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Behind Fascist Lines: A Firsthand Account of Guerrilla Warfare During the Spanish Revolution

Behind Fascist Lines: A Firsthand Account of Guerrilla Warfare During the Spanish Revolution

by Anna K. Starinov

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Deep behind Nationalist lines during the Spanish civil war, modern guerrilla warfare came of age. In this extraordinary memoir, Russian guerrilla fighter Anna Starinov tells how it happened. . . .

Sent by Stalin with other Soviet advisers to help the Spanish overcome Franco, Anna Starinov arrived in Spain in November 1936. Originally assigned to a Russian


Deep behind Nationalist lines during the Spanish civil war, modern guerrilla warfare came of age. In this extraordinary memoir, Russian guerrilla fighter Anna Starinov tells how it happened. . . .

Sent by Stalin with other Soviet advisers to help the Spanish overcome Franco, Anna Starinov arrived in Spain in November 1936. Originally assigned to a Russian demolitions and guerrilla-warfare expert as an interpreter, Starinov soon found herself helping him build an effective partisan army literally from scratch and acquitting herself as a talented guerrilla.

Anna helped train student guerrillas to make bombs and grenades, set ambushes, and carry out raids. Working under cover of darkness, the teams dodged enemy patrols as they pummeled the enemy in his own backyard: blowing up trains and bridges, destroying tunnels, and gathering valuable intelligence.

The Spanish revolution was ground zero for modern warfare. Breakthroughs in guerrilla techniques, weapons, and strategies were developed that would play an integral part in World War II. Anna Starinov performed a pivotal role in that enterprise and her memoir provides an inside look at that turbulent time.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.21(w) x 6.92(h) x 0.91(d)

Read an Excerpt

Spain Ahead

Moscow, November 16, 1936

The Moscow-Stolbtsy train had been ready for a long time. The steam engine puffed impatiently as if to remind the crowd there to see us all off that it was time to say good-bye.

The final exclamations, the fond farewells were heard, and right on schedule, the train gently started out.

There are so many people seeing someone off, I thought while looking out the window. But my eight-year-old daughter was not among them.

The last minutes reminded me of my parting with her.

I was standing near my open suitcase, which had been packed since morning, checking whether everything was ready for the trip, and Olya was fussing around me, trying to help, diligently adding completely unnecessary things while bombarding me with questions.

Occupied with my own thoughts, uneasy and anxious because of the impending separation, I forgot to answer her, or I answered so inappropriately that Olya felt that there was something wrong.

My little girl suddenly became very serious, then unexpectedly, she mournfully and softly began to cry. "Mama! Take me with you to the station, take me, please take me, take me . . . and . . . and," she sobbed.

I could not bear it. I snapped the lock on the suitcase, and tenderly hugged and kissed Olya. Then I quickly left the room, leaving her with my sister.

I was standing by the window, looking at the lights of Moscow, thinking about my daughter. Sometime in the future, we would meet again. Then I calmed myself and sat down.

My chief, Alexander Porokhnyak, an involuntary witness of my distress, wanted to get started learning Spanish that night, but Icould not get interested in it.

After bidding me good-night, he climbed into the top berth and seemed to fall asleep.

The train traveled swiftly, the car rocked smoothly, it was long after midnight, and everything was perfect for rest, but I could not sleep; my dream was coming true. I was going to Spain, a country upon which the eyes of all the world were riveted.

Twenty years had passed since my graduation from the parish school in the village of Dorogorskoe, which was lost on the Mezen River, famous only because political prisoners were exiled there before the revolution. My father's words, spoken to me in 1915, were strongly impressed upon my memory.

"Well, Aniutka, praise God, you have learned to read, and you even know how to write. Little girls don't become soldiers, they bear children and don't need to read and write. Your mother and I can't read or write, and we have brought you five children into the world. It's time for you to get to work!"

"Help your parents, little daughter!" my mother added. "There is not enough bread to last seven mouths until Christmas." They placed me as a nanny with the family of a local merchant, first for board, and then for a little money each month.

But I worked for the merchant only a short time. In the spring, the two-year-old daughter of the merchant was climbing up onto the window sill, and I was so absorbed in a book that I did not notice, and the little girl fell out into the street! Thank goodness everything turned out all right; we both escaped with only a scare. But the finale was sad, the master and mistress learned what had happened, and they scolded me and dismissed me. That made my parents very unhappy.

After that, I worked as a day laborer. But I did not give up my books. Often forsaking sleep, I managed to read.

In order to earn a meager living and to help my parents as much as possible, for ten years, I worked as a laborer for wealthy landlords.

