Monday, September 22, 2014

I had read once...

...that when the Germans invaded Russia in the spring of 1941, the soldiers were struck by how poor the Russian peasants were. Conversely, when the Soviets reached German soil near the end of the war they were shocked to find out how well the average German lived. Why on earth, they thought, did they invade us when they had it so good here at home?

I'm reminded of this by a book I'm reading called Soldat by a German artillery officer. He tells the story of the war not from 10,000 feet like an historian, but from the perspective of someone who was actually on the ground (my emphasis):

The Russian villages varied considerably in size. The smallest was perhaps thirty peasant huts and the largest was several hundred. In many cases,  they were just strung out in two rows along a road. They were very primitive wooden huts, with thatched or sod roofs. On the inside of many of them, newspapers were used as wallpaper. The furniture was extremely primitive as well, made by the peasant himself, and the huts always had earthenware pots and wooden tubs. A wooden box usually served as a small cupboard. Cradles were suspended from the ceiling on ropes. Illumination was provided by kerosene lamps or paraffin candles if at all; only the wealthier rural areas had even that, and in poorer areas the peasant lived in darkness between dusk and sunup -- and in the winter, darkness accounted for seventeen hours of each day! A typical fence was just straight sticks or whatever the peasant could find. The poverty in which these people lived was depressing. The ordinary peasant lived little better than his livestock. We seemed to be encountering a primitive past in human history, a virtual time warp of centuries.

The huts were normally occupied by workers on the collective farms that had been established since the communist revolution in 1918. The typical peasant hut had one big brick or stone stove -- sort of an enclosed fireplace -- in the center of the only room. The top was very thick, and the stone or brick would get warm by absorbing heat during the day. The stove was big enough that a family of six could sleep on top of it in the winter and keep warm from the heat stored by the bricks or stones. It had an opening for cooking, but it was used mainly for heating the room and for sleeping on.

Most of the Russian peasant huts had been built before the communist revolution; since then, few new houses had been built. Before the revolution, there had been some relatively wealthy farmers, so there was usually one or two larger houses in these villages. Most, however, were extremely primitive one-room huts. Behind each hut was an outhouse and a toolshed. A hut typically had a few very small windows. In addition to the stove, they also used snow to keep the hut warm by piling it up against the outside walls as insulation, up to the windows or even higher. The livestock were kept at a central location within walking distance of the village, although it could be up to an hour's walk. The only livestock they kept in the village were chickens.

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