By Arthur Evans
On June 23, on the eve of the Victory Parade in Moscow, a presentation of a memorial plaque dedicated to the feats of heroism displayed by the employees of the Soviet military mission under the Supreme Commander of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia Marshal Tito was held in the Croatian capital Zagreb. It is very symbolic that the plaque is to be installed at 16 Pavla Hatza Street, where the local Gestapo headquarters was located during the Second World War. Sadly, while some countries, instead of preserving history, are dismantling monuments, in Croatia the very forces of Nature intervened in the form of an earthquake that damaged the building the memorial plaque is to be installed at. However, the elements can be defeated, the project is ready, and its significance for Croatia’s veteran anti-fascists is hard to overestimate.
This is not surprising, of course, since during the war more than 2.600 Soviet military specialists worked in Yugoslavia and 13 of them were awarded one of the country’s highest distinctions – the Order of the People’s Hero.
“In 1944 alone, the Soviet Union supplied the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia with 350 planes, 65 tanks, 579 guns of various calibers, 170 anti-aircraft guns, more than 3,300 mortars, 500 heavy machine guns, about 67,000 submachine guns, light and mounted machine guns, 53,000 carbines, large quantities of ammunition and lots of other equipment. All this assistance was provided by the Soviet Union free of charge,” the Croatian Union of Anti-Fascists and Veterans said. The heads of the Soviet military mission, Lieutenant General Nikolai Korneyev and Colonel Ilya Starinov, contributed heavily to the training of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia fighters and to the coordination of joint operations.
Unlike the Western allies, the Soviet Union initially relied on the most massive anti-fascist movement in Yugoslavia – the partisans of the future Marshal Tito, who became the backbone of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. Unlike other European countries occupied by Germany, the Yugoslavs managed to single handedly liberate from Nazis and their sidekicks large swathes of their country’s territory. By joining forces with the Soviet troops, they succeeded in driving the Nazis out of Yugoslavia.
The memory of Soviet soldiers-liberators, prisoners tortured in concentration camps, members of the underground and intelligence agents is honored not only in the traditionally Russia-friendly Serbia, but also in all the other former Yugoslav republics. Despite the Ustashe collaborators with the Nazis, and attempts to create pro-Nazi state entities, resistance to the Nazis and their accomplices in Yugoslavia,unlike in other European countries, was widespread. Moreover, the Yugoslavs rose up against the Nazi invaders not when the Soviet troops were already close by, but when it looked as if the dark cloud of Nazism hung over entire Europe. As soon as the royal army was defeated, the first partisans – left-wing activists, and military men,who refused to surrender, retired to the mountains and continued their fight against the enemy.
In 1944, in France, several captive French SS men were brought to General Leclerc, De Gaulle’s ally in the Free French Forces.
“Why are you wearing a German uniform?” Leclerc inquired. “Why did you wear an English one?” one of the collaborationists replied.To answer like this in Yugoslavia, which had its own collaborationists, would be hard. Unlike the French, who had fled to London, the Poles who had gone into hiding, and the Czechs, who mutinied in Prague just a couple of days before the German surrender, the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia fought on their own land wearing their own uniform and did not run anywhere. What did they hope for in 1941, when the German armies invaded the Soviet Union and planned an attack on Britain? But they still fought on, defending their country. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the former Yugoslavia people still cherish the memory of those who helped liberate Yugoslavia. The Serbs, Croats and Slovenians have nothing to be ashamed of. For them a monument or a plaque is not a silent reminder of the shame of defeat, cooperation with the Nazis or a reproach for the lack of military valor. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the former Yugoslavia, from Ljubljana to Belgrade, people remember with gratitude the Russians, the British, the Americans, all those who provided invaluable assistance to their heroic army.