Military history


Introduction: True War Stories


There is no shade in the centre of Kursk in July. Achieving this required an effort, for Kursk stands on some of the richest soil in Russia, the black earth that stretches south and west into Ukraine. Wherever there is water here there can be poplar trees, and all along the roads that lead to town the campion and purple vetch climb shoulder-high. The land is good for vegetables, too, for the cucumbers that Russians pickle with vinegar and dill, for cabbages, potatoes and squash. On summer Friday afternoons the city empties rapidly. Townspeople go out to their dachas, the wooden cottages that so many Russians love, and the fields are dotted with women stooping over watering cans. The tide reverses on weekdays. The countryside flows inwards to the city. Step away from the centre and you will find street vendors hawking fat cep mushrooms, home-made pies, eggs, cucumbers and peaches. Walk round behind the cathedral, built in the nineteenth century to celebrate Russia’s victory over Napoleon Bonaparte, and there are children squatting on the grass beside a flock of thin brown goats.

All this exuberance is banished from the central square. A hundred years ago there were buildings and vine-clad courtyards in this space, but these days it is all tarmac. The weather was so hot when I was there that I was in no mood to count my steps – two football pitches, three? – but the square is very, very large. Its scale bears no relation to the buildings on its edge and none at all to local people getting on with life. Taxis – beat-up Soviet models customized with icons, worry-beads and fake-fur seat covers – cluster at the end nearest the hotel. At half-hourly intervals, an old bus, choking under its own weight, lumbers towards the railway station several miles away. But living things avoid the empty, uninviting space. Only on one side, where the public park begins, are there trees, and these are not the shade-producing kind. They are blue-grey pines, symmetrical and spiky to the touch, so rigid that they could be made of plastic. They stand in military lines, for they are Soviet plants, the same as those that grow in any other public space in any other Russian town. Look for them by the statue of Lenin, look near the war memorial. In Moscow you can see them in a row beneath the blood-red walls of the Lyubyanka.

This central square – Red Square is still its name – acquired its current shape after the Second World War. Kursk fell to the advancing German army in the autumn of 1941. The buildings that were not destroyed during the occupation were mined or pitted with shots in the campaign to retake the place in February 1943. Many were ripped apart one bitter winter when the fuel and firewood ran out. Old Kursk, a provincial centre and home to about 120,000 people in 1939, was almost totally destroyed. The planners who rebuilt it had no interest in conserving its historic charm. What they wanted of the new Red Square was not a space where local people could relax – there were few enough of them left, anyway – but a parade ground for an army whose numbers would always swamp the city’s population. In the summer of 1943, well over a million Soviet men and women took part in a series of battles in Kursk province. The rolling fields that stretch away towards Ukraine saw fighting then that would decide not only Russia’s fate, or even that of the Soviet Union, but the outcome of the European war. When that war was over, the heart of the provincial city was turned into an arena for ceremonies of similarly monstrous size.

Whatever measure you decide to take, this war defied the human sense of scale. The numbers on their own are overwhelming. In June 1941, when the conflict began, about 6 million soldiers, German and Soviet, prepared to fight along a front that wove more than 1,000 miles through marsh and forest, coastal dune and steppe.1 The Soviets had another 2 million troops already under arms in territories far off to the east. They would need them within weeks. As the conflict deepened over the next two years, both sides would raise more troops to pour into land-based campaigns hungry for human flesh and bone. It was not unusual, by 1943, for the total number of men and women engaged in fighting at any one time on the Eastern Front to exceed 11 million.2

The rates of loss were similarly extravagant. By December 1941, six months into the conflict, the Red Army had lost 4.5 million men.3 The carnage was beyond imagination. Eyewitnesses described the battlefields as landscapes of charred steel and ash. The round shapes of lifeless heads caught the late summer light like potatoes turned up from new-broken soil. The prisoners were marched off in their multitudes. Even the Germans did not have the guards, let alone enough barbed wire, to contain the 2.5 million Red Army troops they captured in the first five months.4 One single campaign, the defence of Kiev, cost the Soviets nearly 700,000 killed or missing in a matter of weeks.5 Almost the entire army of the pre-war years, the troops that shared the panic of those first nights back in June, was dead or captured by the end of 1941. And this process would be repeated as another generation was called up, crammed into uniform and killed, captured, or wounded beyond recovery. In all, the Red Army was destroyed and renewed at least twice in the course of this war. Officers – whose losses ran at 35 per cent, or roughly fourteen times the rate in the tsarist army of the First World War – had to be found almost as rapidly as men.6 American lend-lease was supplying the Soviets with razor blades by 1945, but large numbers of the Red Army’s latest reserve of teenagers would hardly have needed them.

Surrender never was an option. Though British and American bombers continued to attack the Germans from the air, Red Army soldiers were bitterly aware, from 1941, that they were the last major force left fighting Hitler’s armies on the ground. They yearned for news that their allies had opened a second front in France, but they fought on, knowing that there was no other choice. This was not a war over trade or territory. Its guiding principle was ideology, its aim the annihilation of a way of life. Defeat would have meant the end of Soviet power, the genocide of Slavs and Jews. Tenacity came at a terrible price: the total number of Soviet lives that the war claimed exceeded 27 million. The majority of these were civilians, unlucky victims of deportation, hunger, disease or direct violence. But Red Army losses – deaths – exceeded 8 million of the gruesome total.7 This figure easily exceeds the number of military deaths on all sides, Allied and German, in the First World War and stands in stark contrast to the losses among the British and American armed forces between 1939 and 1945, which in each case amounted to fewer than a quarter of a million. The Red Army, as one recruit put it, was a ‘meat-grinder’. ‘They called us, they trained us, they killed us,’ another man recalled.8 The Germans likened it, dismissively, to mass production,9 but the regiments kept marching, even when a third of Soviet territory was in enemy hands. By 1945, the total number of people who had been mobilized into the Soviet armed forces since 1939 exceeded 30 million.10

