Have you Recently Confessed, Comrade?
M. Earl Smith
27 December 1942:
We captured the room adjacent to our old room, so today was a good day. The losses of Igor and Vitali, while tragic, were required to preserve the Motherland…
Wladimir looked up from his journal and sighed. It was bad enough that he was forced to put on a show as a part of the Party’s ultra-patriotic war effort. The fact that the show was now starting to pervade his personal pontifications, however, gave him no small amount of disgust.
It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in Communism, or the Party, or the Soviet Union, or even the war effort against the bastard Krauts that had dared stab Father Stalin in the back. He believed in all of those things. Hell, he grew up in, and was a vital organ in, all of those things. He couldn’t help, however, but to long for a part of himself that wasn’t tied up in where he was from. He was Soviet, granted, but he was also very much Russian, born in Leningrad when it had been Saint Petersburg and almost too old for all of these war games…
Careful, he thought to himself, or the Party will expect another confession.
Lighting a cigarette, he looked over at the last remaining member of his unit and sighed. It would have to be Stas, wouldn’t it? Barely seventeen, barely three weeks out of training, yet with the weight of all of Uzbekistan on his young shoulders, or so he thought. Wlad wasn’t even sure that Stas was the kid’s real name. A lot of the soldiers from the Soviet republics in the south came up with shorthanded, easy to pronounce versions of their actual names, all in what Wlad saw as a sad attempt to assimilate.
Not fair, his conscience nagged. It’s less about assimilation and more about unity.
Seeming to sense that he was being watched, Stas looked up and gave his commander a tired grin. Three weeks. Three weeks on the front lines, and the kid felt he still had reason to smile. In a sense, Wlad was jealous. Within his first week of battle, he was already war-weary. Seeing line after line after line of his brethren, of his friends, mowed down by German machine gun nests as his unit made a suicide march into Stalingrad would have been enough to leave even Lenin a little jaded. For Wlad, who had been the life of the party back home, losing the energy that he pulled from the people around him was devastating. Burying his humanity, he decided to simply find a way to survive the war, to get back home to his wife and his young son in Saint Peters…
Leningrad, you know it’s Leningrad now…
“Would you be quiet? I damn well know what it is.” The words were barely a whisper, but Wlad forgot that he was staring at his young charge.
Stas looked at him for a moment, his smile melting away as a look of bewilderment crossed his features. “But I said nothing, leytenant…”
Wlad shook his head and nodded to the adjacent room, reminding the boy that the Germans were less than a foot away. Stas nodded in acknowledgement and returned to a scrap of paper that he was reading. The sun was rapidly disappearing the the West, and all parties involved were settling in for a night of rest before they returned to Hell the next morning.
After a few moments, Wlad produced a can from his pack and sighed. It was cut open at both ends and, after, regarding it for a moment, he pressed it to the wall. The Germans, it seems, had settled in for the night, as evidenced by the light snoring, one tenor and one baritone, that resonated from the next room.
Shaking his head, Wlad cleared his mind of any thoughts of ambush and instead contemplated his journal. All impulse to write had vanished. Instead, he traced small circles on the top of the page, expanding each one a little more until his sketch reached the edge of the words he’d written earlier. The hours spent fighting the Germans from this apartment block, room by room, were long and, most of the time, uneventful. It was up to each man to find a way to fill that down time, all while keeping themselves prepared for the next time that their duty to the Party called.
Sighing, Wlad looked at his young charge once again. The boy was all but enraptured by the letter, although he seemed to have a hard time at certain points. Must be learning Russian, Wlad thought. Stas would stop on a word, look around as if the ceiling or the sun somehow held the answers, and then smile as he remembered what it was the author meant. It was never speaking the language that gave the youngsters problems. Rather, it was the reading, and the transcription into whatever outland tongue they spoke, that seemed to be the hang-up. In this regard, Wlad considered himself lucky. Russian was the Party’s language, and he could not imagine himself trying to learn the outlandish curves and strokes that made up the Uzbek script.
Clearing his throat, Wlad stifled a chuckle as Stas nearly jumped out of his pants. The boy looked over, wide brown eyes staring holes through his commander for a second, before arching his brows in a quizzical manner. Wlad motioned him over, holding out a cigarette in entreaty. The boy grinned, and shuffled quietly to take a seat at his commander’s side.
“How does the war treat you, comrade?”
