Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

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9780312426521: Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

A powerful, groundbreaking narrative of the ordinary Russian soldier's experience of the worst war in history, based on newly revealed sources

Of the thirty million who fought in the eastern front of World War II, eight million died, driven forward in suicidal charges, shattered by German shells and tanks. They were the men and women of the Red Army, a ragtag mass of soldiers who confronted Europe's most lethal fighting force and by 1945 had defeated it. Sixty years have passed since their epic triumph, but the heart and mind of Ivan -- as the ordinary Russian soldier was called -- remain a mystery. We know something about hoe the soldiers died, but nearly nothing about how they lived, how they saw the world, or why they fought.

Drawing on previously closed military and secret police archives, interviews with veterans, and private letters and diaries, Catherine Merridale presents the first comprehensive history of the Soviet Union Army rank and file. She follows the soldiers from the shock of the German invasion to their costly triumph in Stalingrad, where life expectancy was often a mere twenty-four hours. Through the soldiers' eyes, we witness their victorious arrival in Berlin, where their rage and suffering exact an awful toll, and accompany them as they return home full of hope, only to be denied the new life they had been fighting to secure.

A tour de force of original research and a gripping history, Ivan's War reveals the singular mixture of courage, patriotism, anger, and fear that made it possible for these underfed, badly led troops to defeat the Nazi army. In the process Merridale restores to history the invisible millions who sacrificed the most to win the war.

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About the Author:

