Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Soviet Veterans of World War II: A Popular Movement in an Authoritarian Society, 1941-1991 by Mark Edele

We easily forget that after the war is over the soldiers who fought it do not simply disappear into the night nor are they flawlessly incorporated into society. Mark Edele, in this new work on Soviet veterans of the Second World, goes through what these men and women endured from demobilization, trying to configure to the norms of society, on into the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras and through perestroika with Gorbachev and beyond. Since I have had an interest in the plight of these men and women of whom we hear so little after the war, especially those who were invalids and who returned as former POWs, I found this text a great benefit to the history of the Red Army and the Soviet Union in general. Additionally, since many myths today prevail about what happened to former POWs, I am happy to say the author gives the relevant numbers for what happened to them and what many went through trying to incorporate themselves into everyday life that did not include a POW camp or a field of battle. Lastly, I found embedded throughout the text a fascinating discussion of veterans as a distinct group, as well as the reasons for why the Soviet government did not give them that right until decades after the war.

The book is separated into three sections, the first section, made up of the introduction and three chapters, is entitled "Reintegration." It introduces the topic for the reader, goes into the process of how soldiers traveled back into the Soviet Union from parts of central and eastern Europe, followed by how they were welcomed home, and lastly their transition into civilian life. From these first few chapters I saw that the author had at the heart of this text an objective view of the events in question. Soviet veterans went through a lot of different situations: heading home in trains cars with limit comforts or amenities, at times ridding on the roofs of trains, hitching rides home wherever and from whomever they could find. Considering how many veterans were being discharged and how many civilians were being repatriated some of this should not come as a shock. But then again, veterans hoped that a country for whom they bleed and gave their years of youth would respond in kind. Their welcome by the population and integration into society took on many forms. Some found jobs quickly enough with the government help or, more readily, from help of friends and family, while others suffered as they might have been invalids without a skill set while government bureaucracy dragged its feet in trying to help them.

The second section, for me the most interesting of the book, is entitled "Victors and Victims" and highlights war invalids, returning POWs, and how veterans as a whole were treated by the population as they entered schools, the party apparatus, or various jobs. What happened to Soviet war invalids is one of the most depressing stories I've come across; although in this text that story is limited to mainly the facts, which are interesting in and of themselves. Some went on to led criminal gangs while others adjusted to civilian life. Some became professional beggars and when orders came down to rid big cities of "anti-social parasitic elements" war invalids might have been included in this category and were swept away from city streets to other destinations. Some POWs, after going through filtration camps and interrogations by various NKVD/MVD agencies, carried a stigma with them for decades to come which precluded them from attaining work, and when they could, from keeping it. Even into the 1980s there were those who wanted to treat POWs who gave up without being severely wounded or knocked unconscious as a separate category from those who fell into captivity in a state beyond their control. What I thought the author ignored in regard to repatriated POWs was the fact that there were many who did join the Germans of their own volition, in a capacity that was detrimental to the Soviet war effort. Not much stress was put on this point, perhaps it was because the author wanted to remain above the politics of it all and continue in an objective light, but I feel this limits the context the author is operating in.

The last section deals with veteran organizations and veterans as an entitlement community. It was interesting to see how they congregated and petitioned for rights and benefits, who joined them (Zhukov, among others) and who opposed them and why (mainly economic reasons). In the end what the Soviet Union planned for its war heroes did not come to fruition, for many reasons. While those demobilized during the first two years after war ended received some benefits, many who followed did not and there was little they could do aside from trying to integrate themselves into civilian life.

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