Friday 22 July 2016

Krivtsovo - Russia's 'Death Valley' (1942 - 43)

In the late winter of 1942 / 43 the Soviet Army had partly recovered from the shock of Barbarossa. Army Group North had stalled in front of Moscow and in many places, for the Wehrmacht, retreat had turned into static defence as naturally strong rearward positions were consolidated. One such defence line was the River Oka and its tributary the Zusha, in the expansive wetlands area 60/70 kms north of Orel. The Rzhev-Vyazma strategic Soviet offensive which sought to break this line was completely ineffective and during the period 16th Feb to 18th March 1942 the low hills near the village of Krivtsovo were the epicentre of fruitless attacks.

Recognition for Soviet soldiers killed in unsuccessful attacks was often slow in coming in the post war period and it wasn't until September 1970 that the first memorial was placed in what local Russian's still call the Valley of Death. In May of this year myself and a small group of friends held a short remembrance ceremony in the centre of the complex. With brilliant timing we were joined by a local Russian motorcycle club and the speeches and wreath laying were given an extra poignancy by such a large and respectful group of people.

The memorial is built on the site of a number of grave pits originally hewn out of the ground during the incredibly cold winter of 1941/2. Some say that there are as many as 100,000 fatal casualties interred in the area. In recent times there have been additional burials - 641 in 2007 and almost 100 this year (2016). The temporary grave and excavated trench which yielded this year's grim harvest was still evident when we visited.
Amongst the soldiers who died, at least one stands out. Yuri Kondratyuk was a pioneer of spaceflight. His work on take off and landing so as to allow the return of an astronaut from the moon was a key enabler for the landing of men on the moon.

Originally born as Aleksander Shargei, it is fitting that a monument now stands on Krivtsovo Fen where the great man died.

When American astronaut Neil Armstrong visited the Soviet Union after his historic flight to the Moon, he collected a handful of soil from outside Kondratyuk's house in Novosibirsk to acknowledge his contribution to spaceflight, reportedly urging Soviet authorities to start commemorating Kondratyuk. Later, a science centre and college in Novosibirsk, streets in PoltavaKiev and Moscow were named after Kondratyuk, as well as the Kondratyuk crater on the Moon and the 3084 Kondratyuk minor planet discovered in 1977.
The day at Krivtsovo was one of the highlights of a 'Walking the Battlefields' road and rail trip from Belgorod to Kursk, then onto Orel and finally Bolchov. All key points in the epic 1943 battles fought during the Citadel and Kutosov campaigns.

Further pictures of the Kritvsovo area can be seen here.