Saving Private Ivanov

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The New York Times

April 9, 2006

'Ivan's War,' by Catherine Merridale

Saving Private Ivanov


THE Great Patriotic War — as World War II is known in Russia — was the ultimate test of the resolve of the Soviet state and the heroism of its people. Victory in May 1945 was the Soviet Union's finest hour. Or so goes the story that the state's propaganda machine cherished and that generations of citizens believed.

But Catherine Merridale, an English scholar whose earlier book, "Night of Stone," examined death in the Soviet Union, is skeptical. Believing that the official version is sanitized and untrue, she set out in "Ivan's War" to show the underside of the conflict as it was experienced by ordinary soldiers. She draws on a rich body of memoirs and oral testimonies. And if her informants tend to have positive memories of comradeship in battle, the official archives she has consulted provide her with plentiful evidence of screw-ups and irresponsibility, not to mention callousness toward human life on the part of politicians and military leaders. Finally, and most touchingly, she finds immediate testimony of what the war was like in the letters and diaries of frontline soldiers (frontoviki), for many of whom the war never became a memory because they were among the more than eight million servicemen and women who died in it.

For Russians the war began horrifically, with a chaotic retreat before the German invasion of June 1941. It continued through a year of military disaster and plummeting morale, culminating in Stalin's notorious Order 227 of July 28, 1942, which forbade retreat under any circumstances and mandated the harshest of punishments for "laggards, cowards, defeatists and other miscreants."

The German advance was stopped at Stalingrad early in 1943, but it was not until the spring of 1944 that the front was pushed back beyond Soviet borders. The "march to Berlin" then began, with Soviet soldiers starting to feel like conquerors. This phase of the war was marked by looting, disorderly rampages and raping of civilians on a scale that shocked the populations of Eastern and Central Europe. Soviet authorities, Merridale argues, did little to hinder these activities, and may have encouraged them.

The story of the war has never been told before from the standpoint of the common Soviet soldier, though Russians already have an emblem of the ordinary infantryman. He is Vasily Tyorkin, the eponymous hero of Aleksandr Tvardovsky's immensely popular wartime poem. Merridale doesn't think much of the fictional Tyorkin, seeing him as an unrealistically optimistic figure drawn with exaggerated patriotism; she says Tvardovsky ignored the worst privations of army life and the stupidity of army command. But there is more of the Good Soldier Schweik in Tyorkin than Merridale recognizes, especially in Tvardovsky's later poem, "Tyorkin in the Other World," in which the hero dies and goes to heaven, only to find exactly the same idiotic bureaucrats he had known in the army. This Tyorkin, like Merridale's composite soldier, Ivan, is wily and resourceful but essentially innocent, a paradigmatic "little man" at the mercy of forces beyond his control.

Yet when the Soviet Army crossed the borders into Europe, it started on a drunken rampage. Lovable innocents should not rape, loot and wantonly destroy, so how is this appalling behavior to be explained? Merridale's interview subjects are of no help; they decline to share memories of atrocities. And Merridale herself is loath to blame the soldiers, taking issue with historians who have called Soviet frontoviki "bestial and crude, as if they acted from some instinct, like animals." Really, she suggests, it is the Communist Party that should be blamed. Having sown hatred for Germans through "deliberate and sophisticated flooding" of the soldiers' minds, the party now "gave them license" to take out their anger on the civilian populations, and offered indemnity by not publicizing the outrages. Yet Merridale seems a little uneasy with her own argument, for she notes elsewhere that while "it would certainly be convenient, now, to lay the blame" for war crimes on Stalin and the leaders in the Kremlin, there must nevertheless come a time when, like the Germans, Russians will "have to grapple with the question of individual responsibility in conditions of totalitarian rule."

Merridale has done an admirable job of collecting testimony from war veterans (she and her assistants conducted about 200 interviews). One can see how difficult this was from her account of making her pitch to a sea of "closed" faces at a Kursk veterans' association; as a foreign, female, middle-aged academic she must have seemed as alien as Mary Poppins. Her sample was not, and could not be, comprehensive; like most other people doing oral history in Russia, she talked to whoever would talk to her, and then made other contacts through her initial interviewees.

The result, inevitably, is skewed. Merridale notes, for example, that her informants were disproportionately Jewish (as it happens, Jews are overrepresented in the Russian intelligentsia and that skewing toward informants from the intelligentsia is a perennial problem for foreigners doing oral history in Russia). But the distortions in her sampling give her "Ivan" a rather contradictory character: on the one hand, the oral testimonies and memoirs show him to be generally thoughtful and sensitive, likely to have a volume of poetry in his knapsack; on the other, material from the archives suggests an ignorant, fearful, undisciplined foot soldier, living a squalid life in subhuman conditions.

A bias toward the intelligentsia finds its way into Merridale's interpretation of postwar aspirations as well. Like many other historians of Russia, she assumes that the intellectuals' hope for more freedom of speech and for a more open government was shared by a majority of the population. But food and shelter were surely what was uppermost in most soldiers' minds when the war ended (with peasants hoping additionally for the disbanding of collective farms).

AS for the Soviet myth of a heroic and patriotic war, one of the ironies here is Merridale's discovery that while her evidence from Soviet archives often supports her debunking approach, her informants uniformly reject it. The veterans she interviewed were by no means as critical of the regime as their interviewer was, and even after the Soviet Union collapsed, they retained "a sense of pride so powerful that few could see how thoroughly it disinherited them."

The veterans clearly chose to remember the war in a heroic light. No matter how much the interviewers pushed for gory details of combat, "there were bodies, and there were tears, but there was no blood," Merridale says, "no nervous strain," let alone any rape, brutality or cowardice in the ranks. The myth, she concludes, "keyed into some basic human needs," and besides, she adds, it was "partly true, or true enough to make successive generations grateful." So much for debunking. Still, it is to Merridale's great credit that she lets us listen to what her veterans had to say, even when it wasn't what she herself wanted to hear.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of "Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia."

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