Laurence Rees: Vladimir Ogryzko was 23 years old and an officer in an NKVD regiment when the Germans neared Moscow in October 1941.
Words of Vladimir Ogryzko: Then when, on the 14th October, the enemy had already reached the nearest approach and a section of tanks had reached the border with the Khimki reservoir, and when you could see the enemy through binoculars, then Moscow began to feel a bit shaken. Moscow was a bit shaken because people were afraid, because we already knew, we had heard what would happen to Moscow if Fascism got a hold. You know, they already had a racist programme: Moscow was to be completely obliterated, drowned, razed to the ground. It would cease to exist. So this shook some people up.
Food rationing was of course very tough and people were already panicking. Panic was spread by diversionary groups and spies who had broken through Moscow’s defences. They spread panic, they spread panic. There were robberies, everything you can imagine happened, because as usual the people lost their heads, the ill-educated. That was the reason for the 14th of October Decree, which declared a state of siege. And the Decree contained severe measures. The scum of the earth did show its face. It seeped through. But it wasn’t the true face, it couldn’t discredit the real Muscovites and the true patriots. It was a very small section, but they were, nonetheless, able to cause a lot of harm and evil. Which is why the severe measures laid out in the Decree were immediately enforced against them: summary shooting, execution.
At that time I was company commander. I was sent on the main route into Moscow. Tank sub-units, ammunition carriers, men and beasts, all marched along it. And there was panic on the roads. The people who fled Moscow, thinking that they would be saved and would survive – they were so primitive. And these people blocked the roads. And so, as company commanders, we cleared the way so as to let the reserves through. It’s very simple. If someone was in the way, that was it. Russian men are strong. You shoved him in the ditch, that was it. If he shoved back – to put it crudely – then he was only thinking of himself, he wasn’t someone who was ready to defend his motherland. He was standing in the way, so to us carrying out our mission, he was not a man but a traitor and an enemy. So we’d throw him in the ditch. And then the next lot would get the picture. Absolute powers. I still admire the fact that my company refused to let anyone pass who showed himself to be an enemy, a marauder.
We didn’t touch the ones who were confused, and there were a few of them – we simply brought them back in line. Those who resisted were executed. These severe measures, these beautiful measures, are the essence and content of war. You cannot say that they go against human rights, they are neither cruel nor mad. It was right to execute the people who didn’t understand their position at a time which had become even more cruel for their country. The men in our division were well prepared. It isn’t peacetime. You’re not going say, ‘Stop or I’ll shoot!’ a thousand times before you shoot, nor are you going to shoot in the air. Of course not. You shoot them on the spot. It was a tough command. Anybody who resisted and didn’t obey orders on demand – especially if they also moved away or opened their mouths – was eliminated on the spot, without further ado. And that was considered to be a truly heroic act – you were killing the enemy. It was the way to dampen down the panic.
Laurence Rees: After he had taken part in the suppression of the panic in Moscow, Vladimir Ogryzko participated as a member of an NKVD unit behind the lines, stopping Red Army soldiers retreating.
Words of Vladimir Ogryzko: Rearguard detachments were formed to fulfil a mission, when there were already huge numbers of German Fascist troops just beyond Moscow. The order went out: ‘Moscow is behind us, there’s no falling back!’ That was the situation. That’s how they came into being. These rearguard detachments played, I would say, a psychological, morale-supporting role. They induced a sense of responsibility in our soldiers and officers etc. to maintain the front-line. They fulfilled the mission they were given. It was the period of ‘No falling back, no steps back!’ when we were advancing and the troops were retreating. The rearguard battalions had a mission. Reinforcements would march past with guns and shout: ‘Oi, stop, you’re one of us!’ And then what happened? Without having realised what was happening, the soldier would go to work and carry out the mission… Generally speaking when you look at a soldier or at a man in that situation, whether or not he’s an officer, when he’s struck by panic, he loses control of himself. So you have to stop him in time, as we said back then, you have to give him a shake or even punch him. And you see then he becomes a soldier again. If he resists or something or runs away, we eliminate them. We shot them, that’s all. They weren't fighters. It was hard, difficult to understand, but what can you do?
There are a certain number of rules in life, especially in the army, and even more so on the eve of war. There can't be demagogues, they are traitors. They are simply traitors. And traitors are treated as traitors. It should be considered a rule of life, it should be considered as part of people’s education: a traitor should get his comeuppance. It was made clear to everyone. It was the power of Stalin. Cowardice! Treachery! Breaking your oath! You’d be shot on the spot. It was a very good decision to take and it shouldn’t be judged. They fought the panic. They used fear to crush fear. If it was right or wrong, so what? It was a time of war and there had to be certainty.