Text: Alexander Ershov.
Photo: Dmitry Krazayev.
The front intelligence troop commander Yury Trankvillitsky worked as a cameraman, photojournalist, and taught the composition theory after the war. He won many victories and prizes during his life, but he considers the fact that he stayed alive in the trenches of the World War II as his major achievement. He was helped by Sambo in this respect, which he started to study as a boy under the supervision of Anatoly Kharlampiev, the founder of Sambo.
Yury Nikolaevich, how did you come to the Sambo sports club?
— I was a pupil of the fourth form, and at the school break a senior approached me and threw me on the floor in a rude manner. He was an eighth former called Kaban and enjoyed demonstrating his strength abusing the minors. It was an insult to fall when my classmates were looking at me. A tenth former was passing by, he drove away Kaban and asked me whether I would like to learn how to fight back. I was very eager to find out how. He advised me to come to the «Wings» (sports society «Soviet Wings»), ask for Kharlampiev and sign for his Sambo classes. This is how I started attending Sambo sessions in 1938. After a number of months I walked to the very Kaban in an assured manner and told him to defend himself. Then I performed an ankle trip. They used to say in school after that that I was training in some secret defensive wrestling and noone dared touching me.
When fighting, I tried to carry out a hold, that is attack rather than defend myself. Afterwards I took part in the open competitions in the Gorky Recreation Park, in Fili, and on 15 June 1941 I participated in the individual Moscow championship. Skills that I learned on the mat turned out to be very useful when the worst war in our history came to our country.
Your father, as far as I know, volunteered to go to the front.
— My father Nikolay Trankvillitsky was an architect in the Project Institute, built a number of film studios: in Albania, in Roumania, in China. The 'Bolshoi Mosfilm' is also his project. He was not a Communist Party member, but in the first days of the war he volunteered to join the Home Guard and left for the front. His division was besieged somewhere in the suburbs of Yukhnov, and all the guards were captured. We knew nothing about him all this years and we thought he was killed. And suddently in June 1945 a postcard arrived where my father reported he was alive. He was in the Soviet camp where all the former prisoners of the German camps had been checked whether they collaborated with the Nazi. He could have spent more time there, but the most famous Soviet architects Schukhin and Vesnin wrote a petition to free him, arguing that the country was in dire need of architects. When my father went to the front, he was 39 and he weighed 90 kg. He returned home completely exhausted, weighing 46 kg.
What had changed with the start of the war?
— Everything. A different life started. 16 October 1941, when the resolution «Regarding the evacuation of the capital of the USSR» was approved, Moscow was overcome with panic. Metro stopped working, house registers were being burned on the streets. The city was covered with the ashes of the burnt documents. On the fourth day after they issued an order permitting all kinds of measures to be applied to maradeurs, the panic had stopped. The streets were patrolled by the army and militia. However, even in Vladimir, which is 170 km to the east of Moscow (I saw this myself), counter-tank trenches were being dug. They expected the defence line to be in the suburbs of Vladimir.
The 1941–1942 winter was very cold, there was no central heating, the water froze in the pipes. During the night time people used to break wooden fences and cut down the poles in order to make fire. The temperature in my room was -7 C°. There was some water in the cinemas. One could buy a ticket to the cinema, come a little bit earlier before the film and wash oneself. 1942 was a hunger year. The food was rationed. In the morning I used to run to the shop, get my share of bread for the next day and eat it immediately. That is every day I used to live one day ahead. Instead of meat, we used to get an American egg powder, approximately 100 g. It was enough for a small scrumbled egg meal.
During the war you probably had to stop your Sambo training?
— By no means! In the Gorky Recreation Park there was an open air Sambo sports club. Of course, we did not train every day. In the time of the air raid, when the parts of the antiaircraft shells used to fall from the sky, the grown-ups used to bring us to a safe place where we could hide under the wooden decking. We used to wrestle hungry and exhausted. I weighed less than 50 kgs. But the sports section kept on going.
When did you were commissioned to serve in the army?
— In the early January 1943. I just turned 17. The first half a year I had been training as a soldier in the special college in Vladimir. Then a special resolution came around and I was sent to the courses of the lower rank officers. I got chosen since I had eight classes of a secondary school, whereas others were from the country that finished with the 2 forms of the primary school. The officers front courses followed the front line step in step. When the front moved, the courses moved too. As soon as the course graduated, the graduants were sent to the trenches. On 1 May 1944 I took on the command over the front intelligence troop. I spend around a year at war, if the Western front leutenant courses are to be taken into account. As far as the very front line is concerned, I spent two months there, then I was seriously injured and decommissioned. Two months is a usual term for a sodier of the first line.
Why have you been sent to serve for army intelligence?
— I do not know. Most likely by accident. I could say one thing: intelligence troop is not a privilege, yet, to the contrary. We used to carry out special tasks in the rear. And we also used to carry out a reconnaissance. This is a way to find out about the enemy's strength and weaponry. Making a lot of noise and shouting we used to run at the supposed enemy's positions, making him reveal himself. Other than the intelligence agents, the punitive troops used to participate in those attacks. They had a simple choice – either to be dead or to be injured. We had a similar one.
Did you join the front line, when the Soviet army carried out an attack?
