Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Damned and the Dead: The Eastern Front Through the Eyes of Soviet and Russian Novelists by Frank Ellis

I would classify this book as two steps forward in our knowledge and understanding about Soviet and post-Soviet literature on the Second World War and Great Patriotic War, but a step backward in our understanding of the war itself. In this tome, Frank Ellis discusses and analyzes the literature written in the post-WWII period of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation on the Great Patriotic War by the likes of some of the most famous and esteemed Soviet/Russian/Belorussian authors. They include Vasily Grossman, Konstantin Simonov, Vasily Bykov, Viktor Nekrasov, Vladimir Bogomolov, etc. While Ellis has some experience in discussing the likes of Grossman (readers will be able to tell as much by the length of discussion and analysis devoted to his works), some of the space devoted to other authors seems less than ideal. But, it has to be admitted that there really is no other author or text that has taken the time to devote so much time and effort to discussing authors who most of the western world has undoubtedly never heard of. So while there are some weaknesses in Ellis's descriptions of the various novels he discusses, the real weakness here is the history that the author brings to bear to either attack or dispose of in defense of subjects the authors he analyzes concentrate on. This, in effect, is why I claim this text is a step backward in our knowledge of the Great Patriotic War. For all the books listed in the bibliography and throughout the footnotes, Ellis is regularly lacking in his knowledge of the Eastern Front, especially considering the amount of information that has become available in the past two decades. It seems that while the majority of the book is relegated to discussing Soviet-era novels on the war, the author's knowledge of the war is also mired in what was available to historians, researchers, and scholars in that period - both ideas and facts. When that proves to not be the case, specifically when the author devotes an entire chapter to regurgitating a single compilation of reports written during the battle of Stalingrad, he makes claims that have no real backing.

In describing the works of the authors listed above, the major themes that seem to retain the interest of both author and the reading public are those that revolve around the subject of prisoners of war and their fate after liberation, SMERSH (death to spies), the NKVD, Vlasov and those that served in ROA (Russian Army of Liberation), penal formations, the battle of Stalingrad, the dubious nature of partisan warfare, the purges of the Red Army, collectivization, and the retreats of 1941. One interesting note that Ellis makes is that due to the fact that the Soviet Union equated POWs with traitors, there is missing from the genre of Great Patriotic War literature the subject of prisoner escapes. Whereas in the west the topic has multiple volumes about the daring and genius of prisoners and their eventual escape from the enemy, within the Soviet Union the only event that comes close what can be considered 'prisoner escapes' is a description of soldiers escaping from encirclement, where they might have tainted their honor but not to an unsalvageable degree.

One of the more glaring problems that Ellis exhibits is his interest in Viktor Suvorov's thesis on the outbreak of the Second World War. This makes for a variety of flawed analyses not only of the literary work in question, but of the Soviet war effort, the Red Army, and the Soviet Union in general. In asking what type of 'large land mass, fails to devote sufficient attention to large-scale defensive operations? (1224)' Ellis wholly ignores the fact that the defensive strategy Stalin and the Red Army relied on was one that featured an immediate offensive to spare the Soviet state any fighting on her territory. Unfortunately, the author discusses none of the historians/specialists that have written about the Soviet Union on the eve of the invasion and have disproven Suvorov's claims repeatedly. There is no doubt that the purges of the Red Army created an atmosphere that propagated a subdued attitude on the part of Red Army commanders when it came to questions of defensive operations, but an army whose doctrine is to wage defensive war with an offensive mindset is not the same thing as an army bent on a preemptive strike.

When comparing the successes of the Wehrmacht to the Red Army Ellis makes an interesting, although also flawed, point in that German success in the first two years of the Second World War was so all-encompassing that eventually their victories were seen as a given. The same could be said for Red Army defeats in 1941/1942. Thus, when the Soviets defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, Ellis argues, the defeat was exaggerated since it was against an enemy that everyone expected only success from. While there is some truth in this, the author ignores that the Germans suffered defeat outside Moscow in 1941/1942, and furthermore, that much of the success the Wehrmacht enjoyed throughout Europe was to a great degree based on propaganda, thus enhancing German hubris in their own abilities and that of what others expected from them. Additionally, the author makes quite a few assumptions, based on the above mentioned book on Stalingrad, that are little more than suppositions without adequate basis or foundation. When discussing the amount of soldiers that were detained by blocking detachments during the battle, there is no evidence to show how many were in fact guilty or innocent. The only information that's available is how many were released back to their units, how many were sent to 'special camps' or penal formations, were arrested, or executed. Most numbers show that less than 10% suffered arrest or execution. While Ellis believes that due to the chaos of the time 'large numbers of innocent soldiers were executed or otherwise punished for no reason...' (197), this is a statement, that while it might be true, is not backed up with credible evidence. Furthermore, the author is utterly incorrect when he asserts that 'certain frontline units must have had their operational efficiency, already perilously low, severely degraded, to the point that they played no useful role' (205) after pointing to the fact that the Don and Stalingrad fronts had 51,758 soldiers go through the NKVD screening process after being detained from 1 August - 15 October 1942. Considering that the majority of those men were returned to their units, this makes little sense. Additionally, this is the number of men (51,758) that were detained during a period of two and a half months from two separate fronts which contained hundreds of thousands of men each. Divided by the 75 or so days that this report is based on, the figure we come up with is 690 men per day, something that Ellis cannot prove was detrimental to the war effort. And for those interested, a total of 47,766 were either returned to their units or transit centers. There is no doubt that the grueling process of going through NKVD screening/filtration camps consumed time and manpower. But considering that the Soviet Union was fighting for its very life and there was more than enough evidence to show that Soviet citizens were working against the state, such security precautions are at the very least understandable.

These are only some of the ideas the author brought up that I take issue with. Due to the fact that any discussions of literary personalities writing on the war are inherently tied to the parallel presentation of the Great Patriotic War by Ellis, these failures of analysis take away from the conclusions the author reaches. I am not a literary critic, so the author's dissection of what Soviet authors discussed and paid attention to was quite interesting and thought provoking. But a sloppy analysis of a war that stands at the heart of this book and the men being examined makes for an unbalanced final product.

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