Chapter 23: "Alone"
Stalingrad, Soviet Union
Sgt Nikolai Belinski
January 15th, 1943
“Death solves all problems - no man, no problem.”
- Joseph Stalin
“Nikolai! Nikolai! Nikolai!”
The words rang out in parallel with the barrage of German rounds being burrowed into the snow. Sergeant Nikolai Belinski paid them no attention, his mind still wandering to places outside his own reality. In this fugue state, the explosive sound of bullets pelting the concrete wall to his rear became the banging of a hammer on a nail through a fresh plank of wood. The cold layer of snow clutching his bullet-wounded leg became the warm embrace of a beautiful woman. The screaming of his name by the Russian soldier trapped behind cover became, most intense of all, the beautiful woman’s whispering in his ear.
“Nikolai… Nikolai… Nikolai…”
The stabbing pain in his lower leg arrived once more with the return fire from his comrade. The fantasy faded to reveal the grim reality Nikolai’s homeland had become. Where churches, schools, and homes once stood tall, all that remained were fragments of these institutions, propped up like scarecrows in a field of snow.
The other Russian shouted, “Can you stand?”
Nikolai peered down at the drum magazine he was clutching tightly in his hand, his last vestige of safety, releasing his grasp as he diverted his energy towards moving his wounded leg. He started with his toes, bending them within his work boots, until he was sure he could move the entire leg.
Ensuring he stayed completely behind the concrete wall to avoid the stray round of an MG-42, he put his weight onto the leg, exacerbating the pain. He was now on his feet, returning a glance towards the other Russian to assure him he was not ready to give up.
The soldier raised his shoulders, firmly gripping his sub-machine gun and nodding to Nikolai. Each man stared into the white void between them, listening intently for the last round to be fired off.
As the MG continued its barrage for another few moments, the Russians prepared for what may be their final moments. Nikolai could see within the other man's eyes that he too knew the consequences of taking even one step back towards Soviet lines. Soviet commanders have little sympathy to share for those who would retreat from battle; Nikolai learned this lesson some time ago.
The flurry of rounds from the MG halted, and the last two Soviets in the reconnaissance group jolted from their cover, charging towards the enemy. With nothing but a magazine of ammunition for his comrade, Nikolai put forth the last of his energy into advancing. The German gunner’s nest was still several blocks ahead, its occupants now surely scrambling to load their machine gun and mow them down. Nikolai thought of nothing but the precious seconds he had remained alive, and what little he must now have left.
The pain of the wound in his leg was now excruciating, and his adrenaline was no longer enough to keep his pace like that of his comrade. Nikolai was now lagging behind.
Ahead of them just a few more meters and to the right were the remains of a concrete wall just high enough to take cover behind. The two survivors veered right as they anticipated the Germans' MG now being loaded and trained on them.
They would be correct in this assumption, as the flashes from the MG nest in the distance were accompanied by their signature concussive ringing. Before Nikolai could reach the safety of the wall, he felt a sharp pain slash across his cheek. A fragment of the other Russian's skull had been flung in his direction as a lone bullet passed through his head. The other Russian fell to the ground, painting the snow a deep red.
Nikolai lost balance as he whipped his head around from the MG nest to his comrade, the pain of his wound crumpling his legs beneath him and sending him face-first into the snow. The hail of bullets did not stop, whizzing over his head. He tossed the magazine aside, now realizing retrieving his fallen ally's weapon would be too risky. Nikolai instead focused on his immediate survival, clawing at frigid clumps of snow leaving his gloved fingers frostbitten. Every bullet that whizzed over Nikolai's head was another second cheated away from Death, and only natural instincts kept him from rising to his feet and facing it.
Nikolai pushed deep into the snow to raise his body up and against the wall. He shook his hands and flexed his fingers, attempting to regain feeling and rid them of excess snow. He peered down at the leg that had slowed him down, placing his left hand over the wound.
After stowing the pain for a moment, Nikolai leaned in for a closer inspection. It was like no other war injury he had ever seen. The bullet had not only punctured the skin, but had burned the edges of the entrance point. Still lodged deeply in the leg, Nikolai could feel it inside. It felt incredibly warm in contrast to the rest of his body, and even placing his hand near the wound he could feel that physical warmth. The pain, however, was worsening with every passing moment as the bullet seemed to corrode away as his muscle tissue.
Regardless of the nature of the bullet that caused the injury, Nikolai could sense it would be a fatal one without any other Soviets to help. He considered wrapping it in spare gauze he held on his person, but he saw little reason in doing so.
