The Phantom Tolbukhin

Editor's Note: To recognize the one-year anniversary of Russia's reinvasion of Ukraine on February 24, Bullet Points is running this alternate history tale about Hitlerite forces occupying a Ukrainian city. Today, Russians are the Nazi occupiers and Ukrainians the resourceful defenders. Shove it, Putin.

Harry Turtledove

February 15, 2023

General Fedor Tolbukhin turned to his political commissar. “Is everything in your area of responsibility in readiness for the assault, Nikita Sergeyevich?”

“Fedor Ivanovich, it is,” Nikita Khrushchev replied. “There can be no doubt that the Fourth Ukrainian Front will win another smashing victory against the fascist lice who suck the blood from the motherland.”

Tolbukhin’s mouth tightened. Khrushchev should have addressed him as Comrade General, not by his first name and patronymic. Political commissars had a way of thinking they were as important as real soldiers. But Khrushchev, unlike some—unlike most—political commissars Tolbukhin knew, was not afraid to get gun oil on his hands, or even to take a PPSh41 submachine gun up to the front line and personally pot a few fascists.

“Will you inspect the troops before ordering them to the assault against Zaporozhye?” Khrushchev asked.

“I will, and gladly,” Tolbukhin replied.

Not all of Tolbukhin’s forces were drawn up for inspection, of course: too great a danger of marauding Luftwaffe fighters spotting such an assemblage and shooting it up. But representatives from each of the units the Soviet general had welded into a solid fighting force were there, lined up behind the red banners that symbolized their proud records. Yes, they were all there: the flags of the First Guards Army, the Second Guards, the Eighth Guards, the Fifth Shock Army, the Thirty-Eighth Army, and the Fifty-First.

“Comrade Standard Bearer!” Tolbukhin said to the young soldier who carried the flag of the Eighth Guards Army, which bore the images of Marx and Lenin and Stalin.

“I serve the Soviet Union, Comrade General!” the standard bearer barked. But for his lips, he was utterly motionless. By his wide Slavic face, he might have come from anywhere in the USSR; his mouth proved him a native Ukrainian, for he turned the Great Russian G into an H.

“We all serve the Soviet Union,” Tolbukhin said. “How may we best serve the motherland?”

“By expelling from her soil the German invaders,” the young soldier replied. “Only then can we take back what is ours. Only then can we begin to build true Communism. It surely will come in my lifetime.”

“It surely will,” Tolbukhin said. He nodded to Khrushchev, who marched one pace to his left, one pace to the rear. “If all the men are as well indoctrinated as this one, the Fourth Ukrainian Front cannot fail.”

After inspecting the detachments, he conferred with the army commanders—and, inevitably, with their political commissars. They crowded a tumbledown barn to overflowing. By the light of a kerosene lantern, Tolbukhin bent over the map, pointing out the avenues of approach the forces would use. Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov, commander of the Eighth Guards Army, grinned wide enough to show a couple of missing teeth. “It is a good plan, Comrade General,” he said. “The invaders will regret

ever setting foot in the Soviet Union.”

“I thank you, Yuri Nikolaievich,” Tolbukhin said. “Your knowledge of the approach roads to the city will help the attack succeed.”

“The fascist invaders already regret ever setting foot in the Soviet Union,” Khrushchev said loudly.

Lieutenant General Kuznetsov dipped his head, accepting the rebuke. “I serve the Soviet Union!” he said, as if he were a raw recruit rather than a veteran of years of struggle against the Hitlerites.

“You have the proper Soviet spirit,” Tolbukhin said, and even the lantern light was enough to show how Kuznetsov flushed with pleasure.

Lieutenant General Ivanov of the First Guards Army turned to Major General Rudzikovich, who had recently assumed command of the Fifth Shock Army, and murmured, “Sure as the devil’s grandmother, the Phantom will make the Nazis pay.”

Tolbukhin didn’t think he was supposed to hear. But he was young for his rank—only fifty-three—and his ears were keen. The nickname warmed him. He’d earned it earlier in the war—the seemingly endless war—against the madmen and ruffians and murderers who followed the swastika. He’d always had a knack for hitting the enemies of the peasants and workers of the Soviet Union where they least expected it, then fading away before they could strike back at his forces.

