Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army
by Catherine Merridale
...For I am bringing disaster out of the North, even terrible
A lion has come up out of his lair; a destroyer of nations has set out.
He has left his place to lay waste your land.
Your towns will lie in ruins without inhabitant.(Jer 4:6-7 KJV)
He occupies his own place in military folklore. He is Nemisis: Judgement rising up out of the frozen steepes. He is "the steam roller", pressing on with no regard even for his own life, destroying all in his path. His military talent is crude, but is more then made up for by his numbers and fanaticism. He has no mercy or remorse. Even his virtues seem mechanical. The traits attributed to him seem more appropriate for a machine than a man. He never flinches in the cold, never stops advancing without a grimace through shot and shell over the bodies of his comrades. He comes like a flood bringing destruction before him. He is a creature of nightmare.
He is Ivan...
Of course like all legends it has only partial truth. The Americans were supposed to be people who knew only how to dump tons of explosive on an enemy position as if they were digging a mine shaft(the Germans had a strange conceit that that was unsporting-which was of only mild comfort after their death). The Italians were renowned as the "cowards" that had unusual numbers of reverse gears on their tanks. The British were the conceited old-school snobs that played chess with exagerated bravado while bullets whistled round, and always kept a stiff upper lip. And the Germans were alternatively the humorless Prussian with his heal-clicking and goosestep. Or else they were the military virtuosos destroying their enemies with cinematic ease like the hero of a cheap karate movie. All the legends are partly true, all are incomplete. So with Ivan-the Terror from the North.
The point of view of the Russian soldier is a regretable gap in history of World War II. In this book Cathrine Merridale attempts to fill that history.
The goal that Meridale set herself was no easy one. Russian veterans seldom talk much. What they do give is usually cliches, and bar-stories. Moreover they often painfully cling to the party line as if in a desperate need to think they fought for something more valueable then survival. Adding to that is the problem that it really is not safe to think. They are old, they are reasonably well-honored and they are allowed to patronize their neighbors who have never been through it: why make waves? There are few memoirs from the ranks; a good many were illiterate. Yet Merridale managed to piece together something of their lives, through interviews, snatches of letters, what not.
Another problem Merridale had was that World War II was different for the Russians then it was for the Allies or even the Germans. The Red Army wasn't an army like others were. It was a giant slave galley. Men were disposeable parts to a degree far greater then in other forces. If to outsiders they seemed mechanical this was because they were often expected to be. The shadow of oppression reached deep into it. For instance one reason for Ivan's renowned suicidal valor is a prosaic and rather sordid one: Russian officers were afraid to take responsibility for amending the last order. They simply kept going until they recieved another order-from ten miles back. This problem is part of all armies-it was especially part of the Russian.
This has been exagerrated. The Russian Army toward the end of the war was agile enough to dance and spar in the German manner. However they were most at home grinding on and on.
What kept them going? A lot of it was survival. Many of them knew as British or Americans did not, that their families were in immidiate danger. Others came because the danger to civilians was greater from hunger, or from the Germans. A few even came for Holy Mother Russia. They stayed from loyalty, from fear, and for inertia.
Did they really believe in "the Revolution"? In a way the question is meaningless-the Revolution was not an opinion the Revolution existed. Probably very few of them knew much about the theory, or cared. The soldiers had their own "ideology", but it was better described as a folk faith that included an almalgamation of nationalism, fear, group loyalty, and their vague interpretation of "something better". Few of them were religious, but many were superstitious. Like many soldiers they kept trinkets with them. A sign of their peculiar situation was that they made an extra effort to be generic about the charm they chose, to avoid calling attracting the attention of "someone".
A large part of what kept them going was hate. They had enough reason to hate. The Germans were being deliberatly launched on a war of extermination, and did unspeakable things, both in organized forms and in "normal" gratuitous cruelty. The Russians were fighting for survival but they were also fighting for revenge. And the State did little to discourage this desire for revenge. As is not unusual they seldom considered the deeds of their own side. According to them what the Fascists did was unspeakable but what the Russians did was necessary, or pardonable. Few stopped to think. Thinking was not encouraged.
When they became the conquerers the Russians did horrible things themselves-and not just to Germans. They desired someone to takeout all their pent up rage on and anyone handy would do. But explaination really isn't necessary. The Red Army, despite the fact that it claimed to represent the future reverted to type and behaved as most armies have through history.
The book gives some of the details. They are what you might expect. "I'll be home again," songs. Bits of folklore. For instance it was considered unlucky to swear when going into battle. Thus the Russians settled for their "OoRah" as there war cry.
Another tale that gives insight into the life of the Russian Army was this. While they were pillageing a city they came upon a case of champagne. They promptly smashed it in frustration; they weren't looking for taste they were looking for something that would allow them to forget.
One scene it showed was the dissillusion so many felt on marching into Poland and finding the "wealth". Some were even more disoriented on finding out later that most Westerners considered Poland a war-torn wreck.
Ivan arguably recieved little gratitude. Ingratitude to those returned from war is common, and Russia is a hard country. For the fortunate was a minor increase in status. The unfortunate could only make their way back to their homes if they could and rebuild their lives-if they could.
I would like to say that I learned from the book. Unfortunatly the picture it gave was more or less as I expected. The myth is sometimes true and might be true here, but the author might at least say so.
Ivan's War is a painful book. But it is at least a start toward filling a great gap in our knowlege. It also teaches us several things. "Freedom" easily becomes a cant phrase, and it is as well to be reminded what it is like to live without it. And finnally Ivan, while not exactly our grandfathers' comrade was at least their-associate. We too owe something to Ivan.
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