— When I came to the front, an offensive operation was not started yet, I spent my first one and a half months in the trenches. The trenches in the spring in Byelorussia were simply gutters, filled with the icy clayish water to the chest. At night we used to get ourselves out of the trench, climbed over the brustver, took off the form and squeezed the water out. Poured the water out of the wellington boots. At the dawn we used to jump back into the trenches. The German trenches were 200 m from us. The Germans used to sing, play a harmonica, and we heard all of this. At night they also used to dry themselves up over their own brustver, and we heard all of this. We had an unspoken arrangement not to shoot at each other at the night time.
At the day time, the Germans used to constantly shell our positions. During the first day of such life one would want to press into the ground and not to stand up again anymore. Then you realise: one should not be bowing to shells all the time, it is of no use since the shells get blown up around all the time. If you get killed, this is simply fate. The main routine of the soldier at the front line is to shoot, to dig, to eat and to sleep. The trenches used to collapse because of the water, and we needed to fortify them. No thoughts about tomorrow.
Was it difficult to be in charge of the intelligence troop when you were 18 years old?
— Other soldiers were older than me, some of them were 40–45 years old. Three had been just out of prison. Some people were from Central Asia. You know, the soldier was relatively free at the front line, the only thing which he could not afford was to quit. Once a political officer visited us and started a lecture on the unity of the party and the people. Soldiers were not quite happy. I asked the officer to leave and I made a hint that the soldiers can do something. He realised the threat and disappeared. At the front line, where the death is so near, the relationship between the officer and his soldiers is a special one. I ate and slept with my soldiers, and shared my ration with them.
What are the thoughts of a person at the front line?
— They are simple: to eat, to sleep, to wash oneself. The price of person's life on the front does not cost a lot. You could eat porridge with the soldier from the same pot an our ago, and then you hear an explosion and realise that the soldier is dead. With the new explosion another soldier is killed. We used to loose soldiers all the time. There was the time when I was only left with three soldiers in my troop.
We have the following picture of war: the Soviet soldiers are shouting «hurray», they are running to attack the enemy and the enemy surrenders. This is not true. The Germans were good fighters, they had a strict discipline and had a perfect telephone connection at the front. They used to fight for every bit of our land as if it was theirs. I have never seen running Germans. I saw the dead ones.
Before the war the newspapers made the statements that we had the best army and the best armoury. Yet in 1941, four million of our soldiers were practically captured and died. How did we manage to stop the offensive and reverse the course of the war? How one could evacuate the plants and to start production of the ammunition and weapons? I think there was a Russian miracle.
How you were injured?
— In Vytebsk, our 3rd Byelorussian front was joined with the 1st Baltic front (the so-called Vytebsk-Orsha operation – Ed. note). When the armies almost joined with each other, we had to cut off the last road from Vytebsk. This order was given to our regiment. The general-major said: if you successfully carry out the order, you would be awarded the star of the Hero of the USSR. We did what was required, but I was seriously injured. On the left I I had a purse that protected me from the iron splinter, flying right into my heart. A mere accident. I was not awarded the star.
I started crawling in the rear, loosing my conscience a number of times. My right hand did not work, the splinter injured my biceps. Doctors wanted to amputate my hand, yet they managed to cure it. In January 1945 I left the hospital and was decommissioned as the invalid of the Great Patriotic War. I was 19 years old.
Do you remember the day of the end of the war?
— Certainly so! This was the happiest day of my life. 9 May 1945 I spent on the Red Square. War is the worst and the most atrocious invention of the mankind. Then I studied at the Film Institute (VGIK) and worked at the Mosfilm: first I was an assistant, then I was a cameraman. Then the major part of my life I worked in the journal «Soviet Union». I had more than twenty personal photographic exhibitions around the world. It was a difficult, yet happy time.
When did you come back to the mat?
— In 1945 ãîäó, before the war was officially over, I started attending training sessions at «Dinamo» sports centre. Eugeny Chumakov was my coach. Everyone called him Eugeny Mikhailovich, but I called him Zhenya since we were friends. After the sessions we used to walk around Moscow and talk about different things.
My right hand did not work, I kept warming it up, and, finally, managed to get it going. I started to take part in the training sessions little by little. Rolling forward, warming up. And in 1946 I won the second prize in the Moscow championship. However, in 1948 the inflammation started in the injured leg joint, and I had to undergo another surgery. After that I had to stop my Sambo practice. However, I kept coming back to the sports hall, where my best friends were. Today there are only four Moscow sportsmen who started practising Sambo before the war. Victor Ivanovich Balashov, he used to work as an anchorman at the Central Television. Leonid Dubinin was my main partner before the war. Eugeny Petrovich Schukin lost his leg, but after the war he used to come to the «Dinamo» Centre in order to warm himself up and roll with us on the mat. I am the fourth one.
Was the experience you got in war useful in your everyday life?
— Let me say, the Sambo and the war experience. After I returned from the front, I stopped being afraid off hooligans. I am not afraid of them anymore. War and Sambo are two parts of one whole thing to me. If I did not practice Sambo before the war, I would not be talking to you right now. I was supposed to die six times in the close contact fighting ðóêîïàøíîé, yet due to my knowledge of holds I survived. In one of these combats I realised that the heel cord painful grip could be carried out through the boot. Sambo — is my religion, and nothing will steer me away from this standpoint. Charlampiev and Chumakov are my coaches and when I have various kind of problems in life, it is them whom I truly remember.