WW2 People

|   29 December 2010

Siberians – tough people

Snow – the great leveler

When I was out walking through the snow in the Chiltern Hills outside of London the other day, with the cold air penetrating through my thick clothes, I remembered the toughest man I have ever met.

He was a Siberian, called Vasily Borisov. And exactly sixty nine years ago today he was fighting the Germans outside Moscow. And when I met him in 2006, when he was well into his eighties, he seemed every bit as strong as he must have been during the war. His hand shake almost crushed my fingers and his big, slab-like face exuded health and energy.

He was part of a Siberian division that had been sent to defend the Soviet capital in December 1941. ‘During the counter-attacks [against the Germans],’ he said, ‘there was man to man fighting. We had to fight the Germans in the trenches. And the fitter ones survived and the weaker ones died… We had bayonets on our rifles and I was very strong – I could pierce him [the German soldier] with a bayonet and throw him out of the trench… It’s the same as piercing a loaf of bread.’

The Germans had made swift and spectacular progress in their advance into the Soviet Union during the summer and early autumn of 1941. The Wehrmacht was clearly technically superior to the Red Army. But the winter snow acted as a great leveler. Now straightforward human qualities counted for almost everything in this fight. And in this respect, the Siberians were better than the Germans.

Vasily revealed how it was the harshness of his upbringing in Siberia that had conditioned him for combat in the snow. ‘This is Siberian spirit,’ he said. This is how people are raised from childhood. Everyone knows that Siberians are tough… I am a true Siberian.’

After we had filmed the interview, I asked him, over a cup of tea, if he could remember how many Germans he had killed. He looked at me with clear, penetrating eyes, before replying. ‘A real Siberian never counts how many.’

I have no sympathy with the Nazi regime, or the decision to invade the Soviet Union. How could anyone, given the horrors that Hitler’s armies perpetrated on Soviet territory? But after meeting Vasily Borisov I could at least imagine how terryfying it must have been for a young man from Cologne or Bremen, shivering in a snow filled trench outside Moscow, to look up and see these Siberians descending upon him. Most likely, for many Germans, it was the last thing they ever saw.

2 Responses to “Siberians – tough people”

  1. Nicked says:

    Poor sods. Those siberians are born tough, and it is incredible that hitlers generals underestimated that and the weather. Looking back it seems ridiculous but hitlers ambition was limitless. What an evil guy.

  2. Anton, Russia says:

    I agree that Siberian units were crucial at Moscow contr attack in 1941. But I don’t agree that
    1. it was Russian bad military equipment that let German moving so fast and deep
    2. it was cold weather which stop Germans.
    Since Russian troops had even better tanks, a lot af artillery, enough soldiers. the problem was about managment, skills and spirit. We were not ready in moral and expirience terms, but the closer Germans were to Moscow, the higher soviet army skills became, and the more terrible things Germans did with civilians the tougher soviet soldiers spirit became.