For decades this black and white photograph has symbolized victory in the Great Patriotic War. This young Red Army soldier with the TT-33 pistol in his hand has a very special place in Russians’ idea of courage and bravery in defending their motherland. The memorable figure has been reproduced in numerous drawings and sculptures since the end of war.
But who is that man in the photograph? His identity was a mystery for over twenty years. Only on the 20th anniversary of the V-Day was he recognized from that same photo by his widow.
The “Combat” photograph
The famous photograph was shot by the Pravda correspondent Max Alpert on 12 July 1942 near the village of Khorosheye, not far from Voroshilovgrad (Luhansk) in Ukraine. Things were looking really dim for the Russians at this stage. On 28 June 1942 German Army Group South had re-opened an offensive and were moving towards the Caucasus oil fields.
Max Alpert was with the 220th Rifle Regiment, defending their positions from the assault. The 4th rifle division had already managed to withhold 12 attacks by the Germans. They were in their positions and the Nazis were preparing to attack yet again.
Alpert remembers that the planes were flying and fierce battle broke out. After finding shelter in a small trench he saw an officer standing upright and calling others for offensive. He immediately took the shot and his camera lens was broken by shrapnel. The film was lost and while he was trying to find it in rubble, he heard others shout “Combat killed”. So he assumed that the man had died just seconds after he had captured him on the film.
The man in the photograph
After the photo was published, Max Alpert received several letters of people who had recognised their lost relative in the photo. They were all wrong. It was only in May 1965, on the 20th anniversary of the Victory Day that Evdokia Eremenko positively identified his husband on the front page of the commemorative World War II issue of Pravda.
It was confirmed by a joint investigation by the Komsomolskaya Pravda and administration of Lugansk oblast that the man in the photo was indeed his husband Alexey Eremenko (1906-1942), a political commissar of the 220th Rifle Regiment.
He had been working in a local kolkhoz when the Germans attacked. As the political commissar, he must have taken control of his unit after the commander of a battalion had got wounded. He then did what he was supposed to do – encouraged his unit to fight against the enemy by setting an example himself.