Friday, June 18, 2010

Battle of the Dnieper

After the Soviet victory at Kursk, culminating in the liberation of Orel and Karkhov, German forces on the Russian Front were completely unable to regain the initiative in the war. Two years of ferocious, continuous fighting and several strategic defeats at Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk had stretched the Nazi war machine to its breaking point.

German Field Marshall Manstein made an assessment of the situation in the east in the wake of Kursk and realized that all along the 2100 mile front the German forces were perilously weak. With Hitler's consent he ordered that the Wermacht and SS armies in the south of Russia pull back behind the Dnieper River.

The Dnieper, like all the rivers in Eastern Europe, is a massive 1400-km-long river that is more than a mile wide. It cuts the Ukraine nearly in half in the center before bending north-east at Kiev. It was behind this natural barrier that the German forces dug in, hoping to break any Soviet attacks.

In Moscow, Stalin and the Stavka (Soviet High Command) were also looking at the situation. After Kursk they knew that Germany could not win the war. Russian industry, which was surpassing German industry in the amount of arms and material produced by nearly 30-1, was in full swing and Red Army morale and confidence was high after Stalingrad and Kursk. 1943 had been an incredibly succesful year for the Red Army thus far. Stalin decided that it was time for the Soviet Union to go on the offensive.

The Soviet plan called for the liberation of the Ukraine, which would overrun the rich agricultural and industrial areas of the Donbass as well as threaten the entire southern flank of the German northern army group. Stavka's plan was incredibly ambitious and awesome in its size and scope.

5 Soviet fronts (army groups), consisting of 2.6 million men, 12,000 tanks and 30,000 artillery guns, as well as 2,000 aircraft, would smash through the German lines, force a way across the Dnieper River, and drive deep behind the German forces, thus cutting them off from their supply bases, communications and command, and effectively destroying the entire German Army Group South. Kiev, as a major transportation, communication and industrial hub, was to be one of the main objectives. The operation was set for August of 1943, a mere 2 weeks after the Battle of Kursk had ended.

On August 24, 1943, at 7 in the morning all five Soviet army fronts launched their attacks simultaneously, from Smolensk in the north to the Azov sea in the south. The German forward defences were completely destroyed, but professional planning had ensured that there were plenty of reserves in each sector and the Soviet offensive encountered ferocious German counter-attacks. Entire regiments or even divisions (20,000 + men) would charge at newly captured positions, with German infantry and Tiger and Panther tanks fighting desperately to push the Russians back. It wasn't enough in the face of such a gigantic offensive, and the Russian steamroller moved forward.

Despite their vast numerical superiority, the Soviets suffered appalling casualties in their drive to the Dnieper River. The Germans clung on to every hill and town and in many cases the Russians were forced to by-pass strongly defended areas and leave their rear-echelons to deal with them. After 3 hard weeks of fighting, Soviet forces finally reached the great river.

The German defences on the west bank of the Dnieper were well-prepared. Manstein had stripped other fronts to reinforce Army Group South, but it wasn't enough to hold back the flood of Soviet strength assembling on the east bank. On September 23rd the Red Army launched its attack with a massive airborne drop of paratroopers behind the German lines (which landed on top of SS Panzer Divisions on full alert and were slaughtered).

The deadly German 88mm gun could destroy any tank in existence with a single hit.

The sky lit up with a massive Soviet artillery bombardment: it is estimated that 2 million shells of all calibres were fired at the German positions in the first hour of the bombardment. Amidst the shelling was the devestating attacks by Russian Katyusha rocket launchers, nicknamed "Stalin's Organ" by the German troops because of the sound it made when firing.

The Katyusha was a rack of rockets attached to the back of a truck (mostly American lend-lease Fords and Chevys). Each truck fired 24 rockets in quick succession, and the Soviets lined the trucks up wheel to wheel. The Katyusha had no accuracy, but a small group of them could devastate a whole square mile of ground, killing and destroying every thing in it. On the morning of the 23rd, the Soviets let loose with 1,300 of them.