Once I worked for a wealthy reindeer breeder who had many hundreds of reindeer. It turned out to be a very difficult job, but I was young and not afraid of work. When he had had too much to drink, he would repeatedly say to me, "Anna! Let's marry you off to a rich reindeer breeder, you'll have a herd of reindeer, and you'll wear a long malitsa1 with a hood of young deer fur. You will have laborers of your own." Fortunately that did not happen. The Soviets came to our region, and my future was completely and fundamentally changed.

Reluctantly, my boss went to the first general meeting, and when he returned, he pointed at his workers and said angrily, "They will rule now, but not for long!"

For me, a new life began-meetings, gatherings, discussions, antireligion propaganda, cutting wood. On March 8, 1926, I was accepted as a candidate member of the Bolshevik party. From 1926, after finishing the provincial course for women's organizers in Archangelsk, I worked for three years as the district women's organizer. This was followed by study in the Communist College and Yenukidze Oriental Institute, which I finished in 1935. After that, I was an interpreter at the Lenin International School of the Communist International. And there I was in 1936 on an international railway car on the way to far-off, mysterious Spain.

I finally became so tired that I drifted off to sleep.

At the frontier station, Negoreloye, I woke up and went out into the corridor. Near our compartment, at a window, stood a nice looking, well-built young man in a good suit. When Porokhnyak came out, the stranger looked him over from head to foot. My chief guardedly touched me on the hand, and we went into the compartment.

"By his clothes, he's one of ours, but the devil only knows who," I said.

"Be careful," Porokhnyak said.

At Negoreloye, the frontier guards and customs officials carefully examined everything in the car and thoroughly checked our papers.

The train set out again.

We crossed the border into Poland without a stop. Our own Soviet border guards in their green service caps were left behind on the eastern bank of the small river. On the western bank stood the Poles. After a few minutes, the train stopped at Stolbtsy. The Polish signs were incomprehensible to me. All about us bustled tall gendarmes, clamoring porters, and vendors. I heard the offensive words Pan and Pani.2

Porokhnyak changed noticeably; he was somehow stooped and, as I later learned, not without reason. He had worked for almost ten years in the forces of the Ukrainian military district, for three of them, he had worked on partisan warfare. He was afraid that they would recognize him and not allow him through Poland; the Polish pans had their own accounts to settle with him.

The gendarme looked through my passport, smiled pleasantly, and returned it to me. Then he took Porokhnyak's passport. He examined it carefully and at length. From time to time, he would dart a glance at its owner.

"Proshu, Pan Porokhnyak! (Thank you Mr. Porokhnyak)," the gendarme said at last, returning the passport.

The customs guards studied our luggage as if it was filled with diamonds but they confiscated only Soviet newspapers and magazines.

Porokhnyak watched as the customs inspectors examined the baggage of the other passengers. He turned his whole attention on them when they began to check the handsome stranger's things.

"He's ours, one of us, and it's possible that we are traveling along the same route," the chief whispered to me.

We sat again in the same car with the stranger. He really was a volunteer just like us. On the way, we learned he was named Pavel, a member of a tank crew.

Porokhnyak bought some newspapers and began to read. "They are lying!" he said. "If we believe them, we are already too late. In Republican Spain, there is complete anarchy. The rebels are in the outskirts of Madrid, and their leader, General Franco, is preparing to march into the capital."

In a newspaper dated November 6, 1936, were many photographs from Spain, of Moroccan soldiers and Gen. Francisco Franco himself. There he was, The Squab, with his retinue observing the course of battle through binoculars. In another picture, children were presenting flowers to the rebel general.

"Only one thing reassures me," Porokhnyak said. "I have known for a long time how the newspapers of the Polish landlords lie." He began to read one from the sixteenth of November. "And this one is mistaken, too, but it does not predict the fall of the Republic soon," he said.

"We will still make it in time," Pavel noted.

Looking through the newspapers, I recalled how on the evening of July 18, 1936, the students of the Spanish section of the Lenin International School in Moscow, where I was working as an interpreter, returned from one of the factories. They were tired, and as usual, they turned on the radio. That time, rather than the music, we heard instead that a Fascist revolt had begun in Spain.

On the following day, there was nothing threatening in the newspapers. But the students of the Spanish section were as agitated as an upset beehive. From Madrid radio came no gay music, no reports of bullfights, but calls to battle against the rebels, calls for the defense of the Republic, and reports were already being broadcast of the liquidation of separate centers of the revolt. The Spanish people stood in defense of their achievements. They won numerous victories despite the contrary reports from the rebels and their foreign instigators.

The following days brought news of the rout of the rebels in Madrid, Barcelona, and many other cities. Then the Italian Fascists came to the aid of Franco's forces. They began to assist the rebel generals openly, violating all the commonly recognized norms of international law. The Fascist intervention began.

