The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street: The Costs of Humor in the USSR

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

“IF THEY COME for me, I won’t give you up. I won’t tell them what happened in this room.” Vasily Babansky let out a sigh and locked eyes with the four young men around him. It was February 1940 and 18-year-old Vasily had become increasingly sure that the NKVD was closing in on him.

The silence hung thickly in the air, so at odds with the laughter they usually shared here. The five students were gathered together in their usual haunt — one of the dormitories at the Zoological Institute in Stavropolsky District, southwestern Russia. The door was locked, as it always was when they wanted to speak freely, but now the bolt seemed woefully inadequate. If the NKVD was coming for them, all they could rely on was silence and their loyalty to one another.

Silence would be a problem, though. They’d have to tell the NKVD something if they were arrested; Stalin’s secret police didn’t take “No” for an answer. Aleksandr Mitrofanov proposed they should tell the truth, but not the whole truth — they would come clean about anything they’d said or done in front of witnesses at the Institute, “but keep quiet about what went on in our room,” recalled another of the students, Pavel Gubanov.

They all solemnly agreed, and then Mitrofanov rushed off to find the poem he’d written criticizing the Soviet regime. He was proud of his work, and the group had hoped to make anonymous copies and spread them across campus. Instead, after relocking the door behind him, he would ritualistically read the poem aloud one last time to his comrades, then set the paper alight and watch the flames consume his words.

It would be another 11 months before the NKVD descended, but when they did, the lives of these young men would be torn apart. Despite their earnest pact not to inform on each other, in the end they had little choice. The NKVD has gone down in history for its brutality and willingness to extract confessions by any means necessary. All five would break their vow of silence as the interrogators raked through the ashes of their lives at the Institute. Aleksandr Mitrofanov, Vasily Babansky, Mikhail Penkov, and Pavel Gubanov would all be sentenced for the crime of “anti-Soviet agitation” and for being part of a “counterrevolutionary organization” that, the authorities were sure, was actively plotting the downfall of the Soviet regime. Mitrofanov and Babansky received 10 years, Penkov eight, and Gubanov seven. The fifth man, Damir Naguchev, was for some reason treated with a touch more leniency: he received “only” three years for failing to denounce his comrades.

Locked doors, burnt evidence, and a plan for resisting interrogation: at first glance, it certainly sounds like conspiracy was afoot at the Institute. But if we take a closer look at the evidence left behind in the formerly secret Soviet archives, the fate of these five teenagers reveals a very different story. A story of how, under Stalin, a poem, a few jokes, and five open minds could spell disaster.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

As PG reviewed the OP and thought of a novel he is reading that is set, in part, in the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Red Army Air Forces. One of the characters has to flee from her regiment because her father has been convicted and executed for anti-Soviet, anti-Stalin outbursts and all his family members are to be arrested.

Back to the 588th regiment. This group, which flew all of its bombing missions at night, were called the Nachthexen, or “night witches,” by their targets in the Wehrmacht because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made as they dived into their attacks resembled that of a sweeping broom. There was no other noise because the pilots were instructed to idle their engines at altitude, prior to beginning their bombing glide to drop their bombs on the German troops.

The antiquated bombers, 1920s bi-plane crop-dusters that had been used as training vehicles prior to being repurposed for night bombing were effectively invisible to German radar or infrared defense systems. They were unarmored, built of plywood with canvas stretched on top and most had no guns for defense. Machine guns and ammunition would be too heavy to carry in addition to the weight of a single bomb attached under each wing. Parachutes were also too heavy to carry.

These planes had a top speed of 94 mph and a cruising speed of 68 mph. The most common German fighter plane the Night Witches faced in battle was the Messerschmitt 109, which had a top speed of 385 mph. The maximum speed of the bombers was slower than the stall speed of the German planes, which meant these wooden planes, ironically, could maneuver faster than the enemy, making them hard to target.

The Night Witches continued their attacks through three winters, 1942-43, 1943-44 and 1944-45. Their planes had open cockpits and no insulation. Flying them exposed their pilots and navigators to almost unimaginably bitter cold temperatures. During those Russian winters, the planes became so cold, just touching them would rip off bare skin.

The Night Witches ended the war as the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force.

On average, each pilot/navigator crew flew about 800 missions. For comparison, United States heavy bomber crews flew bomber crews’ obligations were between 25-35 combat missions.

(In fairness, since the Night Witches were stationed at airfields so close to the front lines, the flight time spent on each of their missions was much shorter. Many US crews spent far more time in the air because their missions involved much longer flights to reach their targets. On the other hand, the Night Witches were under direct enemy fire far more frequently, sometimes flying 8 missions in a single night.)

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