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Yury Kovalenko, a Ukrainian who retained his love for Ukraine through all trials and tribulations
Ivan OLKHOVSKY met a person some time ago who made a great impression upon him, and now he offers the readers his story about Yury Kovalenko, an architect, whose life of four-score years was impacted heavily by the tragic events of the Ukrainian history of the twentieth century but whose integrity and Ukrainian spirit remained strong and unshakable.
In retelling the stories from Yury Kovalenko’s life, I have to admit I have not turned to other possible sources in order to verify the events from his life that he cared to tell me about, assuming that he was telling me the truth.
“Kovalenko” is his mother’s name, not father’s. His father was a Chekist, that is, a member of the Cheka, Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya — Extraordinary Commission, a secret service organization established by the Bolsheviks soon after they came to power.
The Cheka was a precursor of the KGB; the Cheka, was created in December 1917, early in the Bolshevik government. The Cheka (originally VECHEKA, an acronym derived from the Russian for All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage) was charged with preliminary investigation of counterrevolution and sabotage, but it quickly took upon itself the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of “enemies of the state.” Its jurisdiction expanded during the civil war of 1918–1920 to include all “enemies” of Bolshevism, such as the bourgeoisie, the former nobility, and the clergy. The Cheka aided in crushing the anti-soviet uprisings. Its power and autonomy increased so much that the Bolshevik government found it necessary to abolish the Cheka — with “expressions of gratitude for heroic work”— in 1922.The Cheka was immediately supplanted by the GPU (Russian initials for State Political Administration), whose mission was the suppression of counterrevolution and espionage and whose first chief was Feliks Dzerzhinsky, who had headed the Cheka. When the U.S.S.R. was constituted in 1923, the new secret-police agency was retitled OGPU (for Unified State Political Administration), and its purview was explicitly made all-union — i.e., nationwide — and included additional duties such as the administration of corrective labour camps and the execution of broad new investigative and judicial powers. It staged the show trials (1928–33) of the Mensheviks and other “wreckers.” By 1931, the OGPU also had its own army; a vast network of spies and informers in factories, government offices, and units of the Red Army; and a rapidly growing network of prisons and forced-labour camps.
A reorganization in 1934 saw the OGPU absorbed into the new NKVD (Russian abbreviation for People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), which used the extensive investigative and judicial powers it had inherited to carry out soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. The NKVD carried out the massive purges of 1934 and 1937–38, in which millions were arrested and ended their lives in concentration camps. Among the NKVD’s victims during the 1930s were its own first two chiefs, Genrikh Yagoda (who had briefly headed the OGPU) and Nikolay Yezhov. They were succeeded by Lavrentiy Beria, probably the most brutal and ruthless of them all. In 1954, the soviet secret police began to be called KGB — Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti — Committee for State Security, which functioned until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
When Yury’s grandfather, Pylyp, questioned his son-in-law about his background and work, Pylyp was told, “I am a proletarian from Donbas, and a communist. For you to know, communists are above all nations, all religions and all superstitions.” Mashynsky, Yury’s father, was so busy with “doing away with the enemies of the state” and with “igniting the revolutions all around the world,” that he did not have any time for his son or his family. Lyudmyla Kovalenko, Yury’s mother, got a divorce and later married another man, a local zootechnician.
It fell to Yury’s grandfather, Pylyp, to take care of the boy (incidentally, it was Pylyp who insisted that the boy was registered at the local births and deaths registry office as Kovalenko rather than Mashynsky) but in 1937, Pylyp and seventy other villagers were arrested as “enemies of the people.”
The eleven-year-old boy went to the city of Sumy where his father, who was an NKVD major then, was head of the local NKVD office, to try to get his grandfather released. Yury’s father was somewhat shocked by the unexpected confrontation with his son.
“What was my granddad arrested for?” I asked my father.
“For his excessive, perverted love for Ukraine.”
“Is it a crime to love your homeland?”
“His Fatherland is the Soviet Union. And I advise you to stay away from such things altogether — unless, of course, you want to get yourself and your mother into big trouble.”