“Has anyone any questions about the plan before we continue the war for the liberation of Zaporozhye and all the territory of the Soviet Union now groaning under the oppressor’s heel?” he asked.

He thought no one would answer, but Rudzikovich spoke up: “Comrade General, are we truly wise to attack the city from the northeast and southeast at the same time? Would we not be better off concentrating our forces for a single strong blow?”

“This is the plan the council of the Fourth Ukrainian Front has made, and this is the plan we shall follow,” Khrushchev said angrily.

“Gently, gently,” Tolbukhin told his political commissar. He turned back to Rudzikovich. “When we hit the Germans straight on, that is where we run into trouble. Is it not so, Anatoly Pavlovich? We will surprise them instead, and see how they like that.”

“I hope it won’t be too expensive, that’s all,” Major General Rudzikovich said. “We have to watch that we spend our brave Soviet soldiers with care these days.”

“I know,” Tolbukhin answered. “Sooner or later, though, the Nazis have to run out of men.” Soviet strategists had been saying that ever since the Germans, callously disregarding the treaty Ribbentrop had signed with Foreign Commissar Molotov, invaded the USSR. General Tolbukhin pointed to the evidence: “See how many Hungarian and Romanian and Italian soldiers they have here in the Ukraine to pad out their own forces.”

“And they cannot even station the Hungarians and Romanians next to one another, lest they fight,”

Khrushchev added—like any political commissar, if he couldn’t score points off Rudzikovich one way, he’d try another. “Thieves fall out. It is only one more proof that the dialectic assures our victory. So long as we labor like Stakhanovites, over and above the norm, that victory will be ours.”

“Anatoly Pavlovich, we have been over the plan a great many times,” Tolbukhin said, almost pleadingly. “If you seek to alter it now, just before the attack goes in, you will need a better reason than ‘I hope’.’”

Anatoly Rudzikovich shrugged. “I hope you are right, Comrade General,” he said, bearing down heavily on the start of the sentence. He shrugged again. “Well, nichevo.” It can’t be helped was a Russian foundation old as time.

Tolbukhin said, “Collect your detachments, Comrades, and rejoin your main forces. The attack will go in on time. And we shall strike the fascists a heavy blow at Zaporozhye. For Stalin and the motherland!”

“For Stalin and the motherland!” his lieutenants chorused. They left the barn with their political commissars—all but Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov, whose Eighth Guards Army was based at Collective Farm 122 nearby.

“This attack must succeed, Fedor Ivanovich,” Khrushchev said quietly. “The situation in the Ukraine requires it.”

“I understand that, Nikita Sergeyevich,” Tolbukhin answered, as quietly. “To make sure the attack succeeds, I intend to go in with the leading wave of troops. Will you fight at my side?”

In the dim light, he watched Khrushchev. Most political commissars would have looked for the nearest bed under which to hide at a request like that. Khrushchev only nodded. “Of course I will.”

“Stout fellow.” Tolbukhin slapped him on the back. He gathered up Kuznetsov and his political commissar by eye. “Let’s go.”

The night was very black. The moon, nearly new, would not rise till just before sunup. Only starlight shone down on Tolbukhin and his comrades. He nodded to himself. The armies grouped together into the Fourth Ukrainian Front would be all the harder for German planes to spot before they struck Zaporozhye. Dispersing them would help there, too.

He wished for air cover, then shrugged. He’d wished for a great many things in life he’d ended up not receiving. He remained alive to do more wishing. One day, he thought, and one day soon, may we see more airplanes blazoned with the red star. He was too well indoctrinated a Marxist-Leninist to recognize that as a prayer.

Waiting outside Collective Farm 122 stood the men of the Eighth Guards Army. Lieutenant General Kuznetsov spoke to them: “General Tolbukhin not only sends us into battle against the Hitlerite oppressors and bandits, he leads us into battle against them. Let us cheer the Comrade General!”

Urra!” The cheer burst from the soldiers’ throats, but softly, cautiously. Most of the men were veterans of many fights against the Nazis. They knew better than to give themselves away too soon.

