Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: Q&A with Serhii Plokhy

November 6, 2019
Cover for book: Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front

Cover for book: Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern FrontForgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: American Airmen Behind the Soviet Lines and the Collapse of the Grand Alliance by Serhii Plokhy (Plokhii), new in October 2019, provides a fresh perspective on the cooperation between the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany. In reconstructing this history, it reveals the first icy cracks in a relationship that soon would crumble into the Cold War.

The self-proclaimed “forgotten bastards of Ukraine” (“forgotten bastards” being a military trope of the time) were the American soldiers who remained on a rare US Strategic Air Force base on Soviet soil after two similar bases had been closed. Their extensive first-hand experience of Stalin’s Soviet system left an impression on these soldiers, even those who previously espoused socialist ideals.

"One of the 'characters' in the book wrote much later that he realized the whole Cold War started right there on the bases," Plokhii said. "The clash wasn’t about socialism and capitalism but political culture. There was an immediate conflict between a political order based on the principles of freedom and a political order based on the principles of tyranny and control."

Book Description (via Amazon):
The full story of the first and only time American and Soviets fought side-by-side in World War II

At the conference held in in Moscow in October 1943, American officials proposed to their Soviet allies a new operation in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany. The Normandy Invasion was already in the works; what American officials were suggesting until then was a second air front: the US Air Force would establish bases in Soviet-controlled territory, in order to "shuttle-bomb" the Germans from the Eastern front. For all that he had been pushing for the United States and Great Britain to do more to help the war effort--the Soviets were bearing by far the heaviest burden in terms of casualties--Stalin, recalling the presence of foreign troops during the Russian Revolution, balked at the suggestion of foreign soldiers on Soviet soil. His concern was that they would spy on his regime, and it would be difficult to get rid of them afterword. Eventually in early 1944, Stalin was persuaded to give in, and Operation Baseball and then Frantic were initiated. B-17 Flying Fortresses were flown from bases in Italy to the Poltava region in Ukraine.

As Plokhy's book shows, what happened on these airbases mirrors the nature of the Grand Alliance itself. While both sides were fighting for the same goal, Germany's unconditional surrender, differences arose that no common purpose could overcome. Soviet secret policeman watched over the operations, shadowing every move, and eventually trying to prevent fraternization between American servicemen and local women. A catastrophic air raid by the Germans revealed the limitations of Soviet air defenses. Relations soured and the operations went south. Indeed, the story of the American bases foreshadowed the eventual collapse of the Grand Alliance and the start of the Cold War. Using previously inaccessible archives, Forgotten Bastards offers a bottom-up history of the Grand Alliance, showing how it first began to fray on the airfields of World War II.

In this interview, Plokhii answers a few questions about his research and his book, which is available on Amazon. He’ll also be speaking at a number of book talks, including at Harvard on November 12. A livestream recording of the event is available on HURI's YouTube channel.

HURI: This is quite a unique and interesting topic. How did you come across it and what made you want to spend the time researching it?

Plokhii: I agree that it is a unique topic. Everyone knows about the Grand Alliance - the alliance of the Soviet Union, UK, and US - if only from Winston Churchill's memoirs. It was a very particular alliance in that its members were fighting the war on different fronts. There was virtually no cooperation in battle between the Western allies and the Soviet Union, with only one exception, which is discussed in this book.

In 1944, on American insistence, the Soviets agreed to establish American bases on their territory, specifically on the territory of Ukraine. They had considered other possibilities, but they decided upon the Poltava region, the old Cossack heartland of Ukraine. In April of 1944, they established three bases, but only one remained until the end of the war in Europe and was finally closed in June of 1945.

Previous books on these bases rely on American (mostly military) archives. Forgotten Bastards incorporates Soviet documents for the first time to further illuminate the story— and not just any Soviet documents, but materials from the former KGB archives, which includes the materials of the Red Army Counterintelligence, which was called SMERSH – SMERt’ SHpionam, “death to spies”  – and also the secret police that were involved in the surveillance of the civilian population and their contact with the Americans. That's what makes this book unique, but it’s also what really made the research interesting for me and I hope that it will also be interesting to readers.

HURI: How did the newly opened archives add to the story?

Plokhii: Those institutions (the KGB and SMERSH) were mostly involved in the surveillance of foreigners. Normally they were looking at Germans (the enemies) and locals who might have had contact with Germans and might be serving as spies. Here, they were engaged in surveillance of their allies, and that's what made it different. They had very particular goals. One of them was to actively stop whatever contacts the Americans were establishing with the Red Army personnel and even with the locals.

