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Sage Publications, Ltd.

Culture, Ideology and Combat in the Red Army, 1939-45


Author(s): Catherine Merridale
Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 2006), pp. 305-324
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
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c 2006 SAGEPublications,
London,ThousandOaks,CAand
of Contemporary
Journal
History
Copyright
New Delhi,Vol41(2),305-324. ISSN0022-0094.
DOI:10.I 177/0022009406062072

CatherineMerridale

Culture, Ideology and Combat in the


Red Army, 1939-45
Russian soldiers have always impressed foreigners. 'They are very patient of
hunger, thirst, and cold', an English traveller remarked in 1698, 'obedient
to their officers, and ready to charge the enemy on all occasions.'" Broadly
speaking, this is the view that has persisted ever since. 'They probably provide
the best material in the world from which to form an army', the British
Lieutenant-General Martel concluded after watching Soviet manoeuvres.
'Their bravery on the battlefield is beyond dispute, but the most outstanding
feature is their astonishing strength and toughness.'2 Even Hitler's Germans,
who were keen to amass any evidence that they could find of Slavic dissipation, conceded that Ivan, the Russian soldier, was special. According to the
V6lkischer Beobachter of 1941, the Russian 'surpasses our adversary in the
West in his contempt for death'. It was a view that direct engagement with
Soviet troops would soon confirm. By the winter of 1941, with the Battle of
Moscow behind them, German observers were describing the Red Army as
'the craftiest and most stubborn enemy that we have ever faced'. If you want
to resist a Russian-style attack, a captured German report observed that
winter, 'you will need strong nerves'.3
Its formidable reputation - and more formidable suffering - has drawn
historians to write about the Red Army for decades. The topic, which combines the appeal of the grittiest war stories with the chill of a spy thriller,
continues to fascinate. Strangely, however, while strategy and leadership are
well-researched, very little is known about the lives, background and motivation of the troops themselves.4 Perversely, indeed, most of what is known
about soldiers on the Eastern Front currently relies on evidence from Hitler's
This article draws on research generously funded by the Economic and Social Research Council
between 2002 and 2005, and also on writing completed during research leave made possible by
the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the University of Bristol. I am grateful to each of
these for their support and encouragement, and also to Queen Mary, University of London, for
further sabbatical leave in which to complete both manuscripts. Finally, my thanks to the Centre
for History and Economics for its unfailing support over many years, and also to each of the
participants at the Culture and Combat Motivation workshop for their comments.
1 Baldwin, 'A New and Exact Description of Muscovy', cited in Raymond L. Garthoff, How
Russia Makes War (London 1954), 225.
2 Ibid.
3 Cited in P.N. Knyshevskii, Skrytaya pravda voiny (Moscow 1992), 227.
4 Among the works dealing with strategy, David Glantz's numerous volumes are outstanding, as
are the older, but still classic, works of John Erickson.
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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2

army.5 Red Army soldiers, the victors, remain shadowy. This article, which
draws on research for a larger social history of the Red Army in the second
world war,6 will explore two specific aspects of culture and combat motivation
in the Red Army. First, it will investigate the reasons for our relative ignorance
about Red Army troops. Having established these boundaries, many of which
suggest problems common to all writing about combat motivation, the article
will then ask the specific question: why did Ivan fight?
When it comes to research, one problem, historically, has been the weight of
prejudice. As long as Stalin was an ally against Hitler, Red Army troops were
heroes to the English-speaking world, albeit heroes little understood. From the
1950s, however, as the Cold War encouraged stereotyping and suspicion, a
new Ivan, the slant-eyed, stone-faced military automaton, took over in imagination. This Ivan was inhuman, even emotionless, but he remained a formidable soldier. The victory at Stalingrad - and the triumph that followed in
Berlin - sustained an image of invincible troops that only the most recent
wars, and notably Chechnya, have managed to tarnish.
Whatever damage the disasters in Afghanistan and Chechnya may have
caused to Soviet military reputations, however, the image of second world war
Soviet riflemen remains so powerful that the question of human motivation
seems almost superfluous in their case. These men were forced to fight, the
argument can run; in the few cases where coercion was not needed it was
because the victims of dictatorship had never exercised much choice. At the
same time, a similarly two-dimensional image, albeit a positive one, is offered
by Soviet and even post-Soviet writing about the war. In these versions, Ivan is
nothing less than a hero, a patriot. 'The people were extraordinary', a group of
Moscow-based survivors assured me. 'There is nothing else to say.' Instead of
looking at the minds and culture of Red Army soldiers, most histories from
any source have focused on the heavy price that they were forced to pay.
That price, even expressed in numerical terms, was overwhelming. No fewer
than eight million men and women in the Soviet armed forces lost their lives
during the Great Patriotic War. This figure represents just over a quarter of the
total number mobilized between 1941 and 1945.' Very few of the remainder
escaped injury, and many were wounded several times. It was not unusual for
a single battle to claim thousands of lives in a matter of hours. Survivors could
be taken prisoner; the Germans seized three million Red Army soldiers in
the first six months alone. Capture itself could amount to a death sentence,
especially for Communist Party members, political officers and ethnic Jews.
In all, the scale and cruelty of the war almost defy imagination. It is certainly

