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.
Merridale wisely talks of two wars, one waged on the military, the other on the propaganda front, and one can’t be understood without the other. The capture of Moscow would have been an inestimable psychological loss because it could not have been hidden. But if the population had known of the immense cost of the war in men and material by January 1942, the effect might have been equally disastrous. Yet the nature of the state was such that it was able to suppress knowledge of the losses suffered, and thus redeem itself. What people could get to know about the scale of the catastrophe visited on their country was strictly anecdotal: hearsay retailed on the street and among trusted friends, while official media spoke only of successes.
Fortunately for the leadership, its media did not have to embellish or exaggerate the brutality of the enemy because the enemy was obliging enough to provide the evidence itself. German troops were passionate amateur photographers, and as the Red Army retook positions before Moscow they began to find on dead and captured soldiers frank snapshots of mass hangings, round-ups of Jews, pits full of massacred women and children. Two things were clear: any fate was better than surrender to an enemy who evidently enjoyed torturing and killing Soviet citizens; and regardless of how Red Army soldiers felt about the regime, it protected them and their families from something far worse.
If these images, massively reproduced in the media, provided a positive inducement for troops to fight to the death, by the summer of 1942 Stalin added a negative one: any soldier who fell back from a firing position would be killed. To enforce this rule, secret police – NKVD – troops waited behind the front lines, ready to shoot down any soldiers who tried to withdraw. This order followed a string of humiliating retreats in the spring and summer of 1942, in which the Germans drove deep into Russia proper, to reach Stalingrad and the banks of the Volga.
In the popular imagination the battle of Stalingrad has represented the key turning-point of World War Two: it showed that the German Army could be beaten. Even Der Völkische Beobachter, the Nazi daily paper, had to report the destruction of the German Sixth Army. Merridale’s purpose may be to put the individual soldier in focus as a subject in his own right, but that doesn’t stop her from telling an ‘epic story’ of the fighting and dying in the shell of Stalingrad left after an annihilating raid by the Luftwaffe in August 1942. The battle consumed 300,000 Soviet soldiers. How in all this did the individual and his character matter? We don’t see much evidence of what Merridale calls a ‘new mentality’ among the Soviets but we do witness a greater ability to withstand pain. They overwhelmed the Germans by their willingness to freeze, to starve and to bleed. When new troops were taken into the Stalingrad battle, they were referred to not as men or as soldiers but as ‘lives’. ‘Lives’ to be sacrificed in what many have described as a meat grinder.
One hesitates to write such words as they reinforce a stereotype frequent in Nazi imagery of the Soviet soldier as someone congenitally less demanding than other human beings. But already in 1930 a British observer had judged Russian troops to be the best imaginable ‘stuff’ for an army, and Amir Weiner, a leading student of the subject, has argued that collectivisation, famine and terror had made the Soviet people even tougher. This was a brutalised society that functioned most efficiently under conditions of war. In ‘Saving Private Ivan: From What, Why, and How?’ (Kritika, spring 2000), Weiner shows how the war tested the viability of the Soviet system after 25 years in power.
There is more than this of course to the story of Stalingrad: a more professional Soviet strategy, an adequate supply of weapons from reassembled plants, recognition on both sides of the symbolic value of a victory. This was not just one more Soviet town, a Kharkov or an Orel. But once again we see the self-defeating nature of the Nazi approach to war. At the outset the German army had cost itself the sympathies of millions of Ukrainians by treating them as subhuman; it now fell victim to a huge pincer movement extending west of Stalingrad because of its inability to conceive of the Soviet side producing serious strategists.
That failure to recognise the Soviet capacity to grow and learn demonstrates the power of racist ideology in shaping the worldview of Germany’s leaders. It was evident again half a year later, at the equally epic struggle at Kursk, the greatest tank battle in history. Again, the Germans were unable to imagine the Russians orchestrating the complex series of manoeuvres that defeated their own plan of trapping Soviet forces in a bulge in the front. This was not simply a contest of metal against metal, Merridale argues: Soviet tank crews showed an ingenuity that with time drew grudging respect even from their opponents.
