The Second World War claimed the lives of at least forty-one million Europeans, more than half of them in the Soviet Union. Between 8-9 million soldiers in the Red Army were killed, and 18 million more were wounded. Between 16-19 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Estimates of the total Soviet casualties are around 25 million, five times that of the Germans, and even this rough number was deduced only by reducing the total population figures at the next census.
Although the Soviet hagiographies conveniently ignored it, there was more than a whiff of self-destruction in these numbers. Employing an insulating jargon that removed them from realities and incomprehensibilities of war, Soviet commanders asked ‘How many matches were burned?’ or ‘How many pencils were broken?’ when they wanted to know about their losses after a battle. For all his charisma, political awareness, and good sense of military strategy, Stalin remained, in the words of the acclaimed Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov, “an armchair general”, who had ‘fathomed the secrets of war at the cost of bloody experimentation.” His planning was erratic, and his measures ‘to combat cowardice’ were extreme. According to one especially infamous order, Number 227, every army was to organize units which would move along as a second front behind the first wave of attack, and shoot down any soldier who hesitated or retreated.
The huge toll in human lives paid for Stalin’s ‘brilliant strategy’ was captured in Dmitri Baltermants’ photo, ‘Grief, or Searching for the Loved Ones in Kerch’. Before ultimately reaching Berlin like the Red Army itself, Baltermants covered the battles of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. Grief was taken at the Crimean front, where he went upon his release from the hospital after seriously wounding himself in Stalingrad.
The photo depicts a 1942 Nazi massacre in the Crimean village of Kerch. Village women searched for the bodies of their loved ones. The contrast between the oversaturated sky above and the bodies haphazardly strewn in the foreground underlines the poignancy of the moment, but for the same reason, the photo was censored in the Soviet Union where authorities only published the photos that could help boost morale; ‘Grief’ reflected nothing but harsh tragedies of war, and it wasn’t seen by the general public until the 1960s.
The photo was allegedly cropped, and oversaturated sky itself was either the result of studio error or deliberate manipulation by Baltermants. Like so many tales originating from behind the Iron Curtain, these stories were of course unverified.