Nikolai shut his eyes, trying to picture the peaceful moments he had seen just moments ago. The pain clouded these visions. There was no soft whispering but cries of agony from men, not gunned down by the German soldiers sent to kill them, but by their own comrades, ordered by the commander meant to lead them to victory. They wept, begging for their lives after being shot by their brothers who looked them in the eye as they pulled the trigger. Those still clinging to life were executed by the repugnant commander himself. Nikolai gazed into the eyes of one soldier who let out a last whimper as the commander approached him, pulled back the hammer, and shot Private Belinski like a dog. He stared into those eyes he so recognized, now fading with his life. There was only rage in Nikolai's soul, and the memories of this moment in time become difficult to retrieve. An image that cannot be erased, however, is the commander's face as Nikolai had him pinned to the ground, his knife being pounded into his chest. Some said twelve times. Others said fifteen. Nikolai did not count.
It is only appropriate that Nikolai would die here in Stalingrad, in their 'glorious' leader's namesake city. For all his speeches and facades of leadership, Stalin was a fearful little mudak, afraid of those who truly believed in the Communist cause and who cared for the Soviet peoples. Those who spoke of a brighter future were often sent to the Gulag, but the Belinski name could never be wiped from history in this way. Stalin's solution to any man he could not deal with himself would be to toss them aside like scraps for the Germans to handle. He had tried many times before to kill Nikolai; Today was the day he died for the people.
After the MG-42 had ended its barrage, Nikolai heard voices through the cold wind, followed closely by boots trudging through snow. Germans; Approaching.
Not ready to surrender his life to a German prison camp, Nikolai peered to his left down what used to be a street of the city, away from his fallen ally who was now half-buried in the snow. He leaned his body down to the ground, and began to crawl using his elbows, not wanting to give his fingers further frostbite. He moved slower than before, avoiding the potential of alerting the Germans to his location, making his way around the corner of the building, and looking down a long stretch of what used to be the street. At the end were the remains of a statue of Stalin, the trunkless legs still standing, their body and shattered visage buried under a layer of snow.
Nikolai began to lose energy as his joints ached, pulling his whole body across the ground. He now realized how thirsty he had become, and began to feel lightheaded. If he stopped, however, he knew he would never move again.
After passing two blocks, the injured leg could no longer propel him forward, resting limply as Nikolai continued to pull at the ground beneath. No longer able to bear the bitter cold, Nikolai peered at the building to his left; He could not quite make out any signs, and there were holes blasted in the site from explosives, but it would be warmer than the streets.
Nikolai crawled up the steps and through the doorway missing the door. Now out of the snow and onto wood, Nikolai used his hands once more to inch along the floor. The energy had drained his body to such a degree that his limbs went completely limp as his body temperature creeped upwards.
He could not move any further for the moment, resting his head firmly on the chilly wooden floor and shutting his eyes. His visions of death grew fuzzy and his fingertips began to tingle. For a moment, Nikolai felt bliss.
“Prost an Herrn und Frau Adler!”
Feeling began to return in his fingertips, and blood flowed back to his head as he raised it from the damp floorboards.
Nikolai peered at the doorway down the hall, knowing that the German voices were coming from there.
He inched forward, remaining quiet as he did so. Through a hole in the wall looking at the other side of the building, Nikolai could see the sky was growing darker, and soon the Soviet mortar strikes on the nearby airfield would begin.
Nikolai came closer to the edge of the doorway, and he could hear the German soldiers inside clearly. There seemed to be only two, and they were laughing.
Nikolai slowly peered around the corner into the room, now recognizing the location. It was a bar, two tables sitting in the open area, and cabinets filled with vodka. The two young soldiers were guzzling shots of the Russian vodka, giggling and muttering to each other in German. They held no weapons. Their MP-40s were resting against the wall: Right in front of Nikolai.
He pushed against the wooden floor, raising his body up onto his wobbly legs. He stood crouched, leaning with one arm against the wall to remain balanced. Nikolai took one of the sub-machine guns, placing around the corner, out of sight. He took the other in his hands, checking that it was loaded and ready to fire.
Nikolai raised up to standing position, holding the weapon in his right hand, finger at the trigger, as he used his left to stand up straight. He entered the room, weapon pointed towards the German boys.
When the first locked eyes with Nikolai, they flinched before noticing their own weapon in the Russian's hands. The other turned around as he noticed his friend frightened by something in the room, and gasped before grabbing an empty bottle of vodka and holding it like a pistol towards Nikolai.
