Friday, January 1, 2010

To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War by Rebecca Manley

Professor Manley has created a well researched and written narrative of the evacuations which took place in the Soviet Union during 1941 and, to a lesser extent, 1942. Building on Peter Gatrell's "A Whole Empire Walking", the author discusses the space created within the Soviet Union for evacuees/refugees with the German invasion of the USSR. Early plans for evacuation of factories, workers, party personnel, and others were discussed and debated during the 1920s and early to mid 1930s. They seem to have reached a climax in 1937, when a new draft was proposed and remained in limbo without being outright rejected or passed as guidelines by which the state would interact with future evacuees. Unfortunately, to some degree this is a reflection of the purges the Red Army underwent. Ideas about "War of Attrition" became taboo and a Blitzkrieg style form of warfare, known as "war of destruction", came to dominate strategic and operational thought. "War of destruction" influenced Soviet thinking and was reflected in the idea that any war launched against the Soviet state would be met with a quick counterattack and taken to the "enemy's soil" with little loss of Red Army blood. With such ideas, there was little need for evacuation of either factories, workers, or party personnel. Nevertheless, some discussion still existed and was renewed weeks before June 22, 1941.

While evacuations of peoples was nothing new to Russia/Soviet Union, the many complexities that came out of the events in 1941 created a new paradigm through which "evacuees" were judged; those who left too early could be accused of spreading panic, those too late, collaborators and traitors. A limited space came into existence during which evacuations were viewed as permissible by both the state and civilian population. The author has done a great deal of research and weaves personnel accounts with archival documentation to present a mosaic of what higher officials were considering and dealing with, and what evacuees went through on their journey to Tashkent. The description of the evacuation itself begins with civilians who did not want to leave and those who could not find a way of attaining the needed permission to evacuate with their families, followed by discussions of how long these refugees waited at stations for their trains, the journeys themselves, which could take up to a month, how they were received them at their destinations, how they lived and tried to survive in Tashkent, and finally, how they tried to return home. Although the narrative is limited to evacuees from major cities such as Odessa, Moscow, and Leningrad and to the destination of Tashkent, there is little reason to believe other experiences differed drastically from those presented here. My grandfather was evacuated from the city of Kherson in Ukraine to Central Asia and underwent much of the same experiences described here, including being separated from his family and eventually being united with them again.

The experiences recounted here make for depressing reading. Families separated by enemy bombardments of their stations or individual trains, thievery was a common occurrence as was lost luggage and valuables throughout the journey and even at final destinations. Arriving in Tashkent meant an immediate search for shelter, food, and work; otherwise, there was little chance of remaining in the city or surviving. Networks and connections counted for much of how people were able to get by. Through relatives, friends, and friends of friends evacuees in Tashkent were able to attain a place to live, vouchers for food, and jobs so as to remain with their loved ones and/or friends. And through all of this a war was still going on. Too often while reading this text one can easily forget the heightened threat this nation faced. Even so, authorities in Moscow and throughout Uzbekistan tried to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from the west.

In the end, there is clearly a dearth of literature on the evacuations that took place throughout the first year(s) of war. The suffering, deprivation, and tragedy of the time can hardly be captured for a 100%, but this book is an auspicious beginning and deserving of a five star rating. I can only hope that others will take to this topic and try to present an even more encompassing narrative of the evacuation efforts the government of the Soviet Union undertook and the obstacles evacuees/refugees faced as they struggled with the idea of leaving everything they knew to head for an unknown destination in the East. There are still countless stories to be related about the obstacles these men, women, children, and the elderly faced on their journeys and their perseverance in the face of danger, both from the enemy and their own bureaucracy. An excellent addition to both Soviet and Eastern Front literature.

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