Catherine Merridale is the author of the critically acclaimed Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia. The professor of contemporary history at the University of London, she also writes for the London Review of Books, New Statesman, and the Independent.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Ivan's War
Whenever people think that they will have to fight a war, they try to picture what it will be like. Their stories seldom correspond to reality, but forecasting is not the purpose. Instead, the idea that the boys will soon be back or that the enemy will be destroyed with surgical precision, like the myth that it will all be over by Christmas, serves to foster a confident, even optimistic, mood at times when gloom might be more natural. In 1938, as the momentum for large-scale war gathered, the citizens of Stalin's empire, like Europeans everywhere, attempted to allay their fears with comforting tales. The Soviet vision of future conflict was destined to inspire a generation of wartime volunteers, but the images were created deliberately, by a clique of leaders whose ideology had set them on the path to international hostilities. The favored medium of communication was the cinema. The epic struggle of utopia and backwardness played out in moving pictures, black and white, with stirring music swelling on the soundtrack. At other moments, Soviet people opened their newspapers to columns of portentous diplomatic reportage; their country was preparing for battle. Butthough the news available to citizens was full of threat, films were designed to inculcate the view that the people's vanguard, the Red Army, was certain to triumph, and very quickly, too.The greatest epic of the time was Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, an anti-Fascist parable of Russian victory over German invaders. Although it is set in the thirteenth century, in the age of Slavic princes and Teutonic knights, Eisenstein's great spectacle, released in 1938, makes direct reference to the politics of the 1930s, even to the point of adding swastikas to some of the Teutonic knights' shields and standards. The message was not one that Soviet audiences, attuned to every nuance of state-controlled propaganda, would miss. For all its deliberate sermonizing, however, the film, which boasted a musical score by Sergei Prokofiev, endured as a classic of Soviet cinema. Inferior productions with similar themes stood the test of time less well. But in the 1930s their audiences were rapt. And while, on the surface at least, Alexander Nevsky was set in the deep past, for moviegoers who preferred to look forward, another film, Efim Dzigan's If There Is War Tomorrow, also released in 1938, foretold Russia's victory in the face of a future invasion, the one that kept people awake at nights.Efim Dzigan set out to reassure. The impact of his hour-long film was created by blending fictitious action with clips of genuine newsreel, splicing documentary footage into an unfolding fantasy of effortless victory. The message--resolute and stoical but also full of hope--was strengthened by the repetition of a musical refrain with words by the popular songwriter Vasily Lebedev-Kumach.1 If There Is War Tomorrow struck so live a chord with Soviet audiences that they went on watching it even after the real war began. By the winter of 1941, the invader had overrun a third of Soviet territory. The planes that droned across Dzigan's black-and-white screen had been destroyed, the tanks burned out, the brave soldiers corralled in prison camps. It was no longer possible to dream that this war would be over soon. That winter, the audiences crowding into old schoolrooms and empty huts included evacuees from Ukraine and Smolensk, people whose homes were now in German hands. Huddled together, relying on one another's breath for warmth, they needed patience as the hand-cranked dynamo was turned. All the same, a spell seemed to be cast.2 This film was not about the war butabout faith. That faith, and the images that sustained it, was part of what defined the generations that would bear the brunt of Russia's war. In the terrible years ahead, people would hum the music from the film to keep their spirits up. As they marched across dusty steppe, as they strummed guitars by the light of a campfire, it would be Lebedev-Kumach's song that soldiers often sang.The film's action begins in a fairground, probably the newly opened Gorky Park, Moscow's Park of Culture and Rest. The Kremlin towers are visible in the distance, each topped with a glowing electric star. It is night, but the city is full of jollity, with Ferris wheels and fireworks and young people strolling about with ice creams in their hands. This is the socialist paradise, and it is a place of well-earned leisure, happy couples, brightly colored food. There is an innocence about it, crimeless, sexless, blandly without sin. In this land, Stalin and his loyal aides do all the worrying so that the children of the revolution can be free. But their freedom is under threat. The film cuts to the Soviet border, where Fascist troops, antlike, are climbing into tanks. There is no chance that we will sympathize with them. These are not the seductive species of villain but absurd buffoons. Their officers wear large mustaches, look pompous, and move with the bowlegged gait of cavalrymen. The infantrymen crawl, the airmen stoop. Throughout the action, they speak German, but they are more like cartoon Prussians from a children's book than genuine leather-booted Nazis. Even the swastikas on their helmets and collars are slightly eccentric. This is picture-book Fascism, not the real thing.The invasion takes place at night. It could be frightening, and we may briefly worry for the stout young woman who is making soup a stone's throw from the front, but border guards hold the aggressor at bay. Our housewife joins the men, throwing off her apron and taking her place in the line of skillful gunners, proving that patriots can turn their hands to anything. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of a series of perfidious attacks. The next comes from the air. The Fascist biplanes buzz with menace, but danger is averted for a second time. Soviet planes, a fleet of shining new machines, take to the skies, and at this point the audience should recognize the aces who have rushed to pilot them. There is Babushkin, the hero of an arctic rescue missionseveral years before, and Vodopyanov and Gromov, star aviators, their names printed across the screen in case we did not manage to identify their faces right away. The 1930s were the age of heroes, and pilots were the true elite. In a scene whose irony would become apparent three years later, when the Luftwaffe mounted its devastating attacks of June and July 1941, the famous aces run audacious raids into the Fascists' lair, destroying enemy aircraft on the ground and flying home without a single loss.And now it is the Red Army's own turn. The volunteers stream in from every corner of the Soviet land. There is an old man with a gray beard in the line for recruitment. He fought against the White general Anton Denikin in the civil war and he wants another crack at the enemy. He holds a fist toward the screen, assuring us that the villains "will remember this from last time." The Fascists, like the Whites, have become the sworn enemies of right-thinking citizens everywhere. But not all citizens are fit to fight, and we now learn that front-line service is to be regarded as a privilege. Working and waiting are the lot of older people and the very young. Some women will remain at home, too, but others, every bit as trained and warlike as the men, line up in uniform, jaws set, prepared to do great deeds. It is not just Russians who come forward. The commissar for defense, Kliment Voroshilov, appears in his best uniform and appeals to the peoples of the east, the Uzbeks in particular. Hard-bitten men in sheepskin hats respond at once. Voroshilov's speech becomes a turning