The epic story of this war has been told many times, but the stories of those 30 million soldiers still remain unexplored. We know a great deal about British and American troops, and they have become the case studies for much of what is known about combat, training, trauma and wartime survival.11 But when it comes to the war of extremes along the Soviet front, perversely, most of what we know concerns soldiers in Hitler’s army.12 Sixty years have passed since the Red Army triumphed, and in its turn the state for which the Soviet soldiers fought has been swept away, but Ivan, the Russian rifleman, the equivalent of the British Tommy or the German Fritz, remains mysterious. Those millions of conscript Soviet troops, for us, the beneficiaries of their victory, seem characterless. We do not know, for instance, where they came from, let alone what they believed in or the reasons why they fought. We do not know, either, how the experience of this war changed them, how its inhuman violence shaped their own sense of life and death. We do not know how soldiers talked together, what lessons, jokes or folk wisdom they shared. And we have no idea what refuges they kept within their minds, what homes they dreamed of, whom and how they loved.

A soldier’s farewell to his wife and children, Don Front, 1941

Theirs was no ordinary generation. By 1941, the Soviet Union, a state whose existence began in 1918, had already suffered violence on an unprecedented scale. The seven years after 1914 were a time of unrelenting crisis; the civil war between 1918 and 1921 alone would bring cruel fighting, desperate shortages of everything from heating fuel to bread and blankets, epidemic disease and a new scourge that Lenin chose to call class war. The famine that came in its wake was also terrible by any standards, but a decade later, in 1932–3, when starvation claimed more than 7 million lives, the great hunger of 1921 would come to seem, as one witness put it, ‘like child’s play’.13 By then, too, Soviet society had torn itself apart in the upheaval of the first of many five-year plans for economic growth, driving the peasants into collectives, destroying political opponents, forcing some citizens to work like slaves. The men and women who were called upon to fight in 1941 were the survivors of an era of turmoil that had cost well over 15 million lives in little more than two decades.14

‘The people were special,’ the old soldiers say. I heard this view expressed dozens of times in Russia, and the implication was that torment, like a cleansing fire, created an exceptional generation. Historians tend to accept this view, or at least to respect the evidence of stoical endurance and self-sacrifice on the part of an entire nation. ‘Material explanations of Soviet victory are never quite convincing,’ writes Richard Overy in his authoritative history of Russia’s war. ‘It is difficult to write the history of the war without recognising that some idea of a Russian “soul” or “spirit” mattered too much to ordinary people to be written off as mere sentimentality.’15 ‘Patriotism,’ the veterans would shout at me. ‘You will not find it among our young people now.’ This may be true, but few have reflected on the motivation of soldiers whose lives had been poisoned by the very state for which they were about to fight. Few wonder, too, what insights future soldiers might have gleaned from parents or from older comrades who had survived other wars, seen other Russian governments or learned the way to stay alive by watching just how others died. The soldiers’ stories are a web of paradox, and sixty years of memory have only added to the confusion.

There is, of course, a long-standing official version of it all, the Soviet Union’s hero myth. You can find it carved into stone on any Soviet war memorial, and it has been described in countless wartime songs. One of its classic expressions was a long verse, the epic of the fictional soldier Vasily Tyorkin, which won a Stalin Prize for its author, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, in 1944. In this version, as in the songs and paintings of the time, the soldier was an ideal everyman.16 He was simple, healthy, strong and kind, farsighted, selfless and unafraid of death. He almost never dwelled upon the dark side of the war. Indeed, his gaze was turned towards the future, a bright utopia for which he was prepared to sacrifice his life. If he gave in to emotion at all – and he was human, so there had to be some – it was the maudlin, sentimental kind. He liked his poetry to rhyme, and he liked silver birch trees, Russian maidens and the certainty of simple kinds of love. If he had died, as millions did, his loved ones and his comrades would have grieved, but there would never have been swearing, smoking, stench or guts. Above all, there would be no hint of panic, failure or doubt to cloud the story, let alone the suggestion that this might be a man who looted the cities that his army came to liberate.

The Tyorkin poem was a favourite with soldiers. They liked the plain rhythms and the gentle pace, the homespun Russian language and the patriotic theme. They also seemed to enjoy the euphemistic treatment of warfare, for they would help perpetuate it. For decades, well into the 1990s, the war veterans talked and wrote like a breed apart. They knew the way they liked their war to be – or rather, how to make memory safe, to defuse the shared horror – and they built civilian lives by keeping to the agreed script. Their favourite authors were war writers, but no Soviet book on the war ever mentioned panic, self-mutilation, cowardice or rape. Official censorship, which banned the work of writers like Vassily Grossman for describing soldiers’ fear, worked hand in hand with the survivors’ need to tame the clamour of their past.17 Collective memory was used to soothe, not to recall; the war generation reconnected with the time of its own youth like former boy scouts sharing camping tales. On public holidays the veterans would raise a glass, remember friends and then join in the singing of their favourite wartime songs, the soundtrack of pain and disaster turned to pathos.

