Myths and Realities of the Great Patriotic War
Published: May 12, 2006 (Issue # 1168)
More than sixty years have passed since the last of some 8.6 million Soviet soldiers, collectively known as “Ivan,” died to defeat Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War. (American and British forces suffered less than 250,000 deaths each.) Of the more than 30 million Soviet soldiers mobilized between 1939-1945, they made their ultimate sacrifice in order to avenge the invasion of Soviet territory and the racist war of extermination unleashed by Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht. And although revenge was their primary motivation, in the process of taking revenge they also rescued European civilization — and, perhaps, the world — from the scourge of Nazism.
Obviously, Ivan did not earn his glory merely by dying — or suffering wounds or illnesses, as another 18 million Ivans did — but also by annihilating the “Fritz,” as he called Nazi soldiers. And annihilate them he did, at least when compared with America’s GI Joe and Great Britain’s Tommy. Consider the numbers: The Nazis suffered approximately 13,488,000 total losses (deaths, wounds, captures and illnesses) during World War II. Fighting with Ivan in the East caused 10,758,000 of them (Glantz & House, “When Titans Clashed”).
Unfortunately, before rallying to ultimately defeat Hitler’s Wehrmacht in Berlin, Ivan’s army suffered numerous devastating setbacks inside the Soviet Union. First, it nearly collapsed within weeks of the Nazi’s June 1941 invasion. By October, Red Army defeats and retreats caused more than ninety million people to suffer Nazi occupation behind German lines. And by February 1942, nearly three million Ivans had been captured and more than 2.6 million had been killed. Finally, nearly three years of fighting on Soviet soil killed approximately 19 million of the Soviet Union’s civilians.
Astoundingly, more than sixty years later the world knows shamefully little about Ivan’s heroics or sacrifices — and even less about Ivan and his fellow Ivans as genuine human beings. Presumably, the reason for such ignorance is not because, as Stalin put it, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” A more persuasive reason is provided by Catherine Merridale whose unprecedented research into the lives of Red Army soldiers for her recent book “Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945” demonstrates that such widespread ignorance about Ivan is the consequence of distortions — widespread anti-Russian stereotypes in the West and equally self-serving heroic myths in the Soviet Union and Russia.
Thus, for example, in 1950 the U.S. Army prepared a pamphlet that described “the peculiarities of the Russian soldier.” Borrowing from the racist descriptions provided by captured Nazi officers, it described Ivan as “semi-Asiatic,” “primitive and unassuming,” and “innately brave but morosely passive when in a group.” Ivan acts on “instinct,” and “is subject to moods which to a westerner are incomprehensible.”
As Merridale observes, “Cold War commentaries like these, racist parentage and all, helped shape the image of Red Army soldiers for English speakers of the later twentieth century.”
But, if Western racism rendered Ivan less than human, the Soviet Union’s “hero myth” transformed Ivan into a sanitized hero almost totally devoid of the many human failings that have afflicted soldiers at war since the beginning of time. As Merridale interprets the myth, Ivan “is simple, healthy, strong and kind, far-sighted, selfless, and unafraid of death. He almost never dwells on the dark side of war. Indeed, his gaze is turned toward the future, a bright utopia for which he is prepared to sacrifice his life.”
Utilizing recently declassified secret police reports, the Red Army’s internal notes about its soldiers’ wartime morale, bundles of soldiers’ letters, diaries, her travels to battle sites and nearly two hundred interviews with surviving veterans, Merridale has uncovered significant new evidence that shatters the hero myth.
That’s not to say, of course, that Ivan performed no heroic deeds. For example, Merridale salutes the courage of the steadfast Ivans, who defended Stalingrad for months during late 1942.
She especially notes the fate of a marine called Pankaiko. “As the doomed man prepared to lob a gasoline-filled bottle at a line of German tanks, a bullet ignited the fuel, turning him into a pillar of flame. But the marine was still alive, and somehow, with some last reserve of rage or maybe some grim reflex, he managed to reach for a second missile [and] run right up to the German tank, and smash the bottle against the grille of the engine hatch. A second later an enormous sheet of flame and smoke engulfed both the tank and the hero who had destroyed it.”
