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War and Peace
I guess this is how people fall in love. It’s pure, it’s accidental. She showed up and hit me over the head like a big artillery shell and I still haven’t awakened yet.
Major Dmitri Lebedev was bending over his torn, yellow maps, circling critical points of attack and possible stations for his army. “Here is Kharkov, here is Kursk, here is Kiev, and here are the Fritzes, moving our way. The Eastern front is wide open,” he muttered under his breath. “She’s unplottable; no map of attack can help me here. She’s unpredictable. She’s abnormal. She’s not German, although her last name is Busch. She’s only eighteen, what is she doing here?…” His thoughts were interrupted.
“Major Lebedev, Private Kozlov here on your orders.” The man clicked his heels together and saluted.
“Ah, yes. I called for you.” Lebedev reached over his desk and pulled out a small package wrapped with string. Bouncing it up in his hand as though evaluating whether or not it should be handed over, Lebedev said, “I want you to take this to the hospital train. Tell them it’s for Valentina,” he gave the package to Kozlov, clearing his throat and looking at the floor.
“Valentina? Which Valentina? There’s a sea of them young nurses out there!” Kozlov examined the package and shot a glance at Lebedev.
“Busch. Valentina Busch.” Lebedev straightened himself and rose from the chair.
“Oh, that one!” Kozlov chuckled. “Tell you what…” he shook his head.
“Private!” Lebedev raised his voice.
“Yes, sir!” Kozlov once again clicked his heels together and saluted. “Just tell me one thing—are you going to marry her? Because if you won’t, I will…”
“Out!” Lebedev roared and pounded his fist on the desk. Holding onto his hat, Kozlov ran for the door.
I know that you are worried, but please do not be. I chose to come here myself, so this must be destiny. Dmitri is a very intelligent man and, although he is only twenty-five, he is already a major. Please, my dear sister, I know what I am doing. I only wrote to you because I was excited to tell you! Please try to understand that it is very hard here, working among men who, being injured, lose all hope in life. Dmitri is the only one who can get me through, and I firmly believe I am helping him get through his daily duties as well. We are no more than great friends. Today he sent me a package with some chocolates he bought in a nearby village. Imagine—riding all the way to the village to buy chocolates for me! What a thoughtful man!
How is your husband? The Fritzes are pushing the front line harder and harder toward Kharkov, but I am absolutely sure that together we will fight off the evil that they have brought upon us.
Love, Valentina. March 24th, 1942.
“Really?” Dmitri laughed in surprise. The smell of fresh hay and spring flowers permeated the air. A few clouds were scattered around in the sky, undisturbed by aircrafts. “Well, I must say, you are one brave girl. How do you do it?”
“How do I do what?” Valentina looked over her shoulder at Dmitri, who was leaning on his elbow.
“How do you manage? You go out each day with your girls, pick up dead and wounded men, tend to them, sing to them, tell them stories.” He picked a nearby daisy, plucked off the petals, tossed it.
“I don’t know.” Valentina looked to the line of trees on the horizon. “It’s become routine.” She looked at Dmitri, who smiled at her.
“I figured. We’ve been in this war since June 22nd of 1941. Now it’s August of 1942 and look—the Nazis still advancing and we can’t fight them off!” Dmitri leaned back against the haystack with his arms behind his head. Valentina looked at him as though she misheard what he had just said.
“I always tell my patients, ‘Have faith, have faith,’ but they just won’t listen to me. Would you? Just for a minute let’s forget about this war altogether and enjoy the view. It happens so rarely that we can sit down in the calm and quiet.” Valentina leaned back against the haystack next to Dmitri, who brought his arms down and stuffed them in his pockets. “Look—over there. Is that not a creek still running despite all the blood it carries? Is that not a brook of trees still trembling with fresh green leaves?” She turned to face him. “To hell with war! We are insignificant in this, but all together we can show them that no man can say ‘I want the beautiful Russia for my people’ and get what he wants!”
There was a pause. Dmitri was looking at his boots, which he had just polished hoping that their glow might catch in Valentina’s eyes. Valentina stared at him stubbornly, as though demanding an answer, an explanation, and a confirmation of what she just said.
“I like the way you reason,” Dmitri looked up at her, taking in the sight of her face as though contemplating its meaning. As he watched her, he happened to remember a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, from Book IV, Chapter 11: “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.”
Thank you for your last letter, however rushed it might have been. Are you in Kursk? Yes, your echelon has been moving around quite a bit, but we are close to you now. Please write me and tell me everything is fine. Although I am worried out of my mind for you, I am certain that with your determination and heart you will make it anywhere. Nikolay is fine. His division has been sent up to where you are because they say a big battle is coming up. We will pray.
Love, your big sister Tatiana. May 24th, 1943.
Tatiana, everything is great.
Oh, Tatiana, please don’t tell Mother, tell her everything is fine, but we were so scared! Scared to stay in the train and leave it! Planes were flying overhead; we heard they always bomb hospital trains, it’s a miracle we survived! The Battle of Kursk they called it; I believe the Fritzes called it Operation Citadel. Citadel? There was no citadel! Just an open field all around! I heard from the newsboys there were over nine hundred thousand Fritzes! I believe everything, Tatiana! I can understand now why everything was shaking for those two weeks!