However soft those cheers, they heartened Tolbukhin. “We shall win tonight,” he said, as if no other alternative were even imaginable. “We shall win for Comrade Stalin, we shall win for the memory of the great Lenin, we shall win for the motherland.”

“We serve the Soviet Union!” the soldiers chorused. Beside Tolbukhin, Khrushchev’s broad peasant face showed a broad peasant grin. These were indeed well-indoctrinated men.

They were also devilishly good fighters. To Tolbukhin’s mind, that counted for more. He spoke one word: “Vryed’!” Obedient to his order, the soldiers of the Eighth Guards Army trotted forward.

Tolbukhin trotted along with them. So did Khrushchev. Both the general and the political commissar were older and rounder than the soldiers they commanded. They would not have lost much face had they failed to keep up. Tolbukhin intended to lose no face whatever. His heart pounded. His lungs burned. His legs began to ache. He kept on nonetheless. So did Khrushchev, grimly slogging along beside him.

He expected the first brush with the Wehrmacht to take place outside of Zaporozhye, and so it did. The Germans patrolled east of the city: no denying they were technically competent soldiers. Tolbukhin wished they were less able; that would have spared the USSR endless grief.

A voice came out of the night: “Wer geht hier?” A hail of rifle and submachine-gun bullets answered that German hail. Tolbukhin hoped his men wiped out the patrol before the Nazis could use their wireless set. When the Germans stopped shooting back, which took only moments, the Eighth Guards Army rolled on.

Less than ten minutes later, planes rolled out of the west. Along with the soldiers in the first ranks, Tolbukhin threw himself flat. He ground his teeth and cursed under his breath. Had that patrol got a signal out after all? He hoped it was not so. Had prayer been part of his ideology, he would have prayed it was not so. If the Germans learned of the assault too soon, they could blunt it with artillery and rockets at minimal cost to themselves.

The planes—Tolbukhin recognized the silhouettes of Focke-Wulf 190s—zoomed away. They dropped neither bombs nor flares, and did not strafe the men of the Fourth Ukrainian Front. Tolbukhin scrambled to his feet. “Onward!” he called.

Onward the men went. Tolbukhin felt a glow of pride. After so much war, after so much heartbreak, they still retained their revolutionary spirit. “Truly, these are the New Soviet Men,” he called to Khrushchev.

A middle-aged Soviet man, the political commissar nodded. “We shall never rest until we drive the last of the German invaders from our soil. As Comrade Stalin said, ‘Not one step back!’ Once the fascists are gone, we shall rebuild this land to our hearts’ desire.”

Tolbukhin’s heart’s desire was piles of dead Germans in field-gray uniforms, clouds of flies swarming over their stinking bodies. And he had achieved his heart’s desire many times. But however many Nazis the men under his command killed, more kept coming out of the west. It hardly seemed fair.

Ahead loomed the apartment blocks and factories of Zaporozhye, black against the dark night sky. German patrols enforced their blackout by shooting into lighted windows. If they hit a Russian mother or

a sleeping child… it bothered them not in the least. Maybe they won promotion for it.

“Kuznetsov,” Tolbukhin called through the night.

“Yes, Comrade General?” the commander of the Eighth Guards Army asked.

“Lead the First and Second Divisions by way of Tregubenko Boulevard,” Tolbukhin said. “I will take the Fifth and Ninth Divisions farther south, by way of Metallurgov Street. Thus we will converge upon the objective.”

“I serve the Soviet Union!” Kuznetsov said.

Zaporozhye had already been fought over a good many times. As Tolbukhin got into the outskirts of the Ukrainian city, he saw the gaps bombs and shellfire had torn in the buildings. People still lived in those battered blocks of flats and still labored in those factories under German guns.

In the doorway to one of those apartment blocks, a tall, thin man in the field-gray tunic and trousers of the Wehrmacht was kissing and feeling up a blond woman whose overalls said she was a factory worker. A factory worker supplementing her income as a Nazi whore, Tolbukhin thought coldly.

At the sound of booted feet running on Metallurgov Street, the German soldier broke away from the Ukrainian woman. He shouted something. Submachine-gun fire from the advancing Soviet troops cut him down. The woman fell, too, fell and fell screaming. Khrushchev stopped beside her and shot her in the back of the neck. The screams cut off.

