Travelogues tend to be disappoint. Instead of travelogues that tell gripping stories about both people and history of a particular locale, travel writing these days obsesses itself with how to travel cheaper and faster, and with some architectural minutiae that fail to interest anybody but third year arts students. I was in Moscow to meet some Russian government officials earlier this summer and they put me at a huge hotel complex outside the city at Partizanskaya. I have been there several times before — Partizanskya being the site of a massive souvenir market — armed with varying guidebooks, but what they failed to tell me was that the distinctive looking statue at Partizanskya Metro Station was that of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, once one of the most revered martyrs of the Russian State.
I first met Zoya several years ago in David Plante’s novel The Age of Terror. The picture above of Zoya’s corpse spurs the novel’s young American hero to travel to the then slowly collapsing Soviet Union in search of identity. When I read it the book, I thought the photo was made-up. It was not, but scholars still debate how much of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya story is. For some, it bored all the fingerprints of the hagiographers of the godless Soviet Union who were all too happy to create martyrs.
The official Soviet story went something like this: When the Nazis invade Russia, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya quit the tenth grade at Moscow. Hair-cropped, and in men’s clothes, the 18-year old joined the Resistance and became one of its most celebrated heros. The Germans finally captured her in November 1941, and subjected her to various tortures — which included belts, punches, lighters, saws and bayonets. She refused to talk and the Germans led her to the gallows with a card inscribed “Guerrilla” about her neck.
There, at the village square of Petrisheva, Zoya gave her courageous speech: “You hang me now but I am not alone. There are 200 million of us. You won’t hang everybody. I shall be avenged. Soldiers! Surrender before it is too late. Victory will be ours.” She was hanged, and the Germans left the body hanging on the gallows for several weeks. Eventually she was buried just before the Soviet liberation of Petrisheva in January 1942. The above photo of her body were later found on the body of a dead German officer at Smolensk along with three other photos of the execution process.
Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya became popular with a Pravda article was written by Pyotr Lidov, who had heard about the execution from an elderly peasant. Yet many doubted this official version; they noted that ‘Kosmo’ and ‘Demyan’ were both proper first names, which had been combined to make an all-inclusive family name with the feminine ending kaya (much like Jane Q. Smith). Others said the Soviet authorities were pulling America’s leg with a ridiculous sounding last name that sounded almost like ‘Damn Yankee’. Later, there were acrimonious debates on whether it was just local peasants who hanged Zoya after she destroyed their property. Some questioned whether Zoya myth was created to draw attention away from the other heroine of the Resistance who happened to be a Jewess. No matter what, Stalin immediately named her a Hero of the Soviet Union. Many young soviet soliders carried a photo of her, and the words ‘For Zoya’ were also written on Soviet tanks and planes heading to Berlin. Streets, kolkhozes, Pioneer organizations, a mountain and a minor planet were all named after Zoya. The ultimate accolade came when she was reburied at the Novodevichy Cemetery. There she rests now, surrounded by many Russian luminaries, whose works she allegedly enjoyed in life.
(One source I find online says a Pravda photographer named Sergej Strunniknow took the above photo. I find this a little hard to believe but there it is).