Excerpt: In the Trenches

Tatiana L. Dubinskaya (1902–90) served in the Russian army until 1917, then became a soldier and a nurse for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War (1917–22). After the civil war, she worked as a typist for the Red Army in Moscow and later became a writer. The Communist Party sent her to Tajikistan in 1931, and on her return to Moscow, she became active with the Union of Soviet Writers, earning a reputation as a Communist Party informant. 

Dubinskaya’s autobiographical novel of life in the Russian army marked the first major work published by a female World War I soldier in the Soviet Union. Often compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, her stark and unsparing story presents a rare look at women in combat and one of the few works of fiction set on the eastern front. In the Trenches (Potomac Books, 2020) is edited by Lawrence M. Kaplan.

From Chapter 1

Zina, a schoolgirl, runs away from home (Kazan) to join the army. She goes by train with soldiers to Kazatin and then to Brody on the eastern frontier (captured July 28, 1916), where she is detained as a boy and put in a cell to be returned home, but she escapes.

In the corridor, someone’s quick footsteps were heard and then silence again. I don’t know how many seconds, minutes, or hours passed. It seemed as if time had stopped. I was thirsty. Thirst burned my throat. The tin cup was on the floor, and the woman’s handker-chief covered her. Should I move the sleeping woman’s head from my lap? Should I get the water and drink? But I didn’t want to disturb the sleep of this stranger; it was a pity to wake her. The handkerchief made a shadow on her tightly shut eyes and the bruise. There was a strange circle at the base of her long eyelashes. I took a good look. It felt like something brushed my back. Strange bugs sank into her skin by her beautiful eyelashes. One of these monsters detached itself for a moment, and changing its position, again sank itself into her skin. The woman flailed her arm and moved the scarf on her head. There was fuzz on her hair that stuck out. Her eyebrows were raised a little bit, her nose covered in little pimples, and under it, a thin, dry layer of mucus. The knots on her worn- out and tied- up shoelaces were stained with white paint. There was a pretty, orange piece of cloth tied on her ripped stocking under her skirt. When she opened her dry mouth, she smacked her tongue, and groaning, turned on her side. As she slightly picked her head up, I bent down to get the water, and when I brought it to my lips, there was a sharp blow against my elbow. The water spilled all over the place.

“Don’t drink that, girl, I’m walking around with syphilis!”
She struck a match and lit a cigarette. The room filled with smoke.

There were quick footsteps in the hallway, and then a boy was shoved into our cell with the words, “We’ll show you. Making fun of the officers, we’ll cut your tongue off, you little devil.” The boy shook his head and smiled. The door slammed shut.

“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Zina,” I replied.
“Why are you dressed as a soldier?”
“I am going to the front lines.”
“You are a girl, they will not let you fight. What’s her name?” “I don’t know.”

“You are in here together, and you don’t know her name?”
“My name is Anna Phillipovna,” replied the woman.
“Why do you have a bruise under your eye?” he asked.
“That doesn’t concern you,” she answered.
“Zina, who is going to give you a gun?” he asked.
“The commander,” I said.
“Do the commanders make the guns themselves?” he asked.
“No, they make them at the factories,” I said.
“I made my own, and I’m not sharing. But I didn’t feud with the Germans, so I’m not shooting at them either,” he remarked.

“Who are you going to shoot at?” I asked.
“At the dogs, if they are rabid,” he stated.
Someone knocked on the cell door and said: “To the station, off to the staging post, step to it, poor rats.”

The boy stood, straightened up, and teasingly placed his little, dirty palm to his temple, saluting the soldier.

“All right then, let’s go, governor,” said the soldier.

Just as we walked out the boy made a run for it down the nearest path. The escorts all chased him. Taking advantage of the chaos, I ran to the nearest gates of some house and crawled into the corner of a garden. Only at sunrise did I separate myself from the corn growing around me. I thought of the woman who was with me in my cell. Why didn’t she run with me? Doesn’t she care about her life?

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