Stas laughed quietly. “As wonderfully as it treats anyone in the service of our homeland, leytenant.”
Wlad could only great the title of his rank with a gentle rolling of his eyes. “It’s Wladimir, at least for now. Now, if the Germans come over and decide to join us, you may call me leytenant again.”
Stas laughed again, and motioned for a match from his commander. “Okay. And how does it find you, comrade?”
“Frankly? I wish I was back at home with my wife and son in Leningrad. I wish all these Deutschland bastards would piss off to the hell they came from, and that we could get back to our lives.” Wlad paused for a moment, shocked at the tone of his own words. “Heh. I’m guess I’m due for a confession.”
“A confession?” Confusion crossed Stas’s pock-marked face.
What had they not told this boy? “Yes, comrade, a confession. We are all guilty of actions and thoughts that make us less than a good Communist, so when we have these moments of weakness, we confess, are re-educated, and then we return, stronger for the Party and the cause. Have you never confessed?”
Stas took a draw of the cigarette. “No, although it would be said back home that I would need to ask Allah for forgiveness for this.” He waved the cigarette around in an exaggerated manner.
Wlad shook his head. “Now see, the cigarette isn’t what you’d confess to. It’d be the religion. I didn’t know you were Muslim.”
Stas’s eyes widened in shock. “They spoke to us a little about religion, and how it can never come before the Party, but nobody said it was bad to be Muslim! I take it, then, you’re not?”
The commander looked over the boy and sighed. Slowly, he pulled a chain from around his neck. At the bottom dangled two nails, held together by rusty wire. A crucifix. Trench art. “And now, Stas, you see the main source of my too-frequent confessions. I’ve heard countless tales of the beauty and the wonder of your temples…”
“Mosques” Stas corrected him, and immediately regretted it.
Wlad, for his part, shot the boy a sharp look, but said nothing else. “Mosques. Anyway, you should see the cathedrals in Saint Peters…in Leningrad. When I was a boy, they were filled with sights and sounds and beauty! Of course, the Party, and rightfully so, put them to more practical use after the Revolution. From what I hear now, the largest is being used as a morgue for those we’ve lost in the siege.” Wlad looked down at his necklace once more before tucking it away. “Anyway, my last confession was for that. My wife and I took our son to one of the priests who still practices, and he baptized him into the Church. We were caught. The priest was shipped off to Siberia, to one of the Party’s gulags. We would have been too, and, in fact, were given a date of departure, but then Hitler decided to stick his knife in the eye of the Soviet people. I volunteered, and was sent to the front. My wife and son were allowed to confess, to re-educate, and to return home. Ha! Re-educate an infant, as if he had any knowledge…”
Stas looked down. “I guess I should confess too. My betrothed, after all, still wears her hijab when we are at home.”
Wlad smirked at his young charge. “Engaged to marry already, huh! Then again, I’ve heard that it’s common for a Muslim to marry even younger.”
Stas nodded. “It’s true. Although the Party has reformed some of that. We were fortunate. Her family wanted to wait until I returned from the war.”
Poor boy, IF you return, Wlad thought. They’re hoping you never make it back. Ah, you poor bastard. “Do you have a picture of her?”
Stas looked embarrassed. “Well, kind of. We don’t have a lot of photography in Uzbekistan. I instead drew a picture of her.”
Wlad nodded. “Well. Let me see then.”
Slowly, Stas unfolded a piece of paper and handed it to his commander. Wlad, for his part, could not help but to be impressed. Ah, comrade, if the Union loses you, they’ve lost a great artist. The girl in the picture was veiled, with her hijab wrapped in such a manner that only a thin patch of her brown skin and a set of brilliant green eyes showed. The garment itself was golden, with patterns and symbols drawn in red and green across its surface. Truth was, Wald could barely see any amount of this young woman, yet he could absolutely understand why Stas was in love with her, and why even he felt attracted to her.
Looking over at his war-dirty, scrawny, starving, crater-faced charge, Wlad sighed. I can see why they want you to die, lad. They have a treasure that even I don’t feel worthy enough to see, and somehow they’ve managed to attach her to the buck-toothed mule of Tashkent. “Where did you get the colorings for your drawing?
Stas shrugged. “Different places. Her eyes are from the leaves of a plant that I gathered on my way here. The brown of her skin is, frankly, mud, as is the gold of her hijab, only mixed with a little more water. The red is from the blood of a German solider…”
Wlad shook his head. “Morbid.”