One newsboy said we killed over five hundred thousand Fritzes, but I cannot confirm that—we weren’t counting. You know, they gave us pistols—to all the nurses—so when we went out into the field after the battle we could shoot any Fritzes still alive. Tata, I couldn’t bear it! I threw my pistol into the creek. I didn’t care.
But we didn’t pick up any Fritzes. Only picked up our Reds. The dead ones we didn’t take.
Tata, am I brave or just foolish? Because Dmitri is brave. He led his division right into the lines and when he came back he kissed me for the longest time. We lived, so what does it matter?
Love, Valentina. July 29th, 1943.
“I don’t care who said it, you are not going!” Dmitri raised his voice as Valentina covered her face.
“But I am! I am going! We are all going! And you are going, too!” Valentina couldn’t help crying; she felt unloved—he felt disrespected.
“I am a major, not some lieutenant! I get to decide who stays and who goes!” Dmitri stormed around his small quarters in one of the train cars. It was a bright and crisp November day in 1944 and the train was gliding along the rails. Any and all living things were trying to savor the last few rays of sunshine.
“I will not let you chase them all the way to Berlin!” Dmitri glanced at his torn maps as though evaluating where Berlin was in relation to their current position just north of Kiev.
“And I will let you? I, as a matter of fact, do not care if you are a major or a lieutenant!” She put her hands on her hips.
“Is that so?” Dmitri was outraged but now he was amused with her.
“Yes, it is so.” She took a step toward him. The train shook as it rolled along the rails, rattling the cups and dishes on the shelves. “And we are going. We’re going right now. If you’d like me to stay, I might as well get off the train!” Valentina didn’t move, as though anticipating for him to test her.
“All that matters is that we are moving in their direction—they’re running! But I cannot let you travel with me all the way there!” Dmitri sat down on his small cot that was right beside the desk.
After looking at him for a minute, Valentina asked, “You don’t think I deserve this? You don’t think I lived to see the Fritzes drop their guns and run back to where they came from? You don’t think my father would have wanted me to be there? You don’t think I want to see them grasp for their Germany as if it were their Mother?” She started crying again.
Dmitri stood up and put his arms around her. As she buried her face in his uniform she felt the cold metal of his medals against her cheek. “I know you want to go,” Dmitri said softly, “and I believe you deserve going. I believe you should see them go. But I don’t want you working anymore.”
Valentina looked up at him. “What, you don’t think I can do it?”
Dmitri patted her head. “I know you can do anything. But give yourself a break—you’re pregnant!”
I’m in Berlin. Everything is well. I would like to tell you that I have accepted your request and am coming to be with you and Nikolay in Kharkov. It has gotten too hectic here, although it is clear that we have won. We heard news that the Americans have already defeated the Fritzes on their front. I believe we’re just a few weeks away from our victory.
Tatiana, I’m so glad this is over. Although I am sad that I have to leave Dmitri here, I’m sure we can meet again and get married after the war is over. Have you heard from Father? He wrote me a few months ago saying that he was stationed back in Moscow as a quartermaster. But he too believes he will be out of the job soon since the war is almost over. Last time I heard from Mother or the sisters everything was peaceful, although Germans occupied our town for a while.
Love, Valentina. February 12th, 1945.
It was early December of 2001. Valentina gathered the scattered letters, placing them on top of some souvenirs from the war. A dry flower, a small piece of brick, some paper wrapped with string; all these things found their due place at the bottom of a box that sat absently on the top shelf for decades. Her eyes fell on the old diary. There wasn’t much in it—just a few poems and ideas. As she opened it one more time, Valentina realized that the last time anything had been written in it was the day she reached Berlin.
With a shaky hand Valentina picked up a pen. Slowly testing it on the paper as though trying to remember how to hold it, she began writing.
On my way to Kharkov, I heard that Nikolay’s division, along with Tatiana, was coming toward the eastern border. Of course I decided to stay and wait for them in Kiev. Nikolay had to move on to secure the stations but Tatiana and I headed back to Kharkov. On August 8th, 1945, my precious baby was born in Gostomel—a small village just outside of Kiev. After arriving at Kharkov, I took a train home to Ryazan.
Yes, I met Dmitri again. But it does not matter. Before I found him again I was already married and had five other children. Dmitri loved our daughter; although he too got a family of his own in Moscow and visited his daughter well into her 40s.
She could not continue writing; however, she felt that all necessary things have already been said. With that, she picked up her old diary and carefully set it on top of the letters. Replacing the lid of the box, Valentina reached put it back on the top shelf. As she headed back for her armchair she happened to remember a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, from Book XIII, Chapter 16: “Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” With that she sat down in her chair and, thinking of all her children and grandchildren, fell asleep.
Valentina died on December 14, 2001, leaving behind all she created and achieved. Her life has been more than full—in her time she owned and managed a cafeteria, as well as took care of all her children. For her involvement as a nurse in World War II Valentina received fourteen medals, all of which remain to this day with her first daughter, Irina Lebedeva.
Irina grew up, married, and had her own children. One of them was little Irina, named after her mother. In 1990 that Irina married Andrei Panteleev and they had a daughter named Elena. Elena grew up loving to run into her great-grandmother’s room and listen to her fascinating stories about the war.
Interesting fact: the battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle in the history of the world. The Soviet Army (totaling 1,300,000 people) used 20,000 artillery pieces, 3,600 tanks, and 2,400 aircrafts. The army also used 400,000 mines: that’s 2,400 anti-tank and 2,700 anti-personnel mines per square mile.
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