WW2 Relevance

|   26 April 2011

Where does courage come from?

The steppes near Stalingrad where Vladimir Kantovski fought.

I recently learnt that a close friend of mine has cancer.  And instead of falling to pieces – like I fear I perhaps might at such news – he is brave and stoical. Why? Where does such courage come from?

I could never have predicted that he would be so brave – he never seemed a particularly courageous sort. But now that he is being tested he is reacting heroically. But then, thinking about it, I shouldn’t be surprised, because the bravest man I ever met was similarly mild mannered. He was called Vladimir Kantovski, and I met him a dozen years ago in his run down flat in the suburbs of Moscow. As a student he had protested at the arrest of his teacher in 1940 – an act which, unsurprisingly, meant that he was sent straight to a Gulag. When the Germans invaded the following year, fiercely patriotic as he was, Kantovski volunteered to serve in a ‘Penal Battalion’ on the front line.

There were only two ways out of Stalin’s penal battalions. Either you were killed or you were so seriously injured that you could no longer fight. After his unit was ordered to advance towards a wood held by the Germans – so that the watching Soviet commanders could see the strength of fire power ranged against them – Kantovski was shot in the hip and crippled.He was then sent back to the Gulag to finish his sentence. He wasn’t released until the mid 1950s when he resumed his job – but because of his tarnished record he was paid much less than everyone else he worked with.

When I met him I asked if he regretted protesting at the arrest of his teacher back in 1940. It hadn’t achieved anything – seemingly – other than his own arrest and subsequent trail of suffering. He replied that he didn’t regret protesting, because his actions meant that he had kept his sense of ‘self respect’.

Don’t we all wish we could be that brave?

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