5 See Omer Bartov, Hitler's Army. Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich (New York
1992).
6 Ivan's War. The Red Army, 1939-45 (London 2005).
7 For a discussion of figures, see John Erickson's essay, 'The System and the Soldier' in P.
Addison and A. Calder (eds), Time to Kill. The Soldier's Experience of War in the West (London
1997), 235.
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difficult to create a space in which to think about the soldiers' motivation,


about their lives, their culture and ideas.
I have always doubted the crude, cold, faceless image of the Russian soldier,
and ten years' worth of interviews have reinforced my view. The young
recruits that I have met, today's soldiers, hungry and frightened, bear no
resemblance to Martel's Ivan, while the veterans, even veterans of the second
world war, are endlessly diverse, to say nothing of including thousands of
women. To write about an army 30 million strong, after all, is to take on
an entire society, albeit one that faced extreme crisis. And this army, like the
society from which it sprang, did not remain the same over four years. Where
panic and despair had reigned in 1941, a dogged stoicism would emerge by the
time of Stalingrad, and this in turn gave way to something like professional
confidence. One reason was that the bulk of the army died (or was captured)
and was replaced several times - at least twice - in the course of the war.
Another was the changing mood of people - soldiers - as the army's own
culture and fortunes changed. Generalizations about Ivan, in other words, are
either crude shorthand or cruder racism.
One starting point for the discussion of Ivan, always a fruitful source of
themes and questions, is comparison with other armies and societies at war.
The articles in this collection have sparked ideas in just this way, but nonetheless there is a special quality about the Soviet Union's war, and that is its continuing political and symbolic importance. All wars cast shadows and create
heroes, but in this case the memory is like a cult. The museums that guard war
relics in Russia are reminiscent of shrines, while many of the most important
war archives are closed, preserving the secrets and myths. Russia's pride, and a
good part of its identity, remains invested in the memories of war and victory.
The Soviet Union has collapsed, its rulers have been exposed as corrupt and
cruel, and yet Russians take pride in having saved the world from fascism. The
costly feat, moreover, is almost the only source of self-congratulation remaining to the Russian army in its dismal post-Soviet incarnation.
Researchers have been chipping at the patriotic edifice for years. Because
official myth remains so strong, historians seem almost bound to dig for dirt,
to write of panic and betrayal, punishment battalions, police surveillance,
crime, atrocities in East Prussia. This search for an alternative is probably as
sterile as the golden fable that it seeks to overturn, but until the Defence
Ministry archives are open - even on a partial basis - the temptation to
imagine the worst will remain strong. In particular, since statistics are largely
secret, historians must speculate about such matters as front-line executions
for cowardice, the proportion of officers arrested for drunkenness, and even
the educational level of peasants among the new recruits.
The people who might remember the truth, the veterans themselves, have
good reasons for reticence. Many have spent so long warming their hands at
the official version of the Patriotic War that they cannot face the cold blasts of
scepticism that blow in when the archive door is forced. The myth of the war
is as important to some elderly survivors as the enhanced pensions that they
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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 41 No 2

