Sario (Semyon) Gudzenko was born in Kiev in 1922, into a family that belonged to the Jewish intelligentsia. His father was an engineer, while his mother worked as a teacher.
As a schoolboy, Semyon began to write poetry. At the time, he was attending a literature club, and it was his good fortune to have the famous literary critic Yevgeny Adelheim as the club instructor (later, in 1949, Adelheim would be accused of "rootless cosmopolitanism" and denied employment). The critic actively supported and encouraged the budding poet.
In 1939, having completed school, Semyon Gudzenko moved to Moscow, where he entered the Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History.
By the end of June 1941, when the Soviet-German War broke out, Gudzenko had completed two years of study. In the very first days of the war, he volunteered for military service. As a strong and robust young man, he was assigned to a special mechanized infantry brigade of the NKVD. The brigade was charged with organizing partisan activity, carrying out sabotage behind enemy lines, and creating an informant network in the occupied territories. Gudzenko took part in a ski expedition into German-occupied Belarus. Later, in 1942, he was gravely wounded in the stomach during a battle near Moscow. While recuperating at a nearby hospital, Gudzenko resumed writing poetry. Eventually, he showed his poems to the prominent wartime Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg (a poet in his own right), who would later offer the following description of Gudzenko's verse:
"This is poetry written from inside the war, composed by one who was fighting in it. These poems are not about the war, but from the war, from the front lines."1
After his recovery, Semyon Gudzenko was declared unfit for military service by the medical board. However, he ignored their warnings and returned to active duty, this time as a military correspondent. Gudzenko wrote down all his wartime observations in his diary (in 1962, these notes would be included in the Army Notebooks collection).
1944 saw the publication of Gudzenko's first poetry collection, War Comrades.
Gudzenko met V-E Day in Budapest, where he was busy reporting on the siege and capture of the city. Over the course of the war, he had been awarded the Order of the Red Star and some medals.
In 1945, Gudzenko returned to Moscow and took up his interrupted studies by enrolling in the Faculty of Philology of Moscow University. After graduating from it, he worked as a journalist.
He remained obsessed with the war, striving to make people see the harsh reality. The Soviet authorities did not look kindly on his efforts: In their view, it was unseemly to write about the tragedy when the whole country was celebrating the victory.
Semyon Gudzenko's health was severely compromised by the shell shock and grave injury he had sustained. He died in 1953, at the age of thirty, and was buried at the Vagankovo Cemetery in Moscow.
The poem "Before the Attack"
One sings before one goes to die,
And, prior to that,
one may cry.
For the most frightful part of combat
Is the tense wait for the attack.
The snows are covered with mine craters,
And blackened with the dust of mines.
A blast —
another friend has died.
It means that death has passed me by.
But now, it seems, my turn has come,
And I alone am being hunted.
I curse you, nineteen forty-one —
You, troopers frozen in the snow.
I seem to have become a magnet,
And all the mines are drawn to me.
A blast —
and the lieutenant's gurgling.
And death has passed me by again.
We can wait no longer,
And we are led across the trenches
By our frost-bitten enmity,
Which pierces necks with bayonet thrusts.
There was a brief melee.
We quenched our hearts with icy vodka,
And I took up my knife to clean
My fingernails of foreign blood.