- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006


By Catherine Merridale

Metropolitan Books, $30,

480 pages, illus.


My shelves sag under the weight of volumes about the Soviet side of World War II: the sagas of Stalingrad and Leningrad, memoirs of marshals whose names I cannot always pronounce, technical manuals on guerrilla warfare and tank strategy. But not to be found in these millions of words is “Ivan,” the foot soldier who actually did the fighting (“GI Joe” in our army; “Fritz” in the Wehrmacht).

How did these men (and many women) fare on the front lines? What was their everyday life like? The Red Army, to be sure, did not permit a Bill Mauldin or Ernie Pyle to inform the public of the horrors of modern warfare; hence much of what has been written is a mist of myths glorifying the struggle of communism combating fascism.

The Soviet leadership under Joseph Stalin had ample reason to divert attention from its Ivans. Some 30 million persons served in the wartime army — ill-trained, ill-equipped, human fodder to be thrown in front of the highly mechanized, professionally led German army. Don’t have a rifle? No problem, go onto the killing fields and retrieve one from alongside the rotting corpse of a comrade.

By war’s end, some eight million “Ivans” lay dead. How they lived, and died, makes one of the most horrifying military histories I have ever read: Catherine Merridale’s “Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.” Ms. Merridale teaches contemporary history at the University of London; she studied in the Soviet Union.

As she set about this book, Ms. Merridale discovered that little documentation existed on Ivan’s daily life. Illiterate peasants do not write letters or keep journals. Omnipresent political commissars discouraged Ivan from the usual barracks room griping about conditions; even telling a joke was risky. Those who mercifully survived cast their ordeals out of mind, and no Soviet Stephen Ambrose emerged to find and tell their stories.

As Ms Merridale writes, “The men’s culture, the bedrock of the soldiers’ fighting spirit and morale, of their survival and perhaps of Russia’s own, would vanish with the settling wartime dust.”

So she sought out surviving veterans, and coaxed and cajoled many of them to tell their stories, often in voices strained with pain. The result is one of the more damning indictments yet of Stalin and his ineptitude, and how his non-preparedness for war brought the USSR to the brink of extinction.

A preview of disaster came in the USSR’s short war with Finland that began in 1939. It was then that the woeful condition of this “army” — the quotation marks are deliberate — was put on painful display. Field training was so poor that conscripts did not even know how to lie down when the Finnish gunners opened fire. Nor did commanders have any idea about how to assault bunkers; they simply marched their soldiers into the line of fire of the Finns, “whose machine gunners slaughtered Soviet soldiers almost at their leisure. It helped that some senior Soviet officers regarded the use of use of camouflage as a sign of cowardice.”

In 1941, merely hours after the German strike, Soviet officers reported that whole units had been destroyed or simply disappeared into the fog of battle; one said, “with a tremble in his voice, that the only thing that was left of the 56th Rifle Division was its number.” In these chaotic early days, many lower-level units were not even given maps, “for these were considered secret back then,” as one soldier reported. Men separated from their units wandered aimlessly over the steppes, and the Ukrainians “were as likely to spit in a Soviet soldier’s face as they were to offer him directions, much less a meal.”

Ms. Merridale writes flatly, “The Red Army collapsed in the first weeks of the war. This is no criticism of its individual troops. It is a statement about bureaucratic rule, coercion, lies, fear and mismanagement.” The hierarchy should not have been surprised, for field commanders had complained for months about the lack of equipment, especially transport. Even cartridges were in short supply. Soldiers faced German tanks and cannon with nothing more than bayonets. Weapons were sometimes recovered from the battlefield, but not the dead, who were “left out for the rats.”

By February 1942, the Soviet dead totaled 2,663,000. The Soviets lost 20 soldiers for every German who had died. Almost three million more Ivans had been captured.

Conditions were even more appalling in the Crimea. Lev Mekhlis, a favorite of Stalin, commanded units on the Kerch Peninsula. As Ms. Merridale writes, “Mekhlis believed that trenches sapped the spirit of aggression, so none were ever dug.”