This goes to show how insecure the regime was. Again, militarily, the Americans constituted no threat as they were allies, but politically, socially, and economically there was a huge chip on the Soviet shoulder, which then was translated into counterintelligence strategy. The main insecurity was ideological, almost as though Americans could be “contagious” and transmit doubts about the regime, ideas about democracy, and a sense of the economic inadequacy of the Soviet economic model.

HURI: It seems like there would have to be some level of self-doubt to be that concerned and paranoid about it.

Plokhii: Yes, and it's deeply ingrained in the Soviet psychology or at least the psychology of the leaders of the state. It was interesting to read notes about Vyacheslav Molotov’s conversations with one of the reporters whom he trusted. The leaders had a sense of being in a besieged fortress. They were a small group of people who brought this allegedly bright future - through violence - to a country in which more than 90 percent of the population were peasants, or at least not working class. They knew the country wouldn’t have naturally become socialist and were threatened internally in that way. Then they found themselves surrounded by capitalist countries, which they believed - sometimes for good reason, sometimes for no reason at all - had one goal: to destroy the Soviet Union.

Unpacking that psychology was crucial to understanding why the leaders were so resistant to the idea of hosting American military airbases in the first place, and then why they wanted to close them as soon as possible. In Molotov's conversations, the idea arises that, well, we had the Americans and others here in our country during the revolution. We give them that base but then it's really very difficult to get them out of there. The revolution and foreign intervention: one layer of insecurity reinforced another.

Forgotten Bastards photo chewing gumHURI: I looked through some of the pictures in the book. There's one with a soldier giving a piece of gum to the child. The captions says Americans were surprised at the number of orphans and, I imagine, the poverty, too. Thinking also about the fact that Ukraine had just gone through the Holodomor ten years earlier, was there also a sense on the leaders’ part of not really wanting to have the Americans encounter the poverty and the effects of the famine?

Plokhii: I didn't see that motivation on the part of the Soviets. Most of the Americans generally looked at the poverty as a consequence of German occupation and the war. The impoverished conditions didn't necessarily reflect negatively on the regime or the population at large.

American soldiers who came from families that were originally from the region were much more critical. They knew it wasn't just something that was brought by the events of the last few years. They knew about, as you mentioned, the Holodomor, and that there were entire classes and groups of people who were dispossessed and arrested. But the majority of Americans who had no prior direct involvement in the region or who came from families of emigres who were either socialists or were anti-tsarist before the revolution of 1917 looked very positively on the socialist experiment. They explained the poverty by the war and the general difficulties of building socialism.

HURI: As an American, I can understand that experiencing a police state would be a bit shocking and seem wrong and undesirable. What was the impression on the Soviets living there?

Plokhii: Well, the Soviets in Ukraine had already gone through a revolution, the Holodomor, collectivization, the Great Terror, German occupation, and then the Soviet liberation. So, they knew the rules of the game. What you can learn only through the KBG reports was that the arrival of Americans gave many of them hope that they regime would be reformed, that it would be different after the war. Some thought Ukrainian independence was a possibility. Others thought the role of the party would decrease and the dictatorship would cease. Allowing Americans on Soviet soil was a big change, so perhaps more change was on the horizon. 

Others were more skeptical. The Germans came to Ukraine and tried to conquer it. The Americans were being much smarter; they were creating bases. In other words, these people suspected Americans of being imperial like the Germans, but in a different way.

There were different takes on what was happening there, but overall it was a sign of hope that maybe something positive will come.

HURI: You write about how the Soviets tried to prevent liaisons between American soldiers and the locals, especially women and dating/ relationships. Apart from paranoia about them being spies, was there another reason for that?

Plokhii: Again, the state is very insecure. Being in touch with foreigners means starting to question the regime that exists around you - and not just in political terms.

One of the women from my research who was in contact with Americans indicated that the regime was also insecure in cultural terms. Somehow, even the Germans - despite their policies - were perceived to be a better dressed, representing “civilization.” Now other foreigners, Americans, had come and they were actually even cooler than the Germans! So where does this leave the Soviets? At least that's how some of these women explained why the regime was so concerned and tried to interfere.

There was also an instrumental role in the activity of the secret police. After the second front began, Stalin was no longer motivated to keep those bases on Soviet soil. He had agreed to have them, to show that he could work with the West. What he wanted was the second front. Now that he had it, he didn’t want to keep the bases. On top of that, the bases were bombed by the Germans to the embarrassment of the Soviets. The Soviets were not properly equipped with radars and other technology to repel the nighttime attack. The attacks exposed the vulnerability of the Soviet state and insulted its honor in that they, as hosts, couldn't protect their guests. So, there was no political reason to keep the bases, the bases had caused embarrassment, and on top of that they were contaminating the Soviets with all sorts of harmful ideas. So the secret police harass the women and Americans who are dating them, in part to send the signal, “You’re not welcome, you should go.”

