Leo Cooper 2

Title: Stakhanovites and others:the story of a worker in Soviet Union
Author: Leo Cooper
Publisher: Hudson Publishing
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1994
Location of Book: Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Poland: Warsaw, Bialystok, Soviet Union: Propoist, Minsk, Moscow, Urgench, Komarowo, Borowichi
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

Stakhanovites – and others is the story of a refugee worker in the Soviet union from 1939 to 1946. The first 23 pages outline Cooper’s flight from Warsaw to the Soviet border via Bialystok. Pages 24-65 describe Cooper’s life in Propoist and Minsk before the German invasion of Russia. Pages 66-93 portray his journey to central Asia via Moscow and Buzuluk, while pages 94-111 relate his time as a worker in Urgench. Pages 112-150 tell of his work as a fitter and turner in a labour battalion in Komarowo and Borowichi. The final 20 pages deal with his visit to Russia decades after the war. The book was published by Hudson in 1994.

Leo Cooper was born in Warsaw, Poland. Following the German occupation of Warsaw. Cooper separated from his family and fled eastward. After reaching Bialystok, Cooper enlisted himself for work at a Soviet labour recruitment office. As a qualified turner, Cooper was guaranteed employment. Hoping that the city he was allocated to was not in Siberia, Cooper boarded the appropriate train, not having any idea about Russian geography or where exactly he would end up. After a brief stay in Propoist, Cooper found work in a brick factory in Minsk. Cooper enjoyed a comfortable job, and over time became acquainted with the Russian language and culture, as well as the overbearing shadow of the Soviet government and its bureaucracy. He was a respected worker and took part in administration meetings. In March 1941 Cooper became a Soviet citizen.

While in the Soviet Union, Cooper initially hears only snippets of information on events occurring back in Poland. At one point Cooper forgoes a romantic relationship with a local girl, overcome by feelings of guilt that while he is enjoying himself, his family is suffering under Nazi rule.

When the Germans attacked Russia in June 1941, Cooper again fled eastward. He escaped at fifteen minutes notice with a work colleague in a company truck. The road was full of refugees while German bombing raids were a constant threat. He reached Moscow where the Russians were busy preparing for the German onslaught, awaiting the help of ‘General Winter,’ who had earlier defended Russia against Napoleon. Convinced that he would not survive the freezing temperatures, Cooper headed south to warmer climes. In Buzuluk he met a group of Poles who were reforming the Polish army in exile. When Cooper’s travel partner was denied enlistment because he was Jewish, Cooper decided there was no point in trying to join the Poles.

After a long journey Cooper reached the Uzbek town of Urgench. After failing as a labourer on a collective farm, Cooper found a job as a fitter and turner for an irrigation company. Despite his steady job, food in Urgench was sparse and Cooper was constantly hungry. No sooner had Cooper recovered from bouts of malaria than he was conscripted into the army. He was placed into a work battalion together with Polish Jews, Uzbeks and displaced Koreans. His battalion was taken to Komarowo, where most conscripts laboured in coal mines while Cooper worked in the maintenance shop. At one point Cooper was forced to become an informant for the Soviet security services. Cooper was later transferred to Borowichi, where he remained until the end of the war. He was repatriated to Poland before immigrating to Australia. The final chapter of the book tells of a journey back to Russia to revisit the places of his youth.

Stakhanovites – and others is the fast-paced adventure story if a Polish Jewish refugee. Complementing the central narrative, the book is replete with insightful observations on the nature of the Stalinist government, the Russian people, and the relationship between them.