Troops were ordered out onto a bare marshy plain, without even trees for shelter, into the face of German artillery — “an open, muddy, absolute barren field,” in the words of a fortunate survivor. Men were driven over the same ground day after day, past mounds of carcasses. The toll reached 176,000 in just 12 days.

In desperation, on July 28, 1942, Stalin issued Order Number 227, which because of its nature was not printed (according to Ms. Merridale) but circulated by word of mouth. It admitted to losses, and railed against units that surrendered without offering resistance, or receiving orders from Moscow. Stalin’s remedy was a new slogan: “Not a step back!”

The order included a question: “Are there any extenuating causes for withdrawing from a firing position?” It provided the answer: “The only extenuating cause is death.”

To Stalin’s paranoid eyes, the defeats were caused by “panic mongers and cowards.” Officers who permitted men to retreat would be arrested on capital charges. Guard houses were deemed too comfortable for “criminals” who deserted. These Ivans were consigned to penal battalions to “atone for their crimes against the Motherland with their own blood.” Some 422,700 soldiers went to penal battalions; few survived. Common criminals were also shunted to these units, where cruelties abounded.

“A man could be skinned alive for losing in a game of cards; he could be murdered in bed for his boots or a crust of hoarded bread.” At times the food ration was four spoonfuls of thin gruel a day. NKVD “blocking units” stood behind the lines to keep men at their positions. (Order 227 was finally made public in 1988, during the period of glastnost.)

Then came the turn-around, and Ms. Merridale feels that more than coercion was responsible. “Instead, even in the depth of their crisis, soldiers appeared to find a new resolve. It was as if despair itself — or, rather, the effort of one final stand — could wake men from the torpor of defeat.”

This new mood of professionalism ran counter to Soviet life. “For years, Stalin’s regime had herded people like sheep, despising individuality and punishing initiative,” Ms. Merridale writes. “Now, slowly, even reluctantly, it found itself presiding over the emergence of a new corps of able, self-reliant fighters. The process would take months, gathering pace in 1943. But rage and hatred were at last translating into clear, cold plans.”

A key move was to strip the officer corps of incompetents. Leaders such as the feckless Mekhlis in the Crimea were relieved, and younger, more professional officers with battlefield experience emerged (Marshal Georgi Zhukov, foremost among them).

And there was the recovery of Soviet heavy industry, which began turning out weapons, shells and tanks in abundance. Manufacture of the T-34 medium tank was adapted so that turrets could be stamped, rather than cast. A new manufacturing city in the Urals was dubbed “Tankograd.” American aid made a crucial difference; by 1945, Ivan and comrades rode to the front in 200,000 Studebaker trucks. After two bitter winters, the Wehrmacht broke and fled, and Ivan chased Fritz all the way to Berlin.

Soviet brutalities against Germans, including women of all ages who were gang-raped to death, are well recorded, and I shan’t dwell on these prurient and sickening details. But even a German writer had a semblance of an excuse for such brutish behavior. “A drunken Russian is a wholly different person than the sober one. He loses all perspective, falls into a completely wild mood, is covetous, brutal, bloodthirsty.” Ms. Merridale challenges this boys-will-be-boys attitude, writing, “There is no doubt that the men’s actions were encouraged, if not orchestrated, by Moscow.” By state decree, the Germans received tit for tat for their own conduct.

After the war’s end, Ivan faced even more suffering. Maimed men were left on their own, with meager pensions and only random medical care; legless veterans were conspicuous on Moscow streets into the 1970s.

Were it not for Ivan, Catherine Merridale contends, the world “would have faced an unthinkable catastrophe … . Unfortunately, the Soviet people, who had acquiesced, however unwillingly, in the emergence of Stalinism, would now permit the tyrant to remain. The motherland was never conquered, but it had enslaved itself.”

I end with a caution: This is not a book for the tender minded, so don’t blame me for any nightmares.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]aol.com.



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