usedto receive.The communismthey believedin has been discredited,the


collectivismthat providedfor theirhealthand welfarehas crumbledaway.
Inflationhas slashedthe value of their fixed incomes,while advertising,
andthe electronicmediahavedestroyedthe primandenclosed
pornography
worldthatshelteredthemin middleage.Thewar,withits romanceof heroic
struggle,is all thetreasurethatsomeold peoplehaveleft.To questionhow it
was is to threatenthe lastthingthatallowsthemto makesenseof theirlong
lives.
Thatsaid,thereis no substitute,whilethosewho foughtarestillalive,for
Forthepurposesof thisproject,about200
talkingto theveteransthemselves.
of themsharedtheirwarstorieswithme,andmostwereco-operative,
engaged
Thesecharacteristics
andforthcoming.8
for
maymakethemunrepresentative,
the
still
refuse
to
to
and
manyself-styled
patriots
speak foreigners,
majorityof
I
the
was
to
a
are
dead.
volunteer
veterans,especially invalids,
speaking
group
of theyoungestandmostfortunate,someof whomwouldbecomefriends.We
rummagedthroughold photographsand lettersand we walkedaroundthe
battlesitesto talk.'It wasa privilegeto heartheirstories,butit was alsofrustratingfor us all. Forone thing,the veteranswerestrugglingto reassemble
theirown storiesas we talked.Memoryis selective,andheavilyinfluencedby
thefablesthatgroupsof peopletellin subsequent
years.Oldagealsoplaysits
the
of
time.
in
as
does
But
the
part,
passage
difficultythatveteransexperience
is
also
a
combat
to
war.
Battle
is
moment
of
extreme
specific
recollecting
andstress.It is also an episodeof fractured,
emergency
collapsedtime,when
thesecondsdragslowlyandentirehoursspeedby.To stepbackfromold age
- or anyage- intothatworldmaybe almostimpossible.
Most veteransarehappyto talk abouteventsfor whichthe war provided
includinglove affairs,lettersfromhome,and the close friendbackground,
shipsthat theyformed.The emotionsattachingto theseremainstrong,but
northe emotionalimpactof combatseemsreadilyavailneitherthe narrative
at Prokhorovka,
ablein memory.AsI walkedroundthecornfields
thesceneof
the largesttank battlein history,my guidesremembered
picturesfromthe
me
that
the
told
dust
that
the
horizon
vanishedin
very
past.They
caughtfire,
a wallof smoke.Mosthada taleabouta friend,thelastwordsthathe saidto
them, the way he alwaysused to drinkhis tea. But thoughthese images
endure,thescenesandfeelingsthatrelateto combatturnoutto be evanescent
traces,quicklylost. They are also overlaidwith otherfeelings- multiple
layers,all of them powerful- includingthe wrenchinglonelinessof the
demobilized
man,theguiltof the survivor,thegriefof the bereaved,the dour
8 I conductedmost of the interviewsmyself,alone or with assistants,but I also askeda Russian
man,an ex-soldier,to conductsomein my absence.We werestruckafterwardsby the lackof variation in the contentof the veterans'answers.
9 Two of these new friends,IlyaNatanovichNemanovof Smolenskand Lev LvovichLyakhov
from Moscow, respectivelyveteransof Stalingradand Kursk,have died this year. Theirstories
haveinspiredme as I write.
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pleasureof the veteran.All these reasonstogetherare probablynecessaryto


explainthe silenceabout combat after60 years.
Theremay, moreover,have been no adequatewords for battle at the time.
Its memory is repressedalmost at once. 'I got back from operations only
tonight',a soldiercalled Ageevwrote to his wife in 1943.
In these situations the same well-known reaction always sets in. The strain of effort is
replaced by inertia. When you're under stress, you don't think about anything, and all your
efforts are directed towards a single goal. But when the stress is replaced by inertia, which
is explained by tiredness, then you really need a bit of a shaking, because for a moment
nothing seems to matter.10

Nothing, that is, except the temporarycalm. The poet David Samoilov,who
fought in the front line for two years, explainedthat he could never write
about this war. His poems at the time were pureescapism,sweet little songs or
folk stories composedto dodge the turmoilin his head. Later,when the war
was over, he could no longerrecollecthow it had been."
Amnesia of this variety is not a purely Russian problem.John Steinbeck,
who visitedRussiajust afterthe war, also found memorya doubtfultool after
combat. 'Whenyou wake up and think back to the thingsthat happenedthey
are alreadybecomingdreamlike',he explained.
You try to remember what it was like, and you can't quite manage it. The outlines in your
memory are vague. The next day the memory slips further, until very little is left at all ...
Men in prolonged battle are not normal men. And when afterwards they seem to be reticent,
perhaps they don't remember very well."2

