A Kazakh Defender of Moscow

A vast array of English sources on WWII contains surprisingly little information about Bauyrzhan Momyshuly (in Kazakh: Бауыржан Момышұлы, 1910-1982) – a Hero of the Soviet Union. This larger-than-life figure has been undeservedly overlooked by Western war historians. Twenty-six episodes of The World at War (1973-74)a series of documentaries about World War II – didn’t mention him at all. An article by Paul Sonne, Old Doubts About a Cherished Soviet War Legend Resurface, Unleashing Firestorm, published in “The Wall Street Journal” on August 10, 2015, doesn’t even say that the famed Panfilov division was formed in the Kazakhstan’s capital, Alma-Ata, consisting mainly of Kazakh and Kirghiz conscripts and volunteers. In the autumn of 1941, this 316th Rifle Division played an instrumental role in the Battle of Moscow, eventually leading to the defeat of the German troops there. Senior Lieutenant Bauyrzhan Momyshuly was one of the closest associates of its commander, Major General Ivan Panfilov. During the battle, the Kazakh soldier led a battalion of the division. Eventually, he was appointed the commander of the 9th Guards Rifle Division in January of 1945.

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Bauyrzhan Momyshuly gives a lecture to Cuban soldiers, 1963

So, apart from a few Google-translated Russian texts, there is apparently no English-language works specifically dealing with Bauyrzhan Momyshuly. Oddly enough, his exemplary heroism and war studies have been diligently researched by military officers of Cuba and Israel. The present Cuban leader, Raul Castro, was its defense minister, when he cordially received the Kazakh hero in 1963. During their friendly conversation, a rather delicate subject was inadvertently touched upon. The defense minister was a little bit shy about his Catholic views, because the Soviet Union was an atheist country and he presumed that his Kazakh guest was a non-believer too. But, having detected the hesitation of his Cuban host, Colonel Momyshuly remarked with a smile: “It is all right, Comandante. First of all, my father was a mullah. Secondly, I am a Communist as well as a believer”. This amusing anecdote was told by Oralzhan Masatbayev, a facilitator of the program “The Heritage of Bauyrzhan Momyshuly and Pressing Problems of the Country”, in his interview with the Vecherny Almaty newspaper, July 18, 2006. Incidentally, Colonel Momyshuly was one of a very few Kazakhs, who refused to assume Russified surnames during the Soviet epoch. Otherwise, he would have been Bauyrzhan Momyshev.

As for aggressive politicians of Israel, its former Prime Minister Ehud Barak praised the Kazakh warrior in his speech at the Knesset on May 17, 2005: “As young officers, we followed the example of Momyshuly” (in Hebrew: אנחנו, כקצינים צעירים גדלנו על דמותו של “מומי שאולי” מאנשי פמפילוב וכיותר מבוגרים). A Zionist scholar Yuval Shahal wrote in his review Isaac Babel – a War Correspondent, published by “Kesher” Magazine, #35, Winter 2007: “Panfilov’s Men” by Alexander Bek (in Russian: “Волоколамское Шоссе”; it was published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 1946 and held almost cult status in the Palmach and later the Israeli Army), which describes the Soviet battle for Moscow’s defense and the road leading up to it in 1941, is a paradigmatic example: the author, a military reporter covering the battle, delivers an almost verbatim transcript of the conversation of the Soviet officers in charge, headed by the battalion commander Bauyrzhan Momysh-Uly and the division commander General Ivan Vasilyevich Panfilov”.

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A self-portrait of Bauyrzhan Momyshuly

Colonel Momyshuly was a man of many talents. According to Mr. Masatbayev, an economist himself, the hero was one of the first bank employees among ethnic Kazakhs: at the age of 25, he completed the Higher Economic Courses in Leningrad. He also was a strong athlete, who routinely performed a giant swing on the horizontal bar. As an amateur painter, Colonel Momyshuly made several nice drawings. More importantly, he was one of the leading military authors in the Soviet Union. His works, such as a novel Frontline Moscow («За нами Москва», 1962) and a treatise The Psychology of War («Психология войны», 1944), have enjoyed success among both experts and general public in the former Soviet Union and abroad. According to a booklet His Entire Life is Like a Charming Poem («Вся жизнь его – пленительный дастан», Almaty, 2015), more than one million copies of his books have been printed so far. Most of the time, he wrote in Russian, but as a native Kazakh speaker he stated in his mother tongue numerous wise sayings concerning honor, bravery, patriotism. Let me quote some of the maxims.

“Heroism is a result of the upbringing” (in Kazakh: «Ерлік – тәрбие жемісі»).

 “One, who disrespects oneself, cannot respect a hero and who disrespects the hero, disrespects the nation” («Өз қадірін білмеген – ер қадірін білмейді, Ер қадірін білмеген – ел қадірін білмейді»).

“It is better to die, resisting the enemy, than to retreat shamefully” («Қара бет болып қашқанша, Қайрат көрсетіп өлген артық! »).

But, during his lifetime the legendary soldier was deprived of many well-earned awards and posts due to his bad temper. Colonel Momyshuly was an outspoken officer, who frankly expressed his opinions even in front of high-ranking officials. Mr. Masatbayev recollects that during one of the governmental sessions the Kazakh hero rather sardonically said to Commander of the Central Asian Military District, General of the Army Nikolay Lyashchenko’s face: “You were a mediocre student at the Marshal K.E. Voroshilov’s Higher Military Academy, while I received excellent grades”. Colonel Momyshuly held a derogatory attitude towards even the Defense Minister of the USSR, Marshal Andrei Grechko, whom he humiliatingly called “darling” and “a parquet shuffler”. There have been rumors that the Kazakh warrior and the future Marshal Grechko scuffled during their study at the aforementioned military academy. Sometimes, he displayed indiscretion towards innocuous persons. For instance, a long-haired Kazakh journalist came to a scheduled interview with Colonel Momyshuly. The young man was puzzled by the hero’s question: “Who are you?” The surprised journalist replied: “Well, I am a reporter, who has come to interview you”. The straightforward veteran said impatiently: “No, I mean: who are you? A man or a woman? Go, cut your hair. Only then I would talk”. Since it was an important assignment, the dandy correspondent had to obey to the whims of the celebrity. No wonder that such hot-blooded soldier was precluded from becoming a General and a Hero of the Soviet Union. Only in 1990, eight years after his death, Nursultan Nazarbayev – a personal friend of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – managed to get the long-awaited golden star of the Hero of the Soviet Union as a fitting tribute to the memory of the renowned Kazakh.

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