Ivan loved to drink samogon (moonshine), which also served as currency. He smoked cheap tobacco (makhorka) and cursed with imagination, “piling the profanities in stacks.”
He sang while he marched and at festivals and parades. And he composed the short folk poems (chastushki) that peasants had been composing for generations. But, because the poems were often satiric, erotic or subversive, they were not mentioned in any of the official hero myths constructed by Soviet propagandists.
Those myths also failed to mention the battle stress and trauma that so many Ivans were shamed into repressing. But Merridale does her greatest damage to the hero myth when she substantiates her assertion that “whole areas of wartime life, including desertion, crime, cowardice, and rape, were banned from public scrutiny.”
Desertion? Even during the decisive battle at Kursk in 1943, “defections increased sharply from 2,555 in June to 6,574 in July and 4,047 in August.”
Crime? In June 1944, tank officers serving on the First Ukrainian Front stole “15,123 kilos of meat, 1,959 kilos of sausage, 3,000 kilos of butter, 2,100 kilos of biscuits, 890 kilos of boiled sweets, 563 kilos of soap, a hundred winter coats, a hundred greatcoats, eighty fur gilets, a hundred pairs of valenki, and a hundred pairs of boots.” According to Merridale, “Reports of this kind were a weekly, if not daily, event for the military courts.”
Cowardice? “Tank fright” and self-inflicted wounds were two unquestionable forms of cowardice. More questionable, but considered cowardice nonetheless, were retreat and surrender. Which is why, in August 1941, Stalin signed Order no. 270, which stated, “Any officer or political officer who removed his distinguishing marks in battle, retreated to the rear, or gave himself up as a prisoner would count as a malicious deserter.” It also stipulated that families of deserters would be liable to arrest.
Far more draconian was his 28 July 1942 Order no. 227, which prohibited officers from allowing their men to retreat without specific orders. Violators would be “arrested on a capital charge,” and offending Ivans would be consigned to the penal battalions and, thus, certain death.
Rape? Rape was one form of “people’s justice” that his political officers exhorted Ivan to exact as he advanced into Germany. According to Merridale, “tens of thousands of German women and girls undoubtedly suffered rape at the hands of Soviet troops; the figure may well have reached hundreds of thousands.” Moreover, she provides some very disturbing evidence to support her allegations. (Allegations that American soldiers raped 10,000 women in Europe and 10,000 at Okinawa await their own Merridale.)
Destroying myths, especially myths about war, is serious business. Yet, by destroying the Soviet hero myth, Merridale inadvertently has buttressed America’s “Saving Private Ryan” myth. How? By failing to recognize Ivan’s singular contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Rather than meekly concede that “Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin were real victories, and not for Moscow only, but for its allies too,” Merridale might have added the opinion of esteemed historian, John Erickson: “The portents of the outcome at Kursk were enormous. Demonstrably the Red Army could strike for Berlin ‘with no outside assistance,’ setting off alarm bells in the West. The ‘Second Front’ was finally agreed in November,” (John Erickson, Journal of Military History, July 1998, p. 665).
Moreover, a balanced myth-shattering history of Ivan might have included the opinion of America’s foremost expert on the Eastern Front, David M. Glantz: “Left to their own devices, Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmach: the ultimate result would probably have been the same, except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches,” (Glantz & House).
Thus, a truly myth-shattering history of Ivan would have demolished not only the Soviet Union’s sanitized hero myth, still very precious to many Russians today, but also America’s equally specious “Saving Private Ryan” myth that credits the United States for the defeat of Nazi Germany. Only when that history is written, will human, all-too human, Ivan receive his just recognition.
Walter C. Uhler is president of the Russian-American International Studies Association, which will co-sponsor the 15th Annual Russian-American Seminar, to be held during May 16-23, at St. Petersburg State University.