Stas grinned. “He had it coming, and besides, he served my purposes.”
A chuckle. “If you need to confess for anything, it’d be that!”
A shake of the head. “Allah gives us the right to kill our enemies, and the Party, I’m sure, was more than happy for my actions, so I feel no need to confess. But, we still pray and follow our customs in our homes, even if the Party takes issue with it.” The lad looked crestfallen. “I guess I am a bad Communist. I guess I should confess.”
Wlad was already shaking his head before he finished. “Hell, comrade, you’re here, on the very front lines, defending Stalin and the Party and the workers all three. Any sins against the Party, you’ve paid penance for. Besides, I’m in no mood for a confession. My confession led to my shipment to the front lines, and to my viewing of the deaths of several of my good friends. It gave me this damndable rank, and it put me here, in Stalingrad, with you. A lot of good confessions do.”
Stas seemed bewildered. “You have a problem with confessions?”
Wlad sighed, and shrugged his shoulders. “Normally no. Just today. I’ll confess tomorrow.” The leytenant was eager to change the subject. “What were you reading earlier?”
The boy blushed. “Oh, it’s just a letter to send back home. My Asaloy sent me one, and I was going to respond. I’ve not even read her letter yet, though! I’m too nervous, although I’m sure that it’s just a declaration of her love for me, as always.” Stas pulled the letter from his pocket and stared at it.
As he took a draw on his cigarette, Wlad casually snatched the letter from Stas’s grasp and held it away. Stas made to grab at the letter, but the leytenant held him at bay, grinning. “As your commanding officer, I demand that you sit still while I read this.”
“No ‘buts.’ That’s an order.”
Stas looked on with a mixture of contempt and apprehension as Wlad used his field knife to cut the letter open. He unfolded it and began to decipher Asaloy’s broken Russian. Despite the fact that the Party didn’t seem to be too good a job teaching the Uzbek the Russian letters, it was pretty easy for Wlad to get the gist of the note. Words such as “unhappy”, “regretted”, and “ending” told the story of a savage, self-centered brat, who would break Stas’s heart on the battlefield of Stalingrad to serve her own self-interest. That, and, of course, the self-interest of her backwards family, who, Wlad gathered, had been offered a much larger dowry from a wealthier family outside of the Republic.
It took every bit of leadership training Wlad had to not show the tide of anger that rose up in his chest. He silently cursed her and her family. Stas, a seventeen-year-old kid who had grown from pissing himself on the battlefield to drawing his beloved with the blood of fallen Germans, was worth the whole damned rotten lot of them, put together.
Stas cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably. “Well?”
Wlad smiled. “She loves you. She pledges it in this letter, and she says she cannot wait for you to return home so that you’ll be married and start a family.”
The setting sun surrounded the boy’s head, given his browned features a glow that could only be considered angelic. Sadly, that same light made him an easy target for a German sniper in the adjacent building. As a smile started to spread across his features, the bullet entered at the base of his skull, blowing off the lower part of his face all over Asaloy’s letter, into a brilliant spray of crimson across his leytenant’s face. Wlad ducked and rolled on instinct, coming face to face with Stas as the last signs of life left his eyes. He envied the boy, really. He had just died, happy in the knowledge that he was loved and cared for, and Wlad was still stuck in this pit of lunacy and degradation that was known as Stalingrad.
He could barely stand it. Reaching out slowly, he slowly shut the boy’s eyes. Staring at him for the next few hours while he waited out the sniper was more than he could stomach.
Besides, he had to survive the war. There was a trip to Tashkent to make, and a selfish, shallow woman to rightfully shame.
Maybe after that, he thought, she can give her own fucking confession.
About the Author: From works for children to the macabre, from academic research to sports journalism, and from opinion essays to the erotic, M. Earl Smith is a writer that seeks to stretch the boundaries of genre and style. A native of Southeast Tennessee, M. Earl moved to Ohio at nineteen and, with success, reinvented himself as a writer after parting ways with his wife of eleven years. After graduating from Chatfield College (with highest honors) in 2015, M. Earl became the first student from Chatfield to matriculate at an Ivy League institution when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. The proud father of two wonderful children (Nicholas and Leah), M. Earl studies creative writing and history at UPenn. When he’s not studying, M. Earl splits time between Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chattanooga, with road trips to New York City, Wichita, Kansas, and Mystic, Connecticut in between.