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Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army,…

Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

by Catherine Merridale

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A terrifying view of the average Red Army soldier in the largest and most brutal land conflict in human history. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
History of the fight between the Russians and Germans in WWII,
focussing on the Russian troops. Really affecting, and I am not
sure how much of this is due to the story and how much to Merridale's
skill (which I certainly rate highly). ( )
  cgodsil | Oct 17, 2009 |
Ivan's War is primarily a social history of the Red Army during the Second World War. In doing so it looks mostly at the enlisted man and the junior officers involved mainly in the infantry - and almost almost all from a Russian or Ukrainian background. In doing so Merridale casts out a book that looks a lot like Richard Holmes' Tommy or Redcout but without as much skill.

Unlike Holmes, Merridale takes a chronological look at the Red Army starting from a brief background of the service up to 1939 and through the Winter War. More time is spent detailing the composition of Soviet society before 1939, detailing its large agrarian roots especially as it impacted the recruitment and usage of infantry.

The vast majority of the book is then about the German invasion and the eventual winning of the war as the Red Army went about reforming itself to gradually become a rather professional force equal to the Wehrmacht. The author goes about this by way of a large body of oral reports she collected while writing the book and presumably a large body of private letters and official documents detailing the issues political commissars and the like saw with the men. Its undoubtedly a strong basis for a book, but I found it rather jarring. I had expected the book to be a little broader in its scope, discussing for instance the role of ethnic or national minorities to a greater degree when Merridale kept much of her assessment to Russian or Ukrainians and this may be the result of a limited oral search or lack of research in some of the former Soviet Republics. Likewise most of the text deals with the infantry, so little is devouted to men involved in tank warfare, artillery, or the administration of the army to say nothing of the navy, airforce, or even a good examination of the weaponry the Red Army used.

These issues, together with an almost complete lack of maps - it only included one two page political map covering the eastern front - and her apparent dislike of block-quotes did much to deflate some of my early enthusiasm for the book. Thats not to say the book is bad, but merely that its focus was not what I expected it to be. ( )
1 vote CSL | Jan 17, 2008 |
Ivan's War is a social history of the Red Army in WWII. Merridale describes the make-up of the army, its training, its devastation by Stalin's purges, its lack of preparation and equipment, its tragedy in the first months and year of the war, its growing confidence after Stalingrad, the curbing of political influence to let the military leaders make military decisions, the incredible waste of lives which all too often characterized Soviet offensives, the actions and attitudes of the Army when it crossed Soviet borders into Poland and then into Germany itself. But more interestingly, Merridale delves into what motivated the soldiers of the Red Army, what was the relationship of the Army to Soviet society, what were the attitudes of the soldiers who had to live with the "Stalinist bacillus of mistrust". She has done this by combing old records, letters, reports, and talking to veterans of all types.

The numbers are staggering and dwarf anything in any other theatre of the war. By February, 1942, the Red Army had lost 3 million captured and 2.7 million dead, but even so, by the end of 1942, it had more than 6 million soldiers in the field. Three million Soviet POWs were killed in German captivity. 1.6 million ethnic peoples were deported by the Soviets for alleged disloyalty or sympathy with the Germans. 7.5 million Soviet civilians were killed by the Germans. 3.5 million Soviets were shipped west as slave labour, of whom 2 million died. The best estimate is that 8.6 million Soviet military personnel were killed either on the battlefield or as POWs. 5.5 million Soviet citizen were "repatriated" to the Soviet Union at the end of the war and about one-fifth of those were executed or sentenced to 25 years hard labour.

Merridale also explores the betrayal, by the system, of the sacrifices made by those who fought and risked their lives. So many had hoped that the tyranny of the Soviet system would ameliorate after the war, but all were disappointed. As Merridale says, "For those whom the state punished, postwar life was cruel. For all the rest, it was a time when relief was tinged with disquiet. Everyone would find, too, that Soviet society had grown harder, more brutal, and cold.....War itself, too, had shattered Soviet family and social networks and debased further the values of mercy, cooperation, and even simple good manners.....the real tragedy, the perfidy of Stalin's final years, was the theft that forced decent citizens to acquiesce in tyranny because of fear, the theft of almost every grand ideal that they had fought to save."

This is a book about the "facts" of the war, but even more so, it is about the power of myth and memory; about how memory distorts to filter out the worst to retain the positives, and how this can be influenced by myths that grow up on their own or, in the case of the Soviet Union, are deliberately manufactured by the state, for the glory and perpetuation of the state and the political system; how under the Soviet system it was suicidal to question the official myths.

As the Spanish historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto said, "...facts are less potent than the falsehoods that people believe. If enough people believe a falsehood, it eventually becomes true; in the meantime they behave as if it were true and its influence on the course of events becomes immense."

Ivan's War is well researched, well written, and well worth a read.
5 vote John | Jul 22, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312426526, Paperback)

They died in vast numbers, eight million men and women driven forward in suicidal charges, shattered by German shells and tanks. They were the soldiers of the Red Army, an exhausted mass of recruits who confronted Europe's most lethal fighting force and by 1945 had defeated it. For sixty years, their experiences were suppressed, replaced by patriotic propaganda. We know how the soldiers died, but nearly nothing about how they lived, how they saw the world, or why they fought. In this ambitious, revelatory history, Catherine Merridale uncovers the harrowing story of who these soldiers were, and how they lived and died during the war.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:50 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A narrative of the ordinary Russian soldier's experience of the worst war in history, based on newly revealed sources. The men and women of the Red Army, a ragtag mass of soldiers, confronted Europe's most lethal fighting force and by 1945 had defeated it. Sixty years have passed since their epic triumph, but the heart and mind of Ivan--as the ordinary Russian soldier was called--remain a mystery. We know something about how the soldiers died, but nearly nothing about how they lived, how they saw the world, or why they fought. Drawing on previously closed military and secret police archives, interviews with veterans, and private letters and diaries, Merridale presents the first comprehensive history of the Red Army rank and file, revealing the singular mixture of courage, patriotism, anger, and fear that made it possible for these underfed, badly led troops to defeat the Nazi army.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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