What Russia's soldiers suffered

Fresh research shapes a fascinating yet also devastating portrait of Russian infantrymen in World War II.

In recent years, the "Greatest Generation" has been celebrated in books, film, and television documentary. American veterans of World War II, their numbers dwindling, make pilgrimages to the beaches they stormed, the cemeteries where they left friends, the sites of horror and glory.

Historians have had much to work with. Official documents and photos, letters and diaries, interviews with those who were young men at Normandy or Anzio or Guadalcanal.

Not so with the war in Europe's eastern front.

Josef Stalin and his successors made sure the story of Soviet history in the war was crafted and protected in a way that served their political purposes. Great monuments were built, but documents were sealed. Pensioned soldiers and their families were honored as "heroes," but they were kept from telling of experiences that might have deviated from the official line - especially anything traumatic. Historians, Russian and foreign, were prevented from working independently.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union that's changing, and Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 is an example of the extraordinary scholarship that has begun to result from this new openness. More than that, it's a powerful, intimate, and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of the archetypal Russian infantryman who suffered greatly, often at the hands of his own countrymen.

In researching this thoroughly footnoted, and highly readable book, Ms. Merridale (professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary, University of London) traveled to many of the major battle sites, including Kerch, Kiev, Kursk, and Sevastopol. She gained access to military and secret police archives. And she interviewed more than 200 veterans, many of whom shared their private letters and diaries.

The numbers of those who fought the German Wehrmacht and were lost are staggering: Between 1939 and 1945 more than 30 million men and women were mobilized into the armed forces, more than 8 million of whom died from starvation, disease, and the violence of combat. Twice as many civilians as soldiers died, and 25 million were left homeless.

The early years of the war were the worst. By early 1942, 2.7 million had been killed in action and nearly 3 million captured. The Red Army had to be virtually rebuilt twice during the war.

Some three-quarters of all infantrymen had been peasants - a group not the most enthusiastic about communism, especially forced collectivization. Lectures by political commissars were as much a part of training as rifle drills. But at the front, writes Merridale, "lofty ideas of brotherhood and utopia seldom survived for long."

As they approached the battlegrounds, Soviet soldiers faced a well-trained and well-equipped German army. But behind them were secret service troops ready to kill anybody who deserted or fell behind. Thousands died that way, and many more were assigned to "punishment battalions" - forced at gunpoint to be the first to face the enemy.

Once the war's tide had turned and Soviet troops pushed west to Berlin, rage - and what was perceived as a kind of brutal justice - followed.

"Revenge was justified, revenge was almost holy," writes Merridale. "Towns were burned, officials murdered, and columns of refugees strafed and shelled. But of the violent crimes, rape was the most prevalent."

Atrocities seem to mark all wars, all armies. But this was different, Merridale finds: "The violence was on a scale that no one could have overlooked, and yet it disappeared from Soviet consciousness."

In retrospect, the immediate postwar period helps explain the Soviet control by threat and propaganda that followed for another generation. Soldiers in the occupying force were quickly ordered home lest they become too interested in capitalism and democracy. Ethnic minorities were shipped off to forced labor camps. Independence movements in some parts of the USSR were put down.

To the extent that it was recognized 60 years ago in the Soviet Union, the emotional and psychological impact of combat - today it's called "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" - was barely treated. Even more than the official secrecy that had prevailed for so long, that may have been the hardest thing to break through. Which makes "Ivan's War" all the more remarkable.

The only thing lacking in an otherwise outstanding book are maps. These would have greatly helped in understanding the relationship of the Soviet republics, the movement of the armies, and the location of some of the most horrendous battles ever fought.

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer.

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