Yury did not heed his father’s advice but he never talked or saw him again.
Shortly before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Yury’s mother travelled with her son to Kyiv where she put him into an aviation school. When the war broke out, Yury was fifteen. He was eager to be drafted as a volunteer for the combat service but he was too young yet to go to fight at the front. When he was refused at one of the enlistment offices in Kyiv, he rushed to another one where he produced an identification in which he had added — by a little forgery — two years to his age. He was drafted and sent to a young-sappers school where, after a few weeks of studies, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
It did not take him long to be sent to the front. The German advance into the soviet territory was catastrophically rapid and in July 1941 the German troops were close to the city of Kyiv, poised to launch massive attacks to capture it.
The sappers’ unit Kovalenko commanded was ordered to mine the field in front of a section of the Red Army defensive line. The task was performed under enemy fire but the mines were nevertheless laid. When German tanks began their attack, several tanks got blown up on the mines, others turned back but one tank did get through. Kovalenko grabbed several bottles with Molotov cocktails, crawled close to the approaching tank and set it on fire. He even took one of the German tankers prisoner, when the tanker tried to escape from the burning tank. The tanker turned out to be the commander of a tank unit with the rank of a captain.
Kovalenko was promoted to lieutenant and awarded a medal, Za boyeviye zaslugi (For Military Exploits).
For further military deeds, Kovalenko got promoted to lieutenant and then captain. During the fighting at Stalingrad, he got shot at by a German sniper and was wounded. Kovalenko was taken to a military hospital in the rear.
The doctor who examined him diagnosed an exceptional case of a wound to the heart of the patient, who had miraculously survived the wound. An X-ray was made and it seemed to confirm the fact that the bullet had passed through the heart without killing the patient. Since the bullet had exited the body, no operation was performed and the doctor wrote and published a sensational article in a war surgery journal.
Not only the patient survived, but he said he felt well enough after a short stay in the hospital to request a release, stating that he wanted to get back to his unit as soon as possible. He signed the necessary papers and was indeed released.
The article published in the journal came to the notice of Lev Mekhlis, the then Kremlin’s top war ideologue, who immediately realized its propaganda potential — “Red Army fighters demonstrate such a great patriotism fighting at Stalingrad that even wounded in the heart they request to be released from hospital!” It was reported to Stalin, Stalin ordered the General-Colonel Nil Burdenko, the then Surgeon General of the Medical Service, to come to his office (Burdenko confirmed this meeting — Ivan Olkhovsky) and give explanations. Burdenko had not read the article and was reprimanded by Stalin who said, “How come comrade Stalin (Stalin had a habit of using the third person singular when talking about himself) had the time to read specialized journals, and you, comrade general, whose duty is to do it, failed to read it?”
Stalin ordered Kovalenko to be found and brought to Moscow. Burdenko personally examined him and came to the conclusion that the bullet had never touched the heart but passed very close to it at the moment when the heart contracted — a millisecond later or earlier it would have killed Kovalenko.
Kovalenko was made to stay in hospital until he completely recovered and then he was brought to Stalin’s office.
Stalin asked Kovalenko several questions (“What do you think, Captain — shall we be able to hold Stalingrad?”) and getting the answers he wanted to hear, he offered Kovalenko to have a drink with him. “The best wine in the world” was poured out (“It is the most famous Georgian wine — it’s famous because comrade Stalin likes it”). The answer to one of the questions, though, disappointed Stalin somewhat: when asked whether he wanted to become a general, Kovalenko answered that he did not, because he wanted to be an artist rather than a military man.
Capture of Paulus
Kovalenko returned to Stalingrad where soon he found himself in one of the groups of officers and soldiers who were looking for ways of getting to the headquarters of Field Marshal Paulus in order to capture him. Using the underground sewage system, which had not been in use for a long time, Kovalenko’s group penetrated into the building where Paulus’ headquarters were located; they burst into the building and apprehended Paulus. The capture of the Field Marshal put an end to the resistance of the German army surrounded at Stalingrad.
Friedrich Paulus (1890 – 1957) was a German field marshal on the Eastern Front, whose capture at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in early 1943 with his entire army became one of the turning points of World War II and contributed substantially to Germany’s defeat.