point for everyone. Soon Soviet troops will attack, driving the Fascists from their trenches. The war is going to be fought on the aggressor's soil, and it is going to be won.The story never gets more frightening than that. Whenever Soviet forces engage with the enemy, the Fascists end up running for their lives. Not all the fighting is high-tech, and in fact the biggest set-piece battle in the film involves cavalry and bayonets, but there is no blood. Indeed, there is only one serious wounding. Its victim is a member of a tank crew who joined up in the first wave, together with his brother, and set off eagerly for adventure. The men--accompanied by a pretty young nurse--spend a few moments trundling happily along in their Soviet tank, a surprisingly spacious vehicle with a cabin that looks like the inside of a trailer. They could be heading off on holiday, even at the pointwhen their machine grinds to a sudden halt. Our hero, smooth and cheerful as a young Elvis Presley, is undaunted. He grabs a handy wrench and climbs out through the hatch. There is a bang, the sound of a man at work, and though we cannot see the actor we can hear him whistling the theme song as he puts the problem right. But then the music stops in a flurry of gunfire. Inside, the brother's face sets in a mask of grief. A couple of seconds of suspense follow, accompanied by violins, so we may catch our breath in expectation of a tragedy. But Stalin's children need not cry for long. The young man's hand has been hurt, but that is all. Once he has climbed back in and the nurse has bandaged him, he is as good as new. The whole crew starts the song again, and off they go to win the war.The story ends in Berlin. Soviet planes, wave after wave of them, are flying in formation like so many wild geese. They are not dropping bombs. Their payload is made up of leaflets calling on the population to put down their arms and join the international proletarian socialist revolution. The message is timely, for on the ground a large meeting is already under way. The workers in this other land are preparing to break the chains of capitalism. Slogans fill the screen. War, we are told, will lead to the destruction of the capitalist world. The fighting will not take place on Soviet soil. These reassuring messages are backed up by fanfares and more banners. The audience is smiling; it is saved. As the music fades, another slogan reminds us that the price of freedom is to be prepared for war. To be prepared, that is, to ride to Berlin in a shiny tank, to be a handsome pilot or a pretty nurse, to point a gun at a healthy man and shoot him down without spilling a single drop of blood.The dream of quick and easy victory might not have been so potent if it had remained confined to the big screen. It might not have been quite so devastating, either. The problem, by 1938, was that the fantasy had affected real strategic thinking. "Decisive victory at low cost" was not just a vision of the propagandists; it was the Red Army's official goal. Dzigan's script may have helped to inure citizens to war, but less constructively it was also the scenario for a generation of military thinkers. In 1937, when Stalin replaced his leading strategists with people chosen for their political, as opposed to purely military, distinction, a new approach to national security was adopted in Moscow. In the past, a gooddeal of planning had gone into strategies for defense. Now the entire orientation of Red Army training was directed at offensive operations. The plans and training exercises needed for prolonged defense were scaled down, as were the fledgling preparations for partisan operations inside Soviet territory.3 The notion that the enemy would be repelled and beaten on his own soil was not just a romantic dream; from the late 1930s it was the centerpiece of Stalinist military planning.It was as if a whole people shared a delusion. As Hitler and his generals were drilling the greatest professional army on the continent, Stalin's advisers seemed lost in fantasy. There had been dissident voices--powerful ones--but by 1938 the critics had vanished into the silence of the prison camps, the covert graves. If the Bolsheviks could win the civil war, the propagandists shrieked, if they could dam the Dnepr, banish God, and fly to the North Pole, then surely they could keep the Fascist invader at bay. History, the ineluctable drive that was moving all humanity toward a common goal, was on their side, after all. The delusion was expressed in many other films of the era, including one that features yet more tanks. In this production, The Tank Men, the hero, Karasev, is ordered to make a reconnaissance raid across the enemy lines. But he decides to go beyond the call of duty. He engages the sinister enemy in battle, cripples a few machines, and then drives on toward Berlin. When he gets there, he pushes on into the Reichstag and takes Hitler prisoner. "Well done, Karasev," his mates applaud when he returns. "There's not a damn thing left for us to do!"4In 1938, the audiences who watched these films would leave the hall and step into a real Russian night. The cheerful crowds and well-lit parks that people had seen on the screen would be nowhere in evidence. Instead, their path home would lead through bleak construction sites, along the muddy paths between poor peasant shacks, or past desolate streets where lights glimmered for just a few blocks before they gave in to the dark. Many would be going home to apartments so crowded that two families and three generations were packed into one room. Others, the young, might well be finding their way back to dormitories, barrack style, where dozens of boarders slept in rows. The revolution had not made these Russians rich. It had not even made their land the great industrial power of its own boast, although the rate ofchange was prodigious, the output staggering. But what distinguished them from other hard-pressed workers struggling to survive was the belief that they were the chosen. They might be hungry, ill-shod, crowded into slums, but they were working to transform the world. They had to win. That was the public face of Soviet culture, anyway. 
The Soviet state was born in war. If any nation should have known the face of violence, it was this one. First there had been the tsar's war against Germany, in which more Russian soldiers died than those of any other European state.5 The prospect of defeat in this, the First World War, along with the hardship that came with the war effort, sparked the riots of February 1917, the outburst of popular rage that toppled the tsar and swept a new government into power. But it took yet another upheaval, the Bolshevik coup under Lenin, to bring the tsar's exhausted troops back home. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, by which the new state dropped its former allies, Britain and France, in favor of a truce with Germany, brought peace for a few weeks at the beginning of 1918. Those servicemen who had not managed to desert rejoiced at the news that they no longer had to fight. But civil war followed, a conflict that blazed across the future Soviet world like a consuming fire, recalling soldiers to the colors and conscripting bystanders of every age. Its violence, more bitter even than conventional fighting, was only one aspect of this new war's cruelty. Wrecked towns and villages were also ravaged by epidemics--typhus in particular--while harvests failed and entire regions starved. By 1921, when the fighting ended in all but the last corners of the emergent state, most Soviet people knew exactly what war really meant.The greatest promise of the new regime was peace. The word itself had been the most potent element in Bolshevik propaganda back in 1917, and there would be few things, in years to come, that Soviet people wanted more. But though the leaders talked conciliation, declaring that their long-term goal was nothing less than harmony and br...

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