It did not need a revolution, or even the work of the Sovinformburo,the


wartimepropagandadepartment,to drivemen's memoriesinto shadow. The
secretivedesignsof the Sovietstate were realizedin part becausethey worked
in harmonywith genuinehumandesires.
These observationscarryinto everywrittenkind of source,althougha great
deal remainsto be learnedfrom wartimedocuments.The censor could grasp
his blue penciland the policemanhis gun, but with six million troops to control, and unnumberedrefugees,deserters,spies and hangers-onto consider,
authoritywas over-stretched.It was alwayspossibleto makeexamplesof individual soldierswho brokethe rules,but therewere too manyinfringementsand too many corrupt or exhausted officials - for control to be absolute.
'Lettersfrom the front reveal that militarysecrets are being disclosed on a
mass scale', the political administrationcomplainedon 3 February1942.1'It
would be sayingmuch the same a year later, not least becausethe lettersin
10 Russian Centre for Social and Political History, Archive of the Komsomol (hereafter
RGASPI-M), 33/1/1454, 107.
11 David Samoilov, 'Lyudi odnogo varianta', part II, Avrora, no. 3 (1990), 56.
12 Cited in John Ellis, The Sharp End (London 1980), 109.
13 Russkii arkhiv. Velikaya otechestvennaya, vol. 6 (Moscow 1996), 111-12.
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of Contemporary
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questionwereoftenthe last thatsoldierswouldwrite.The menhad littleto

lose, but even so few wrote about fighting itself. Indeed,they even used the
censor as an excuse for their silences. 'I can't write much to you', a tank

mechanictoldhis mother.'It'snot allowed.'As anotherfranklytold his wife:


'I cannot describeall my feelingsor all my experiences.''14

Forall that,lettersdo describethe changingcontoursof the soldiers'war.


The most moving,and least numerous,date fromthe first few monthsof
hostilities.Thiswas the timewhenthe hubristicbubbleof the 1930s burst,
when an entiregenerationstruggledwith its shock.The Sovietpeoplehad
been promisedeasy victory- 'the enemywill be defeatedon his own soil'15and now they facednear-certaindeath.'We'relivingin dugoutsin the woods',
a young man wrote to his motherin 1941. 'Wesleepon straw,like cattle.They
feed us very badly- twice a day, and even then, not what we need. We get
five spoonfulsof soup in the morning... we're hungryall day.' The myth of
the Red Army as its country'sglorious defenderhad collapsedin full view of
the world. Thousandsof people knew they were about to die for it. 'Don't
believe the newspapers',anothersoldier wrote. 'The things they say are lies.
... We've been through it all and seen it all', he continued. 'We've got nothing

to fight with, and when the Germanscatch up with us, our men have nothing
to escape in.' Another bleakly added a remarkthat his own words belied:
'Theymake us keep our mouthsshut.'16
Two years later, no one would write with that frankness,but not because
conditionsthemselveswere much better.The men were still living in dugouts
- 'like moles' - they still fought to exhaustion,lived on soup, and dreamed
of soap, toothbrushesand a Russianbath. 'Whenthe war is over', one man
wrote, 'I am going to take a bath everytwo weeks.' But the defeatist,enraged
languageof the early months had gone, and with it the sense that authority
was always wrong.Wartimerecruitsfound a new senseof purpose,especially
afterStalingrad.Most were trained,like factoryworkerson a productionline,
to understandone processand one kind of job precisely.17
Meanwhile,the fog
of ideologicalrhetoricthat had blurredmilitarythinkingfor so long was swept
away. Politicalofficerswere subordinatedto their militarycomrades.A new
professionalismlifted spirits in the army. War became the new norm, war
becamea job.
In the last phaseof the war, the problemwith the lettersis that they become
bombastic,colouredwith triumphantpropaganda.'Therehas not been a day
at the front yet like today', an engineerwrote home on 16 April 1945. 'At 4
14 A.D. Shindel' (ed.), Po obe storony fronta (Moscow 1995), 99; E.M. Snetkova, Pis'ma very,
nadezhdy, lyubvy. Pis'ma s fronta (Moscow 1999), 38.

