Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945
By CATHERINE MERRIDALE
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— published 2005
This highly readable book tells us about the Eastern Front during the Second World War from a Russian viewpoint.
"Ivan" is the ordinary Russian rifleman, the equivalent of the British Tommy or German Fritz. Their stories are gleaned from letters and journals preserved in newly accessible archives, and from many hours of interviews with veterans. The result is impressive: a significant contribution to understanding what the war meant to Soviet soldiers.
The book covers operation Barbarossa and the debacle of the Soviet troops in Belarus, Ukraine, Western Russia and south-western Russia; the battle of Stalingrad is seen by Merridale as the first turning point of the war; the battle of Kursk, which gave a definite blow to the image of invincibility of the German troops; operation Bagration (the second turning point of the war) which turned the Soviet military endeavour from a war of liberation into a war of revenge; and finally, the end game, the battle of Berlin. Yet she chooses not to focus simply on the purely military - strategic and tactical aspects of these events but also to concentrate on the experiences of the Russian soldier in the frontline, the so-called frontovniki. Hence she arrives at a social-cultural history of the Russian soldier.
They died in vast numbers, eight million men and women driven forward in suicidal charges, shattered by German shells and tanks. They were the soldiers of the Red Army, an exhausted mass of recruits who confronted Europe's most lethal fighting force and by 1945 had defeated it. For sixty years, their experiences were suppressed, replaced by patriotic propaganda. We know how the soldiers died, but nearly nothing about how they lived, how they saw the world, or why they fought. In this ambitious, revelatory history, Catherine Merridale uncovers the harrowing story of who these soldiers were, and how they lived and died during the war.
Thirty million men and women served in the Red Army during WWII. Over eight million of them died. Living or dead, they have remained anonymous. This is partly due to the Soviet Union's policy of stressing the collective nature of its sacrifice and victory. It also reflects the continuing reluctance of most Soviet veterans to discuss their experiences—in sharp contrast to German survivors of the Eastern Front. Merridale, professor of history at the University of London, combines interviews, letters and diaries with research in previously closed official archives to present the first comprehensive portrait of the Red Army's fighters. She carefully details the soldiers' age and ethnic diversity, and she puts a human face on a fact demonstrated repeatedly by retired U.S. officer and Soviet military expert David Glantz: the Red Army learned from the experience of its near-collapse in 1941, and by 1945 its soldiers were more than a match for their Wehrmacht opponents. Most poignantly, Merridale reveals that frontline soldiers increasingly hoped their sacrifices would bring about postwar reform—"Communism with a human face." What they got instead was a Stalinist crackdown—and a long silence, broken now by this outstanding book.
The rates of loss were similarly extravagant. By December 1941, six months into the conflict, the Red Army had lost four and a half million men. The carnage was beyond imagination. Eyewitnesses described the battlefields as landscapes of charred steel and ash. The round shapes of lifeless heads caught the light like potatoes turned up from new‐broken soil. The prisoners were marched off in their multitudes. Even the Germans did not have the guards, let alone enough barbed wire, to contain the two and a half million Red Army troops they captured in the first five months. One single campaign, the defense of Kiev, cost the Soviets nearly 700,000 killed or missing in a matter of weeks. Almost the entire army of the prewar years, the troops that shared the panic of those first nights back in June, was dead or captured by the end of 1941. And this process would be repeated as another generation was called up, crammed into uniform, and killed, captured, or wounded beyond recovery. In all, the Red Army was destroyed and renewed at least twice in the course of this war. Officers – whose losses ran at 35 percent, or roughly fourteen times the rate in the tsarist army of the First World War – had to be found almost as rapidly as men. American lend‐lease was supplying the Soviets with razor blades by 1945, but large numbers of the Red Army’s latest reserve of teenagers would hardly have needed them.
Surrender never was an option. Though British and American bombers continued to attack the Germans from the air, Red Army soldiers were bitterly aware, from 1941, that they were the last major force left fighting Hitler’s armies on the ground. They yearned for news that their allies had opened a second front in France, but they fought on, knowing that there was no other choice. This was not a war over trade or territory. Its guiding principle was ideology, its aim the annihilation of a way of life. Defeat would have meant the end of Soviet power, the genocide of Slavs and Jews. Tenacity came at a terrible price: the total number of Soviet lives that the war claimed exceeded twenty‐seven million. Most of these were civilians, unlucky victims of deportation, hunger, disease, or direct violence. But Red Army losses – deaths – exceeded eight million of the gruesome total. This figure easily surpasses the number of military deaths on all sides, Allied and German, in the First World War and stands in stark contrast to the losses among the British and American armed forces between 1939 and 1945, which amounted to fewer than a quarter of a million for each. The Red Army, as one recruit put it, was a “meat‐grinder.” “They called us, they trained us, they killed us,” another man recalled. The Germans likened the process, dismissively, to mass production, but the regiments kept marching, even when a third of Soviet territory was in enemy hands. By 1945, the total number of people who had been mobilized into the Soviet armed forces since 1939 exceeded thirty million.
exaggeration to say that the Russian soldier is unaffected by season and terrain. ... [He] requires only very few provisions for his own use." Finally, the Red Army could not be trusted to play by the rules. "The Germans found," the summary concluded, "that they had to be on their guard against dishonesty and attempts at deception by individual Russian soldiers and small units. ...
An unguarded approach often cost a German his life."