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Back in the USSR

War hero receives the attention she deserves

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Anna's blazing Ilyushin attack plane spun toward the earth, and she burned and tumbled with it. Her next memory: searing pain, as she awoke with a soldier's boot on her chest. After that, the inside of a cell.

Lt. Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova shouldn't have survived the churning aerial battle over Warsaw, being shot down, her burns and broken spine, or her brutal internment. But those things didn't leave the most lasting scars. Six decades later, on a sunny September day in 2005, her eyes are clear as she pages through yellowed photographs of Soviet warbirds and long-dead comrades-in-arms, sharing with me her war stories — and a canteen of home-brewed vodka. "Just like my combat rations," she grins.

Anna points to a photo of a hand-woven straw purse decorated with an embroidered wing insignia and the Cyrillic initials "A.E." "They made it for me in secret," she explains, her eyes shining. Among the Allied prisoners at the Nazi POW camp where she spent five months in 1944, the young lieutenant was a sensation: A female pilot had been captured! At great risk, her fellow POWs conspired to send her kindnesses — concealing her documents, weaving her a Soviet Air Force purse, and launching an insurrection to demand that the camp allow another prisoner, a Russian doctor, to treat her wounds.

Her eyes are darkening now, her voice growing quieter. This is the part Anna still cannot bear to tell. Bronzed autumn sunlight slants into the tiny Moscow apartment, two drab rooms made cheerful by shelves of old china, books and photographs. Anna's cheer has drained away. "They called me a 'traitor,' a 'fascist bitch,'" she tells me, the tears coming, her rage still undiminished after 60 years.

"They" were her own countrymen, from a branch of the USSR's wartime secret police called "SMERSH" — an acronym meaning "Death to Spies." After Soviet troops liberated her POW camp in January 1945, SMERSH operatives interrogated Anna for 10 days for the "crime" of being captured. Stalin's policy was that there were no Soviet POWs, only turncoats. Officially, being a prisoner of war meant you had betrayed your country.

The Soviets took away Anna's combat medals and branded her suspect. Then, when the war ended for the USSR — 70 years ago this month — they told her to go home, raise a family and keep quiet about her war memories. Just as they did with thousands of other female Soviet citizens who helped win the war as snipers, partisan fighters and front-line pilots.

Anna never healed from the psychic wounds of her nation's monstrous betrayal of her. She'd been a patriot, born the year the revolution began. She helped build the Moscow Metro and then volunteered for the Soviet air force when Germany invaded. Her great tragedy was to give so much for a place that too often devours its true believers — and then erases them from history — and to love a land that gives and takes away capriciously, and not always in equal measure.

I'd learned my own painful lessons about things taken away in 1991, in the turbulent final months of the USSR's existence. I found myself riding a bipolar wave of anxiety and exultation as I watched an empire falling and a new Something being born. But for me, the Soviet Union's final days will always intertwine with another memory — of being assaulted and held captive for the 10 longest, darkest hours of my life. (I wrote about that experience in the Oct. 16, 2014, Vodka Yonic.)

But on that fall afternoon in 2005 — back in Moscow for the first time in 14 years — I shared four of the loveliest hours of my life with a Russian grandmother who was telling me her war stories. In the interim, I'd learned to fly airplanes, become a flight instructor and writer, resurrected my disused Russian skills, and yearned for Moscow.

I had long worried that I wouldn't be able to face the place again, that it had defeated me, and that there was no going back. But hearing Anna's tales of epic feats and serial calamities, I suddenly realized my own far smaller calamity was never about defeat. It was about survival.

No matter how we try to impose meaning after the fact, no post-hoc rewriting of a human life can really make sense of things. I didn't become a Russian-speaking writer-aviatrix in preparation for the moment when I'd sip vodka from a canteen and promise an 89-year-old war hero that I would co-translate and edit her memoir for publication in America. It wasn't part of some grand plan to help us both heal. It all just happened that way. One thing led to another, as they say.

What those things led to: the moment when, six months before she died, I sent Anna an American copy of her life story, Red Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot's Memoir of the Eastern Front. My Russian friends who delivered it to her told me that Anna held it in her hands and smiled, her eyes bright and clear.

The book, I hope, will serve as the embodiment of Anna's refusal to be written out of the history of World War II — or the "Great Patriotic War," as it's known to Russians. If Anna were alive this May 9, she'd most likely join the dwindling ranks of veterans in observing the 70th anniversary of Russia's Victory Day in Red Square.

But her greatest victory is sheer, stubborn survival, and her insistence on remembering, no matter how painful the recollection.

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