“Nein, nein, n-!”
Nikolai placed his index finger against his lips before taking grip of the MP-40 with both hands.
The drunk German holding the bottle placed it back on the bar, raising his hands in the air to signal his surrender. The other was so stunned he could not move at all, snapping out of it as the first nodded to him to raise his hands. Both men stood silently, staring into the Russian's vacant, emotionless expression. Nikolai did nothing but divert his gaze between the two young men as he held the weapon pointed to their chests just over a meter away.
The one who first raised his hands, who was visibly the youngest of the pair, spoke up softly in German, “Bitte, wir werden es niemandem erzählen... ”
Nikolai did not waver, weapon still trained on them.
Outside, explosions from mortar strikes could be heard. Each pop of the mortar hitting its target caused the Germans to flinch. Each of them was sweating like it was a Summer day, the eldest starting the cry softly.
The younger German began to shake his head, muttering in Russian, “I speak Russian... some. You are Russian?”
Nikolai slowly nodded his head, never moving the barrel of the weapon away from its target.
“Please do not kill us. We will leave... telling no one. No one will find you... “
The mortars continued to rain down outside. Pop. Pop. Pop.
“Have mercy. Please, have mercy.”
Nikolai began to tense up, his expression turning to a sneer, and his hands gripping the trigger tightly. He took aim, and waited.
Nikolai held the trigger for only a second, unleashing a dozen rounds in an arc, ending the two Germans' lives on the spot and bursting two glasses rested on the bar. One of the bodies slumped backwards onto a desk before resting.
The only noise left was the rolling of shell casings on the wood floor. Nikolai stood still for a moment, before placing the MP-40 onto the bar and pacing towards the bodies. The floor beneath him creaked, indicating a room underneath.
Nikolai stepped over the body on the floor, taking in his hands a bottle of vodka from the cabinet above him. Closing the cabinet, he passed the one resting on the table, and leaned onto the bar. Nikolai leaned back and downed nearly half the bottle before slamming it back onto the bar. He could feel some measure of warmth returning to his body.
On the floor near the wall was an abnormal piece of wood with a string attached. Nikolai approached it, lifting the string and the wood panel to reveal a cellar beneath the bar. He looked down towards his wounded leg, the blood still seeping through, and began to descend the ladder leading to the cellar. The room was dim and damp, a rat scurrying across the floor under a barrel. All along the wall were dozens of crates of vodka, completely untouched by the war above. Nikolai limped over to a dark corner of the cellar, lowering himself to the ground.
He pulled back the cloth surrounding his wound, downed a shot of vodka, before pouring the rest onto the bloody mess. It did not burn as much as it should, Nikolai thought.
Through the darkness, Nikolai could see something dripping from the floorboards above, with the droplets making noise as they collected on the ground. Nikolai realized it was the blood of the boys he had slain.
Nikolai tossed the empty bottle aside, resting his head on the wall and shutting his eyes. He began to hum a Tchaikovsky melody, grabbing another fresh bottle of vodka before chugging more.
His mind drifted, blurry and feeling weightless. He no longer felt the weight of Death wrapped around his neck. He finally felt completely alone.
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Nikolai awoke with a sharp pain at the back of his head, as if he had been thrown backwards. There was a rumbling beneath him. He could feel the touch of another person, they were close, attending to the pain in his leg. Nikolai opened his eyes once again, blinded by an overhead lamp. Regaining his vision, he could see a dozen Germans, fully armed and sitting strapped to chairs. Where the wound had been in his leg, there was a bandage and no pain whatsoever. Nikolai could feel his toes, and he realized he was on a plane.
He searched the area for any way to kill his captors, spotting only a set of medical tools on a nearby table. Nikolai mustered the energy and attempted to leap from his bed, his head being slammed backwards as he was restrained at the wrists. The sudden noise and struggle alerted the Germans, who tried to restrain Nikolai as best they could, his head thrashing, attempting to headbutt any of them.
A younger man in a white lab-coat approached Nikolai. He adjusted his glasses, visibly afraid of the Russian, and brandishing a syringe in his hands. His coat was marked with a symbol Nikolai did not recognize: a circular atom held by a hand, in its center, the numbers '935'.
He approached Nikolai, removing his glove and pulling back his sleeve, injecting the fluid into Nikolai's bloodstream. He began to feel cold, drifting back into peaceful sleep. The last words he heard were in English from the young man.
“Quite a fighter. Doctor Richtofen will enjoy working on this one.”