I set out to write this book with the aim of reaching beyond the myths in search of what another writer from another war has called ‘true war stories’.18 The idea began as I completed a different work, a study of death and bereavement that dealt principally with Stalin’s victims. I had talked to veterans for that project, and longed to find out more about the silences that lay behind their tales. I also wanted to explore the double-edged quality of their self-esteem as soldiers, for though Red Army veterans are always portrayed as victors and continue to regard themselves this way, most were also the victims of one of the cruellest regimes of modern times. They handled guns, and were empowered to use them, but they had grown up in a world where citizens lived in the shadow of arbitrary and humiliating state violence, and when their soldiering was done they would return to it. Their contribution, as a group, was acknowledged, but much of what they fought for – more open government, for instance, and an end to fear – would never come to pass. It was ironic that their state should have instilled in them a sense of pride so powerful that few could see how thoroughly it disinherited them.

The project followed naturally from my earlier work, then, but because it concerned the war I could not have begun it until recently. The crumbling of the single-party state, as Soviet communism collapsed, loosened the grip of the official tales on people’s minds, allowing a wider range of memories to surface. It is now possible to say – and think – things that were taboo in the days of Soviet power. The restrictions on researchers are also easing all the time. Documents that were once closed to scholars – and therefore also denied to Soviet collective memory – have been declassified in their millions. This book could not have been written without the bundles of soldiers’ letters, the reports of the military and secret police, the army’s own internal notes about morale. It was illegal for soldiers to keep a diary at the front, but some ignored the regulations, and I was able to read dozens of surviving texts, some in the original pencil manuscript. I also found and studied the reports of witnesses, for this war was fought, until its last months, entirely on Soviet soil, through villages and farmyards where civilians were still attempting to live. I travelled to the battle sites, to Kursk, for instance, and also to Sevastopol, Kerch, Kiev, Istra, Vyaz’ma and Smolensk, and in each place I tried to find out who had fought, what they had done, what local people saw. In the old days of Soviet rule, this would have been impossible.

But something else has also changed, more subtle and more crucial than travel and archival laws. In Soviet times, the war was not a topic for right-thinking scholarly research. My friends at Moscow University in the 1980s viewed it with a mixture of boredom – for they had to hear about it all too frequently – and horror, mainly at the way that genuine memories of death and struggle had been turned into a patriotic myth. The war seemed to belong to a corrupt and ideologically bankrupt state. Like the ungainly second-hand furniture in our cramped student rooms, it was too recent to be history, too large entirely to avoid. But generations change, and young people who are growing up in Russia now have never known Soviet power. Few can remember dreary state parades, the enforced piety of nationalist myths of war, and this means that they can be free to ask new questions. A renewed interest in the Soviet Union’s war, shorn of much of the cant of the last half century, is sparking new research, new conversations and new writing.19In some cases the veterans themselves, freed from Soviet culture’s prim constraints, have also started to revisit and rethink their war. Most of the people that I met had shelves that were bowing under hardback books, new histories, new memoirs, reprints of classified commands.20

In 2001, at the very beginning of my work for this book, I applied to teach some history classes in Russian schools. In each case, I asked the students, teenagers, what historical subject they would most like to see revived and researched. Without hesitation, they all talked about the Second World War. ‘Those old people,’ one girl said, ‘they really had something special. I wish I had listened to my grandmother’s stories more carefully while she was still alive.’ But other children’s relatives, sometimes great-grandparents, survived. The students agreed to help me to approach them and also to collect some of their stories for themselves. Some of the testimonies that helped to shape this book were the result of that collaboration. Other students’ energy and interest has blossomed into contributions to the essay competitions that the Moscow-based human rights association, Memorial, has run for several years. Many of the prize essays were based on interviews, others on private collections of letters. Together, they constitute an informal archive of the human experience of war.21

In all, about 200 veterans provided interviews for this book. Most talked to me directly, alone or with one of the assistants who helped to locate them and put them at their ease.22 We were sometimes conscious of awkwardness, of a restraint that might have been the result of my foreignness or my lack of military experience. It did not always help to be a woman, either. To address all this, I asked a colleague, a Russian army veteran and professional interviewer, to conduct some interviews on his own. Aleksei went back to his home in Kaluga and spent a summer talking to old soldiers, many of whom he had known since childhood. We found that some constraints still held, such as the taboos about sex and death that separate the war generation from our own. We also found – all of us – that the weight of years and of the patriotic myths, of a self-image that was manufactured for the soldiers in the very midst of war, was hard to lift now in people’s extreme old age. Nonetheless, some interviews turned into friendships, dialogues that lasted over several years. Problems that no written archival source could answer were solved or transmuted over tea and vodka, Georgian wine. But though the veterans talked vividly of love, food, travel, countryside and weather, and though they happily recalled the friends they made, few could return to the world of combat itself.

This constraint, I would find, is not unique to Soviet troops. John Steinbeck, who visited Russia just after the war, had seen battle himself. But even he – like almost every other soldier who reflects on combat – was aware that certain things, and battle most of all, remain beyond communication. As they are withdrawn from operations, Steinbeck explained, soldiers are physically and emotionally weary and tend to escape into sleep. ‘When you wake up and think back to the things that happened,’ he continued, ‘they are already becoming dreamlike. You try to remember what it was like, and you can’t quite manage it. The outlines in your memory are vague. The next day the memory slips further, until very little is left at all … Men in prolonged battle are not normal men. And when afterwards they seem to be reticent, perhaps they don’t remember very well.’23 Soviet soldiers’ letters and the testimonies of the survivors today tell this same story almost every time. Perhaps there are some aspects of violence where lack of memory is a boon. I have used every source I can find, from testimony to poetry, police reports to scarred woodland, to try to reconstruct the universe of war. I have also used accounts from Hitler’s army, for sometimes an enemy perceives more than combatants on the other side. But in the end, some silences reflect the truth more closely than pages of prose.

