Boris Sokolov’s biography of Marshal of the Soviet Union K. K. Rokossovsky is a noble effort to document the life and history of one of the most accomplished Soviet commanders to come out of the Second World War. The subtitle, “The Red Army’s Gentleman Commander,” serves multiple purposes as it immediately highlights that other Red Army commanders were “ungentlemanly” and it allows Sokolov to pontificate somewhat on a subject he covers in numerous publications – the true losses the Red Army suffered were much higher than those presented in published works. In general Sokolov’s biography walks a less than fine line between academic study and a polemical work. He takes a few too many literary licenses when he goes off on tangents here and there that have no place in a historical work but in a general sense this biography is still full of valuable information.
Sokolov discusses Rokossovsky’s history and youth in the first few chapters and covers his exploits in the Revolutionary/Civil War period. The most interesting parts of the book are those that cover Rokossovsky’s actions during the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War. In part this is not the fault of Sokolov as there is little enough information available on Rokossovsky from his youth (Rokossovsky wanted to write about the Civil War but never had a chance). The majority of Rokossovsky’s major campaigns are covered by the author: his actions in 1941 and clashes with Zhukov, the Moscow Counteroffensive and his thoughts about what was done correctly and incorrectly, the operations around Stalingrad and Rokossovsky’s role in the destruction of the German Sixth Army, operation Kursk, operation Bagration, the Home Army’s Warsaw Uprising, and the final battles for Germany. Before continuing I will say that one of the weaknesses of this volume is that while there are many quotes (more so than western readers might be used to) and the author utilizes a range of archival documentation and published archival collections there is a distinct lack of endnotes/footnotes (something the original volume undoubtedly suffers from as well). Sokolov is in no way making this information up, as I have some of the collections he uses and can verify the information he presents in a few cases, but the problem remains in that this volume becomes problematic as a source. Furthermore, some of the source material is dated, unfortunately alternatives were/are hard to find.
Coming back to the text itself, the more interesting chapters were those on the Warsaw Uprising and the final battles/actions of the Red Army in Germany. Here is where Sokolov presents a wide variety of interesting and pertinent material but at the same time goes off on tangents and at times simply makes up statistics. The Warsaw Uprising is presented well enough with a lot of information provided from a number of eye witnesses (both Polish and Soviet) but primary source material is a bit sparse for the conclusions he makes. We know that Soviet forces suffered losses trying to reach Warsaw, with the 2nd Tank Army losing close to 1,000 tanks and having to be taken off the line. Similar attempts to by the 1st Polish Army resulted in losses for a variety of reasons but Sokolov insists on pointing toward Stalin as the cause. Even though orders were given to take Warsaw that’s not good enough, for Sokolov armies needed to be moved over to Rokossovsky’s front, supplies diverted, other operations cancelled and postponed, all to help the Poles in Warsaw. From an ethical standpoint, yes, everything should have been done to aid the Warsaw Uprising. Unfortunately reality dictated otherwise, the Poles were in an unenviable position and acted in their own best interests then relied on Stalin’s apparent good graces and that of the Red Army to support them in taking the capital of Poland to use as a bargaining chip against Stalin. They were asking for quite a bit from a man and armed forces they held in high contempt.
Finally, the chapter on the Red Army’s actions in Germany at the end of the war there are two arguments Sokolov expands on. First is the issue of losses in the battle of Berlin. He argues against the provided figure of 81,116 irrecoverable losses because in that figure are included losses for the two Polish armies that participated in the battle for the city. Irrecoverable losses for both armies were 2,825. Sokolov cites an “official” report from the Polish Defense Ministry that lists killed and missing in action as 11,000, almost four times as large a figure. What he does then is argue that since this figure is a quarter of the number presented by the Russians then all other losses during the Berlin operation should be multiplied by four. He utilizes the same argument in other places and I’m simply unconvinced. I appreciate coming across new information and presenting it (I appreciate it more if it includes a citation) but an extrapolation based on limited evidence is unacceptable for a historian or an academic publication. A similar argument is utilized when discussing the Red Army’s progress through Germany and Eastern Europe in terms of atrocities and rapes. There’s no doubt that Red Army soldiers, as well as soldiers from national contingents serving within the Red Army (Poles among them), committed atrocities against the Germans, including wholesale plunder, murder, and rape. Similar actions were committed when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the allies invaded Western Europe, or the Japanese invaded China. But to paint an entire armed forces with such a broad brush is unacceptable, at least in my opinion. In terms of degrees it might very well be that the Red Army’s occupation proved that much more detrimental than that of the allies, unfortunately qualifying some of the actions of Red Army soldiers will prove impossible. What Sokolov does well enough is present a variety of eye witness accounts to some of the actions that happened on the ground, but he offers little to nothing as explanation for why these criminal actions happened. Recently Filip Slaveski, in his “The Soviet Occupation of Germany,” offered an enlightening look at the Soviet occupation of Germany including the crimes committed. Sokolov aimed for emotions, Slaveski offers that and an attempt to explain what happened along with why.
As much as I appreciate Sokolov’s efforts, there are quite a few weaknesses here that make this far from a definitive study of either Rokossovsky’s life or his actions within the confines of the Second World War. In part this is a result of many archives still being closed off to research within the Russian Federation but I would also argue that Russian academic standards are still somewhat lacking when compared to their Western equivalents. Furthermore, while there are some excellent historians within Russia they are still working within a state that continues to view its present as a reflection of past accomplishments and shies away from attempts to take a closer look at its history for fear that a crack in the foundation will unravel a collection of myths better kept under a Potemkin village façade.