Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Architect of Soviet Victory in World War II: The Life and Theories of G.S. Isserson by Richard W. Harrison

Those familiar with the Soviet Union's military advances in the interwar period will undoubtedly have come across the name G. S. Isserson.  Although often overlooked for more familiar personalities (Tukhachevskii, Triandafillov, Svechin, etc.) he was, in the opinion of the Harrison, one of the founding fathers, if not the founding father, of the concept of "deep operations."  This was without a doubt one of the most interesting studies I've read on the interwar Red Army and the evolution of Operational Art within the Soviet Union (a theme Harrison began to study in his previous book, "The Russian Way of War").  Isserson became a good candidate to study and analyze as he left behind a number of articles and full-length volumes expanding on his theories and ideas and he survived Stalin's purges.  Unlike the majority of the Red Army, he was imprisoned in June of 1941 and was released from the GULag after Stalin's death.  Thus he continued to discuss, publish and lecture on military theory after his release and up until his death.

Personally, the most impressive and enlightening chapters of this volume deal with Isserson's publications in the 1930s and Harrison's discussion and breakdown of the various ideas he expanded on as well as their foundations in wars from the nineteenth century and how they would be applied in future conflicts (including how much of that could be actually seen throughout the Eastern Front of the Second World War).  Ideas on linear warfare in particular proved pertinent in how Isserson described the evolution of warfare into the First World War and how "deep operations" would continue to evolve warfare in future conflicts.  His texts discussed meeting engagements, breakthrough operations, the creation of shock armies, cavalry-mechanized groups, the use of airborne forces, covering armies, and setting up defenses in-depth.  Unfortunately, for all his intelligence and genius, Isserson never received the attention, praise or respect he deserved and in the post-Stalin period it was those figures who died accidentally (Triandafillov) or in the purges (Tukhachevskii, Yakir, Uborevich, Svechin, etc.) who received the majority of recognition for the improvements and advances the Red Army underwent in the 1930s before the purges lobbed off the "head" of the Red Army.

If there are any weaknesses here it is that Harrison seems to at times have become enamored with Isserson.  There's no doubt this was an intelligent person, although he came with a very abrasive attitude toward his peers and whomever he considered beneath his intelligence, but it appears Harrison continuously ascribes the majority of the research and advances made within the concept of "deep operations" solely to him (granted, their foundations he does trace to Triandafillov).  More so, when mentioning any of his "students" while a lecturer at the General Staff Academy he treats Isserson as if he was their only mentor and his class(es) were the only ones that mattered (and his students included some of the most famous and well-respected commanding officers during the Second World War).  Granted, there's enough source material to show that there was appreciation for Isserson as an instructor but in general it seems the author is putting a lot of emphasis on this point and is becoming more of a cheerleader for Isserson rather than a biographer.  However, one can easily let this weakness pass as the information Harrison has found and unearthed makes an enormous contribution to our understanding of the Red Army's evolution in the interwar period and throughout the Second World War - something historians continue to study and evaluate to this day and will continue to do so as long as numerous archival holdings are consistently made off-limits to researchers by Russian authorities.

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