From this point on, Soviet forces, with steady supplies of matériel and men, pushed the Germans slowly westward. By late 1943 they reached the prewar boundaries of the Soviet Union. According to Vasily Grossman, one of the finest Russian writers of the past century, whose eyewitness reports from the front form a historical source unparalleled in its immediacy, the troops’ behaviour now changed. Many began to act as imperial conquerors, seizing objects and materials of all sorts – most famously wristwatches – from the people they were liberating from Nazi rule.
They also attacked and raped women. In the late summer of 1944, the first Soviet troops crossed the boundaries of pre-1939 Germany, and the atrocities they committed helped steel the resolve of the defenders. When the Germans retook the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf they found dozens of bodies of women and children who had been murdered in the most gruesome ways. In the months that followed, Soviet forces killed or violated many hundreds of thousands more German non-combatants. The attacks on women continued well into the postwar period, until in 1947 Soviet authorities confined their troops in East Germany to their barracks.
At one level, there is no difficulty in accounting for such behaviour. Even so rational and humane an observer as Grossman noted with apparent equanimity the consensus among Soviets that ‘revenge’ would follow victory: it was one of ‘two sacred words left to us’ (the other was ‘love’). Later, as a witness to gang rapes in Germany, Grossman was appalled: in Schwerin, one woman had been violated by ten soldiers when family members pleaded that they stop so she could nurse her infant.
In one of Grossman’s wartime columns, written shortly after the Red Army liberated Soviet territory, he gave a startling insight into its deeper sources:
In these villages, the Germans used to relieve themselves in the halls and on the doorsteps, in the front gardens, in front of the windows of houses. They were not ashamed of girls and old women. While eating, they disturbed the peace, laughing loudly. They put their hands into dishes they were sharing with their comrades and tore boiled meat with their fingers. They walked naked around the houses, unashamed in front of the peasants, and they quarrelled and fought about petty things. Their gluttony, their ability to eat twenty eggs in one go, or a kilo of honey, a huge bowl of smetana, provoked contempt in the peasants . . . According to what prisoners said and letters found on dead German soldiers, the Germans considered themselves the representatives of a higher race forced to live in savage villages.
When the Soviets entered their country, the Germans became witnesses to the final stages of their own experiment. They had provoked a thirst for vengeance not for any particular crime but for their general attitude. No act had been too vile to be committed on a Russian or witnessed by another Russian, making revenge, legitimate or not, inescapable.
Yet it didn’t happen automatically. One can’t say that the Soviet command ‘lost control’ of the troops when they entered German towns or, as Merridale writes, that the troops ‘evolved into a rabble’. A leadership that could force its troops to remain silent over such obvious facts as starvation in a besieged Leningrad (Merridale relates an instance in which a soldier from the city dared mention starving citizens to his new comrades and was promptly arrested) could have controlled these rampaging soldiers more effectively. We know from the work of Norman Naimark that some Soviet units were more, some less likely to mistreat civilian populations. The decisive factor was leadership.
In an unsystematic and sometimes repetitive way, Merridale puzzles together a complex explanation for Soviet behaviour. Marauders and rapists acted as a rule under the influence of alcohol, and they acted in bands, and thus under peer pressure – venting a collective rage pent-up from decades of oppression, as Merridale suggestively notes – and out of fear of violating group norms. One can well imagine the taunts at those unwilling to engage in a virile attack on German women. The point is that Red Army soldiers did not see their victims as women: having been fed anti-German slogans for years, soldiers instead referred to them as ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’. Technically, rape was punishable by death; in fact, officers stood by passively during gang-rapes, or made sure every man had his turn. To the extent that soldiers reflected on what they were doing, they could imagine themselves as acting in accord with a higher imperative: before entering Germany they were instructed on their duty to enact ‘people’s justice’.
The victimised could hardly plead directly to Stalin for mercy; indeed, German Communists flown into Germany from Russia to form a government didn’t dare allude to the crimes perpetrated on German women. Even non-German Communists who spoke up were unceremoniously rebuffed: when the Yugoslav leader Milovan Djilas attempted to intercede with Stalin in 1944 on behalf of Serbian women, the Soviet leader retorted: ‘Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?’
