in Chuikov’s position. Based on the situation, and considering the meat of Order #227 as well as the Germans’ intent to completely destroy the Soviet Union, Vasily Ivanovich displayed an iron will and fortitude. He also possessed an intimate understanding of an important truth—being a leader often means completing tasks one may wish to avoid entirely.

The reader must recall that all Red Army soldiers, from the Commander to the infantry, were held to Order #227. If Vasily Ivanovich had conducted an unauthorized retreat, he too would have faced harsh consequences. What applied to the common soldier also applied to leadership. One must also consider his experience on the steppe leading up to the Battle for Stalingrad. Chuikov encountered soldiers who could not locate their commanding officers and were confused and disorganized. Just like any organization, an army cannot function properly without strong leadership to provide direction on objectives.

I appreciate Makarov’s candid description of what happened—while Chuikov had to mete out draconian discipline at such a desperate time, he certainly did not find a sadistic pleasure in it. The fact that his personal angst was evident to all of those around him speaks of the general’s depth of emotion. In the face of a certain annihilation from an enemy hellbent on destroying them all, it was a necessary albeit harsh task to undertake. Chuikov had to enforce Order #227 and establish his authority to halt widespread panic and retreat amongst the troops.


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