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A Great Patriotic War Through the Lens of Georgi Zelma

Georgi Anatolevich Zelma captured the cold steel essence of the Soviet struggle to defeat Nazi domination like no other photographer

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Humanity overcame its own potential for evil 70 years ago this month through the grace of a merciful God and indomitable human courage and spirit. We have many records of this struggle, but none more vivid that those captured by photographers such as Soviet photographer Georgi Zelma. Here’s a bit of his story, and our own.  

Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1906, Georgii Anatolevich Zelma moved to Moscow with his family in 1921. Young Georgii was always fascinated with photography, and he soon began taking pictures for the then popular magazine Teatr. Later Georgii joined the Russfoto agency, and from 1924 to 1927, returned to his native land as a photojournalist/correspondent for Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia, documenting vividly Islamic culture in those places. His work was soon published in Pravda Vostoka.

Killed German tankers near Stalingrad, Russia, 17 Jun 1942 (Georgi Zelma)
Killed German tankers near Stalingrad, Russia, 17 Jun 1942 (Georgi Zelma)
<figcaption>Legendary Soviet photographer Georgi Zelma</figcaption>
Legendary Soviet photographer Georgi Zelma

Zelma’s most famous photographs come to us from his war correspondent status during World War II. Assigned to Isvestiia, Georgii was stationed at the front-line campaigns in Moldova, Odessa, and Ukraine. His most memorable photographs are of the Battle of Stalingrad, where he spent the severe winter of 1942-43. 

Contrary to popular belief, the battle for Stalingrad was not a foregone conclusion from the outset. As you can see from the photo above in the summer of 1942, the Germans and Soviets suffered very heavy losses throughout. 

Soviet soldier throwing a grenade near Stalingrad, Russia, 1942 (Georgi Zelma)
Soviet soldier throwing a grenade near Stalingrad, Russia, 1942 (Georgi Zelma)

In the Fall and Winter of 1942 the situation for the Soviets defending Stalingrad was desperate. As an indication of the intensity of battle, in the autumn of 1942 the most powerful single air formation in history was directed over the city. Some 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped in 48 hours, more than in London at the height of the Blitz. Hitler's 6th Army, 4th Panzer Army, the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies, and the Italian 8th Army wielded the mightiest sledge hammer of war ever witnessed on Earth. 

Soviet troops fighting in the ruins of the factory 'Red October', Stalingrad, Russia, Oct 1942; note PPSh-41 submachine guns, and a soldier who had just been shot (Georgi Zelma)
Soviet troops fighting in the ruins of the factory 'Red October', Stalingrad, Russia, Oct 1942; note PPSh-41 submachine guns, and a soldier who had just been shot (Georgi Zelma)

As portrayed in the Hollywood film Enemy at the Gates, the story of hero Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev, snipers moved from building to building. Death from above, from afar, and all around was grim reality each day for the besieged defenders of Stalin's namesake city. 

Soviet snipers moving amongst ruined buildings in Stalingrad, Russia, 1 Dec 1942 (Georgi Zelma)
Soviet snipers moving amongst ruined buildings in Stalingrad, Russia, 1 Dec 1942 (Georgi Zelma)

By the last days of 1942 Stalingrad, the thriving metropolis on the Volga, had been transformed into a burning heap of frozen rubble. The city named for the Soviet Union's leader became a "do-or-die" symbol for two sides of the world's largest conflict. Even to this day Stalingrad is considered the single largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. Marked by constant close quarters combat and direct assaults on civilians by air raids, this desperate battle became a symbol of all that is bitter and hard in human beings, as well as what a people are capable of withstanding.

View of Stalingrad, Russia, 23 Dec 1942 (Georgi Zelma)
View of Stalingrad, Russia, 23 Dec 1942 (Georgi Zelma)

The heavy losses inflicted onto the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad proved pivotal for Allied victory, according to most military historians. The German armed forces never fully recovered after the battle, which makes Stalingrad arguably the most strategically decisive battle of the war. The victory here by the Soviets opened up the entire European theatre. Hitler's generals were forced to move massive reinforcements from the West in order to replace those lost at Stalingrad. Without the Soviet sacrifices here, it is doubtful that Allied forces could have landed at Normandy months later.

Ever defiant, a Soviet soldier waving a red flag at a building off the central square in Stalingrad, Russia, Jan-Feb 1943 (Georgi Zelma)
Ever defiant, a Soviet soldier waving a red flag at a building off the central square in Stalingrad, Russia, Jan-Feb 1943 (Georgi Zelma)

Luftwaffe losses alone would have bolstered German air defenses to more easily withstand US and British air forces over Europe. The Germans lost hundreds of aircraft, and many of their best aviators. The Germans lost the equivalent of five aircraft squadrons at Stalingrad alone, or some 900 essential aircraft. The Axis forces suffered 850,000 wounded, killed or captured from all branches and nations. Hitler lost 1,666 tanks, 6,000 artillery pieces.10,722 trucks, and 261 armored vehicles. The Hungarian, Italian, and Romanian armies at Stalingrad lost untold of material and armor. 

In January of 1943, a Soviet T-34 tank roars through the Square of Fallen Fighters in Stalingrad.(Georgy Zelma)
In January of 1943, a Soviet T-34 tank roars through the Square of Fallen Fighters in Stalingrad.(Georgy Zelma)

After Stalingrad the Soviets were on the offensive continually, except at the famous battle of Kursk salient. Over two million human beings died at Stalingrad, some 40,000 Soviet citizens are thought to have perished in the first week of bombing raids alone. Their sacrifice ultimately led to Hitler's 1,000 year Reich being crushed. The tragedy though, is in not ever knowing what potential lays buried beneath the soil near the Volga River.

As for Georgii Anatolevich Zelma, he went on to work for the magazine Ogonek after the war. From 1962, the famous war photographer worked for the Novosti press agency on many assignments. Zelma passed away in 1984, and his images bring many thousands of dollars at auction houses these days. The Soviet photographer's legacy of photographic memories lives on, as does the impact of World War II on us all.

A Zelma photograph of a military parade in Red Square in 1934
A Zelma photograph of a military parade in Red Square in 1934

 

 

 


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