Immediately after the intense artillery and rocket barrage, Soviet stormtroopers threw inflatable boats into the water and, under heavy machine gun and artillery fire, paddled like mad to gain the west bank of the river. Casualties were extremely heavy but for the Germans defending the far bank, dazed and deaf after the terrible bombardment, it seemed that no matter how many men they killed in the water more kept coming. After what must have seemed like an eternity to both attacker and defender alike, but was in fact only 15 minutes, the Soviet assault groups gained the west bank of the Dnieper and began to clear the German trenches and pillboxes with submachine guns, grenades and bayonets. Intense hand-to-hand fighting took place.

German river defences

Russian combat engineers bridging the Dnieper under fire. The sign reads "To Kiev".

As the assault groups were struggling up the banks of the Dnieper, Soviet combat engineers hit the water and, still under fire, began constructing pontoon bridges for Soviet tanks to get across. Within the first hour of the assault on the river they had put up 11 bridges at different points along the front, and the feared T-34 and KV-1 tanks began to roll across. By noon there were 2 entire Soviet armies driving deep within the German rear and the entire front began to collapse.

The formidable Soviet T-34, arguably the best tank ever made.

As command and control began to break down, groups of German soldiers started to panic and run. Others, mainly SS divisions, fought to the death once they were surrounded while others simply threw down their weapons and put their hands in the air.

Soviet Il2 Sturmovik fighter bomber, which terrorized German forces from 1943 onwards.

By mid-October the Red Army was surging forward across the river, with only small pockets of German resistance. Stalin gave the order for Kiev to be taken by direct assault, rather than encircled as originally planned. This decision has come under critiscism because in the ensuing battle (the second battle of Kiev) Soviet casualties were incredibly high. Nevertheless, by early November the great city, one of the oldest in Europe, was back in Russian hands.

By the middle of November, 1943, the crossing was over. Most of the Ukraine, which had endured two years of Nazi atrocity and terror, was back under Soviet control. The German Wermacht had lost nearly 300,000 troops and thousands of vehicles, an irriplaceable loss for the bomb-torn German industry to deal with, and they had been forced back. For the Soviets, who had suffered nearly 500,000 casualties in the offensive, the crossing of the Dnieper gave them the springboard the next phase of the war: the drive to Germany and the end of the Second World War.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

There's A Tear In My Beer

One week ago Ms. Australia left Russia. She returned to her home in Perth and left a big void in the communal life of our apartment in Mytischi. Today, at 6 am, Wonderpants also returned home to Virginia, and after a hectic day teaching in Moscow, I came back to our once lively abode to find it completely empty.

Yesterday Wonderpants and I spent his last day in Russia visiting Izhmailovsky Market, a huge outdoor tourist market filled with Russian hats, nesting dolls, replica war medals, etc, so he could buy gifts for his family and friends. Then we drank a few beers together and I made dinner (meatballs!) and then we said goodbye and went to our seperate bedrooms for the night.

It's actually a very sad day and I'm more than a little depressed. Ms. Australia and Wonderpants became two of my best friends and living together had become a comfortable and pleasant experience. Ms. Australia, by virtue of finishing classes earlier than Wonderpants and I, would usually cook dinner (chilli, peppered chicken and/or spaghetti bolognese). Sometimes Wonderpants or I would cook, but Ms. Australia made the majority of our meals.

Once Wonderpants and I finished work, all three of us would sit around our kitchen table and eat dinner together, Ms. Australia and I drinking beer and Wonderpants drinking wine, with the small TV above our heads playing Russian crime dramas or the news. It was like a small family.

On Tuesdays Ms. Australia and I would ritually drink beers in the small tree-lined foyer outside our building. On Fridays we would all go to the local pizza restaurant to close our week. On Saturdays Wonderpants and I would drink whiskey and listen to sea shanties. Week after week our little group of 3 would repeat the same ritual. Now they have left, and it is eerily, sadly, quiet and dark in this flat.

Katya is visiting her grandmother near Volgograd, so there is nobody here but me. When I first came home from Moscow I closed both their doors because it was depressing. Ms. Australia wasn't hovering over her laptop watching a vampire show (or was it One Tree Hill?) and there weren't mountains of books and dirty laundry on Wonderpants' floor.

