In the ancient Russian city of Veliky Novgorod, everybody knows about Alexander Popov. He is a war veteran and honorary citizen of Veliky Novgorod and Sevastopol, the city of Russia’s naval glory. This year, Popov celebrates his 98th anniversary.
Every Victory Day (9 May) he raises glass twice -- exactly one year before the Victory, his tank was one of the first to liberate the Nazi- occupied Sevastopol.
“You absolutely should talk to this amazing man,” an official at the regional administration said. “Let him tell you how a few years ago, during the May days we accompanied him with a capsule of soil from his native Novgorod to Sevastopol. It was an adventure -- it took us a long time to prove to airport security that the capsule was safe for the flight.”
Eventually, we met. It is true that the years are taking their course. However, the bright glint in Popov’s eyes gives away his desire to continue to live a full life and to share with people what he views as the most valuable aspects of his own story. His life was not easy, but he believes that it was happy. After graduating from an armor school near Rybinsk, a city on the Volga River, in December 1942, the native Siberian Alexander Popov got right in the heart of combat operations on the North Caucasus front as part of the 85th separate tank regiment. In January and early February 1943, the troops of the front were essential for operations in the North Caucasus and then in the Krasnodar operation. They successfully dealt a telling blow to the 17th Army of the Wehrmacht. During further offensive operations from spring to autumn in 1943, he participated in the liberation of the Taman and Kerch Peninsulas. The frontline then moved towards Mount Sapun and battles for the liberation of Sevastopol.
“It was hard work that was difficult to get used to,” recalls Popov. “Bloody battles, wounds and bitterness from losses of comrades-in-arms.”
Popov was wounded twice. The first time he wounded his leg in the village of Krymskaya, when his T-34 (a Soviet medium tank), was hit simultaneously by five enemy shells. A mechanical engineer and a radio man were seriously injured. Fortunately, the tank loader escaped it unharmed and was able to get the commander out of the burning tank. After treatment in the Makhachkala hospital, he returned to his home regiment. Popov was wounded again – this time to the chest – during a German air force attack on a ferry crossing near Kerch. When recalling these episodes, Alexander Popov is still surprised that everything for him and his crew didn’t end up far worse. After all, when a volley of fire fell from the air on his tank, the ammunition of the tank resembled a gunpowder cellar – there were shells, rifle cartridges, grenades and, of course, fuel. Popov remains surprised that they did not detonate. God only knows how it didn’t happen.
Following his convalescence in hospital, Popov returned to active duty. This time, they had to liberate Sevastopol from the enemy. The initial attack on the enemy positions failed. The Sapun mountain around Sevastopol was not easy to circumnavigate by tank: rocks, boulders and cliffs were everywhere.
“On May 5, 1944, we started the assault”, remembers Popov. “On May 9, my T-34 was one of the first to thrust into the city square. Since then, I have celebrated this date twice. During that evening there were the fireworks in Moscow, and we saluted with our machine guns.
For their exemplary performance in the battles for the Crimea, the 85th separate tank regiment was the only tank regiment that awarded the prestigious name “Sevastopol” and its crew got combat awards. In addition, many of the city’s liberators – including Alexander Popov – were then awarded the title of ‘Honorary Citizen of Sevastopol.’
The regiment later joined the 1st Belorussian Front and in November 1944 it took part in breaking through enemy defenses in Poland and in the East Pomeranian Strategic Offensive on the territory of Germany. Popov takes particular pride in his regiment’s crucial role in the 3rd Assault Army during the storming of Berlin. For their crucial role, his regiment was awarded the Order of Kutuzov and became known as the 85th separate Sevastopol Tank Regiment holding the Orders of the Red Banner, Suvorov, Kutuzov and Bogdan Khmelnitsky.” Popov is proud that he took part in the campaign to seize Berlin from the beginning to the end, all without losing a single tank.
On the day of the liberation of Sevastopol, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief proclaimed: “As a result of three days of offensive battles with massive support from the air and artillery strikes: troops of the 4th Ukrainian front broke up the enduring German defense, consisting of three strips of reinforced concrete defensive structures. Only a few hours prior to that, they had stormed the fortress and the most important naval base on the Black Sea: the city of Sevastopol.”
At the same time, on the initiative of soldiers of the 85th regiment it was decided to bury the fallen tank crewmen in a “bed of honour”, and to establish the legendary T-34 on top of it as a symbol of victory over the enemy. They chose a gravesite and monument. The place of burial with the tank at the top was emblematic – the slope of the Krasnaya Gorka mountain. After the memorial service for the fallen, the bones of 24 tankmen of the 85th separate tank regiment who had given their lives for Sevastopol, were buried. Since there was limited land around, the painted coffins were covered with stones. Local residents also took part in mourning ceremony. The tank for the gravesite was chosen from the nearest ones. It had been damaged but was still able to crawl to the gravesite – with the help of a tractor. Local residents, both old and young, soldiers and sailors, carried wreaths and spring flowers to the gravesite. Leaving the monument, the tank soldiers promised the T-34 as if it were a living thing: “Do not grieve, our friend, we will definitely come back and put you back into a real combat form.” They managed to come back... in 20 years.
