Panfilov

May 9th, 2010 Sections: Second World War, Soviet Union, Who's Who

Ivan Vasilyevich Panfilov was born in Petrovsk, Saratovsky oblast in Russia, on the 20th December, 1892 – by the old, Julian, calendar, which Russia used at the time … it was the 1st January 1893 in the rest of the world.

Not much seems to be have recorded about his life apart from the fact that he commanded the 316th Rifle Brigade in a heroic stand against advancing German Tanks during the defence of Moscow.

We do know that he served in the Red Army from 1918, and participated in the Civil War.  Finishing a course at Military School in Kiev, in 1923 he became a Colonel and commanded a battalion – serving in the struggles against the Basmachi.

In 1937 he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Central Asian Military District and the next year as Military Commissar in Kyrgyzstan.  It is said that while he was in Kyrgyzstan he learned Kyrgyz, and that he could speak Tadjik and Uzbek as well.  He was a good communicator, an inspiring public speaker – and was successful in raising recruits for the Red Army.  One of his wartime superiors later described him as: confident, firm and wise.

Apparently he was also under some suspicion from the the authorities … there is some evidence that in 1939 the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) was gathering compromising evidence against him.  At that time there was little “love” between the Army and the security services, (it is even said that there was “undisguised hostility” between the two), so it may not be that surprising that they investigated an effective and popular officer, sending the paperwork to the regional headquarters in Tashkent. Panfilov prepared an appeal in which he demanded that the NKVD did not interfere in the work of the Military Commissariat.  Apparently his appeal was successful, because the complaint against him was not pursued.

In this he was luckier than many of the top staff of the Red Army.  In the “Stalinist” purges of the 1930′s the Red Army had been deprived of many of its senior staff … and was duly unprepared for the storm that was about to break during the Second World War.

On 22nd June, 1941, the German army launched the invasion of Soviet Russia.  It is said that this took most of the Soviet political leadership – and hence the leadership of the Red Army – and the Soviet people by surprise.  Stalin, however, had received reports from a spy in Hitler’s employment of what was to come.

Having crushed most of the Soviet air force on the ground, German forces quickly advanced deep into Soviet territory using their famous Blitzkrieg tactics.  Armoured units raced forward in pincer movements trapping and destroying entire Soviet armies. Whilst one group moved towards Leningrad, another went on to conquer the Ukraine, and a third advanced towards Moscow.  The Soviet defences were catastrophic, and the casualties were enormous.

On July 12th, 1941, Panfilov was issued orders to form an infantry division.  Oddly enough, it is said that the original of the order was actually dated 12th June – and although this could have been a typing error … that seems very odd for an important official document.  It is on July 12th, however, that is commemorated every year as the “birth” of the legendary “Panfilov Division”.  The recruits were drawn from Kazakhstan – and the northern regions of Kyrgyzstan.

In early August the advance towards Moscow had already captured Smolensk, an important stronghold blocking the approaches to the capital.  The battle, however, disrupted the blitzkrieg, and held down the German forces until mid September, when they were ordered to turn South and support the attack on Kiev.  So, it was not until October 2nd that the Germans launched the assault on Moscow itself – Operation Typhoon.

Moscow now became the target of German air raids. Barricades were built in the city’s streets, even in the environs of the Kremlin.  Most of the Soviet government was evacuated east to Kuybyshev, (modern-day Samara) – Stalin, himself, however, remained in Moscow.  As a moral booster for the troops, (and the increasingly despairing population), he ordered the traditional military parade commemorating the anniversary of the October Revolution, should be held as usual in Red Square on 7th November , despite the danger of German bombardment.  The troops paraded in front of the Kremlin – and then marched directly to the front.

The German advance, however, was slowing down - as well as meeting fierce resistance, they were hampered by the autumn rains which had turned the roads into a muddy quagmuir.  When, in early November, frost set in and the roads were once again usable, they now faced another problem: they were not  equipped for winter warfare, (Hitler had anticipated a quick, “blitzkrieg”, victory in the summer) - they did not have the necessary warm clothing and white camouflage suits; tanks and other vehicles were immobilised as temperatures dropped well below freezing.  To make matters worse, the winter of 1941-1942 was unusually cold, even by Russian standards.