Closing the doors felt like a betrayal, somehow, so I quickly re-opened them again. It's Tuesday and I feel weird drinking in the foyer alone, so I'm drinking a beer in my room. I only have one week left before I, too, need to leave this apartment (although to move into a Moscow flat and not someplace in Canada), and that adds a sense of finality to the whole situation.

I've made good friends before, teaching in Korea, and seen them leave but I have to say that this is different. Wonderpants, Ms. Australia and I had developed a real bond, caused by forced-proximity, and I will miss them dearly. While I am confident I will see Wonderpants again in the future (he lives a 12-hour drive from me), I would be surprised if I saw Ms. Australia again.

So as I drink this beer, I do so in honour of two of the best people I have ever had the opportunity to meet: Ms. Australia and Wonderpants!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Problem With ESL Contracts

The company I work for, LL, is generally a good place to work. Many of the teachers employed with this large company have been so for years, and students return each September. They haven't messed around with my pay and I've seen my colleagues receive their end-of-contract payouts without hassle.

The problem I have with LL is that I am treated like an army recruit sometimes. I have no choice in anything, and what I think doesn't matter. Sometimes I believe that they don't think I'm human: instead I'm just an English-speaking machine.

For example, the school in Mytischi is closing down for the summer at the end of this week (a fact which nobody told me until two months ago...I was under the assumption that work would simply continue over the summer months). I was then told that I would be working a summer camp in Turkey for the summer, as my contract ends in September.

That was fine with me. Then, a few weeks ago, I was told that I won't be going to Turkey, but to Bulgaria.


Yes, Bulgaria.

Okay, so Bulgaria could be interesting and I like seeing different places, but what about Katya, my fiance?

Oh, she can't go and you will be there until September.


Then a few weeks after that, I received another email that told me that I won't be going to Bulgaria but maybe Turkey. I was getting frustrated but the very next day I received another email from the bureaucrats at our Moscow central office informing me that I'm not going anywhere for the summer. I'll be teaching at central school in Moscow.

That was horrible for me. When I did my telephone interviews last summer and they asked me where I wanted to work, I said "Not Moscow" because I don't like big cities (and Moscow is 7th largest in the world). Well, here I was, assigned to work in Moscow.

Then, a ray of light. They offered me a summer camp position in the country outside of Moscow! I could come home on weekends! Ms Australia and Gem taught at a similar camp last summer and they loved it. Okay! Sign me up!

So, ready to hit the summer camp and a good compromise between Turkey and Moscow established, I was happy and looking forward to the summer.

Then, last week, an email that read "We need you to teach in central school beginning June 15"

That was two weeks away and they were still fucking around with this. I asked if I was still going to the summer camp and they replied that I wasn't. Then they told me that I had to MOVE to Moscow! They were ditching this apartment in Mytischi!

I was getting incredibly pissed off by that point and started looking up flight information back to Canada to get the hell away from these incompetent idiots. I realized I only have 3 months of this contract left so I decided to stick it out.

They told me I had to vacate the apartment on Friday June 11th at 6 pm, so I began packing my things up and cleaning and kept two days of clothes out. Then, today, with 24 hours to go before I move, they told me that I can't move tomorrow but in two weeks time!

The moral of this story is that when you sign a contract with a language school in another country, you are effectively signing away your freedom of choice for a year. If you refuse to do something they tell you, they can fire you, thus revoking your visa and forcing you to leave the country. That is always hanging above your head. I have a fiance here and I love Russia with its history, culture, geography, people and architecture and I don't want to leave yet, so I have no choice but to do as they tell me.

Still, it would have been nice to go to Turkey.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Russian Brands

While Russia remains, economically speaking, behind the "West" in many regards, there is a vast array of succesful and reliable companies offering consumer products and services on the public market.

Russia's telecommunications sector is well-developed, at least in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara and the other large cities. The mobile and internet infrastructure is good, and prices are very affordable. Unlike in Canada and much of America, there are no 2 or 3-year contracts when buying a mobile phone: one simply pays for the phone, buys a SIM-card with a provider and then "tops up" their cell phone at a pay machine (located in almost every store and on every street). This is a much more affordable, competitive and efficient system than can be found in North America.

