Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev (March 23, 1915 – December 15, 1991) was a Soviet sniper during World War II, notable particularly for his activities between November 10 and December 17, 1942, during the Battle of Stalingrad. He killed 225 soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht and other Axis armies, including 11 enemy snipers.
Prior to November 10, he had already killed 32 Axis soldiers with the standard-issue Mosin–Nagant rifle. Between October 1942 and January 1943, Zaytsev made 242 verified kills.
Zaytsev was born in Yeleninskoye and grew up in the Ural Mountains, where he learned marksmanship by hunting deer and wolf with his grandfather and younger brother. When he was 5 years old, he killed his first wolf. His surname is based on the Russian word zayats (заяц) meaning “hare”. He was nicknamed ‘Vasha’ by his friends.
Zaytsev served in the Soviet Navy as a clerk in Vladivostok. When Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union, Zaytsev, like many of his comrades, volunteered to be transferred to the front line. At the time he had already reached the rank of Sergeant Major.
World War II
On 22 September 1942, Zaytsev crossed the Volga River and joined the 1047th Rifle Regiment of the 284th Rifle Division of the 62nd Army, headed by General Nikolai Batyuk. One day, Zaytsev’s commanding officer called him up and pointed at an enemy soldier in a window 800 meters away. Zaytsev took aim from his standard-issue Mosin-Nagant rifle, and with one shot, the soldier was down. In less than a few moments, two other German soldiers appeared in the window, checking their fallen officer. Vasily fired two more shots, and they were killed. For this, together with the Medal for Valor, Vasily was also awarded a sniper rifle. He is notable for having been elevated by propaganda to a virtual status of hero and served as an example and inspiration to other soldiers. His skill as a sniper allowed him to establish and run a snipers’ training school in the Metiz factory. Zaytsev-trained apprentices were nicknamed zaichata, meaning “leverets” (baby hares). Antony Beevor wrote in Stalingrad that this was the start of the “sniper movement” in the 62nd Army. Conferences were arranged to spread the doctrine of “sniperism” and exchange ideas on technique and principles that were not limited to marksmanship skills. It is estimated that snipers trained by Zaytsev killed more than 6,000 enemy soldiers during World War II.
During Zaytsev’s career as a sniper, he would hide in all sorts of locations – on high ground, under rubble, in water pipes. After a few kills he would change his position. Together with his partner Nikolay Kulikov, Zaytsev would hide and sting. One of Zaytsev’s common tactics was to cover one large area from three positions with two men at each point – a sniper and scout. This tactic, known as the “sixes”, is still in use today and was implemented during the war in Chechnya.
Zaytsev took part in the battle for Stalingrad until January 1943, when he suffered an injury to his eyes from a mortar attack. He was attended to by Professor Filatov, who is credited with restoring his sight. On February 22, 1943, Zaytsev was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. He then returned to the front and finished the war in Seelow Heights in Germany with the military rank of Captain.
After the war, Zaitsev settled in Kiev, where he studied at a textile university before he obtained employment as engineer. He rose to become the director of a textile factory in Kiev, and remained in that city until he died in 1991 at the age of 76, just 10 days before the final dissolution of the Soviet Union. He was initially buried in Kiev despite his final request to be buried at Stalingrad.
On January 31, 2006, Vasily Zaytsev was reburied on Mamayev Kurgan with full military honors. Zaytsev’s dying wish was to be buried at the monument to the defenders of Stalingrad. His coffin was carried next to a monument where his famous quote is written: “For us there was no land beyond (the) Volga”. Colonel Donald Paquette of the US Sniper School was present and laid a wreath as a sign of respect to a legendary sniper. US Army News quoted Colonel Paquette: “Vasily Zaytsev is a legend and every USA sniper must memorize his tactics and methods. He is a legend in the sniper community. May he rest in peace.”
In popular culture
In 2001, a feature length film, Enemy at the Gates, starring Jude Law as Zaytsev, was loosely based on part of William Craig’s book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, which includes a “sniper’s duel” between Zaytsev and a Wehrmacht sniper school director, Major Erwin König. The movie was mostly a work of fiction. Zaytsev himself indicates in his own memoirs that a three-day duel did indeed occur and that the sniper he killed was the head of a sniper school near Berlin. However, there is no evidence that any Major Erwin König ever existed, despite the claim made by the Armed Forces Museum of Moscow that they are in possession of his telescopic sight.