Thursday, October 9, 2014

Generalissimo Stalin: The Myth of Stalin as a Great Military Strategist by Boris Gorbachevsky

Boris Gorbachevsky's "Generalissimo Stalin" offers a bit of a mixed bag for readers.  The author, a veteran who went through the war and wrote his memoirs (translated under the title "Through the Maelstrom"), presents a rather polemical text for the reader.  The best parts of the book, for me, among the 300+ pages are the author's personal experiences, as well as the various interactions he had with veterans and survivors of the war.  Much of the narrative revolves around the battles for Rzhev, where the author fought, and where to this day there are still many questions left unanswered about the numerous operations that took place from 1941-1942 and the losses sustained by the Red Army.  The author relates interesting anecdotes, reminiscences, and recollections that make for a valuable addition to literature on the Eastern Front and the Soviet Union.  Then, there are stories that seem more apocryphal than true, but in the end I lean toward believing them as accurate since having read on the Second World War for over a decade I stopped being surprised and impressed with the amount of suffering, heroism, stupidity, and ignorance that was displayed by millions of men and women on a daily basis.

One of the more interesting chapters deals with Aleksandr Korneichuk's play "The Front."  This was written in August of 1942 and served as a warning to those of the "old guard", veterans from the Civil War, that the modern requirements of this war needed young, energetic commanders to take the reigns.  The play served as a validation of Stalin's scapegoating and shifted the blame for the defeats of 1941 and early 1942 onto the shoulders of commanders and away from Stalin himself.  The chapters that deal with the Yalta Conference lean on conjecture more than factual data and there are various generalizations made that have become a cornerstone of propaganda against Stalin and the Soviet state of the time, whether deserved or not.

As mentioned, the volume is written as a polemical work, and in most cases, it's arguing against the memory of Stalin and the Great Patriotic War that was crafted during the war itself and in the post-war period and remains, in many ways, evident even today.  Some of the other subjects covered are the last days of the war and the Battle for Berlin, the meeting on the Elbe between US and Soviet forces, the uprising in Prague by the 1st Division of Vlasov's Army, and the allied contribution to the war.  Often the author engages in mock conversations with the reader, including the introduction of rhetorical questions.  This style will be familiar to those who've read Russian volumes on the Stalinist period, which fuses history, reminiscences, hypotheticals, etc., together.  In some ways Gorbachevsky himself is guilty of propagating Soviet era myths in that he consistently ridicules the narrative developed under Stalin's leadership and after, but himself praises the exceptional environment Red Army soldiers found themselves in and were able to overcome.  He falls into the trope that says the Red Army and Soviet population won the war in spite of Stalin rather than thanks to him.  This idea was developed under Khrushchev, who did his best to place all blame on Stalin's shoulders and focus more on the party and people for the Soviet victory in the war.  Additionally, after explaining how weak western knowledge is in regards to the Eastern Front, mainly based on German recollections due to the limits the Soviets placed on what could be written about the war, the author then goes on to quote and lean on German sources to support many of his points.

There are quite a few weaknesses evident throughout this work.  First, there is a clear lack of citations and sources, something amateurish efforts in the west are also guilty of, but from my readings in Russian it's somewhat more rampant there, even with historians.  This is a double edged sword because it means there is interesting information presented but not well sourced, or  simply not sourced at all.  Secondly, Gorbachevsky references controversial authors like Mark Solonin whose theories about why the Red Army was defeated so categorically in 1941 have been proven to be fallacious (he argues it was because Soviet soldiers had no desire to fight for a regime that had so severely abused its population; good luck proving that since the majority of Soviet prisoners of war taken in 1941 were dead after the first winter).  There are also a few inconsistencies and minor errors, as when the author argues that the name 'Great Patriotic War' was only applied to the war in November of 1944, when it was actually used on the second day of the war, June 23, 1941.  For all of the above reasons, I would say this is a work for those familiar with the Eastern Front.  Those without in-depth knowledge will undoubtedly be lost by all the names, dates, events, authors, and arguments presented and might walk away with a skewed view of a subject that needs objectivity more than anything else, especially today.

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