Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945 Edited by David Stone

This edited volume by David Stone presents eight separate articles by a number of well known historians of the Soviet Union. All are academics and, as Stone explains in the introduction, they have "not focus narrowly on their own work, but instead synthesize the findings of many scholars to improve our general understanding of the Soviet Union at war." Herein lies the strength and weakness of this volume. Aside from the fact that no original research is being presented, there are also no operational histories of the war here. The topics dealt with are either investigations of the homefront or Soviet institutions. While each essay is helpful in that it traces changes and continuities from before The Great Patriotic War to after, the fact that operational analysis is omitted, in my opinion, does more harm that good. Yes, operational histories of the Eastern Front have appeared in larger numbers since the fall of the Soviet Union, but taking those histories and putting them into a greater context would have created a better foundation for analysis than omitting them. The weaknesses I have in mind go hand in hand with a lack of operational analysis as a few times well known myths and generalizations of the war are repeated. The real strength of this volume, for me, is that it can be used as a starting point for an analysis of the Soviet Union during the Second World War for those new to the topic, specifically, college students (both graduates and undergraduates). Each chapter offers a selection of titles under the heading "Recommended Reading" and the endnotes are also quite helpful in offering those interested in further research.

The topics covered by this volume begin with Mark Harrison's chapter on the "Industry and Economy" of the Soviet Union during the war. Harrison is able to contextualize the collectivization the Soviet Union underwent in the 1930s while exploring the Soviet mentality behind the program itself and the results the state reaped during its confrontation with Nazi Germany. In some ways as Hitler was trying to prevent some of the variables Germany encountered in the First World War, Stalin was trying to do the same. As Harrison explains, urban famine was avoided throughout the state (aside from Leningrad), "but supplies to the army, the defence industry, and the urban population were protected. This outcome was the opposite of the experience of the First World War - and it was the intended result of collectivization" (24). Furthermore, the fact that Soviet industry could produce tens of thousands of tanks and planes during the 1930s created conditions for mass mobilization of industry during the war, which resulted in enormous production runs of various weapons systems even while the Soviet Union was under enormous pressure from the Germans and in the midst of evacuating thousands of its factories to the east. The reasons Harrison sees as responsible for the Soviet economy not collapsing in 1941 are "...the pre-war Soviet preparations for war, Stalin's successful exploitation of national feeling and repression to hold the war effort together, and the provision of Allied assistance in large quantities and its effective utilization" (41). There isn't too much room devoted to Lend Lease and its impact on the Soviet war effort, but as stated above, this is a good starting point for further research for those interested in the topic.

Richard Bidlack's article on "Propaganda and Public Opinion" discusses how authorities attempted to shape the attitudes and behavior of the public, while public opinion discusses a populations's "core identities and loyalties" (45). In discussing the beginning period of the Second World War Bidlack generalizes and narrows down the years 1939-1941 (before the German invasion of the Soviet Union) to a paragraph with a simplified view of Soviet foreign policy encompassed in the following sentence, "Between 1939 and 1941 the USSR was a major belligerent in the war, allied with Germany" (47). Bidlack also repeats Beevor's baseless claim that 13,500 Red Army soldiers were executed during the battle of Stalingrad (62). Overall, Bidlack's article discusses how Soviet propaganda used the image of Stalin, how the press attempted to instill a selfless devotion to the state, be it on the frontline or the homefront, as well as how it called on the population to take revenge on the "German invaders" for their actions in occupied Soviet territory. In the end, Bidlack is correct in that there is no "collective 'Soviet public opinion'" (64). The majority of the Soviet state fought in the war and worked on the homefront to achieve a victory over Nazi Germany and few outright opposed the Soviet state. While there were organizations like Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army, many who joined did so as an alternative to almost certain death rather than simply a chance to take up arms against the Soviet Union. As Bidlack explains, "The large majority of Russian military personnel and civilians displayed tremendous fortitude in carrying out the orders they were given to defend their country in the most difficult circumstances, and relatively few seem to have openly objected to the use of harsh repressive measures against law-breakers" (65).

