Defeat Without Surrender
By Alex Domokos
My contact with the Chechen nation happened by chance in 1949. The present events in Grozny revived my memory.
In 1949 long-distance trains were not running on a daily schedule in the Soviet Union, but on a weekly time-table. Because of that, it so happened that I, a Hungarian prisoner-of-war, had a chance for loitering in the buzzing bazaar of Grozny. At that time I had no idea that it was the capital of Chechnya, a country unknown to most of us. I was one of the forty-two Hungarian officers who were on the way back to our homeland.
Commander Major Glatkow accompanied us to the junction where the regular line took us to Grozny. There we were supposed to wait for the arrival of the long-distance train to Rostow. We would receive our release certificates and be free to go home. At least that was what Major Glatkow told us. He was a decent, unsophisticated Russian. He accepted without doubt his superiors' directives. He honestly believed that he was sending us on our journey back home. But a month earlier when we arrived at his camp, with the same sincerity he believed his duty was to break us into obedient laborers. It was his misfortune that we were seasoned prisoners. Four years after the war, we had learned by resistance that Hungarian officers were under the protection of the Geneva Convention.
In the Soviet Union, POW camps were administered by Security Forces, the NKVD, not by the Army. The transfer from camp to camp each time meant a new test of will. Every NKVD commander was encouraged to force us to give up our privileges. The reason behind this unlawful attempt was that all camps had to be self-supporting. The value of the inmates' labor had to cover, besides their upkeep, the salary of our guards. Therefore to break us was the objective of all camp commanders. The breaking-in routine started with threats. "Anybody who refuses to work will be shot!" When that failed, physical intimidation followed. The commander knew well that what he was doing was illegal, but Moscow was far away. And so it was. This new camp of ours was hidden deep in the mountains of the Caucasus. Here NKVD Major Glatkow had practically unchallenged power. We had been transferred at least eight times before, but all those camps were close to cities or towns or some human settlements. It was depressing to realize that this camp was right in the middle of virgin wilderness, no settlement in a hundred kilometre radius. The chores of the camp were done by German junior officers. The Germans, for their inhuman treatment of Russian prisoners, were not protected by international conventions. Knowing well by now that Polish prisoners since 1939, and Spanish prisoners since the mid-thirties, were still captives, our prospects for the future were not too cheerful.
But to stay alive, hope is more important than bread. Therefore, immediately after arrival, I started carving a violin out of the excellent Caucasian redwood which, as firewood, was in ample supply. Knowing how music could break the monotony of the camp and lift up the spirit, I was determined to carve some violins. The Monday after our arrival, Major Glatkow ordered all Hungarians to the sawmill, but we refused to pass the gate. He ordered a machine-gun to the gate facing us. From experience we knew that it was a bluff and ignored the threat. The major then tried to break us individually. He demanded that we personally declare our refusal to help the reconstruction of the Soviet Socialist Republic. One by one we refused. On reaching me, his face became red.
"I saw you working last week in the camp! Why have you changed your mind?"
"Solidarity," was my answer, hoping he understood the word. He did. He ordered me and our senior officer to be thrown into the carcer. Carcer was the name of the punishment hole, dug into the ground and covered with corrugated sheet metal. Both of us ended up there. We had known each other since military college years. He was my senior. We were quite pleased with each other's company. Being stripped and thrown unceremoniously into the pit had not disheartened us. Settling down back to back to preserve our body heat, we began singing military marches. Our comrades picked up the tunes and sang all night. In the morning we refused to eat. That was the strongest weapon in our arsenal because it had to be reported to higher authorities. It meant that Glatkow had to report his failure. He realized that only by negotiation could he obtain cooperation. We were willing to work, but only on our conditions.
Our victory was short-lived, for a few weeks later came the announcement of our repatriation. We greeted this news with open scepticism. But when only an old watchman accompanied us on the journey with the sole purpose to carry our travel documents, a faint ray of hope penetrated our hearts.
That was the prelude to my aimless idling in the colorful bazaar of Grozny. Unfortunately wandering too far from our guard was unsafe. He had our travel documents, and being caught without identification papers would be dangerous. Documents were the lifeline of any Soviet citizen in Stalin's domain. Despite the impending danger, it was a wonderful feeling, being free. To come and go without escort was like inhaling fresh air. I was savoring the taste of freedom. Every little detail of the long-missed life around me was important. It was exciting to watch the Moslem women as they gracefully walked with hidden faces. But there were not too many. The Russian presence was dominant. Russian was the language of communication in the bazaar. The skilful work of the coppersmiths was fascinating. Observing people, how they bargained over prices, was fun. It was a new, hard-to-describe experience for me. In my haversack I had a loaf of dark bread and some lard, twenty grams of lump sugar, and a handful of mahorka which gave me the false impression of being rich, and the wandering gave me a false impression of freedom.
