However some things appear odd to the Western reader. Kaberov’s manner can seem so alien that it rings untrue. However that is to miss the alternative explanation: Kaberov, along with many Soviet citizens of his generation, simply thinks differently to us. What can seem unnatural to us is perfectly natural to him. When you look past some of the things he says (and he has a tendency perhaps peculiar to that generation of talking in slogans) and look at what he does, how he describes other people and how he lives, we see a courageous, decent, fair-minded pilot.
Unlike Gibbs or Johnson, for example, who describe but do not name incompetents and cowards in their ranks, Kaberov unfailingly describes all Soviet personnel he comes across as decent, wise, heroic and humanitarian with the exception of one pilot who crashes Kaberov’s aircraft three times. But is this propaganda or the loyalty of a man who, 20 years later, is writing about the comrades with whom he shared the defining moments of his life and saved a city?
Kaberov vividly recounts the confusion of the first morning of the war, when the Baltic Fleet at first assumed the Finns were attacking, the Winter War being less than two years behind them. Then comes the amazing race of German armor towards Leningrad and the desperate orders to stop them at all costs. As the front stabilises, Kaberov switches to the LaGG and Yak, defending the Ice Road to Leningrad before his squadron moves to Hurricanes. At last they get the potent La-5 and feel they are the equals of the enemy.
He describes the camouflage used by airbases, a skill at which the Russians led the world. The appearance of an airfield is changed by a new sand path across the middle or by plywood horses grazing. He describes the suffering of the people of Leningrad that made each mission over the Ice Road feel like he was directly saving lives. He describes the pain of living in a partially occupied country – who is looking after the elderly behind German lines? What about the people who were on holiday when the war started and cannot return home with their children?
So what is it about Russian society and the Soviet Armed Forces that makes the book read so differently? Kaberov was a candidate member of the Communist Party and is of the Stalin generation that grew up with pride in their country and impressed with modernity and technology. His daily life would be unrecognisable to an RAF pilot: Kaberov writes poetry and edits the squadron newssheet, whereas the RAF did not spend much time telling the Other Ranks what was happening in the war. Kaberov attends political meetings, sleeps for a while in an aircraft shelter with his rigger and fitter (unthinkable in the RAF) and is fighting an enemy that is taking town after town and starving a great city. As grim as the Battle of Britain was, the knowledge that the Germans were still in France means the experience cannot easily be compared to the need to defend your own airbase from approaching troops or see people drop down and die in the street because of the food blockade. It was always clear, for example, that starvation in Malta would mean capitulation of the island.