Others, however, are merely frustrating. There is still much resistance in Russia (though less in most other former Soviet republics) to reinterpretations of the war. Commemoration is an industry of sorts, and many of the beneficiaries resent enquiries about fact and detail as they prepare for large-scale parades and solemn memorial ceremonies.24 The Russian government, too, has an interest in preserving a positive image of the war, for its victory over fascism remains the greatest achievement that modern Russia can boast. Accordingly, research into the conflict is not encouraged. There have been worries about reparations claims, about the possibility of European demands for the return of looted art, but these are not the real core of the issue. The point is that commemoration comforts the survivors and raises national morale. It also helps to bolster faith in the armed forces at a time when all the evidence points to moral neglect and gathering financial crisis. And secrecy can be a habit. The Ministry of Defence still guards its massive archive city at Podolsk, near Moscow. The main reason, probably, is fear of exposing systematic evidence of official brutality, or of cowardice, or even of organized mutiny. But there do not need to be reasons. For a state body whose power relies on its inaccessibility, secrecy is also an end in itself.

The other archives, as ever, remain veritable treasure houses. There was still a lot that I was not allowed to see. Sometimes the censorship was primitive. In some cases, forbidden pages in a file were simply sealed with a brown paper envelope held on with paper clips. Sometimes entire runs of files were closed. The rules appeared capricious. In one archive, it was permitted to make notes about desertion but not to write down the offending (and dead) soldiers’ names. In another, statistics about drunkenness were off limits. Meanwhile, in a third, it was possible to read about the drunkenness and desertion of an entire regiment, names and all, and the staff happily brewed tea and unpacked biscuits while I made my notes. The Ministry of Defence is supposed to monitor all wartime documents, and it certainly keeps a close watch on its own holdings, but its rules often conflict with the generous laws on access that govern the archives of the Russian Federation. Even the Ministry, moreover, has no direct control over policy in the former Soviet territories that are no longer part of Russia itself.

The search for Ivan, the Red Army soldier, involved more than one journey, then, and sometimes the most obvious paths had been deliberately blocked. The enterprise also demanded an effort of imagination. Before I could begin to find the true Ivan I had to make sure that I was not looking for an image of myself. A young recruit to Stalin’s army would have grown up in a world so alien to my own that I would have to start with that, with the landscape, the language, family, education, fear and hope. A state that claimed to be remaking human souls, as Stalin’s did, had to have left its mark on every youth; their mental universe was touched, if not entirely shaped, by it. This army was many millions strong, and its ranks included conscripts and volunteers, ordinary men and women, as well as professional soldiers. In many ways, it was a reflection of the society from which it sprang, and its fortunes mirrored the strengths and weaknesses of that lost world. This book must take account of records, tables, and what might be called competing master narratives of war, the stories that emerged as the smoke cleared. But it will also echo with several hundred individual stories, those of the diarists, compulsive letter-writers, memoirists, widows and orphans, survivors. My friend the archivist in Moscow chuckled when I looked daunted. As ever, he could see the humorous side of an ambitious plan. ‘You wrote Life and Death or whatever it was,’ he commented. ‘Now you want to write War and Peace.’


The Soviets were not the only people to create an Ivan myth. With their passion for racial labelling, the Nazis had their own ideas about the Slav in uniform. For Goebbels, Soviet soldiers were a ‘red horde’, half-Asiatic savages who threatened Europe’s way of life. Wartime intelligence was necessarily more scientific. Nazi military observers made their notes by watching combat, interviewing their own men and questioning the prisoners they took.25 But though they admired Russian tank crews, took comfort when the infantry lacked training, and envied the men’s willingness to die, even practically minded spies could not avoid the language of biology. ‘The two large [st] groups’ within the Red Army, Great Russians and Ukrainians, ‘absorbed the same racial elements, the product of which they represent today,’ a German officer wrote. ‘In this racial mixture there can be traced a weak Germanic blood strain from the Gothic period and the Middle Ages. Of special importance, however, I consider the infusion of Mongol blood.’26

These remarks might have little more than antiquarian significance but for the readership they reached. For soon after the Third Reich collapsed, in March 1947, some of its former officers’ racially based analyses of the Red Army were being dictated to members of the American intelligence service. The Soviets were no longer the allies of democracy by then. The Cold War was already tightening its grip, and policy-makers in the United States of America needed to find out more about the superpower they faced. Even the humblest US soldiers required a briefing on their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. To help with the educational process, the US Department of the Army prepared a pamphlet, ‘Russian Combat Methods in World War II’, the second part of which described ‘The peculiarities of the Russian soldier.’

‘The characteristics of this semi-Asiatic,’ the pamphlet begins, ‘are strange and contradictory.’ The captured Nazi officers had done their job. ‘The Russian,’ continued the pamphlet, ‘is subject to moods which to a westerner are incomprehensible; he acts by instinct. As a soldier, the Russian is primitive and unassuming, innately brave but morosely passive when in a group.’ At the same time, ‘his emotions drive the Russian into the herd, which gives him strength and courage’. Hardship was no deterrent for these primitives. The Red Army’s wartime endurance at Stalingrad was explained as a side effect of culture and those Asiatic genes. ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the Russian soldier is unaffected by season and terrain … The Russian soldier requires only very few provisions for his own use.’ Finally, the Red Army could not be trusted to play by the rules. ‘The Germans found,’ the summary concluded, ‘that they had to be on their guard against dishonesty and attempts at deception by individual Russian soldiers and small units … An’ unguarded approach often cost a German his life.27

Cold-War commentaries like these, racist parentage and all, helped shape the image of Red Army soldiers for English-speakers of the later twentieth century. Most combatants dehumanize their enemy. It is much easier to kill someone who seems entirely alien, whose individuality has gone. And Russia always seemed to be so difficult, even in the brief four-year spell when Stalin was the ally of democracy. Red Army soldiers might well be brave, ‘probably the best material in the world from which to form an army’ in the view of one British observer, but their ‘astonishing strength and toughness’ and ‘their ability to survive deprivations’ were disconcerting, even in an ally.28

