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The Waterstones Interview: Serhii Plokhy

Posted on 7th October 2019 by Martha Greengrass

In an exclusive interview Serhii Plokhy, award-winning author of Chernobyl, discusses his latest book, Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front, about a little known military operation of World War II that highlighted the dysfunctional relationship between the US and the Soviet Union.

The events you write about in Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front seem to have been largely overlooked by previous historians and underreported, both at the time and later. Why do you think this is? What drew you to investigating these events more closely?

Operation Frantic—the American shuttle bombing of targets in German-held Europe toward the end of World War II—and the presence of US airmen on Soviet territory did not make newspaper headlines during the war. First, it was a top-secret mission, and second, its abrupt curtailment by the Soviets came as a disappointment that discouraged reporting. Historians discovered Operation Frantic after the war, but so far their research has been limited to the American archives. I decided to write my book after getting access to Soviet archival materials, which cast considerable light on the other side. 

What has your experience been of exploring Soviet and Ukrainian archives? Were you prevented from accessing any particular materials and, if so, what impact did that have on your account?

I did not have access to the military archives, which are now in Russia, but I took full advantage of the recent opening of the Ukrainian archives, particularly KGB materials. These include documents on the surveillance of Americans posted in the Poltava region by Red Army counterintelligence units known as SMERSH (Death to Spies) and by the secret police, which kept an eye on the locals, especially women who had contacts with American airmen.

How significant do you think lack of access to Soviet and KGB material has been to skewing historians’ perspectives of this period of history?

The Americans not only suspected but knew for certain that they were under constant surveillance. Even so, they could not imagine the full scope of the secret-police operation against them and the degree to which SMERSH and the secret police distrusted them. They treated their wartime American allies as potential enemies, barely tolerating their presence on Soviet territory. That attitude was communicated to them by the country’s top political leadership, as Joseph Stalin himself made the key decisions on the establishment, operation, and closure of the American air bases.

You write powerfully about the atmosphere of Poltava itself and the decimation of the city under German occupation, leaving a population mainly made up of women, children and the elderly. What impact do you think it had on officers from both sides living in such close proximity to the city alongside those survivors?

For Red Army officers and soldiers, the devastation of Poltava and the disproportionate loss of men in the course of the war were nothing new. Some of them had witnessed the destruction of Stalingrad and other Russian and Ukrainian cities, so that the ruins they saw in Poltava did not come as a shock. The Americans, on the other hand, were appalled by the level of destruction and by the stories of German atrocities that they heard in the city and region. This inspired them to do their utmost in fighting side by side with their Soviet counterparts until they came into contact with SMERSH operatives and secret-police agents.    

I found the inclusion of Kathy Harriman’s records of her time in Poltava fascinating and an interesting counterpoint to some of the other first-hand accounts in the book – her notes of Russian attitudes to American catcalls and wolf-whistles at a 1944 concert, for example. Why did you decide to include her recollections in the book? Did you find that her experiences and memories differed from those of the officials and commanding officers she was with?

Yes, Kathy Harriman’s accounts in letters to her sister are very different in tone from official military reports or denunciations of SMERSH informers and spies. I found the letters such a breath of fresh air that I could not resist quoting from them. Besides, like any war story, my book did not lack male voices. What it needed was women’s perspective on events, and the voices of local women who worked at the bases and had day-to-day contacts with Americans were hard to find in official documents of the time.    

It’s clear that the American officers were taking pictures to record their experiences – evidenced in the popular trade in Soviet-made Leica replicas. How many of these photographs survive, and what do they add to the evidence of Soviet and American relations at the bases?

Thank God for those photographs! Without them it would be hard to imagine not only daily life on the bases but also the wartime devastation and impoverishment of the Ukrainian population. We are also very lucky to have footage shot by American filmmakers showing the first landing of American planes on Ukrainian airfields in June 1944. I was eager to use as many photographs and images in my book as I could—they are an important part of my storytelling.

It is clear from your book the extent to which Soviet military counterintelligence was involved with monitoring, tracking and controlling (where possible) the actions of American officers from the instigation of the American air bases in Ukraine. How aware were the Americans of that behaviour? There seems to have been little or no attempt to react in kind, why?

It took the American airmen a few weeks to figure out what was going on. As the secret police began to harass locals who dealt with the Americans and break up relationships with local women, it became clear to many American airmen that the USSR was a police state and that the Soviets did not want them on their territory. Some Americans decided to resist and got involved in shouting matches and even fights with the Soviets. But top US commanders turned a blind eye to unfriendly Soviet actions because they wanted more air bases on Soviet territory, especially with an eye to the war in the Pacific and the potential invasion of Japan.

Looking at the accounts of individuals with split loyalties – those like George Fischer – did you find any commonality in where their accounts and recollections begin to change?

Many American airmen came to the Soviet Union with high and quite idealistic expectations of future cooperation. They were impressed by the sacrifices of the peoples of the USSR and by the heroism of the Red Army; they were also appalled by the German atrocities. Some of them saw in the socialist ideals officially proclaimed by the Soviet authorities a solution to social problems at home. One way or another, they wanted to help. But the more time they spent on the bases and the greater the frequency of their interaction with the Soviet military and secret police, the less sympathetic they became toward the Soviet Union. That said, most of them clearly distinguished between the people and the regime. They continued to respect and even admire the former as they came to despise the latter.

You write about the long-term impact of the drip-feed effect of daily points of cultural contention - from Soviet attitudes to ‘lax’ American authority through to American attitudes to Soviet hygiene, the attempted limiting of American servicemen’s relationships with Soviet women, and large-scale events, including the Soviets’ critical refusal to help support the Warsaw Uprising. Which of these factors do you think was most significant in altering the attitudes of Americans on the ground and those in power to the Alliance?

For American officers on the bases, who, like the US ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, knew about Stalin’s role in forbidding the use of the Poltava-area bases to help the Polish insurgents in Warsaw, the turning point came in the late summer and early autumn of 1944, and it was political in nature. For rank-and-file Americans, the key factors were secret-police harassment of their girlfriends and Soviet treatment of American prisoners of war, who were denied any assistance after their liberation from German concentration camps in areas overrun by the Red Army.

What do you think are the most crucial lessons a modern reader can draw from the grassroots experience of the Grand Alliance for contemporary relations between the West and Russia?

One key conclusion that I drew from my deep dive into the history of wartime cooperation between Soviet and American airmen is that the Grand Alliance had little chance of survival beyond the end of the war. In Poltava it started to crack under the pressure of the Soviet police state long before the joint victory over Nazi Germany. As we look to the future, there should be no illusions about the durability of alliances between democracies and dictatorships: they are always contingent on short-term interests, and in such cases today’s allies can easily become tomorrow’s enemies.  

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