Despite this, the Soviet defence of the approaches to Moscow was growing increasingly desperate. The Soviets sent in thousands of recruits and volunteers, even women’s battalions, into battle – often poorly trained and armed.

It was into this context that Panfilov and his 316th Rifle Brigade were thrust and found their place in history.

According to the official Soviet military history, (or hagiography), on November 14, 1941 at Dubosekovo station near Volokolamsk – a small village outside Moscow – Major General Ivan Vasiliyevich Panfilov and his men hurriedly dug in across the Volokolamsk Highway, near the railway junction.  Like they comrades across the entire front, they were determined to halt the advance and, if possible, repulse the invader.  It is said that the Political Commissar attached to the unit, Vasiliy Klochkov, urged the men on by saying: “Russia is huge, but there is nowhere to retreat.  Moscow is behind us”.  The phrase later became a rallying cry for the soldiers of the Red Army.

The unit stood their ground against the advancing German tanks.  Some reports say there were 30 tanks – others as many as 50.   During a four-hour battle, it was claimed that eighteen German tanks were destroyed. Most of the unit, including the Major General, himself, were killed in the action.

According to Soviet tradition, the stand made by Panfilov and his men became one of the Red Army’s epic acts of mass heroism.  Almost all died, but they did not let the enemy pass.

Within days the news of the event was known throughout the Soviet Union.  The unit were granted many honours:

  • During the course of the battle, even, the unit was being renamed the 8th Guards Division in recognition of their efforts.  (Apparently Panfilov’s commanding officer received this news at the same time as he heard of the Major General’s death).
  • The term “panfilovtsy” was coined to describe those who took part in the battle – in recognition of their heroism and self-sacrificing;
  • The unit were granted the honourific title, “The Defenders of Moscow”;
  • On July 21, 1942 all panfilovtsy were awarded the title of Heroes of the Soviet Union;
  • Memorials were erected:
    • In Bishkek, as well as the statue of Panfilov, outside the White house – on the plinth of the statue, there are some reliefs of soldiers in battle - There is also a bust of him, hidden away between the trees on the “up” side of Erkindik between Moskovskaya and Bokonbaeva.  (For the record, there is also a street after him as is the Museum of the Ministry of Defence on Toktogula).  Three of the Kyrgyz members of the unit are also honoured with busts in Alley of Heroes (located in the central reservation in Molodaya Gvardia – “Avenue of the Young Guards” – where it crosses Prospect Chui) They are:
      • Ananyev ;
      • Shopokov .
      • Konkin .
    • In Almaty there is a striking war memorial including individual plinths, each with the name of one of the 28;
    • In Volokolamsk itself, there is memorial park – and in 2005 new busts of the 28 panfilovtsy were unveiled.
  • Towns and villages were renamed, for example:
    • Ananyev – a village on the northern shore of Lake Issyk Kul;
    • Shopokov –  a village to the West of Bishkek in Chui province;
    • Panfilov – a town in Eastern Kazakhstan, north of Almaty, was named after the general.
  • Schools, factories and other establishments were named in their honour, in particular:
    • The Military Museum in Bishkek (on Toktogula) is named in honour of Panfilov.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, it was revealed that “28 Panfilovtsy” was one of many Soviet propaganda myths propagated to bolster the morale of soldiers.  It seems that at Dubosekovo there were a hundred Soviet soldiers who fought and eventually were killed, captured, or retreated. The number of destroyed tanks is unknown, but almost certainly not 18, since such a large single-day/same-location loss would have been recorded elsewhere, for example in German records.

One commentator has lamented in a newspaper article that Russia commemorates unreal heroes – such as the Panfilovtsy – whilst “real” heroes go unrecognized.  That seems harsh.  It may well be that “real” heroes go unrecognized – and whilst the details of the official account of the Panfilovtsy may be one of the “causalities of war”, it cannot really be denied that the action was one of the crucial events in the defence of Moscow – at a great loss ini human life.

There are now (in 2006) eighty eight members of the division alive in Kyrgyzstan. Thirty-four servicemen from the division became the Heroes of the Soviet Union, and more than 5,000 of them were awarded with various state orders and medals.

Panfilov, himself, as well as being declared a Hero of the Soviet Union, was awarded the Order of Lenin, two awards of the Red Banner, and a medal.  He is buried in Moscow, in the Novodevichiy cemetery.

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