Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Red Army soldiers

On page 232-3 of No Simple Victory, Davies writes, “. . . outsiders, who, having encountered the advancing Red Army, were forcibly struck by the friendliness of the front-line troops and the hostile, predatory character of the NKVD men in the cordon behind them.

“The reality of the inhuman conditions prevailing inside the Red Army was successfully concealed for decades. Soviet propaganda painted a uniformly uplifting picture of patriotism and heroism. And Soviet veterans were themselves unwilling to talk openly, especially to foreigners. Pride in the victory of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ was one of the few sources of self-respect left to men of Stalin’s generation; and ‘love of the Motherland’ or ‘the defence of Russian soil’ (even when it wasn’t Russian) were the standard explanations for the Red Army’s performance. Only when the USSR collapsed in the 1990s did it become possible for the remaining survivors to talk more freely about all aspects of the war – about the amazing feats of fortitude and self-sacrifice for sure, but also about the contempt for human life, the misconduct of Soviet troops against enemy civilians, and above all, the horrendous maltreatment of Red Army soldiers by their own side. (28)"


I haven’t been including Davies references in my notes, but he provides them at every point. I’ll often look the author of the reference up, and the book. Sometimes I’ll order the book. In the case of reference (28) Davies uses an Anne Applebaum review of Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-45. The review appeared in the New York Review of Books, 6 April 2006. I have several years worth of back issues of the NYROB; so I walked out to the garage, found this issue and read the article. I found that the review covered another book beside Merridale’s Ivan’s War. It also covered A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945. Grossman was a war correspondent who was with the Red Army through most of the war. His writings, being realistic and accurate offended Stalin of course; so he never got to write his book after the war.

But Antony Beevor got permission to write his book and this is what we now have. Applebaum seems surprised that Grossman, who lived through the war and was critical of Stalin nevertheless had a great love for the soldiers of the Red Army. She quotes Grossman reflecting back on what he’d seen “. . . Suddenly on this spring morning by the Oder, I remembered how in the iron winter of 1942, in a severe January snowstorm, on a night which was crimson from the flames of a village which Germans had set fire, a horse drive muffled in a sheepskin coat shouted suddenly, ‘Hey, comrades, where’s the road to Berlin?’ . . . I wonder if this joker, who had asked the way to Berlin near Balakleya, is still alive? And what about those who laughed at his question three years ago? And I wanted to shout, to call to all our brothers, our soldiers, who are lying in the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish earth, who sleep for ever on the fields of our battles: ‘Comrades, can you hear us? We’ve done it!”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Hey, comrades, where's the road to Berlin?" -- oh, yes, it is a brilliant and absolutely precise sample of specific Russian humour.
Especially when in mortal danger.

Yes, I trust Grossman absolutely in that scene.

Did that Russian soldier-joker sound like a Stalin's "dull automaton" badly intimidated by the NKVD, eh?

Of course, not.

We would always struggle in a mortal battle only according to our free will.
One can force a Russian, say if he is captured, to fell trees or to dig holes, but one can never force a Russian to perform a feat of valour, against his free will.