Monday, December 22, 2008

Through the Maelstrom: A Red Army Soldier's War on the Eastern Front, 1942-1945 by Boris Gorbachevsky and edited by Stuart Britton

Doubtfully will we find memoirs and recollections of the Second World War which won't have something of interest to share with a reader. There is no real list of "best sellers," but if there was, Boris Gorbachevsky's memoirs would surely hold a high place on it. The Second World War can and is told from a plethora of perspectives, including frontline soldiers and officers, civilians, politicians, etc. Each has their own story to share but, more often than not, the narrative is clouded by omitted facts and figures, candor is often missing, and self-serving intentions are readily evident. Gorbachevsky seems to have gone out of his way to avoid the aforementioned and, relying on memory, published works (primary and secondary), has seen fit to weave a narrative of events which will leave many speechless in its unadulterated sincerity, heartfelt openness, and uninhibited candor. A perfect example is the author's recollection of the problems Red Army officers had with desertion in 1942. Something one hardly hears about in Red Army memoirs but it is quite well known today that 1 million Red Army men served the Wehrmacht in one capacity or another. We regularly read about Soviets leaving the Germans and coming back to the Red Army, in the latter period of the war, but almost never do we get a chance to hear about who the deserters were.

This account is not full of battles and frontline action on the part of the Red Army, although in the end what Boris experienced is enough for ten lifetimes. Reading how his friends died in his hands during the first encounter and battle with the Germans in the Rzhev area will be hard to forget. From time to time this is anything but an easy read, it can be a quick read if you have the time to devote to all that the author has to share (and at over 400 pages, this is one of the larger Red Army memoirs you'll find for sale today). At least two recollections forced me to put this book down and step away from it for a few hours as I tried to put into perspective what I just read. The first battle, described in great detail and imagery, pitted a brand new division against dug-in German troops and the gruesome results that followed. According to the author, half the division was killed or wounded in the battles they would participate in outside Rzhev. The second occurred closer to the end of the war, when the division the author belonged to had been encircled and their rear area service and supply location was destroyed and the personnel massacred by German troops, in a variety of ways.

This book will give the reader a realistic view of the Red Army through a soldier who rose through the ranks and served on both the frontlines and within the political department of the Red Army. What did political officers do? What were soldiers in the Red Army like? What did they talk about? What did they do in their time between battles? Gorbachevsky shares all of this with us and more. In the end, Gorbachevsky is regularly critical of many of the officers he served under and with and offers enough reasoning as to why. Similarly, he gives due credit to those officers and NCOs who deserved it and took the time to talk to their soldiers, ensure their comfort and attend to their needs and treat them as men and not simply cannon fodder. At times their actions were downright reckless and pointless, but orders were orders, and war is war. At least one of his friends, a battalion commander, after refusing an order to attack which would undoubtedly have left the majority of his men dead, committed suicide. Also, within this book was the first time I read of how officers were afraid of their men! I had never encountered the regular punishments that were meted out to officers who had lost men to desertion.

This book is a learning experience from the first page to the last. The language used throughout the book is not the simple soldier's language many have grown accustomed to when reading memoirs of the Second World War. What we have here is a literary personality who writes with passion, experience, imagery, and most importantly, honesty. The forward by David M. Glantz is an excellent introduction to this memoir and what it means to have such a recollection available for today's generations and, more importantly, a western audience. Thus, I would be remiss if i did not point out that this is Stuart Britton's third translation/editing of a Red Army soldier's memoir. He should be commended as with each memoir he has done a fantastic job in regards to both the flow of the narrative and in helping to explain various Red Army and Soviet jargon for the western reader. Hardly any grammatical or spelling mistakes will be found. For the few that he did miss, they hardly take away from the overall reading and will surely be fixed in future editions/printings, of which I'm more than sure there will be.

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