The greatest generation speaks Russian in this paean to the many courageous figures of what the Slavs call the Great Patriotic War (WWII to us).
Even by the bloody standards of WWII, the privations and heroism of the Russian front, where our wartime allies lost, by one estimate, 40 million civilians and military personnel, was stupefying. The centrality of the war still possesses Russian thinking and action to an extent little appreciated on our side of the world. Axell’s (Stalin’s War, not reviewed) tales of incredible individual exploits and personal courage in defense of Mother Russia are emblematic of the Russian talent for repulsing and pursuing a hated invader. There are stories (including one depicted in the recent film Enemy at the Gates) of snipers’ battles in the forests, as well as airborne duels that pitted wooden and canvas aircraft against the Luftwaffe’s finest. (Soviet pilots, when their ammunition was exhausted, frequently rammed German craft, often using their propellers as buzz saws—and many survived to repeat the trick.) Mounted Cossacks wielded their sabers with gory ferocity. Partisans fought tanks by hand. Then there were the submariners who were ordered to clean and polish the brass while their vessel was sinking. The pantheon includes extraordinary places, like Stalingrad and Moscow, where citizens tenaciously withstood siege. There is also a chapter devoted to Jewish generals—a singularly unconvincing testament to Russian tolerance. And the author oddly endorses the Kremlin’s view that Japan capitulated because the Soviets finally declared war against the Imperial Forces—a declaration that came days after two American atomic weapons were used in Japan.
Hagiography reminiscent of some sort of People’s Bureau of Heroes of the Motherland may test a reader’s endurance, but Axell’s text is one attempt to redress some history that has been largely ignored in the West.