As I was loitering among the stalls and tents of the vendors, I saw my comrade, Zoltan, with whom I had been in the pit, engaged in an agitated conversation with a very excited young man. The man gesticulated vehemently. Fearing that some kind of a brawl might occur, I rushed to Zoltan in case he needed my help. The conversation was subdued but tense. The young man was almost hissing as he spoke.
At my approach he fell silent, but realizing that I was also a fellow prisoner, he continued.
"...they took all of us, youngsters, old men, women, children, sick or healthy, it made no difference. Even the crippled were not spared. We were jam-packed into boxcars. No food, just what we could grab fast. No water. Some of us had some goatskins, but not every boxcar had drinking water. They did not care. We were many days on the track, sometimes more than a day in a row, without stopping. When the doors opened, corpses fell out. Nobody bothered to bury them. Men, women emptied their bladders side by side. We did not care anymore. After many days, I can't remember how many, we arrived at a Siberian village. There I ran away at the first chance. For more than three years I have been a fugitive. But I came back. I am a Chechen. Some of the Chechens are now in the mountains. The new Russian settlers took over our city, our homes, our belongings. Despite all this I still have friends in the city as well as in the mountains. They look after me. They risk a lot for me. Look, I can't be a fugitive forever! Please! Please take me in! I want to go with you! It does not matter where, just away! I hate this country!"
He was shaking as he spoke. His whole being was tense. His voice was trembling. His complexion was brown, but he was not oriental. His stature was stocky, his face had broad cheekbones. His hair was jet black. The garment he wore was shabby, but his headdress was decorated with beads, according to the local costume. My friend Zoltan saw my confusion and he tried to enlighten me.
"Have you heard of the Chechens?"
"Well, I read an article about them during the war. They joined the Germans in hope of being liberated. After the war Stalin ordered the whole tribe to be deported to Siberia. The Russians called them traitors, the Germans called them freedom fighters. But if the Germans had won the war, they would be reclassified as "inferior race". Like the Gypsies, Ukrainians or even we Hungarians, nations sandwiched between the Nazis and the Soviets, were all in a 'no win' situation!"
"How about the Poles? They were fighting Germans and ended up as a Soviet colony!"
"Their lot was the worst." The Chechen, unable to follow our Hungarian conversation, became panicky. He suspected with the instinct of a fugitive that we were talking about giving him up to the authorities. He was ready to jump, but Zoltan, whose Russian was fluent, put his hand soothingly on the young man's shoulder.
"We would like to help you. Believe me, we would. But we are also prisoners. Brother, we can't take you in. We are only waiting for the train to Rostov. We are counted, forty-two Hungarians. You would be detected even if we took you in. The guard would report you to the station police immediately."
The expression of the Chechen darkened. His dashed hope was reflected in his eyes. But suddenly defiance conquered despair. He threw back his head and with uncontrolled savagery, mixed with determination to the point of insanity, he hissed in our faces.
"Nichevo! Nichevo! You go, I stay! I will fight here! I will fight in the mountains, in the forests, in the streets. Everywhere! If I ever will have an aftomatka I will shoot all my jailers! All of them!
Ta..ta..ta..ta..ta..ta!" With the staccato of the submachine gun, he ran and melted into the crowd. We stared after him, then at each other. It was my first encounter with the unbreakable human desire for freedom.
That happened in 1949. Certainly we were not released at that time. We were kept for another two years in the Soviet Union. When in 1951 we arrived back home, our country was a Soviet colony. My encounter with that young Chechen faded in my memory. I had to fight for survival.
Then came those glorious days of October 1956 when my Hungarian nation revolted against the suppressors. The fighting was most fierce on the streets of Budapest. In a lull of fighting I went to see the destruction. It was the second time in my life I saw my capital being destroyed. I reached the Corvin Koz, the legendary center of resistance, where teenagers of Pest were fighting the formidable Russian armour. There were many burned out Russian tanks. Charred bodies littered the street. I met some of the young fighters. They were all in their teens. To my amazement I discovered in their eyes the same spark first seen in the eyes of that young Chechen. At that moment I realized that the desire for freedom is universal. It is above ethnic, racial or national boundaries. The lack of freedom can drive people to frenzy. During the war I fought as a soldier, out of duty. That was different. Now I saw what it meant to fight for an idea. Houses, cities, even tribes and nations could be destroyed, but the idea of freedom is indestructible. Fighting for it makes winning or losing irrelevant. The Polish proverb echoed in my mind: "Defeat without surrender is victory."
When I hear the news about Grozny these days I think of that youngster who by now is either an old man or a dead hero. He taught me the first lesson about the meaning of victory. Victory in spite of defeat!