Book Review: Ivan’s War Posted by: Dale Franks
on Monday, September 11, 2006
We know quite a lot about the American, British, and even French efforts in World War II. We've seen miniseries detailing every step of Major Dick Winters' company from training to the end of the War in Band of Brothers. We know, almost to the minute, what happened to Lt. Col. Frost's battalion at the bridge over the Rhine in Arnhem, thanks to Cornelius' Ryan's A Bridge Too Far. We've covered, almost inch by inch, the long, slow struggles of the marines across the pacific, thanks to William Manchester's Goodbye Darkness.
One of the things we know very little about, however, is how the average Soviet soldier lived and died in those long, horrific years between 1941 and 1945. We know about the major operations. We know when Marshal Zhukov did this or Marshal Konev did that. What has remained hidden, for more than sixty years, is what life and death was like for the average Russian infantryman—the "Ivan"—during that brief, but deadly time. Those experiences have, for the most part been hidden behind a wall of Soviet censorship.
Now, thanks to Russian studies scholar Catherine Merridale, we can look behind that wall, and see the truth—sometimes grim, sometimes darkly humorous—that the average "Ivan" lived with.
Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Soviet Army, 1939-1945, is not a tale of grand strategy, or a lofty view of Generals and Marshals moving pieces around on a sand table. Instead, it is the story of the privates, the sergeants, and the young lieutenants and captains who led them into battle. It is the story of the frontoviki, the front-line men—and women—who faced the German guns, who fought, and who mostly died during what the Russians still call The Great Patriotic War.
Merridale, through meticulous research through formerly secret archives, and through interviews with surviving veterans, writes about what it was like to live and die as a common soldier on the front lines of that war. It is a glimpse of the wartime experience of Soviet soldiery that was denied to us for more than half a century.
Unlike the story of other Allied soldiers, the story of Ivan is essentially a tragic one, despite the defeat of the Nazis and their allies. In other allied countries, the soldiers kept faith with their governments, and that faith was returned. Most of them came home knowing that they had fought a "good war".
Ivan was denied that comfort. Despite the undeniable bravery and gallantry of the Soviet Infantryman, they were betrayed at every turn. Their training—if they received it—was substandard. Their living conditions were execrable. They were encouraged—indeed, forced—to take part in war crimes, such as units being forced, at gunpoint, to systematically rape German girls and women in Prussia. Finally, after winning the war, they were betrayed by Stalin, who, when the war was over, discarded them, and forced them to knuckle under to one of the most repressive regimes of state terror ever known. Their hopes for a better post-war world were dashed.
There were few happy endings for Ivan.
Merridale tells the whole story, from beginning to end. And she does so with an undisguised compassion for the men and women who were forced to endure so much, suffer so much, and commit horrific acts, and who, as payment, were forced to suffer the deep suspicion of a party and state that distrusted the independent modes of thinking and acting that they had become used to on the front lines.
This is an excellent book that tells a story that has needed to be told for decades.
The Amazon blurb says this and I’ll echo it.... read Glantz’s The Colossus Stumbles and The Colossus Reborn for an excellent MACRO-LEVEL study of the Red Army. The final part of the trilogy is yet to be released, no doubt something like The Colossus Triumphant...
Ivan’s War and Glantz do a good job of puncturing the "Fan-boy" mythology of the Wehrmacht, where everyone wants to command the panzer and panzergrenadier units....The Soviets BEAT the Nazi’s fair and square at their own game. The Red Army was a very tough, capable force...deserving of both the victory it achieved and the better world it deserved, though did not get.
I thought Russia At War did a pretty good job of covering almost every aspect of it, including the fawning of western journalists over papa Joe (the book was writen by western journalist Alexander Werth).