Setting the racist labelling aside, it remains true that Soviet soldiers served one of the most ambitious dictatorships in history and that most had been educated according to its precepts. In that sense, most were more deeply saturated in their regime’s ideology than soldiers in the Wehrmacht, for Soviet propaganda had been working on its nation’s consciousness for fifteen years by the time that Hitler came to power in Berlin. Soviet citizens also tended to be more isolated from foreign influences, and very few (except, perhaps, the veterans of the First World War) would have had the opportunity for international travel. They shared a common language, a kind of lens that was engineered to show the world in the colours of Marxism–Leninism. But beyond that, the idea that Red Army soldiers were an undifferentiated horde, or even scions of one race, is wrong.

Russians were in a majority in the Soviet armed forces throughout the war. Ukrainians were the second largest nationality, and the Red Army included scores of other ethnic groups, from Armenians to Yakuts, as well as large numbers of people who preferred to call themselves ‘Soviet’, evading traditional categories in favour of a new kind of citizenship.29 Conscripts included skilled workers, young men who could turn their acquaintance with industrial machines into an easy mastery of tanks. But though such people were the army’s favourite recruits, its ranks also numbered boys from the villages, many of whom had never seen an electric light, let alone an engine, before they were called up. Recruits from desert and steppe regions had yet to see broad rivers, yet to learn to swim. They were the ones who drowned most quickly when the order came to wade through the Crimean marsh or storm across the icy river Dnepr.

There were also wide variations in the soldiers’ ages. The majority of conscripts were born between 1919 and 1925, but older men, including tens of thousands in their forties, were also called up. These were the veterans who remembered the First World War, the men who had known what life under tsarism was like. Their mentality and expectations were entirely different from those of young lads straight from Soviet schools. Some even remembered different kinds of army. That of the Tsars had been hierarchical, its discipline severe, but in the 1920s there had been a brief experiment with classlessness, an attempt to build a people’s army that was free of bombast, formality and gold braid.30 Men who remembered those experimental days were suspicious of drill, watchful, and quick to condemn (or even shoot) their inexperienced young officers. There never was a single army type. After a few months on the road with former peasants, small-time crooks, career soldiers, adolescents, and would-be poets like himself, one conscript, David Samoilov, concluded that ‘a people is not like the processed stuffing ready for history’s sausage-machine … A single language, culture and fate give rise to characteristics that many seem to share, the things that we call national character. But in reality a people is a multiplicity of characters.’31

If Soviet culture was not capable of turning out a single type of man, there could be grounds for suspecting that war itself might do so. It is hard to conceive of individuality against a background of industrialized slaughter or even to imagine sensitivity where so much would have been obliterated by smoke, stench and deafening noise. Brutalization – or, as Omer Bartov has it, barbarization – is the word that springs to mind.32 And yet these soldiers, like any others, had dreams and aspirations of their own, ambitions that ranged from promotion or Communist Party membership to a bit of leave, some new boots or a German wristwatch. They continued to write their letters home, to notice changes in the weather, landscapes, the health and breed of local pigs. They made friends, too, and exchanged stories from back home, rolled cigarettes, stole vodka, learned new skills. The front was not merely a theatre of living death. Paradoxically, for those who survived the war presented a new world, landscapes that they would not have seen if they had stayed on the farm. The German army went through the reverse process, marching into a land that struck former workers from Bavaria or Saxony as primitive, barbarous, unlit, unheated, and unwashed. Where some detachments of the Wehrmacht motored to the front, initially, from Paris, the best Red Army soldiers often came from villages where travel meant a five-day walk to town. Some of the riflemen who ransacked Berlin, drinking old cognac out of Meissen cups, had never set foot in a train before the army and this war.

Comparisons with other armies do more than suggest the things that were specific in the Red Army’s culture; they also point to themes that Soviet sources may not highlight on their own. One question, which no writer born in Stalin’s world would even think to ask, is what made any Soviet soldier fight? Combat motivation, like national character, was an issue that preoccupied military experts in the US in the 1950s. The result was a theory about small-group loyalty, the notion that men give their best in battle if they have ‘buddies’, ‘primary groups’, which, unlike ideology or religion, truly command their love.33 The notion eventually inspired new policies on training and the use of reserves, and it has become conventional wisdom for social psychologists and policy-makers alike. But the Red Army does not readily fit the mould. To be sure, battalions would train together behind the lines whenever they were joined by new reserves; or that, at least, was the plan. But when the rates of loss were high, when the average front-line tour of duty for an infantryman, before he was removed by death or serious disability, was three weeks, the small groups seldom lasted long.

High casualty rates afflicted the Wehrmacht as well, and it has been suggested that the place of primary groups in German lines was taken by ideology on the one hand and fear on the other.34 Fear played its part in the Red Army, too, although at first soldiers were more frightened of German guns than of their own officers, paralyzing their ability to fight.35 Ideology also featured centrally in Soviet soldiers’ lives. They had been shaped to see themselves not merely as citizens in uniform but as the self-conscious vanguard of a revolution, the spearhead of just war. But how effective ideology could be in motivating them, and how it jarred or scraped against older beliefs, including religion and traditions of nationalism, remains an open question. Communist rhetoric may have contributed a certain zeal, but it was not accepted universally. Nor was the god-like status of Stalin. In the 1930s, the leader’s name, in capitals, had appeared in pamphlets, newspapers and posters everywhere that Soviet people looked. His face loomed out of wartime newspapers and pamphlets, too, and his name was spelled out on the painted banners that were strung between birch trees to hallow soldiers’ meeting places in the open air. But it is another matter to read allegiance into Stalin’s ubiquitous presence, least of all among troops at the front line. ‘To be honest about it,’ the poet Yury Belash wrote later, ‘in the trenches the last thing we thought about was Stalin.’36

