Glorified by Soviet myth-makers as simple, heroic “Ivan,” the common soldier in the Red Army in fact grappled with despair and his own government as well as the Nazis.
Merridale (Contemporary History/Univ. of London; Night of Stone, 2001) has rescued this legendary generation of Soviet soldiers from history’s black hole—a remarkable achievement, given government censorship and citizens’ desire to forget the horrors of WWII combat and civilian atrocities. Ivan and Ivana (women served on the Eastern front, too) matched America’s “greatest generation” in hardships endured and sacrifices made. The Soviet army began the war under significant disadvantages. It was virtually devoid of commanders (purged by Stalin), its rank-and-file were untrained and it was caught completely off-guard by the Nazis’ “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941. Merridale carefully traces the successive responses of soldiers reeling from overwhelming blows: initial “tank panic” in the face of Nazi might, desertions, the grim realization that they faced a war of annihilation and growing self-confidence. Newly opened archives; recently discovered secret diaries and letters; and interviews with more than 200 veterans enable Merridale to narrate in gripping detail the epic tank battle of Kursk, the siege of Stalingrad and the unexpectedly bloody final drive to Berlin. She poignantly tallies the scars left on the Soviet soul by the carnage. The Red Army suffered eight million deaths, its losses exceeding the German army’s by more than three to one. Revolted by the damage the Nazis inflicted on their families and communities, chafing under political operatives in their midst, Soviet soldiers engaged in their own orgies of looting and rape as they pushed into Germany. In other ways, however, the ordinary soldier was positively transformed by the war. Merridale notes that Ivan grew more sophisticated through contact with foreigners and more hopeful that peace and brotherhood would result from the Soviets’ sufferings.
Revealing history that renders the struggles on the Eastern Front in telling detail and with searching moral scrutiny.