Rampaging

John Connelly

  • Ivan’s War: The Red Army 1939-45 by Catherine Merridale
    Faber, 396 pp, £20.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 571 21808 3
  • A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-45 edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova
    Harvill, 378 pp, £20.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 18 434305 4

What are we to make of the Red Army? On the one hand, it was the force that first stopped and then destroyed the armies of German National Socialism, in achieving which Russian soldiers suffered in ways that exceed the limits of Western imagination: the toll of dead – more than eight million – reveals numbers as the abstraction they are. And for much of the war those killed in combat were the lucky ones: the Germans let three million prisoners starve to death. On the other hand, once it left Soviet territory and marched on Berlin and Vienna, the Red Army outmatched every other fighting force in the European war – excepting its enemy – in violating civilian populations. In Berlin alone more than 100,000 women were raped, many repeatedly, and to this one must add tens of thousands of brutalised Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Romanian and Yugoslav women. After the war, Soviet soldiers sealed their regime’s hold on East Central Europe, and crushed any attempts by the population to wrest greater freedoms. For good reason we associate the years 1953, 1956 and 1968 with Soviet tanks appearing on the streets of East Berlin, Budapest and Prague. The region could not be liberated from totalitarian rule until the Red Army departed.

In her highly readable history Catherine Merridale does not tell us which of those two characterisations better fits the Red Army. It is the individual soldier that interests her. Though the ‘epic story’ of World War Two has been often told, the ‘stories’ of the ‘thirty million soldiers’ who made up the Red Army have not. That figure suggests the severity of the challenge confronting Merridale: how to say something of general relevance about so huge and diverse a group, which was both male and female, consisted of dozens of national groups, ranged from the very young to the quite old, and fought on many fronts. What can we learn about such an army from the several dozen memoirs and diaries, the letters and the interview notes the author has in her possession?

A great deal. The most urgent and interesting questions about the Red Army’s performance come down in the end to individual motivation. No other army was asked to sacrifice so much, but given so little in return. In many battles the average survival time for new recruits was between four and five days. Of 403,272 men (and some women) in armoured regiments who were trained in the Red Army, 310,000 were killed. Red Army infantry were expected not only to die, but to go into combat if need be without weapons, with instructions to strip equipment from fallen comrades.

This superhuman effort propped up a regime that many soldiers had reason to hate. Referring to the collectivisation and purges of the 1930s, Merridale writes that Stalin’s rule had ‘poisoned’ the lives of many Soviets. Their leader had also behaved with stunning incompetence in the early months of the war, ignoring reports of an imminent attack, refusing to permit strategic withdrawals, disappearing for days at a time in bouts of debilitating indecision. The result was the most humiliating series of defeats, costing the lives of upwards of two million soldiers by January 1942. How did the Soviet army and population not only forgive him this, but fight well enough to save the oppressive system associated with his name – and then spread it to other societies?

Merridale’s answer is to show that the soldiers who subdued the final SS holdouts in the centre of Berlin after Hitler’s suicide were not the same ones who bent under the assault of the Wehrmacht in 1941. By 1945, more confident, more professional, better led and better armed soldiers had come to replace comrades who were captured or killed in the first months of battle. That earlier cohort had often trained on wooden replicas of rifles and tanks, and been led by officers with little authority or military knowledge. Within months, they had fallen back to the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. Then, in November 1941, the Germans ground to a halt just as they began to take the seizing of the Kremlin for granted. Historians debate whether the change in fortunes was due more to the skilful manoeuvres of General Zhukov or to the weather: heavy autumn rains slowed the Germans and then the cold froze them. Historians tend not to debate the magnitude of the Russian victory, however: the state structure might have collapsed had the Germans succeeded in taking the seat of government.

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