The Eastern Front
Garip sultan lay flat in a machine-gun nest, his stomach pressed to the ground. He craned his neck forward, looking out into the grasslands for the enemy. His superiors had ordered him to hold one of the Red Army’s forward positions outside the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. It was May 1942, and the Germans were launching a giant counteroffensive. All around him he heard shells roar and panzers rumble. The nineteen-year-old swept his binoculars left and right across the Ukrainian steppes but saw nothing. He felt doomed.
He thought back unhappily to how he had ended up here. Sultan was a minority in Stalin’s Soviet Union,a Tatar from the district of Bashkir. Turkic peoples had settled this region when the last great wave of nomadic invaders swept out of Central Asia in the thirteenth century, under Genghis Khan. As Russia expanded, theTatars had lost their independence, becoming one of the many non-Russian peoples who made up nearly half the vast country’s population.
Under Soviet rule, oppression of these peoples had increased, especially for those like Sultan’s parents who had run small businesses. Soviet cadres called them capitalists and took everything. They nationalized his father’s transport business and confiscated the family home. Even their horse was taken. The family, once rich, was able to keep just two pieces of furniture bought during a trip to England: a mirror, now cracked, and a clock, now broken. Before Sultan’s father died, he encouraged his son to join the Young Pioneers, then later the young people’s organization Komsomol, and eventually the party. This was the only way to survive in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the older man had said. Sultan followed his father’s advice. He joined Komsomol, attended high school, and had planned to study metallurgy. He tried his best to become a new Soviet man.
Then came June 1941 and the German invasion. The Red Army wasn’t yet the formidable fighting machine that would eventually destroy the bulk of Hitler’s armies. In the first year of the war it suffered enormous casualties and surrendered huge territories. Every available man was called up and thrown straight into action. Sultan was conscripted and quickly assigned to a ragtag group of non-Russians like himself, miserably equipped and poorly led. They were set to disintegrate upon contact with the enemy.
As his unit took up position outside Kharkov, Sultan keenly felt his status as a minority. When the troops lined up for inspection, the commanding officer, a Russian, asked minorities to step forward. The officer gave four of them, including Sultan, the suicidaltask of creeping across the no man’s land between the two armies and throwing German-language propaganda toward the enemy lines. According to this quixotic plan, the German soldiers would read the pamphlets, revolt against their officers, and surrender. No one anticipated that the Germans had set up tripwires. Sultan’s group was cut to pieces by the ensuing machine-gun fire; Sultan was the only survivor. He hid for two days in the high grasses of the steppe before creeping back to his lines. For his bravery, his commanding officer promised him a medal. But Sultan felt the honor was hollow. His loyalty to the Soviet system, which he had honestly tried to cultivate, was evaporating.
Excerpted from A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West by Ian Johnson. Copyright 2010 by Ian Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.