15 This sloganwas repeatedendlesslyin the 1930s, andwas the guidingthemeof EfimDzigan's


1938 film, 'If Thereis WarTomorrow'.
16 All excerpts cited from M.M. Gorinov et al. (eds), Moskva voennaya (Moscow 1995),
167-8.
17 On the psychologyof training,see A.R. Gilgen, C.K. Gilgen, V.A. Koltsova and Y.N.
Oleinik, Soviet and American Psychology during World War Two (Westport, CT 1997).
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o'clock in the morningthousandsof katyushasand machineguns openedfire,


and the sky was as brightas day from horizonto horizon.'"Tactfully,he did
not add that this brightday had endedwith one of the few disastersfor which
Zhukov himselfwas responsible.Likeall letters,too, those from this time are
silent about crime, which in 1945 meant rape and wanton destruction.
Aronov'sunit was in East Prussia,in a city then called Insterburg,"9
when he
sent a polite postcardto his sister.'I am alive and well and send you this with
best wishes', he wrote.20This was a time when thousandsof Germanwomen
and girls were being raped near the front line, but the only hints - not in
Aronov'scard- are borrowedfrom the stiltedlanguageof the press.
The lettersof 1944 and 1945 are also interestingfor the valuesthey reflect,
the things that seem to cause no shame. Looting was one thing that became
routine. One man, a relativelymodest character,took a radio ('for this, of
course, we will need electricity')as well as a bolt of black silk, yellow leather
to make boots, parcelsof food, an overcoat,a feathereiderdownwith a silk
cover, severalsets of sheets, woollen cloth, and a pair of paddedtrousersfor
Stalin'sregimewas makinggood its
those huntingexpeditionsof the future.21
claim to reparations.The soldier'sportion, as they understood,was no more
than theirrecompense.Quotas of loot were set - so manykilos for each man
per month - and looting was transformedinto a duty. Murder and rape
remainedtaboo, but the patternon a Meissencup was a legitimatetopic for
men's letters home. The whole businesswas so open that stationmastersin
Russia and Ukrainehad to constructspecialdepots to store the parcelswhile
they waited for a horse and cart to take them to the soldiers'home villages.22
The lettersthat the soldiersof a totalitarianstatecould write,then, aremore
promising,as a source about their lives, than we might expect. But not every
letter was spontaneous,and those of the least literate- perhapsthe largest
group among infantrymen- were especiallystilted. Most men could write a
little, but many were unused to the written word, which meant that they
reachedfor stockphrases- the state'sstock phrases- when the timecameto
send a card backto the village:'I am alive and well. Our cause is just. Victory
will be ours. Loveto Vanyaand Masha.'In general,the maineffectof blanket
media censorshipand saturatingpolitical education was not so much that
they forbadesome kinds of talk but ratherthat they shaped an outlook and
vocabulary. Men with limited education, and especially the young, were
vulnerableto this kind of pressure.Older men, especiallyofficers,could be
more critical,but this was a war in which, by 1943, most officershad been
recruitsthemselves,merechildren,only monthsbefore.
Whateverthe advantagesof letters,however,when it comes to the question
18
19
20
21
22

Shindel' (ed.), Po obe storony fronta, op. cit., 160.


Today it is called Chernyakovsk, after the general who died in the Battle of Konigsberg.
RGASPI-M, 33/1/261, 27.
RGASPI-M, 33/1/1405, 152.
Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv obshchestvenno-politicheskoi istorii Kurskoi oblasti (GAOPIKO),

