Vasiliy Zaitsev, the legendary Red Army sniper
portrayed in the 2001 movie Enemy at the Gates
, was born in the Urals in 1915. He grew up as a farmer, shepherd and hunter. Sergeant Zaitsev was assigned to the 1047th Rifle Regiment of the 284th Rifle Division of General Chuikov
's 62nd army in Stalingrad in September, 1942. He set up an improvised sniper school in the ruins of Stalingrad's chemical plant, and is said to have trained about 25 other soldier
s, including some women, as snipers. Credited with killing 232 enemy soldiers during the siege of Stalingrad, he was lionized by the Soviet
press, which desperately sought heroes to boost the moral of the defending Soviet army. Soviet propaganda made him famous for supposedly having fought a duel with a German super sniper, called Major Koenig (or, in some reports, Colonel Thorvalds), which is the central story of Enemy at the Gates
. According to the legend, German commanders were so impressed by Zaitsev, that they sent the head of their sniper school (either Koenig or Thorvalds, depending on the version of the story) to hunt him down and kill him. Instead, it was the German who was killed by Zaitsev, after several days spent stalking each other through the ruined city. Investigations by historians, however, have failed to turn up much evidence of any such duel. German military records show no evidence of any Major Koenig or Colonel Thorvalds ever being assigned to Stalingrad, and official Soviet army reports make no mention of such events at the time. Some historians though, cite the following description, attributed to Zaitsev himself, as proof:
We had decided to spend the morning waiting, as we
might have been given away by the sun on our telescopic sights. After lunch our rifles
were in the shade and the sun was shining directly on the German's position. At the
edge of the sheet of metal something was glittering: an odd bit of glass - or telescopic
sights? Kulikov carefully, as only the most experienced can do, began to raise his helmet.
The German fired. For a fraction of a second Kulikov rose and screamed. The German
believed he had finally got the Soviet sniper he had been hunting for four days,and half
raised his head from beneath the sheet of metal. That was what I had been banking on.
I took careful aim. The German's head fell back, and the telescopic sights of his rifle
lay motionless, glistening in the sun until night fell.
However, this report, which never mentions the German's name, has never actually been confirmed to have come from Zaitsev, and describes a kind of operation which undoubtedly took place dozens of times in the battle of Stalingrad.
Even without the duel, Zaitsev's record is impressive, he eventually racked up over 400 kills before the end of the war, was promoted to Lieutenant, and made a Hero of the Soviet Union
. After the war
, he toured the Soviet Union
, telling his tale to workers
organizations and schoolchildren
. He married and had three children. He died in 1992 at the age of 77 in Kiev