Thursday, November 29, 2012

On the Precipice: Stalin, the Red Army Leadership and the Road to Stalingrad, 1931-1942 by Peter Mezhiritsky

As Stuart Britton, the translator, explains, Peter Mezhiritsky doesn’t so much tell a story as engage in a dialog with the reader.  In general this is something that’s rather more common in Russian historical literature (mainly when written by hobbyists and journalists) but it comes with strengths and weaknesses.  Many assertions are offered, poetic licenses taken, and guesstimates proposed with the end result being the author is showing the numerous blank spots that are evident even in today’s literature that deals with both the history of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Front.   In the end, this style works well enough with both the pre-war Soviet period and the Second World War because some revelations will remain a mystery to us while others are gathering dust in still inaccessible archives.  Thus when Mezhiritsky, for instance, questions the level of Zhukov’s education and where his genius originated – was it in short Soviet courses during the 1920s or when he studied in Germany thanks to the Treaty of Rapallo? – it gives the reader something to think about and chew over.  Unfortunately, Zhukov either never left an account of his time in Germany or it is buried among his papers in Russian archives, but to this day we don’t know what impact that time had on him and how much of an influence it had over future studies and his time in the field throughout the Second World War.  An additional strength of this text is encompassed in some of the more interesting asides and accounts dealing with the author’s personal recollections about the war.  He witnessed June 22 as a seven year old in Kiev and experienced the fear and chaos of evacuations firsthand, as well as the condition the country found itself in as Germany’s armed forces enjoyed continued success in the first months of the invasion.  

The majority of the text follows Zhukov’s career with quite a few detours into Soviet history.  Stalin features regularly but one needs to keep in mind that the book is not wholly about Stalin and his actions, but rather his impact on Zhukov and the Soviet Union as a whole.  In many ways this text resembles dissident polemics of the Cold War period, which also means that dissident ideas come to the forefront.  For instance, Mezhiritsky holds Stalin’s genius for planning and cunning in high regard, but there are today many questions that have been raised and answered about Stalin’s role in the purges and the direction Soviet foreign policy assumed in the 1930s.  While I don’t fully agree with all Mezhiritsky’s ideas, I will say they still provoke questions that need to be asked and for which we are still missing concrete answers.  And in the end Mezhiritsky himself understands that much of what he writes is in the form of ‘suppositions’ that are in desperate need of ‘supplementary research’.   This also applies to the author’s thoughts on Operation Barbarossa, including its planning and execution.  These days I am in agreement with David Stahel’s work, ‘Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s defeat in the East’ (which Mezhiritsky is aware of and addresses), that shows through meticulous research Germany’s plans for subduing the Soviet Union were flawed from the beginning and doomed to failure.  Mezhiritsky, however, has highlighted some interesting ideas but I would argue that he is missing the forest for a few select trees.  Anecdotal evidence is interesting to come by, and he has plenty to offer having lived through the war, but the overall situation is much harder to grasp within the framework that he’s created.

An added contribution of Mezhiritsky’s is the introduction of a plethora of characters, personalities, and ideologues that few in the west are familiar with.  His concentration remains on the Red Army so many of those introduced participated in the creation of the Red Army or became famous/infamous among Red Army circles.  The culmination point, in many instances, is the purge of the Red Army in 1937, but there were numerous deaths that occurred before that year.  For some there are accepted explanations (Frunze, Triandafillov, etc.) but for many others, strange circumstances surround their demise and to this day a conclusive answer still eludes historians (what happened to General Kotovsky is one example).  Additionally, there are references to events and battles that continue to be missing from the mainstream narrative of the war.  Although I have studied the Eastern Front for over a decade, Mezhiritsky’s mention of an attack by a reinforced 20th army around the summer of 1942, and an ensuing tank engagement that featured some 3,000 tanks is an event I can’t recall coming across previously.  And it is certainly an operation that is in need of greater study and analysis.  Finally, some of the most interesting commentary is offered around the battle for Stalingrad.  Once more, a meticulous reading of both Zhukov’s and Vasilevsky’s memoirs raises more questions than we have answers for, but also shows how shrewd one has to be to ‘read between the lines’ of Soviet era publications.  

There are, unfortunately, minor grammatical problems throughout the text, but many can be overlooked as the translator tried to retain the original ‘richness’ that Mezhiritsky wrote into his text.  Another problem is encountered when chapter sixteen ends in the middle of a sentence.  Perhaps a word is missing, as the sentence is clear enough in where it’s going, but there is no period at the end.  Additionally, somewhere along the line a corrupted image/picture of General G. I. Kotovsky somehow made it into the book.  Aside from the grammatical problems, there are some incorrect facts presented, as when the author claims the Luftwaffe lost only 17 aircraft on 22 June (pg. 200), when in fact total losses for the day were 78 with another 89 damaged.  This doesn’t change that the Soviet Air Force lost a great deal more aircraft, but 17 is not 78.  Another mistake is the mention of a Polish cavalry charge against German tanks as a well-known fact.  While it might be well-known it certainly isn't a fact (315).  In the end Mezhiritsky accomplishes what he’s set out to do.  He provokes, prods, aggravates, upsets, angers, and incites the reader to want to know more about the Soviet Union, the Eastern Front, leading men like Yakir, Gamarnik, Bliukher, and Tukhachevsky, and the multitude of men and women who gave their lives either as a sacrifice to the system that Stalin attempted to create and perfect, or the German war machine that almost achieved its destruction.

1 comment:

Frank Briton said...

"corrupted image of General Kotovsky"

The huge white fluffy cat in a bow tie on his lap? I was VERY disappointed to find that the "Robin Hood of the Red Army" did not actually have a feline side kick