Mikhail Strugatskii was born in 1924 as Moisei Strugatskii in Zaporozhie, eastern Ukraine. His father Aaron, a painter, was twenty years older than Moisei's mother. Despite living in the city, the family led a semi-rural life: In particular, they kept hens for their own sustenance, and raised pigs for profit, making schmaltz and homemade sausages for sale at the local market. On the days before Passover, Aaron would bake matzoth at the local synagogue. In the late 1930s, Moisei made two attempts to enroll in military schools, but was rejected. In 1940, upon completing nine grades of school, he became an apprentice at an engine building plant. At the same time, he joined a flying club.
In June 1941, the Soviet-German War broke out. In the first days of the war, Moisei was evacuated a short way eastward with his flying club. He began to attend a course for pilots and technicians of the PO-2 aircraft. In September, the club was disbanded, and Moisei returned to Zaporozhie. According to his recollections (from an interview given to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, YVA O.93/32505), there were many Jewish evacuees from Bessarabia and western Ukraine in Zaporozhie – and, after talking to them, Moisei realized that he had to flee the doomed city. Thus, he arrived in the North Caucasus, where he was reunited with his family. Moisei went to work at a local kolkhoz. In June 1942, he was drafted into the Red Army – but, to his chagrin, instead of pilot school, he was sent to an infantry school. Shortly thereafter, the Germans dropped an airborne landing force in Stavropol, and the cadets, armed with obsolete training rifles, were deployed to repel the attack. Many of them were killed, and their battalion retreated. This was Strugatskii's baptism by fire. Afterward, the cadets were issued automatic rifles and anti-tank guns, and they became a more efficient fighting force. Nevertheless, they kept retreating, and, after a series of skirmishes, the battalion was transferred to Transcaucasia, where its military training resumed. In December 1942, while the Stalingrad operation was going on, Strugatskii's unit was redeployed to the North Caucasus, and he took part in anti-tank warfare. In one engagement during the defense of Ordzhonikidze (present-day Vladikavkaz, Ossetia), Strugatskii's platoon destroyed three enemy tanks. Moisei was nominated for a military order, but he never received it.
In late December 1942, in the vicinity of the village of Alagir west of Ordzhonikidze, Strugatskii's unit was surrounded by Germans troops, and he was taken prisoner. The first POW camp through which he passed – in Digora, Ossetia – was guarded mainly by Ossetian collaborators, and Moisei managed to pass himself off as a non-Jew. Later, the POWs were transferred to a camp in eastern Ukraine. In 1943 or early 1944, Strugatskii and other POWs were transferred to Hungary. During a medical examination in a POW camp in Hungary, the examining physician, an ethnic Czech, concealed the fact that Moisei was circumcised. In the winter of 1944-1945, while Strugatskii was held in the Wiener Neustadt camp, the Allies made an air raid on the camp; the guards fled, and Strugatskii and his comrades managed to escape. They reached Yugoslavia, and were taken in by Tito's Yugoslav partisans. Even here, among the Yugoslavs, Moisei hid his Jewish identity ("I didn't know what the Serbs' attitude toward the Jews was like," he would say 1) . He took part in combat, and was wounded.
In May 1945, Mikhail Strugatskii and his comrades met an advancing Red Army regiment. After a screening, he was attached to a reserve regiment of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, and went on to serve in Czechoslovakia. He was discharged from the army in 1947. He lived in Zaporozhie.
- 1. YVA O.93/32505