Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 – Catherine Merridale
Henry Holt & Co., 2006
Somehow I imagine Catherine Merridale sifting through gigantic mounds of grey paper, grey words, and greyish propaganda until she catches a little sparkle out of the corner of her eye and comes up with another gem to incorporate into her work. She takes that well-worn subject, WWII and brings a fresh perspective to it in this look at the Eastern Front through the eyes of the Soviet rank-and-file – the Ivans. Like her previous book, Night of Stone, Merridale doesn’t shy away from writing about the difficult aspects of her subject.
Merridale and her colleagues interviewed as many veterans and civilians as would talk and did research in archives across Russia and Germany. She cleverly had a male ex-soldier do some interviews which avoided the problem of having a female foreigner ask these former Red Army men about sensitive subjects. It seems to have made them more comfortable and candid in telling what actually happened and honest about their own feelings; for various reasons not an easy task to elicit these stories.
To begin with, before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, propaganda, often in the form of movies, sold the idea that the coming war would be aggressive, not the defensive one it turned out to be. So began the gap between the war’s reality and the information that was given to the public. Then, in the first months of the war when Germany overwhelmed the country with its fast and widespread invasion, information was hard to come by for everyone and as time passed what happened during those months was deliberately suppressed. The very few who survived the initial onslaught weren’t overly eager to talk about the nightmare of those early months. As the war went on, Stalin’s government made sure they were the ones shaping the narrative to their own designs, especially after Stalingrad and as the war ended and occupation began. After the war veterans were mostly relieved to go along with the political line; not that they really had much choice.
“We had to sign something,” the veterans admit. In fact, they were warned that their demobilization, and the material assistance that went with it, depended on their agreeing to keep most of their wartime experience and knowledge to themselves, from death rates and atrocities to missing rations and cold feet. The veterans’ discretion now, which often borders on a string of outright lies, dates back to the moment when they signed that document.
The background leading up to the shocking collapse of the Red Army at the beginning is described: the purging of experienced leadership of the army, the insistence of Stalin to only plan for an offensive war, his disastrous decision to go to war with Finland in 1939, giving the Germans an all too-clear view into the weaknesses of the Red Army which was later exploited. One of the worst underlying problems was the control political officers were given over any remaining experienced military officers. This meant Stalinist loyalists rather than knowledgeable military minds set policy or made military decisions, and valuable training time was spent in ideological lectures instead of drills.
In spite of warnings from other countries and his own spies, Stalin refused to believe Germany was about to invade. This allowed the Luftwaffe to immediately destroy almost all the Soviet air force and many of the army’s tanks. For months the Red Army was beaten down militarily and psychologically by the Germans. A huge swath of the Soviet Union was occupied by the Nazis, an area with vital industry and agriculture and where many soldiers’ families and homes were.
“Don’t believe the newspapers,” a soldier wrote. “Don’t believe the papers or the radio; the things they say are lies. We’ve been through it all and seen it all, the way the Germans are driving us–our own people don’t know where to run; we’ve nothing to fight with; and then the Germans catch up with us, our men have nothing to escape in. We’ve got no fuel, so the men abandon the cars and tanks and run for it.” Another bleakly added that “they make us keep our mouths shut.”
The one bright spot for the USSR during this time came in the fall of 1941 just outside of Moscow. The army and citizens stood and defended Moscow as the autumn rains started and the Germans were swamped in deep, heavy mud. Next, came a bitter Russian winter they weren’t prepared for. Though Moscow never fell into German hands, the Red Army still had months ahead of continued low morale, fear and loss.
At last Stalin removed the worst incompetents from top military leadership positions and took away some power from political commissars. This was the start of the turnaround for the Red Army which culminated at Stalingrad, a major propaganda stand for both leaders. After weeks of vicious fighting, the Red Army held onto the devastated city and started pushing the German army back.
But his discovery that Fascist troops could be beaten had made the winter bright. Ageev would have understood. “I’m in an exceptional mood,” he wrote to his wife. “If you only knew, you’d be just as happy as I am. Imagine it–the Fritizes are running away from us!”
As the Red Army continued to recover their occupied lands, rage built up at what they and those under occupation had suffered. Propaganda deliberately stoked this anger so as the army moved into other countries, the anger was taken out on anyone they encountered. Their fury reached a peak as they arrived in East Prussia and mass rape, murder and destruction was unleashed. It continued as they moved further into Germany and on to Berlin.
Whenever I read about the Eastern Front, I go through a rollercoaster of emotions. Disbelief at the stupid decisions made by Stalin and his henchmen before the war, disgust at the public disappearance of Stalin for days when the invasion started, heartbreak at the horrors suffered by the civilians and soldiers that were inflicted on them by Stalin and Hitler, admiration of the people surviving and fighting back, sadness that so many were forced to choose between two of the worst leaders the world has seen, happiness that the Red Army steadily pushed the Nazis out of their country, and shock at the way that same army inflicted great suffering on the people of other countries they went through.
There is no question the Soviet Union suffered almost unimaginably during the war and the rest of the world isn’t knowledgeable enough about what happened. Russia ends up feeling slighted and is even more insistent on seeing itself as suffering more than anyone else and as the country that won the war. But I wonder if part of the reason those outside Russia can be unwilling to learn more about Russia’s role is that Russia has never really come to grips with its own mistakes and crimes. They certainly don’t want to acknowledge the even greater suffering of Jews. And no credit is given to tiny Great Britain for holding its own against Germany and enduring nightly bombing at a time when the Soviet Union was warmly embracing Hitler.
Merridale’s book is a unique look into the Ivans’ lives and the changes they went through during the war and after it. She has such a talent for taking big, complex subjects and turning them into compulsively readable books such as this one.