To some extent, training built men’s confidence when ideology had failed to convince and comfort them. In 1941, Soviet recruits faced the most professional fighting force the continent had ever seen. By 1945, they had defeated it. Between those dates, there was a revolution in Red Army soldiers’ preparation, in military thinking, in the use and deployment of technology, and in the army’s relationship with politics. These changes, one of the keys to Soviet triumph, affected every soldier’s life, and many wrote and spoke about them. For some, the whole business was irksome, especially when, in honour of the Soviet fascination with American styles of management, the methods used resembled preparation for production lines. But the tide turned, Stalingrad held, and its progress in the next two years suggested that Red Army training methods were increasingly effective. How much they resembled German methods, how much the two sides learned from each other, is one question. Another is the place of party rhetoric, of communist belief, in this most technical of fields.

Finally, there is a problem on which almost every Soviet source is silent. Trauma, in the Red Army, was virtually invisible. Even the toll that the war took on soldiers’ family lives was seldom discussed,37 but shock, and the distress of all that the men witnessed at the front, was virtually taboo. There can have been few battlefields more terrible than Stalingrad, Kerch or Prokhorovka, and few sights more disturbing than the first glimpse of mass extermination, of Babi Yar, Maidanek or Auschwitz. But official accounts say nothing about trauma, battle stress, or even depression. Mental illness, even among troops, is scarcely mentioned in contemporary medical reports. In the guise of heart disease, hypertension or gastric disorders, it haunts post-war hospital records without getting specific attention. The question is not so much whether Red Army soldiers suffered stress as how they viewed and dealt with it.

Linked to this is the long-term problem of their adaptation to the peace. In four short years, Red Army conscripts had turned into professionals, skilled fighters, conquerors. There would be little call for qualities like these while Stalin lived. The journey home could be as confusing as a soldier’s long-forgotten first few weeks in uniform. For many, the confusion continued in the decades to come. The process of adjustment could encompass family problems, poverty, depression, alcohol abuse, violent crime. Perhaps the survivors’ ultimate victory should be measured, in their old age, by their achievement of a kind of ordinariness, by the sharing of tea and sweets, pictures of grandchildren, home-grown tomatoes from the dacha. That triumph, the least spectacular but most enduring, is part of the uniqueness of this generation, an aspect of the special quality that the schoolchildren who helped to inspire this book could sense but did not name.


It is a Friday evening in mid-July and my assistant, Masha Belova, and I have an invitation to tea. We have been working in Kursk’s local archive, reading about the chaos that gripped the province as the front drew near in 1943. The documents tell a confusing tale. The army’s advance was a trail of liberation, but not everyone was pleased when the soldiers arrived, ransacking their homes for food, demanding horses to transport their guns. And then there was the danger in the streets: not only shelling, but the looting, mugging and the unexploded mines. After nine hours reading documents like these, the war seems real and the quiet afternoon a dream; it always takes a while to readjust. But it is hard to stay solemn for long once we have left the square. The building we are visiting stands in a courtyard shaded by plane trees. Windows are open on every floor, some swagged with drying laundry, some crowded with tomato plants or marigolds in plastic tubs. A man in a tracksuit is fixing his car. Another is watching, spitting the husks of sunflower seeds into an arc around his feet. The lady we have come to see is waiting by the stairs. We take off our shoes by her front door and pad through to the living room.

Valeriya Mikhailovna was born near Kursk in 1932. She is a village woman, the daughter of peasants, and when she speaks her accent is guttural, the consonants slurred, a hybrid of Russian and Ukrainian. ‘It was terrible,’ she repeats, ‘frightening. God forbid! Dear girls, good girls, what can I tell you about the horrible war?’ She is sitting on a low stool opposite us, and as she starts to tell her story, she begins to rock. ‘They came, I don’t remember when. There were tanks, the tanks came by, and there were planes, German planes, our planes. The whole sky was black. God forbid! The tanks were on fire, they were burning. And the bombs were flying. There were battles raging, battles. I was nine years old. People were crying, everyone was crying, mother was crying. My dear girls.’ She rocks, she smiles, and then her face grows stern again. ‘There were bodies lying everywhere. Our conditions were so bad, so bad. There were prisoners of war. We saw them. Our father was taken, he was a prisoner of war. Mother was still young and pretty, it was terrible. You cannot imagine. It was cold. I remember there was ice. They took the wounded soldiers to our barn. And the wounded soldiers were all crying, “Let us die, let us die.” They put them in our barn. And then, dear girls, they came and took the clothes from the dead ones. Their shirts and coats. They took them and they put them on. Without even washing them or anything, God forbid!’

Valeriya Mikhailovna is not rich, but her flat has electricity and gas and she owns a black-and-white television that probably works most of the time. She also has a job; she is not living in some isolated forest hut. When she begins to talk, however, her words come out in the authentic cadence of the village, the peasant village of a hundred years ago. Catastrophes come from the blue, the people suffer, God forbids. The narrative rolls in blank verse, punctuated by that refrain – good girls, my dear girls, God forbid! The mothers of the boys who fought Napoleon no doubt spoke in the same rhythm, weaving their stories on a warp of repetition. Like theirs, this fable recognizes fate, it designates the good and bad, it offers details to substantiate its truths. The Austrian soldiers were good people, kind. The Finns were the worst. Even the Germans were afraid of them. The Germans hated the cold, dear girls. They hated the winter, they were afraid of it. When it was warm, they liked to look for eggs, they liked their eggs and lots of milk. But the Germans, they bombed us, they burned our homes, we were there with them for two years. It was very frightening.