1/1/3754, 5-9.
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of motivation,realproblemsstart.Combatandsoldiering
do not dependon a
emotional
As
have
single
impulse. specialists
longobserved,thereis a differencebetweenthemotivethatimpelssomeoneto volunteer,
andevento remain
in a collapsingarmy,andthe specificdriveto runtowardsnear-certain
injury
or death.23
Thefirsttwo canbe describedin letters.Butthethird,likecombat
itself, is dark,violentand quicklyrepressedwhen the emergencyis over.
Perhapsthereareno easywordsfor somethingas instinctiveas an adrenalin
rush, perhapsthe complexset of impulsesthat get a personthroughare
mattersfor a confusedkindof shame.Eitherway,thebestthatletterseverdo
is mutteraboutthe inexpressible.
As a veteranofficerassuredme, if wartime
letterstalkof gloriousbattle,it is almostcertainthatthewriteris a newrecruit
or non-combatant.
Theotherproblemwithlettersis thattheywereaddressed
to a specificaudience.Manywerewrittenin a sortof dream,oftenat night,whenthe writer
founda momentto escapehis comradesand summonthe imageof his wife,
parentsor friends.Whata soldierwrotethen,oftenthroughhis exhaustion,
to the thingshe mighthavesaid (or even thought)
bore scantresemblance
the
during workingday.'It is hardto knowhow longI will remainalive',a
manwroteto hiswifeinJanuary1942.Shewasexpectingtheirfirstchild,but
he knewhe wouldneverseeit. 'Simochka',
he wrote,'whetherit is a boyor a
girl,pleasebringit up accordingto yourown beliefs.Tellit aboutme, about
yourhusbandandits father.'Therewas nothinghereaboutthe war;it was
out of place.'Youcouldn'tsaythatI'malive- no',
beyondeasydescription,
anothermanwroteto his wife anddaughter.'A deadpersonis a blindone,
andfor thatreasonthe onlythingthatinterestsme is yourlife,my onlyconcern is to rememberyou.'24

Judgingfromlettersof this kind,somemenfoughtonlyfor theirfamilies.


Butlettersarewrittenwithlittleotherpurposein mind.Theyareunlikelyto
discusslessnobleor attractivefeelings.Andthereis anotherstrandto catch,
to defend
evenin writingthisintimate.Forwhiletheysignedup,frequently,
theirfamiliesandhomes,the menfoundthatwardistancedthemfromeveryone theyloved,makingit difficultto imaginereunion.Somefeltthattheyhad
aged,and claimedto fearrejection.'I'vehad fourlettersfromyou', Ageev
wrote to his wife in the earlyspringof 1944. 'At least I have some basis
for believingthatmy familyhas beenpreserved
intact.Nina!It'sthe biggest

questionfor all of us frontoviki.What'sgoing to happenwhen the war ends?'25


Lifeat the fronthad set the troopsapartfromnon-combatantsfor ever.As one
confidedto his wife in 1943: 'The questionof our meetingafterthe victorythat is what is worryinga lot of us right now.'26Like thousandsof others,he
23 John Lynn, The Bayonets of the Republic. Motivation and Tactics in the Army of
Revolutionary France, 1791-94 (Urbana, IL 1984).