After serving in World War I and as a staff officer early in World War II, Paulus became deputy chief of the German General Staff (1940) and helped draft plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union. As commander of the 6th Army from early 1942, he led the drive on Stalingrad. Surrounded in the city by a Soviet counteroffensive beginning Nov. 19, 1942, the 6th Army surrendered. Out of its initial strength of 300,000, only 91,000 survived to be taken prisoners of war.
Hitler promoted Friedrich Paulus to Generalfeldmarshall on January 30, 1943, (the 10th anniversary of Hitler coming to power). Since no German Field Marshal had ever been taken prisoner, Hitler assumed that Paulus would fight on or take his own life. Nevertheless, when Soviet forces closed in on Paulus’ headquarters in the ruined GUM department store the next day, Paulus surrendered. The remnants of the German forces in Stalingrad surrendered on February 2; 91,000 tired, ill, and starving Germans were taken captive. To the delight of the Soviet forces and the dismay of the Third Reich, the prisoners included 22 generals. Hitler was furious at the Field Marshal’s surrender and confided that “Paulus stood at the doorstep of eternal glory but made an about-face”.
The Stalingrad disaster put an end to Germany’s offensive role in the Soviet Union. A tremendous blow to morale, it also deprived Germany of about 300,000 irreplaceable trained men. Captured by Soviet forces, Paulus agitated against Adolf Hitler among German prisoners of war and later testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nurnberg. After his release in 1953, he settled in East Germany.
The members of the group that captured Paulus were recommended for medals and Captain Yury Kovalenko was to be awarded the Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union but instead of this Star he got a Medal of the Red Banner, also rather a high award, but considerably lower in status than the Star of the Hero.
Kovalenko vividly described to me the award-giving ceremony at which it was Marshal Zhukov, the top soviet military commander, who pinned the medals on the breast of the awardees. According to Kovalenko, Zhukov addressed him as “khokhol” (an offensive word for “Ukrainian”), and Kovalenko insisted he was a Ukrainian, not a “khokhol.” When Zhukov offered a drink of cognac to “establish peace between Russians and Ukrainians,” Kovalenko refused, saying he did not drink. Zhukov was offended by the refusal and when he insisted that they have a drink, “or else”, Kovalenko did down a glass of cognac only to regurgitate some of it right on the person of the Marshal. Though he did not do it on purpose — being unaccustomed to alcohol, he failed to control the vomiting spasm — it did not endear him to Marshal Zhukov.
This unfortunate accident could have ended badly for Kovalenko if not for the support of Marshal Rokosovsky.
From Kyiv to the east
Kovalenko went on fighting until the fall of 1943, when during the operation to take Kyiv back from the Germans, he was badly wounded in the leg. This time the wound put him into hospitals for four months. At the end of his recovery he found himself in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) on the south-eastern side of the Ural Mountains, almost two thousand kilometres away from Ukraine.
Kovalenko did not return to the front. After recovery, he stayed in the east of the Soviet Union, working as a pilot. His mission was to pilot US-built military planes from Alaska, USA, to the city of Komsomolsk-na-Amure in the Soviet Union (the USA supplied the Soviet Union, US ally in the war against Germany, with military aircraft and other war equipment within the framework of the Lend-Lease program).
Lend-Lease was a system by which the United States aided its World War II allies with war materials, such as ammunition, tanks, airplanes, and trucks, and with food and other raw materials. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had committed the United States in June 1940 to materially aiding the opponents of fascism. Roosevelt on Dec. 8 1940, proposed the concept of lend-lease, and the U.S. Congress passed his Lend-Lease Act in March 1941. This legislation gave the president the authority to aid any nation whose defence he believed vital to the United States and to accept repayment “in kind or property, or any other direct or indirect benefit which the President deems satisfactory.” Though lend-lease program had been authorized primarily in an effort to aid Great Britain, it was extended to China in April and to the Soviet Union in September. The principal recipients of aid were the British Commonwealth countries (about 63 percent) and the Soviet Union (about 22 percent), though by the end of the war more than 40 nations had received lend-lease help.
