Military history

Note on Sources

This book draws on extensive comparative literatures on soldiers, combat and the Second World War. The bulk of it, however, is based on several kinds of primary source. Most of the detail comes directly from archives in the former Soviet Union and Germany. A list of these, together with the abbreviations used in notes to the text, appears below.

The sets of documents involved include soldiers’ letters and diaries, the reports of political officers and secret-police operatives, reports intended for use as the basis for political agitation, military intelligence reports and the evidence of prisoner-of-war interrogations. In addition, I have used Soviet government sources, including documents associated with the trials of former soldiers accused of anti-government agitation in the immediate postwar years. Many of these include evidence gathered from otherwise semi-literate respondents, so they provide insights into the world of soldiers who could not – or chose not to – write. Finally, I have gathered evidence from civilian sources about the army’s impact on the regions it liberated or occupied, and also about the conditions and morale of civilian members of soldiers’ families. I have often found myself reading documents that have not been opened – except for routine checking at the archive – since they were filed sixty years ago. In every case, whatever the source, I have changed the names of all parties unless the material has already been published elsewhere.

I have also used a range of published sources, and notably the multi-volume editions of wartime documents that have appeared in Russian bookshops in the last ten years. Literally tens of thousands of individual documents are involved, and although the most sensitive material has been withheld, such volumes constitute a formidable primary source in their own right.

I have been more circumspect in the use of memoirs, war novels and other literary sources. War memoirs are notoriously unreliable whoever writes them, and this is especially true in a regime where the censor wields a heavy pen. In the Soviet Union, purportedly ethnographic material, even the texts of songs, was collected on a selective, controlled basis. Novels and films about the war were never spontaneous. What literature can do, however, is provide a clue about the style and content of surviving veterans’ accounts. A reading of Simonov, for instance, or an awareness of the extensive range of war films of the 1960s and 1970s, can enable us to decode the testimonies of veterans who have come to believe that the public tale – the story that the state has woven over many years – is actually their own.

Those testimonies have been my other source. I collected approximately 200 interviews in writing this book, most of which I conducted myself, alone or with the help of a Russian assistant. The interviews were usually collected in the veterans’ own homes, whether in Moscow, the Russian provinces, Ukraine or Georgia. In some cases, I was privileged to talk to the same person several times, building friendships that remain among the greatest pleasures of my working life. Many former soldiers were able to correct my misapprehensions as I worked, while others brought documents and photographs from their own collections for us to discuss. I am grateful to them all.

I was surprised by the willingness of elderly people to revisit wartime memories and delighted by the wealth of detail, much of it about daily life, that former combatants recall. Much has been forgotten or suppressed, and much, no doubt, embellished, but the value of testimony lies in the human link that it provides with war itself, and also with the long years of adaptation and recollection that have followed it. The story of post-war remembering – and of selective oblivion – is itself part of the larger story of survival. Suspicion, or at least a reasonable degree of caution, is another. For many veterans, I was an outsider in every respect – a woman, a civilian, an academic and a foreigner. In answer, as a way of checking the bias that my presence imposed, I asked a male ex-soldier to collect some additional interviews, and another set was gathered in Ukraine by a native Ukrainian speaker. Accordingly, I have been able to consider a range of types of testimony and a broad spectrum of political opinions. If the interviews convey a largely uncritical and patriotic, Soviet, view, it is because that is how most survivors see this war even today. That imaginative hold, too, is part of the story I must tell.



GARF: Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (State archive of the Russian Federation)

RGAKFFD: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv kinofonofotodokumentov (Krasnogorsk, Moscow region) (Russian state archive of cinema, recording, and photography)

RGALI: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskustva (Russian state archive of literature and art)

RGASPI: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii (Russian state archive of social-political history)

RGASPI-M: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii – molodezh (Archive of the Komsomol)

RGVA: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi voennyi arkhiv (Russian state military archive)

TsAMO: Tsentral’nyi arkhiv ministerstva oborony (Podol’sk, Moscow region) (Central archive of the Ministry of Defence)


GAOPIKO: Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv obshchestvenno-politicheskoi istorii Kurskoi oblasti

GAKO: Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Kurskoi oblasti (State archive of Kursk oblast)


GASO: Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Smolenskoi oblasti (State archive of Smolensk oblast)

TsDNISO: Tsentr dokumentatsii noveishei istorii Smolenskoi oblasti (Centre for the Documentation of Contemporary History, Smolensk oblast)


Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv (State military archive)

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