“Well done, Nikita Sergeyevich,” Tolbukhin said.

“I’ve given plenty of traitors what they deserve,” Khrushchev answered. “I know how. And it’s always a pleasure.”

“Yes,” Tolbukhin said: of course a commissar would see a traitor where he saw a whore. “We’ll have to move faster now, though; the racket will draw the fascists. Nichevo. We’d have bumped into another Nazi patrol in a minute or two, anyway.”

One thing the racket did not do was bring people out of their flats to join the Eighth Guards Army in the fight against the fascist occupiers. As the soldiers ran, they shouted, “Citizens of Zaporozhye, the hour of liberation is at hand!” But the city had seen a lot of war. Civilians left here were no doubt cowering under their beds, hoping no stray bullets from either Soviet or German guns would find them.

“Scouts forward!” Tolbukhin shouted as his men turned south from Metallurgov onto Pravdy Street. They were getting close to their objective. The fascists surely had guards in the area—but where? Finding them before they set eyes on the men of the Eighth Guards Army could make the difference between triumph and disaster.

Then the hammering of gunfire broke out to the south. Khrushchev laughed out loud. “The Nazis will think they are engaging the whole of our force, Fedor Ivanovich,” he said joyfully. “For who would think even the Phantom dared divide his men so?”

Tolbukhin ran on behind the scouts. The Nazis were indeed pulling soldiers to the south to fight the fire there, and didn’t discover they were between two fires till the Eighth Guards Army and, moments later, the men of the Fifth Shock Army and the Fifty-First Army opened up on them as well. How the Hitlerites howled!

Ahead of him, a German machine gun snarled death—till grenades put the men handling it out of action. Then, a moment later, it started up again, this time with Red Army soldiers feeding it and handling the trigger. Tolbukhin whooped with glee. An MG-42 was a powerful weapon. Turning it on its makers carried the sweetness of poetic justice.

One of his soldiers pointed and shouted: “The objective! The armory! And look, Comrade General! Some of our men are already inside. We have succeeded.”

“We have not succeeded yet,” Tolbukhin answered. “We will have succeeded only when we have done what he came here to do.” He raised his voice to a great shout: “Form a perimeter around the building. Exploitation teams, forward! You know your assignments.”

“Remember, soldiers of the Soviet Union, the motherland depends on your courage and discipline,” Khrushchev added.

As Tolbukhin had planned, the perimeter force around the Nazi armory was as small as possible; the exploitation force, made up of teams from each army of the Fourth Ukrainian Front, as large. Tolbukhin went into the armory with the exploitation force. Its mission here was far the most important for the strike against Zaporozhye.

Inside the armory, German efficiency came to the aid of the Soviet Union. The Nazis had arranged weapons and ammunition so their own troops could lay hold of whatever they needed as quickly as possible. The men of the Red Army happily seized rifles and submachine guns and the ammunition that went with each. They also laid hands on a couple of more MG-42s. If they could get those out of the city, the fascists would regret it whenever they tried driving down a road for a hundred kilometers around.

“When you’re loaded up, get out!” Tolbukhin shouted. “Pretty soon, the Nazis will hit us with everything they’ve got.” He did not disdain slinging a German rifle on his back and loading his pockets with clips of ammunition.

“We have routed them, Fedor Ivanovich,” Khrushchev said. When Tolbukhin did not reply, the political commissar added, “A million rubles for your thoughts, Comrade General.”

Before the war, the equivalent sum would have been a kopeck. Of course, before the war Tolbukhin would not have called the understrength regiment he led a front. Companies would not have been styled armies, nor sections divisions. “Inflation is everywhere,” he murmured, and then spoke to Khrushchev: “As long as you came in, Nikita Sergeyevich, load up, and then we’ll break away if we can, if the Germans let us.”

Khrushchev affected an injured look. “Am I then only a beast of burden, Fedor Ivanovich?”

“We are all only beasts of burden in the building of true Communism,” Tolbukhin replied, relishing the

chance to get off one of those sententious bromides at the political commissar’s expense. He went on, “I am not too proud to load myself like a beast of burden. Why should you be?”