Kovalenko met and befriended a number of US pilots among whom were men of Ukrainian descent. It was from them he heard old Ukrainian folk songs he had never heard before.
At the final stage of WWII he took part in fighting against Japan and made 9 combat sorties. During the last one, in a dogfight, his plane was shot down but he parachuted to safety.
After the war, he stayed in the air force but asked to be transferred to Ukraine. His request was denied on the grounds of his “Ukrainian nationalistic leanings.”
Kovalenko was posted at Bada, a place not too far from Lake Baikal where he was in command of an air force unit.
In 1947, Buryatiya decided it wanted its status of an autonomous republic confirmed and modified; there was even talk in Buryatiya about possible secession from the Soviet Union. Territorial disputes threatened to turn into a major political issue in that area. Disturbances that followed threatened to escalate into a military conflict.
Buryatiya is a republic of Russia in eastern Siberia. It lies along the eastern side of Lake Baikal, with a panhandle bordering Mongolia and extending westward beyond the southern end of the lake. It was created in 1923 by the union of the Buryat-Mongol and Mongolo-Buryat autonomous oblasts (provinces) and was called the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic until 1958 and simply the Buryat A.S.S.R. from then until 1991.
Colonization, which began in the mid-17th century by Russians seeking gold and furs, reached significant proportions only after the coming of the Trans-Siberian Railroad at the end of the 19th century. Though they originally offered strong opposition to the Russian settlers, the Buryats, who belong to the Mongoloid group of peoples, eventually forsook their lifestyle as nomadic herdsmen living in felt tents and adopted a sedentary, agricultural life. Most now live in the permanent wooden houses typical of Siberian peasant life. The Buryat people compose only one-fourth of the republic’s population (the remainder being mostly Russian). The republic is traversed by the Trans-Siberian Railroad, with a branch from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. A major new railroad, the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline), part of which crosses Buryatiya, was opened in 1989.
Kovalenko was ordered to lead his squadron on a mission to Buryatia with the task of bombing an area which “had been infiltrated by Chinese gangs.” Kovalenko did not believe that his target were to be those mythical bands, particularly in view of the fact that was told to perform the bombing “blindly,” without spotting anything on the ground. “You’ve got to drop bombs at such and such destination,” he was ordered. Kovalenko suspected the action was to be taken to intimidate the Buryats but he could not disobey the direct order and he led his squadron to the designated area but then swerved to the side and dropped the bombs over an uninhabited section of the taiga.
When it became known to his superiors, he was stripped of the rank of captain and downgraded to sergeant. He was lucky to escape with such a mild punishment for his failure to execute the order the way he had been expected to — he could have landed himself into a much worse trouble. He was not arrested or even dismissed from the army right away, and worked for three years at a military school in the city of Orenburg in Eastern Russia, in the capacity of a flight instructor.
After his dismissal from the army, Kovalenko came to Kyiv in 1950 to study architecture. Even though he loved everything Ukrainian, he could not publicize his Ukrainian leanings and interests until 1991 when Ukraine regained her independence.
Closer to the end of his life, Yury Kovalenko retired to the village of Stayky, not far from Kyiv, where he built himself a house and where he died.
Photos are from the family archive
of the Kovalenkos and from the book
Shlyakhamy peremohy, published in Kyiv in 1995
Yury Kovalenko was born in a village of Hlobyno in the Land of Poltavshchyna on May 13 1926. He was raised by his mother and his maternal grandfather. Shortly before WWII, he was trained to be a force pilot, but the war changed his destiny as well as of millions of others. After the war, Yury Kovalenko studied at the Department of Architecture of the Institute of Construction Engineering in Kyiv; he earned a MS degree in engineering, authored several books, and was elected a member of the Academy of Science of Kazakhstan (which was then a constituent republic of the Soviet Union). At one point in his life, he retired to the village of Stayky and devoted the rest of his life to Ukrainian culture studies. He died on November 28 2006.
Yury Kovalenko before
Nadiya, Yury Kovalenko’s wife,