Valeriya Mikhailovna’s face is full of concern for us. She wants us to understand, she wants us to get whatever it is that we have come for. She has told this story before many, many times, but she is trying very hard to make it come alive. How much of what she is saying is based on her own memory and how much is drawn from local folklore, it is impossible to say. But there is a moment when the rhythm breaks, when all her years and later stories fall away and she is standing in her mother’s hut beside the door. I asked her to tell us about the moment when the Red Army recaptured her village. ‘We lived near a bridge,’ she began. ‘The Germans blew it up because they were retreating. We watched them going by, going by. They were retreating from Voronezh. They took everything. They took our food, our pots.’ She paused. ‘We weren’t expecting ours. But there was a knock on the door. Mother said it would be some kind of German. But it was one of ours …’ Valeriya Mikhailovna began to cry, but she was smiling, too, and she hugged herself and shook her head, apologizing for the pause. ‘He picked me up. He was one of ours. They came, they knocked on our door. They picked me up. They were knocking, and they said, “We have come …”’

‘I always cry when I remember them,’ she told me later as we drank our tea. ‘They were ours. I could not believe it.’ The little girl may well have cried in 1943. But then, as she explained, ‘They could not stay, of course.’ The liberators were on their way, and all that remained was a snapshot in her memory, a soldier from her own side at the door. Sixty years of propaganda have altered the grander stories of the war, but the eleven-year-old Valya’s joy cannot be faked. As I listen to the tape of her story I can almost hear the shuffle of heavy boots, the deep voices, Russian being spoken without fear. The men that she so skilfully conjured for me are no longer ordinary peasants. In her account, they are more like the heroes of a Russian epic tale.

‘There’s nothing much for us in that one,’ Masha told me as we walked back home. ‘She was very nice, but she didn’t really see anything, did she?’ Compared with some of the other interviews we had recorded, this was true. That very morning we had spent an hour arranging to hear the memories of local veterans, including one or two who could have known the soldier who had knocked on Valeriya’s door in 1943. We had listened to others describing the day they were called up, their experiences of training, their first battles, the German soldiers they had killed. A few days earlier, at Prokhorovka, which is where the fiercest tank battle of the whole war took place, a veteran had described his terror as the fields of ripening corn caught fire around him and the horizon burst into flame. Valeriya Mikhailovna was younger than most war veterans, she had not been a soldier, and she was a woman.

It was only as I thought about the interview that night that I realized how crucial it had really been. Without it, in fact, nothing that the soldiers said had a real context. For most of the soldiers young Valeriya knew had come precisely from her world. Nearly three quarters of the Soviet infantry in the Second World War had started life as peasants. Their horizons had been no larger than Valeriya Mikhailovna’s, their mental universe as tightly bound by God and soil. The stories of their lives could easily have been as repetitious: cycles of harvest, winter, death and hardship; the main events dealt to them, not within their power. But then the army took them and their world would change for ever.

For many, what awaited was a mutilating wound or death. But that is not the whole tale of this war. The paradox is chilling, but nonetheless it remains true that foot soldiers on the Soviet side, if they survived, could genuinely talk of progress. Those that lived would meet foreigners: German, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, Finnish, even possibly American. They would fight beside Soviet citizens who did not speak their Russian language, some of whom, the Muslims, invoked Allah, not Stalin, before battle. They would see and handle new machines; learn to shoot, learn to drive, to strip parts out of heavy guns and tanks. They would also become adepts in black-market trade and personal survival. As conquerors in the bourgeois world they would use its fine china for their meat, drink its sweet Tokay wine till they passed out, force their masculine bodies on its women. By the war’s end, they would have gained a sense of their own worth. But even as they entered villages like Valeriya’s, so like their own lost peacetime homes, they would have sensed the extent of their transformation, the distance each had travelled since their first call-up.

The people who greeted them had seen their fill of violence as well. The German occupation was far worse than Valeriya’s memory describes. Even in the villages, communists and Jews were hanged, women raped and men – such as there were – shipped off to work as slave labour in Hitler’s Reich. The Red Army would free them from all that, but it would also make demands, forcibly evacuating some people from front-line zones, requisitioning precious food and goods, destroying crops and buildings. A survivor would know this, and there are papers in the archive that describe the civil strife, the crime and anger. But Valeriya’s emotion when she saw that tall Russian at the door was not the product of propaganda, even in retrospect. It reflected a hope, an act of faith, the loyalty that Russians felt towards their own, a gratitude that still feeds many veterans’ hearts.

Local people talking to Red Army soldiers, September 1943

Valeriya Mikhailovna never travelled. Her schooling was interrupted by the war and she never managed to complete it, remaining in the province of her birth. The Soviet system under which she spent her adult life did not indulge its citizens with information. An old person now, she has not had the chance to buy and read the glossy magazines that crowd the bookshop windows of the new Russia. She has the same curiosity about outsiders, the same sense of the exotic, as a new soldier might have had in 1943. ‘Tell me about England,’ she asked. I wondered if she wanted to know about Tony Blair, to talk, as many veterans had, about the war in Iraq. ‘Do you have a sea?’ she began. I explained that England was part of a group of islands. We had several seas. ‘But tell me,’ she continued, smiling warmly over her own cups and saucers, ‘is it all right for food in England? Can you get everything you need?’ She wanted to make up a parcel for me with some bread and cucumbers. It is the custom when a journey starts.