Nicholas Ganson's essay discusses "Food supply, rationing, and living standards." But it seems much of the information he offers comes from William Moskoff's "The Bread of Affliction" (27 out of 90 endnotes are from Moskoff's book). He offers a rather superficial analysis of the treatment of German POWs in Soviet captivity saying that "The Soviet treatment of German prisoners in many ways mirrored the German treatment of Soviet POWs" (79). But without adequate context of the operational history of the war, this says next to nothing about the difficulties the Germans faced on the Eastern Front (specifically, the condition of German troops when they surrendered at Stalingrad was a greater reason for so few returning after the war than their treatment by the Red Army and Soviet authorities) or the fact that the Soviet Union was hard pressed to feed its own population, less so that of an enemy bent on genocide. Furthermore, Ganson's analysis of lend lease supplies of food is deceptive as it is not broken down by year and/or delivery to the frontlines, saying "...each Soviet soldier would have received approximately 100kg of food a year through Lend-Lease" (86) is not accurate if there is no information offered as to how much food was sent each year and how much actually arrived (two rather separate and distinct numbers that need to be analyzed but are not). Ganson's article in some ways works in tandem with Harrison's as it discusses how collectivization/industrialization helped create the food supply situation the Soviet Union utilized during the war. Lastly, in discussing the hardships the Soviet population endured, Ganson says there was a "silver lining" in that the difficulties of the 1930s "...also made it easier for the people of the Soviet Union to cope with the appalling conditions during the Second World War" (89). Thus, the question comes to mind: could the Soviet Union have survived the onslaught Nazi Germany unleashed on June 22, 1941, if they had not gone through the physical and mental deprivations of the 1930s (not to mention the industrialization campaign, etc.)?

The chapter on "Women" written by Reina Pennington is an excellent synthesis of some of the newest literature on the role women played in the Soviet Union's war against Germany. Pennington analyses the "pre-war environment" and how women were able to participate on a semi-equal basis with men in civilian military training, which included sharpshooting and parachuting. With the outbreak of war scores of women volunteered for frontline service but whether they were accepted into the military, and what role they would play, often depended on the local situation they found themselves confronting. As a sidenote, Anna Krylova's recent book on Soviet women during WWII expands greatly on this aspect of the war. I would highly recommend it for those interested in how gender discourse was utilized by the Soviet Union to propagate a perceived equality of gender roles but at the same time relegate women to something still separate and distinct from Soviet notions of "masculinity." Women in the Red Army served in a variety of positions - from medics and signal troops, to snipers, airplane pilots, navigators and mechanics, as well as tank drivers and anti-aircraft gunners - and their sacrifice, while regularly lauded in propaganda reports for mass consumption, was still not enough to create an atmosphere of equality at the front and in the rear (for instance, for all the women who partook in fighting on the frontline, only 95 were ever awarded the title "Hero of the Soviet Union", compared to 11,500 of their male counterparts - this represents less than 1 percent, while women made up 8 percent of the military) (103). This chapter is one of the more interesting and revealing of the Soviet Union at war, and an excellent starting point for further research and analysis.

David Stone's article deals with the institution of the "Red Army", including highlighting the role of GKO and STAVKA. Stone beings with a brief description of the historiography of the Eastern Front and its dominance by German accounts and memoirs (something David Glantz has previously written on). Then Stone discusses the Winter War and the ensuring reforms the Red Army underwent (Timoshenko reforms). Unfortunately, these were too little and too late to make any kind of difference before Barbarossa began in June of 1941. Soviet doctrine continually emphasized an offensive mindset and this is best evidenced by the initial orders after the German invasion, which tasked the Red Army with unrealistic counterattacks rather than a fighting withdrawal to prepared defenses. Stone also discusses the system of Commissars, the initial creation of guards units, the reduction in the size of Red Army units in 1941 to facilitated better command and control (and to better allocate scare resources, i.e. tanks and planes), as well as the role of STAVKA representatives. One of the weaknesses in this chapter is the author's reliance on the disproven idea that the Red Army in the summer of 1942 fought a fighting retreat on the approaches to Stalingrad (137), something David Glantz has addressed in his first volume on Stalingrad (released last year). Finally, in the latter part of the war Stone discusses how Soviet production once again influenced the size of units as previous tank brigades were combined into corps and armies (the same occurred in the air force), and other units, like sapper armies, were dissolved into smaller units as defensive oriented operations once more gave way to offensive minded thinking. This is another of the better chapters this volume has to offer and provides an excellent foundation for further research into the Red Army as an institution.