On the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Sevastopol from the Nazi invaders, the pedestal was fronted with white stone and marble slabs with the names of the fallen tank crew members appeared. A concrete staircase was built from Revyakin square to the monument. On May 30, 1978 the monument to the tankmen on Krasnaya Gorka was entered in the state register and assigned to the Krymenergo enterprise. From that moment on, the tank installed at the gravesite is considered to be a monument of public art history. In May 1978, the general assembly of war veterans and comrades-in-arm decided to make a bigger memorial plate with the names of the hero tank soldiers. They donated their own money for the purpose. Under the project and at Alexander Popov’s initiative, boards of stainless steel, bronze and brass were cast at the factories of Veliky Novgorod. A range of the memorial plaques was dedicated to the 35th anniversary (May 9, 1979) of the liberation of Sevastopol. The contemporaries have an opportunity to see the monument in exactly this form today.
The tiers of awards on Popov's chest is the envy of anyone. He received the Order of Alexander Nevsky for Berlin, the Order of the Red Banner for the Stanitsa Krymskaya township, the Order of the Second World War of the 1st degree for Kerch and the Order of the Red Star for the liberation of Warsaw. Until 1968 he continued to receive several of medals for his feats of arms and faithful service to the fatherland. Col Popov eventually resigned from the army where he had been on active duty for almost three decades. He brought up his daughter and son and is raising three grandchildren with them.
Age does not prevent Popov from leading an active life. He tries not to miss a single meeting with the fellow-veterans of World War II. He is concerned about everything that happens in social and political life of the city and always responds to the invitation to talk to young people.
“Are young people interested in what you say about your youth and about the war?” we ask Popov.
“I believe that young people need to know more truth about our history, regardless of how it is presented to them today: in negative or positive terms. Were there any dark spots in it? Yes, there were. But we prevailed during the bloodiest massacre and were victorious. It is above all the history of their country. Of course, I refer to my own biography. Before the war, more attention was paid to the upbringing of patriotism in the young people than today. There was the Voroshilov Sharpshooter pistol club as well as parachuting, medical handiwork and antichemical training clubs at schools. The network of aeroclubs was so fascinating and tempting! But they were so difficult to get into. Schoolchildren studied weapons, went to the firing ranges and passed the exams to get the “Ready for Labor and Defense” movement badge. When I was a schoolboy, there were parachute towers in the parks. In order to get on them it was necessary to stand in a queue.
Like my peers, I was very fond of all this. What an appealing incentive it was to be a real man! At the time, not doing your conscription duty was viewed as something unworthy, and shirking army service was unheard of. The young men looked forward to the draft and did serious training for it. If for some reason, somebody was declared unfit for military service, it was perceived as a personal tragedy. For my generation, there were two prevailing thoughts: a man's duty is to protect his home which is called Motherland.
By the way, school teachers encouraged our hobbies in every possible way. I remember my first teacher, Maria Korzhemanova, who taught us not to be focused only on literature and mathematics, but to strengthen ourselves physically.
Accordingly, a great deal of attention at school was paid to ski hiking. Until the Grade Four, I studied near our home in my Siberian village, and from Grade Four through Grade Seven, I attended another school. To get there, I had to travel 7 kilometers on a daily basis. During the warm season we got there on foot, then in winter we went on skis. When I entered the technical school, I was already running 22 kilometers. It is good that today the issue of young people’s physical fitness is raised again and that schools have their own gyms. At my age, even if there was a lack of space in the yard or in the corridor, we always had a horizontal bar at our disposal.
“Mr. Popov, there are models of tanks in your office. Is this nostalgia for the military profession?”
“Yes, partially. I have four models made with my own hands. I gave one to Rostov war veterans and one to the local museum. They are all made of bronze, and their sizes are exactly proportional to the original T-55.”
As we already know, the cavalier of five military orders Alexander Popov took part in laying the capsule with the soil from Novgorod in Sevastopol. It was taken from the memorial complex named “The Fire of Eternal Glory” in the Novgorod Kremlin. He laid the capsule at the T-34 tank in Sevastopol to commemorate 24 soldiers of the 85th Separate Tank Regiment buried there 76 years ago. According to Alexander Popov, almost no one is alive. So, at one of the recent ceremonial Victory Parades on May 9 in Sevastopol, he was the only one who represented his 85th Separate Sevastopol Red Banner Order of Suvorov and Kutuzov Tank Regiment. Alexander Popov hopes very much that he will have another chance to visit the city of Russian military glory.We wish him materialization of his dream.