Khrushchev flushed and glared furiously. In earlier days—in happier days, though Tolbukhin would not have thought so at the time—upbraiding a political commissar would surely have caused a denunciation to go winging its way up through the Party hierarchy, perhaps all the way up to Stalin himself. So many good men had disappeared in the purges that turned the USSR upside down and inside out between 1936 and 1938: Tukhashevsky and Koniev, Yegorov and Blyukher, Zhukov and Uborevich, Gamarnik and Fedko. Was it any wonder the Red Army had fallen to pieces when the Nazis attacked in May 1941?

And now, in 1947, Khrushchev was as high-ranking a political commissar as remained among the living. To whom could he denounce Tolbukhin? No one, and he knew it. However furious he was, he started filling his pockets with magazines of Mauser and Schmeisser rounds.

Sometimes, Tolbukhin wondered why he persisted in the fight against the fascists when the system he served, even in its tattered remnants, was so onerous. The answer was not hard to find. For one thing, he understood the difference between bad and worse. And, for another, he’d been of general’s rank when the Hitlerites invaded the motherland. If they caught him, they would liquidate him—their methods in the Soviet Union made even Stalin’s seem mild by comparison. If he kept fighting, he might possibly—just possibly—succeed.

Khrushchev clanked when turning back to him. The tubby little political commissar was still glaring. “I am ready, Fedor Ivanovich,” he said. “I hope you are satisfied.”

Da,” Tolbukhin said. He hadn’t been satisfied since Moscow and Leningrad fell, but Khrushchev couldn’t do anything about that. Tolbukhin pulled from his pocket an officer’s whistle and blew a long, furious blast. “Soldiers of the Red Army, we have achieved our objective!” he shouted in a great voice. “Now we complete the mission by making our departure!”

He was none too soon. Outside, the fascists were striking heavy blows against his perimeter teams. But the fresh men coming out of the armory gave the Soviets new strength and let them blast open a corridor to the east and escape.

Now it was every section—every division, in the grandiose language of what passed for the Red Army in the southern Ukraine these days—for itself. Inevitably, men fell as the units made their way out of Zaporozhye and onto the steppe. Tolbukhin’s heart sobbed within him each time he saw a Soviet soldier go down. Recruits were so hard to come by these days. The booty he’d gained from this raid would help there, and would also help bring some of the bandit bands prowling the steppe under the operational control of the Red Army. With more men, with more guns, he’d be able to hurt the Nazis more the next time.

But if, before he got out of Zaporozhye, he lost all the men he had now… What then, Comrade General? he jeered at himself.

Bullets cracked around him, spattering off concrete and striking blue sparks when they ricocheted from

metal. He lacked the time to be afraid. He had to keep moving, keep shouting orders, keep turning back and sending another burst of submachine-gun fire at the pursuing Hitlerites.

Then his booted feet thudded on dirt, not on asphalt or concrete any more. “Out of the city!” he cried exultantly.

And there, not far away, Khrushchev doggedly pounded along. He had grit, did the political commissar. “Scatter!” he called to the men within the sound of his voice. “Scatter and hide your booty in the secure places. Resume the maskirovka that keeps us all alive.”

Without camouflage, the Red Army would long since have become extinct in this part of the USSR. As things were, Tolbukhin’s raiders swam like fish through the water of the Soviet peasantry, as Mao’s Red Chinese did in their long guerrilla struggle against the imperialists of Japan.

But Tolbukhin had little time to think about Mao, either, for the Germans were going fishing. Nazis on foot, Nazis in armored cars and personnel carriers, and even a couple of panzers came forth from Zaporozhye. At night, Tolbukhin feared the German foot soldiers more than the men in machines. Machines were easy to elude in the darkness. The infantry would be the ones who knew what they were doing.

Still, this was not the first raid Tolbukhin had led against the Germans, nor the tenth, nor the fiftieth, either. What he did not know about rear guards and ambushes wasn’t worth knowing. His men stung the Germans again and again, stung them and then crept away. They understood the art of making many men seem few, few seem many. Little by little, they shook off pursuit.