HURI: So this spying, the tension, the paranoia, is this kind of an anomaly as far as bases shared among allies in war go? Is this something that would happen in other countries as well?

Plokhii: It's certainly a norm when it comes to the Soviet attitude toward Allied bases. We didn't have any comparable bases anywhere else, but there was lend-lease aid delivered regionally through the northern ports of Russia, especially Arkhangelsk.

At last year’s ASEEES convention, a Russian scholar who studies the British sailors and people who delivered lend-lease aid to Russia told me that most of the women who were dating foreigners in Arkhangelsk were arrested and sent to prison. Nothing like that happened in Poltava. The women were harassed into the 1960s, but I didn't find any arrests for longer than two months or so. There were no prison sentences.

Why this disparity? The Russian scholar and I came up with one hypothesis: in the case of Ukraine, the Soviet Union had quite a few people who were considered to be a much more legitimate threat. During the German occupation there were people who cooperated with the Germans, there were members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and so on. From that point of view, in the hierarchy of enemies, women dating Americans in Poltava would be relatively low on the risk chart. Arkhangelsk, on the other hand, was not occupied and there were no people working with the enemy or a nationalist organization, so women dating British sailors were the primary target for the security services. This is the hypothesis. What we know for sure is that women dating foreigners apparently were treated harsher in Arkhangelsk than they were treated in Poltava.

However, when you look at the way the British and Americans treated Soviets on their territory, this is day and night. The surveillance is not there and nobody could care less about who was dating whom. That is an interesting comparison that reveals how paranoid and insecure the Soviet regime was. Perhaps it was for good reason, because when you open those lines of communication you suddenly have to look for different ways to defend your ideology and legitimize all the horrible things you are doing.

HURI: Speaking of the women, can you tell us a little about their role in the story?

Plokhii: Well, women are really important for the story because they're at the center of this conflict, which is essentially about political culture. The Soviet regime is, on the surface, an extremely puritan regime, so it didn’t recognize sexual desires as legitimate and therefore would not accommodate them. This led, of course, to mass rape by the Red Army in Germany, in central Europe. But the Soviet citizen, the Soviet woman, in the eyes of ideologues, was supposed to stay pure, and especially pure when it comes to foreigners.

On the other hand, they did try to turn some women into spies to take advantage of their contact with Americans, to varied degrees of success. In the KGB reports, some woman would say, “We really don't talk much," or, "The language is limited,” and so on and so forth. They were trying to evade an arrangement with the secret police. But sometimes they had to end their relationships with the Americans instead.

Forgotten Bastards HolzmanFranklyn Holzman, one of the characters in this book who later completed graduate work at Harvard University and was associated with the Russian Research Center (Davis Center), had an affair with a woman in Poltava that ended suddenly. He never knew why, but the newly opened archives reveal that she was ordered to break off the relationship by the secret police.

Dating between locals and soldiers was also an issue in France and Britain. In those countries, there was also resentment, especially when the soldiers were occupying forces.But there was also greater resentment of American men because the US was richer than any other Allies, so they had access to all sorts of goods that the British and French didn't have. This meant when it came to the competition between British, French, and American men, the Americans had an edge. But what you don't see is the French or British secret police getting involved and trying to manipulate or affect the relationship. That's only in the Soviet Union; only in totalitarian regimes do the local men get that kind of “help” from the government.

forgotten bastards ReverdittoHURI: Can you share an interesting or surprising anecdote or a favorite “character” that you encountered in your research?

Plokhii: My favorite character is Igor Reverditto. He was a lieutenant and was really a fun-loving guy. Born in the Russian Empire, he grew up in China and lived in California. He dated a couple of starlets in Hollywood and then ended up in Poltava. He was kicked out of the country when he got in a fight with one of the Red Army officers, shouting just what he thought about them. He was quite a character.

The KGB tried to force the woman who dated him to try to find him in the US later. They suspected him and most other American officers who spoke Russian of being spies.

HURI: Was he a spy?

Plokhii: Not according to his son and to the documents that I was able to find. He ended up back in California and then together with his son, Tony Reverditto, tried to put together a theater production company. Igor Reverditto’s father was the director of a theater and his mother an actress from Kharkiv, so it was interesting that he and Tony would create something theater-related in California; this line of interest in theater and culture lasted for generations.

HURI: What's next?

Plokhii: That will be a secret for now. But I will say that, like Forgotten Bastards, it's related to the wonderful materials that are now available in the archives.