Notes – Introduction

1 John Garrard and Carol Garrard (Eds), World War 2 and the Soviet People: Selected Papers from the IV World Congress for Soviet and East European Studies, Houndmills, 1993, pp. 1–2.

2 G. F. Krivosheev, (general editor), Grif sekretnosti snyat: Poteri vooruzhennykh sil SSSR v voinakh, boevykh deistviyakh i voennykh konfliktakh (Moscow, 1993), p. 127.

3 Ibid., p. 141.

4 It remains impossible to give precise figures for the number of Soviet prisoners of war the Germans captured, not least because so many of the captives died. German figures are still around 2,561,000 for the first five months of the war (Krivosheev, p. 336). The total for the entire war may be higher than 4,500,000. Krivosheev, p. 337; N. D. Kozlov,Obshchestvennye soznanie v gody velikoi otechestvennoi voiny (Saint Petersburg, 1995), p. 87 (gives a figure of over 5 million).

5 Krivosheev, p. 161.

6 John Erickson, ‘The System and the Soldier’ in Paul Addison and Angus Calder, eds, Time to Kill: The Soldier’s Experience of War in the West (London, 1997), p. 236.

7 The figure that commands most support is a ‘demographic loss’ (i.e. excluding returned POWs) of 8,668,400. For a discussion, see Erickson, ‘The System,’ p. 236. Statistics in this war are notoriously unreliable, and it is possible that the true figure is higher by several million.

8 See Chapter 4, p. 109, and Chapter 5, p. 145.

9 Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (London, 1998), p. 30.

10 Krivosheev (p. 92) gives a figure of 34,476,700 for the women and men who ‘donned military uniform during the war’.

11 The classic American accounts include S. L. A. Marshall, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future Wars (New York, 1947) and Samuel A. Stouffer et al., The American Soldier (2 vols, Princeton, 1949).

12 Among the first post-war studies was E. Shils and M. Janowitz,’ Cohesion and disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War Two’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 12:2, 1948. The Wehrmacht’s performance is examined comparatively in Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance, 1939–1945 (London and Melbourne, 1983). A more recent, but classic, account is Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis and the Third Reich (New York, 1992).

13 Cited in Catherine Merridale, Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia (London, 2000), p. 218. For a moving account of the famine, see R. Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow (Oxford, 1986).

14 The story of this violence is explored in my Night of Stone.

15 Richard Overy, Russia’s War (London, 1997), pp. xviii–xix.

16 For a more detailed commentary on wartime poetry, see K. Hodgson, Written with the Bayonet: Soviet Russian Poetry of World War Two (Liverpool, 1996).

17 Grossman himself was condemned when his great war novel, Life and Fate, was judged to be ‘devoid of human feelings, friendship, love and care for children’. The banning of Life and Fate, including the references that his critics made to the needs of veterans, is discussed in Night of Stone, pp. 319–20.

18 The phrase is used as the title for one of the tales in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (London, 1991).

19 Among the most energetic exponents of this is Elena Senyavskaya, of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, whose generous help and warm encouragement of colleagues, including me, has fostered an entire school of new research. See, for example, her Psikhologiya voiny v XX veke: istoricheskii opyt rossii (Moscow, 1999).

20 The most treasured series is Russkii Arkhiv’s Velikaya Otechestvennaya, a multi-volume set of reprints of wartime laws, regulations and military orders published in Moscow since the 1990s. Its striking scarlet bindings came to seem like a trophy of true veteran status, at least in the capital.

21 Some, such as the results of the 2000–1 competition, have been published. See Rossiya-XX vek, sbornik rabot pobeditelei (Moscow, 2002).

22 Oksana Bocharova and Mariya Belova, a social scientist and an ethnographer respectively, at different times also carried out interviews alone, as well as staying in touch with veterans after the interviews. In several cases, the result was a correspondence that continued for months.

23 Cited in John Ellis, The Sharp End: The Fighting Man in World War II (London, 1980), p. 109.

24 For a discussion, see Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (New York, 1994).

25 The surviving fruits of those interrogations and enquiries, which I was able to consult thanks to the help of German colleagues, are archived in the military section of the Bundesarchiv in Freiburg.

26 Donald S. Detwiler et al. (Eds), World War II German Military Studies (24 vols, New York and London, 1979), vol. 19, document D-036.

27 Russian Combat Methods in World War II, Department of the Army pamphlet no. 20–230, 1950. Reprinted in Detwiler, vol. 18.

28 The observation, by Lt-Gen Martel, applied to Soviet troops in 1936. Cited in Raymond L. Garthoff, How Russia Makes War (London, 1954), p. 226; see also ibid., p. 224.

29 Some people used this designation to answer the question on ‘nationality’ in the census of 1937. At the other extreme were individuals who answered ‘anything but Soviet’. See Catherine Merridale, ‘The USSR Population Census of 1937 and the Limits of Stalinist Rule,’ Historical Journal, 39:1, March 1996, pp. 225–40.

30 This democratic army – or quasi-democratic one – is the subject of Mark von Hagen’s Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship: The Red Army and the Soviet Socialist State, 1917–1930 (Ithaca and London, 1990).

31 David Samoilov, ‘Lyudi odnogo varianta: Iz voennykh zapisok’, part 2, Avrora, 1990, no. 2, p. 51.

32 See Bartov’s important book The Eastern Front, 1941–45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (London, 1985).

33 First discussed in the 1940s, the theory was placed in the policy agenda by the work of Shils and Janowitz, op. cit.

34 This argument is developed in Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army.

35 See Chapters 3 and 4.

36 Beevor, Stalingrad, p. 173.

37 The problem did concern post-war authorities. See Vera S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Cambridge, 1976), especially pp. 214–24.

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