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Culture news
Looking for Ivan
03.31.2006 12:17

catherine_merridale By Lewis H. Siegelbaum

Special to St. Petersburg Times

Far from a single type, the soldiers who fought for the Soviet Union during World War II were as unlike each other as the civilians they defended, historian Catherine Merridale shows.

“We all wanted to defend it,” veteran Ivan Gorin remarks midway through “Ivan’s War,” Catherine Merridale’s utterly gripping and beautifully written account of World War II as experienced by the Red Army soldiers who lived and died at the front. “I think that the criminals felt more devotion, more love for their native soil than the higher-ups in the leadership, the bosses.”

Gorin was the lone survivor among 330 shtrafniki, or members of a penal battalion, sent over the top to storm an enemy position during the battle of Stalingrad. In setting out to tell his story, as well as the stories of all the other “Ivans” who fought in the war, Merridale, a professor of contemporary history at the University of London, has taken on a challenge no less daunting than in her previous book on death and bereavement in Soviet Russia. Her aim is to “find the true Ivan” beneath the incrustation of official myths about the patriotic, self-sacrificing Red Army and survivors’ own “need to tame the clamor of their past.”

Finding Ivan more than 60 years after the end of the war was no easy task. Merridale did track down and interview some 200 veterans, but, as she notes, they comprised a small, dwindling elite. Atypical by their very survival into the 21st century, they were all too typical in another way. They tended to filter their experiences through the prism of wartime preconceptions, and, even more so, through images constructed by postwar Soviet propagandists. Oft-quoted tropes like the great communal struggle, the sacrifice for the motherland (or at least for one’s buddies) and the pain of separation from loved ones at home had crowded out the more mundane memories of untreated toothaches, frequent hunger and chronic fatigue. And then there was the problem to which Kurt Vonnegut, himself a World War II veteran and prisoner of war, alludes in “A Man Without A Country”: Veterans from any country are reluctant to speak about war simply because “it’s unspeakable.”

No one kind of source contains the truth. Archival documents — military and secret-police reports, letters and diaries — have both pitfalls (self-censorship, for example) and advantages. Merridale draws heavily on the massive amount of archival material that has been published since the early 1990s, but she also turns to central repositories in Moscow; to Communist Party and state archives in Kursk and Smolensk, where some of the heaviest fighting occurred; and to the German military archive in Freiburg. She makes good use of classic works by Alexander Werth, John Erickson and Lev Kopelev, as well as more recent books by Antony Beevor, Richard Overy and Amir Weiner. And she provides a signal contribution to one of her most important sources: the school of historical literature that imaginatively reconstructs the mentality of the soldier as a way of understanding the psychosis of war and its long-lasting effects on those who practice its arts. The doyenne of this school, Yelena Senyavskaya, defined this “historical-psychological” approach in three books published between 1995 and 1999.

The Ivan who emerges from Merridale’s investigations was not, of course, a single individual or type, but a panoply of groups as unlike each other as the civilians they were supposed (but often failed miserably) to defend. Soldiers in regular units were in a different world from shtrafniki and partisans, yet similarly separated by a gulf of privilege and authority from their own officers. Communists, and especially political officers, had special responsibilities that set them apart. Equally distinct within the armed forces were tank troops (an astonishing three quarters of whom did not survive the war) and those, termed “rats” by the frontoviki, who served as office functionaries and manned the support battalions in the rear.

There were those who mutilated themselves rather than face near-certain death in one of Stalin’s futile offensives, and those who were fatalistic about their survival; those who defected to the enemy and those who served in the secret police’s motorized infantry brigade or in one of the units assigned to fire on soldiers fleeing battle. Another gulf separated those who fought — and, most likely, died — in the first two years of the war and those who defended Stalingrad, experienced the intoxication of victory in Kursk, participated in Operation Bagration in 1944, or chased the Germans back to Berlin. Finally, nationality mattered. Merridale points out that western Ukrainians, in light of their recent and forcible annexation into the Soviet Union, did not make the most loyal “Ivans.” By contrast, Jews, despite their reputation for shirking, “were among the keenest volunteers for every kind of army service” and “among the most determined combatants on every Soviet front.”

Some “Ivans” inevitably are overlooked or given less attention than readers might like. Merridale has virtually nothing to say about Soviet pilots, and she devotes a mere three pages to the 800,000 women who served at the front. Little is said about the battle for Moscow, and the “Road of Life” that tenuously connected besieged Leningrad to the rest of the country goes without mention, perhaps because these subjects have received extensive coverage elsewhere. The author does give a clear-eyed, if jaundiced, view of those actions that until recently were written out of accounts of the war and that, for the most part, veterans excised from their memories. These include the theft of army supplies, looting from “liberated” civilians, and, in an entire chapter that is really hard to read without one’s stomach turning, the extensive raping and killing of German women that Merridale not implausibly attributes to “the desire to avenge [combined] with the impulse to destroy.”

Yet there was much that bonded the soldiers together, and Merridale provides insightful commentary on the prodigious quantities of vodka that were distributed and consumed, the importance of collective singing, the cruel humor that masked insecurity, and the general fear of death and, even more so, mutilation. For some, defending the motherland was the driving force; for others, that which was called ideology but was probably closer to faith was paramount; for still others, it was a matter of fear and of choosing between several bad alternatives (what the author calls “taming the nightmares”). By distilling these and other motivations, Merridale humanizes the Ivans who gave their youth and lives to a cause that both church and state elevated to myth. It is the least these soldiers deserve.

Lewis H. Siegelbaum is a professor of history at Michigan State University and the author, together with Andrei Sokolov, of “Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents.”

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