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Ransom Center Exhibit Highlights Soviet Sacrifice in WWII

Leaping from the rubble of a bombed-out building, the Soviet soldier joins two comrades fighting their way through the streets of Stalingrad in 1942. 

No faces. No names. Fate unknown. Just three shapes, pushing out of shadows and fog, carrying rifles as they struggle through tough, house-to-house combat with the Germans in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.


The photograph by Georgi Zelma was one of 49 on display in "Battle for the Eastern Front," an exhibit at the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center over the weekend.


Culled from the private collection of Texas Monthly founder, author and movie screenwriter Williams Broyles Jr. and other photos he donated to the Ransom Center, the exhibit illustrates the war on the Eastern Front and the sacrifices the Soviets endured to drive Hitler's armies back to Berlin.


Broyles, a Vietnam veteran, is the son of a World War II Marine veteran and the father of an Air Force para-rescue jumper who will soon start his third tour in Iraq.


Broyles said he's long been interested in war photography but only in the last few years was drawn to the battle on the Eastern Front, where some accounts put Soviet losses at a staggering 25 million people.


He had seen a famous photograph of a soldier lifting the Soviet hammer and sickle flag over the burned out Reichstag in Berlin, one of the searing images of the war, but said he knew little of the ferocity of the fighting there.


"We grew up in the Cold War and the Soviet Union was our enemy," Broyles said. "Once you peel away the ideological conflict of the Cold War and see the absolute horrors of the experience of the Russian soldier it took all of us to win World War II but we here in America, we don't have a good idea of what happened in the East.


"I'm not saying my father and his friends didn't do everything they could, only that the Russians did so much."


Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and pushed to within 32 kilometers of Moscow. The capital city was literally within the Germans' sights before the Soviets launched a massive counterattack.


Initially welcomed in some areas as liberators, the Nazis quickly squandered the goodwill with a brutal campaign that terrorized conquered territories and produced widespread resistance.


The exhibit traces the war from the German invasion in 1941 through its retreat and the Soviet push into Germany in 1945. It culminates with the Soviet capture of Berlin, including the image of the red flag over the Reichstag and another famous shot of a Soviet tank at the Brandenburg Gate.


The tank is in the foreground, making it appear very large when set against the background of the damaged gate.


"It becomes this remarkably powerful symbol of allied victory and at the same time a warning for the West as a whole of the imminent power of the Soviet Union. It's a very complex image," said David Coleman, the Ransom Center' s associate curator of photography.


The collection includes many powerful photographs, some of which have never been seen in the West. In one image of intense grief, a woman searches a field full of dead bodies for a loved one. In another, a man carrying an orchestra bass stumbles though the wreckage in Stalingrad.


Several images come from the battle for Stalingrad, which left some 2 million soldiers dead, wounded or missing.


"Death was like a beast. I wanted only one thing to kill," Soviet veteran Suren Mirzoyan recalled in a postwar interview, quoted in the exhibit. "Death was in our pockets. Death was walking with us."


Broyles has traveled to Russia and the Ukraine to visit some of the battlegrounds featured in the exhibit and has talked with war veterans there.


"That war is still alive for them," he said.


(China Daily July 22, 2005)

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