For much of her book Merridale’s sources are the veterans she has interviewed, but they have little to say about the mistreatment of German civilians. If you want to talk about ‘war’ that’s fine, they tell her, but ‘only journalists want to know about those scandals.’ ‘The violence,’ she writes, ‘was on a scale that no one could have overlooked, and yet it disappeared from Soviet consciousness.’ To this day, almost nothing has appeared in Russian on the subject. Yet the war is anything but a dead event: through mammoth anniversary celebrations, it continues to be exploited for every bit of legitimacy it can give to governments who fear the power of the voting booth. In the Soviet Union official memory acted to suppress rather than stimulate private memory.
Merridale has to fall back on sparse collections of letters written at the time by Soviet soldiers, whose references to the war crimes they witnessed are fairly oblique. Inexplicably, she fails to use many of the testimonies collected from German women after the war. In her view, their claims to victimhood are suspect; she calls less than fully precise numbers of raped German women ‘dangerous’, because they ‘could make the Russians seem more terrible, turn the Germans into victims’. Yet her study of Red Army soldiers is itself evidence that people can be victims and perpetrators, as well as everything in between.
How did the behaviour of Soviet troops – both their heroism and their war crimes – relate to the internationalist ideology they supposedly represented? That after all was what set them apart from their equally tough predecessors in the tsarist army. They were agents of a Marxist state. Somehow, a unified image of the composite soldier – ‘Ivan’ – never quite comes into focus here. One readily accepts Merridale’s view that soldiers operated within ‘two cultures’, an official one, including everything that it was permitted to say in front of officers, politruks and journalists; and a ‘concealed, almost tribal one: the culture of vodka, makhorka, the lilted sayings . . . and crude peasant jokes’. But what did they really think, deep down, about their regime? Like Stephen Kotkin, she argues that they supported it because they knew no other: ‘The language and priorities of Soviet Communism provided the war generation with the only mental world they knew, not least because alternatives were excluded.’ But she also writes that soldiers derived deep doubts from their own experience – for example, of the disastrous Finland War. And much of the rural population distrusted the regime.
Perhaps attitudes were so diverse as to defy generalisation, but we are still faced with the question of how Red Army troops could be used to impose an ideology of liberation on non-Soviet peoples when that would seem to run directly against what many of them – like Grossman himself – felt had to be the outcome of the war: greater freedom, which alone could justify the suffering. Oddly, this desire for reform did not necessarily run against the regime, whose popularity grew as the troops moved from victory to victory. Entire squads of soldiers joined the Communist Party before crossing the German border. Arguably, the Stalinist regime had a chance to ground itself in freely expressed popular support rather than in fear. Why did it not take it?
The mass rapes may provide a hint. As Merridale asserts, ‘there is no doubt that the men’s actions were encouraged, if not orchestrated, from Moscow.’ But she fails to ask why Moscow should have encouraged them. Violence may have been inevitable, but were these mass rapes important to the winning of the war? Surely not, but from the standpoint of an insecure Communist elite they may have been needed for winning the peace. What Red Army soldiers now tasted was their own power. They had defeated Hitler, and the rapes now bound them to their leader. Instead of political freedom they were given the intoxicating freedom to do as they liked with their fellow human beings, all the while justifying themselves with the unquestioned right to ‘revenge’. Even as sensitive an observer as Grossman failed to note that contempt leads to self-abasement.
In this case it also led to deeper complicity in the crimes of Stalinism. Although the ‘motherland was never conquered’, Merridale concludes, ‘it had enslaved itself,’ and if one looks beyond the Soviet Union one sees that what the victory over Nazism achieved was to extend Stalinist oppression to millions more in Central and Eastern Europe. But it’s easy to point the finger: had the Red Army not turned the Germans back at Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk, and ultimately subdued Hitler in Berlin, the West would have endured an ‘unthinkable catastrophe’.