Tolbukhin scrambled down into a balka with Khrushchev and half a dozen men from the Eighth Guards Army, then struggled up the other side of the dry wash. They started back toward Collective Farm 122, where, when they were not raiding, they labored for their Nazi masters as they had formerly labored for their Soviet masters.

“Wait,” Tolbukhin called to them, his voice low but urgent. “I think we still have Germans on our tail. This is the best place I can think of to make them regret it.”

“We serve the Soviet Union!” one of the soldiers said. They returned and took cover behind bushes and stones. So did Tolbukhin. He could not have told anyone how or why he believed the fascists remained in pursuit of this little band, but he did. Instinct of the hunted, he thought.

And the instinct did not fail him. Inside a quarter of an hour, men in coal-scuttle helmets began going down into the balka. One of them tripped, stumbled, and fell with a thud. “Those God-damned stinking Russian pigdogs,” he growled in guttural German. “They’ll pay for this. Screw me out of sack time, will they?”

Ja, better we should screw their women than they should screw us out of sack time,” another trooper said. “That Natasha in the soldiers’ brothel, she’s limber like she doesn’t have any bones at all.”

“Heinrich, Klaus, shut up!” another voice hissed. “You’ve got to play the game like those Red bastards

are waiting for us on the far side of this miserable gully. You don’t, your family gets a Fallen for Führer and Fatherland telegram one fine day.” By the way the other two men fell silent, Tolbukhin concluded that fellow was a corporal or sergeant. From his hiding place, he kept an eye on the sensible Nazi. I’ll shoot you first, he thought.

Grunting and cursing—but cursing in whispers now—the Germans started making their way up the side of the balka. Yes, there was the one who kept his mind on business. Kill enough of that kind and the rest grew less efficient. The Germans got rid of Soviet officers and commissars on the same brutal logic.

Closer, closer… A submachine gun spat a great number of bullets, but was hardly a weapon of finesse or accuracy. “Fire!” Tolbukhin shouted, and blazed away. The Nazi noncom tumbled down the steep side of the wash. Some of those bullets had surely bitten him. The rest of the German squad lasted only moments longer. One of the Hitlerites lay groaning till a Red Army man went down and cut his throat. Who could guess how long he might last otherwise? Too long, maybe.

Now we go on home,” Tolbukhin said.

They had practiced withdrawal from such raids many times before, and maskirovka came naturally to Soviet soldiers. They took an indirect route back to the collective farm, concealing their tracks as best they could. The Hitlerites sometimes hunted them with dogs. They knew how to deal with that, too. Whenever they came to rivulets running through the steppe, they trampled along in them for a couple of hundred meters, now going one way, now the other. A couple of them also had their canteens filled with fiery pepper-flavored vodka. They poured some on their trail every now and then; it drove the hounds frantic.

“Waste of good vodka,” one of the soldiers grumbled.

“If it keeps us alive, it isn’t wasted,” Tolbukhin said. “If it keeps us alive, we can always get outside of more later.”

“The Comrade General is right,” Khrushchev said. Where he was often too familiar with Tolbukhin, he was too formal with the men.

This time, though, it turned out not to matter. One of the other soldiers gave the fellow who’d complained a shot in the ribs with his elbow. “Da, Volya, the Phantom is right,” he said. “The Phantom’s been right a lot of times, and he hasn’t hardly been wrong yet. Let’s give a cheer for the Phantom.”

It was another soft cheer, because they weren’t quite safe yet, but a cheer nonetheless: “Urra for the Phantom Tolbukhin!”

Maybe, Tolbukhin thought as a grin stretched itself across his face, maybe we’ll lick the Hitlerites yet, in spite of everything. He didn’t know whether he believed that or not. He knew he’d keep trying. He trotted on. Collective Farm 122 wasn’t far now.

Harry Turtledove is the award-winning author of the alternate history works The Man with the Iron Heart, The Guns of the South, How Few Remain (winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Novel), the Worldwar saga, the Colonization books, the Great War epics, and the American Empire novels. Turtledove is married to fellow novelist Laura Frankos. They have three daughters: Alison, Rachel, and Rebecca.

“The Phantom Tolbukhin” originally appeared in Alternate Generals.

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