It is well known that on the morning of July 20, the airplane on which the leader of the rebels, General Sanjurjo, was flying to Spain crashed during takeoff from the Lisbon airport. But the rebels had many generals, and into his place stepped the protŽgŽ of the German Fascists-Francisco Franco.

He had gained fame by his savagery in the battle against the Moroccan insurgents of Abdul Kerim. For his bloody crimes, he had been promoted to the rank of general in 1926.

In 1934, Franco took part in the massacre of Asturian miners and was named chief of the general staff. After the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of February 16, 1936, and in spite of the demands of the Communists, this inveterate Fascist was not put in prison, but sent as military governor to the Canary Islands.

Meanwhile, events in Spain were developing quickly and not at all as we wanted. A difficult task fell to the working people, to crush the revolt and repel the invasion of the Italian and German hordes that were sent to help Franco. But Republican Spain had neither modern arms nor a faithful officer corps. At the same time, the rebels received, unhindered, airplanes, ammunition, arms, and entire military units from Italy and Germany. The Anglo-American oil barons also helped the rebels by supplying fuel.

In defense of Republican Spain, a mass antifascist movement arose in many countries of the world. Motivated by a feeling of proletarian internationalism, antifascist volunteers went to Spain. Many of them understood very well that a terrible danger hung over the world.

In the Soviet press, there was then no information about our military aid to those fighting men of Spain, but no one doubted that the USSR was helping more than Spanish children. There was talk about repelling the Fascist threat. The Soviet people could not stand on the sidelines.

August 1936 was a month of hope and anxiety, a difficult month for freedom-loving Spaniards. Savage reprisals were carried out against supporters of the Republic in the towns and villages captured by the rebels, and progressive people everywhere were outraged by the crimes of the Fascists on the population of Badajoz, the Balearic Islands, and the brutal violence against the great Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot in a ravine near Granada on the night of August 19.

On the train, which was carrying us west, I also recalled how my journey to Spain began.

Soon after the beginning of the revolt in Spain, our students, Spaniards with whom I was working, began to leave. On departing, they invited us to come to Spain. The first to go was my classmate at the Institute, Nikolai Andreev. When I heard about that, the dream of going to Spain was born in me, so I volunteered to go to Spain as an interpreter of English and Spanish.

However, I had to work at achieving my dream. My immediate supervisors did not make any promises, but did not refuse my request either. Eventually, I met with the director of the Lenin International School, Klavdia Ivanovna Kirsanova.3

I remember the rector coming to meet me as if it were today. She wore a mysterious smile as we greeted each other. She inquired about my health, work, and family affairs. We talked about events in Spain and about Soviet aid to the Spanish people.

"You are asking to go to Spain, but what about your daughter?" she suddenly asked me.

"I've already asked my sister to take the care of my daughter, and in case I should not return, the State will see that she is properly brought up."

"Good, Comrade Obruchaeva, we will take this into account! But in the meantime, all of this is just between us," Klavdia Ivanovna said with a smile.

Days passed. The events in Spain were widely covered by the Soviet press. I read the correspondence of Mikhail Koltsov, and was struck by the courage of the Spaniards and the valor of the author.

And all of a sudden an unknown woman came to my apartment. She introduced herself, Urvantseva-and warned that I must not divulge anything about which we were going to speak. Soon she asked me to go to her office and requested that I complete a large questionnaire. When I had finished, Urvantseva carefully read through it and said nothing, but I had already guessed that this was connected with my possible mission to Spain.

1A malitsa is a wide deerskin overcoat without buttons that is worn with the hem over the head.

2Trans. note. Pan is the Polish equivalent of Mister, and also the term used for Polish landowners.

3The wife of Yemel'yan Yaroslavskii.

Copyright 2001 by A. K. Starinov

Meet the Author

A. K. Starinov (née Obrucheva) was born into a family of illiterate peasants in a backwater district of northern Russia. After graduating from the village parish school in 1915, she held various jobs, working at times as a baby-sitter, a laborer, and an aide to a wealthy reindeer breeder. By the mid-1920s she was active in Communist Party organizational work and was eventually able to finish college. By late 1936, after the outbreak of the Spanish revolution, Anna was a skilled Spanish interpreter who, because of her peasant background, had been trusted to work with Spanish Communist Party activists sent to the Soviet Union for "special training" at the Lenin International School.

In 1936, Anna volunteered for duty in Spain; she fought behind Nationalist lines and earned an excellent reputation as both a soldier and an interpreter. In 1937, she returned to the Soviet Union, where she eventually ran an orphanage and married the Soviet officer she'd accompanied to Spain. Though she wrote articles about her experiences in Spain, her memoir was never published. This is its first publication.

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