Beeline ( Билайн) is the largest mobile phone service provider in Russia. Beeline coverage pretty-much encompasses every built-up area across this vast country and rates are cheap. 3 roubles ($0.10) per text message and 5 or 6 roubles per minute of talk time is the average. The SIM-cards cost around 100 roubles and, as I mentioned above, you don't need to pay a monthly fee. Simply find any pay machine with a touch-screen, punch in your telephone number (which is also your account number), stick a hundred roubles or two into the slot and you are topped-up for the next few weeks.

Megaphone (Мегафон) is the second-largest provider and is found pretty-much wherever Beeline is. MTS (MTC) is next-in-line and is partially-owned by the state government and is a much more popular provider in rural areas than the two big "city" companies, although its coverage also includes most cities in the Russian Federation. Both Megaphone and MTS take their payments the same way that Beeline does.

When it comes to the internet there is a dizzying array of established giants and entrepreneurial start-ups. Finding the right one is a bit of a challenge. I used "Infoline", a big Moscow Oblast ISP, at my last apartment but since I moved I've been stuck with a really crappy little company whose name I can't remember. I had high-speed internet with Infoline and paid 650 roubles ($17) per month for unlimited usage, but now I pay the same amount for a low-speed connection that cuts out unexpectedly for no reason at all at any given time of the day.

One of the problems with internet service in Russia is that the building you are in determines what type of connection you can get. A building with updated wiring will easily accomodate a high-speed provider, while a building with basic telephone wiring will only allow you to get a shitty provider. Nobody is willing to invest the money to update the wiring in the buildings, so it's a completely random luck-of-the-draw situation when getting internet. My understanding is that most buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg are good, while the further out from these cities you get, the worse the internet becomes.

While most cars found in the rest of the world are also found in Russia (Honda, BMW, Ford, Audi, Chevy, Toyota and even Citroen and Peuguot), there are two distinctly Russian car brands that can be seen on every street. These are Lada (Лада) and Volga (Волга). Ladas are pretty much the crappiest cars a person can buy (and I want one, for reasons I don't fully understand myself) while Volgas attempt to mimick higher-end cars (and do sometimes succeed).

A run-of-the-mill Lada

While I could go through all the myriad companies that are found in Russia, I have decided to present only the most prominent Russian companies here. There are the giants, such as Gazprom (one of the world's top 3 oil companies) and Aeroflot (Russia's main airline since the dawn of time), but there are so many smaller and more innocent companies that bring joy to the hearts of millions. Well, maybe not joy, but at least food and drink.

One of my favourite food outlets is "Kroshka Kartoshka" (Baby Potato). These stalls are found all over the place and serve baked potatos stuffed with whatever topping you want. My personal favourite is a nacho-cheese-and-sliced-hot-dog mix with butter and salt. Mmmmm...delicious!

Then there's the big sushi chain (and Russians are completely in love with everything Japanese nowadays, including sushi and anime) called "Yakitoria" (Якиториa) where prices are average and the food is also average, but the service, at least, is crap.

When online most people will find themselves drawn to the google of Russia, otherwise known as "Yandex" ( which is actually an incredibly well-thought-out and useful site. I would use it as my homepage except that igoogle offers funky little wallpapers that show which part of the earth has daylight and which is in darkness....but I digress.

Finally, if any traveller who meets and befriends any Russian national will attest to, there is the gigantic Russian social-networking site "V Kontakte" (BKontakte...actually means "in contact") found at Kontakte is a complete rip-off of Facebook but has several features that Facebook lacks, such as the massive database of pirated MP3 tracks that one can listen to as they browse the internet. I have found the most obscure Canadian folk artists on Kontakte, including ones I made up! I love their music player and listen to it constantly. Copyright laws keep companies like Facebook from pulling off something like that, so I use Facebook and Kontakte in conjunction with each other.

There are many, many more companies and brands from Russia that I could tell you about, but I don't want to. Actually, I do want to but my crappy service provider is about to cut out on me so I will say "Paka" (later!) and go eat a potato.