The author of "Stalin's Guerrillas", Kenneth Slepyan, wrote the chapter on the partisan movement. Slepyan presents an interesting synthesis of the partisan movement (akin to what Pennington did for women). Once again, there are no new revelations to be found in these chapters, but the questions raised about the ethics and morality of those fighting on the side of the Soviet Union or independently make for interesting contemplation. The first section of the chapter deals with the Soviet historiography of the partisan movement and how the state crafted the narrative to be used when writing about partisans (Slepyan discusses how when he was doing research he discovered a list of "forbidden" subjects that historians were supposed to omit from their written work). One of the problems with working on the partisan movement is that while there is a good amount of archival work, a large amount of information will probably never be known since many partisan groups were destroyed without ever leaving any records. What we do know about partisan operations are a microcosm from which we can, to a degree, extrapolate to give a better contextual understanding of the war in the rear. Slepyan discusses the partisan movement from its rushed beginning in 1941, to its emergence in force in 1942/43 and its eventual dissolution in 1944/45, the role Red Army men (escaped from encirclements) played in its coalescence as a force to be reckoned with, to that of the party and how the Moscow center attempted to control units far on the periphery, as well as the treatment of "outsiders", that is Jews, women, the elderly, collaborators, etc. In the end, a very interesting and in-depth synthesis.

One of the less interesting chapters covered "The Soviet Countryside" and concentrated on peasants, written by Jean Levesque. Perhaps it's my own bias, but in some ways I saw this chapter being the most removed from the war that was going on. It probably did not help that a good portion of the chapter analyzes events pre- and post-WWII. The last chapter, written by Jeremy Smith, discusses the "Non-Russian Nationalities" and their role in both the war and on the homefront. From German policies toward non-Russians to collaboration with German forces, forced relocation during the war, to the role of nationalities within the Red Army. While this was an interesting chapter, I could see it carrying more weight if a greater amount of attention was paid to the actual events of the war (an in-depth operational analysis of where national units fought, their experiences, and their contributions to the war effort would have been greatly appreciated). Unfortunately, aside from a few cursory mentions of some units being praised or lauded for their actions, not much is offered. Many know well enough about Stalin's deportations of the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, etc., and it should be mentioned that Smith is quite objective in how he portrays the actions of the state in regards to these events, but the contributions of non-Russian nationalities (especially units created specifically of non-Russians) is an interesting topic that deserves more attention, research, and analysis.

That pretty much covers this edited volume. Quite a few interesting chapters (even if some were lacking here and there) and, as pointed out, a very good starting point for discussions of several controversial subjects that have recently received some attention but deserve much more. Recommended for those interested in any of the above topics, especially if new to this subject area and interested in sources for further research.


john.pravoski said...

Some points about your review article:

There was no disbanded/failed uprising in Praga district before the actual battle for Warsaw.

It was Britain not England who were hoped to help with air drops. Most Polish troops, including the Parachute Brigade who were due to be dropped to help the battle were stationed in Scotland.

"...the first day witnessed many defeats and few successes"
This is not accurate, in fact the early successes were significant given the surprise element.

I'm not sure exactly what the conclusions of the book are but it is hard to disagree with the fact that the Red Army didn't fail to support the battle, even though it can be argued politically and ideologically it would not be reasonable for them to do so.

John Pravoski BA(Hons) MA

I would appreciate it if you accredited any changes you make to me if you chose not to publish this comment.

T. Kunikov said...

There is nothing in my review of Stone's edited work that discusses the issues you raise.

I would appreciate it if you addressed your comments to the relevant review.