24 RGASPI-M,33/1/276, 4; Stroki,opalennyevoiny (Belgorod1998), 115-16.


25 RGASPI-M,33/1/1454, 78.
26 Gosudarstvennyi
arkhivSmolenskoioblasti(GASO),2482/1/1, 35.
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was wonderingif the old world was worth recovering,if he could everface his
formerself.
Diaries,in general,are no morehelpfulabout fighting.It was illegalto keep
them duringthe war, but there were always compulsivewriterswhose desire
to make notes was strongerthan the fear of punishment.As a result, there
exist diariesof battle, of capture,and of the long months of waiting between
operations.Like the letters,they chart changesin morale, the rise of professionalism,the impactof propaganda,friendships,boredom,loss and hope. But
diaries do not say much about the writers' thoughts in combat. There are
two basic kinds of journal.The first is little more than an accountof action,
intended for posterity, and often breakingoff suddenly, signallingthat the
authorwas capturedor killed.This type recordsthe numberof milesmarched,
or curt detailsabout the 'Fritz',but the peoplewho kept them had no time for
sentiment.
The second kind of diary, which includes the most revealingtexts, was
writtenby the introspectivetypes,the men who insulatedthemselvesfromwar
by keepingwads of secret scribblednotes. As a rule, these do not deal with
combat. They are about the writer'smood. 'Time is going slowly again', an
officer complainson the eve of OperationBagrationin 1944. 'The days drag
endlessly . . . . In the last while I have been feeling an acute tirednessfrom
the war.'27For men like him, combat itself would come as a relief, lifting the
preoccupationsthat impelled him to write in the first place. 'There are no
letters from home, the devil take them', the same officer wrote a few weeks
later. He had been worrying about his wife, and mutteringthat they were
headingfor a row. But thingswere changingin his world. 'In that regard',he
continued,'I can be verytolerant,becausewe'll soon be in battle,and then I'll
forget everything.'28
The testimoniesof witnesses,too, are seldomvery helpfulabout soldiersin
the field. These include the writings of political officers - the communists
who combinedin a single man the roles of priest, confessor, agitator,stool
pigeon andconveyorof news - and also the NKVD troopswho watchedover
the men at the front line. Both wrote daily reports,but neitherwas trying to
convey truth, to analyse the men. Instead, they were filling in the blanks
on notional lists, reportingthat morale was 'healthy',finding and exposing
ideologicalfoes, keepingthe red bannerin view. They had neitherthe incentive nor the trainingto discusswhat was reallygoing on in theirmen'sheads.29
27 'Frontovoi dnevnik N.F. Belova, 1941-1944' (hereafter 'Belov') in Vologda, vyp 2 (Vologda
1997), 470 and 464-5.
28 'Belov', op. cit., 473-4 (15 June 1944).
29 Regular reports on morale were filed by NKVD troops at the front line. My comments are
based on a continuous run of these, beginning on the Don Front just before Stalingrad and ending
with the occupying forces in Berlin. They are available at the Russian State Military Archive
(RGVA) in Moscow. I have also consulted a selection of similar reports from the regular army on
the Don and Belorussian Fronts in 1942 and 1944, available (with effort) at the Central Archive
of the Ministry of Defence (TsAMO) in Podolsk.
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The instancesof defeatistor anti-communisttalk that they 'exposed'in their


reportswere often false,too, cooked up on fabricatedevidenceto makearrests
secure. The last few years have uneartheda streamof such cases from the
archivesof the KGB.30Officialreports,albeit witnessed,stampedand signed,
are scarcelymore reliablethan the soldiers'own tall tales.
Soviet war correspondentswere even less able to write the truth. The
Sovinformburocontrolledeachword, each comma,that theywrote. Its editing
was so meticulous that even patriots like Simonov eventuallycomplained.
Ehrenburgreportedthat he spent entiredays on corrections,so that therewas
no time to write new pieces, let alone to think. The whole enterprisewas so
secretivethat on one occasion Sovinformburostaff were banned from their
own building on the grounds that they did not have high enough levels of
In practice,referencesto cowardice,panic,doubt or even boredom
clearance.31
were completelybanned.Olga Berggolts,the poet of the Leningradblockade,
discoveredon a visit to Moscow that she was not allowedto referto starvation
when she talked of her ordealon nationalradio. She could speakof hardship,
and certainlyof heroism,but hunger,even in 1943, was taboo.32
It is difficultto find out justwhy Ivanfought, but the questionof motivationis
still worthwhile. For one thing, it opens valuable windows upon Stalin's
regime,on the levels of supportand belief,and on the possibilitiesfor popular
patriotism.The war marked a watershedin the short history of the Soviet
Union, and nowherewere the changesmore acutethan amongthe peoplewho
fought. Just as seriously,the story of Red Armytroops representsland-based
combat at the extreme.The question of motivation in this case must surely
help to understandthe problemin more generalterms.
The firstexplanationthat veteransthemselveswould cite for Ivan'svalouris
the least fashionableamong English-speakinghistoriansof this war. Patriotism is the centralmyth for the survivorsthemselves,and it has been burnished
first by victory and then by years of Soviet stagnationand decline, leaving
those who fought for Stalin'sstate with little but its mythsto cherish.It would
be arrogantto dismissthe idea - it is so powerfulthat it shines like a faith,
even today - but nonethelessit does bearcloser scrutiny.
Love of the motherland,in 1941, was clearlysomethingthat drove millions
to sign up for the front.33The state'sown use of words like patriot,however,
need not have coincidedwith its people's view of their homeland,nor need
the veterans'recollectionof the word's meaningtoday. The CommunistParty
30 I am grateful to Memorial in Moscow for making manuscript reports of these available.
31 Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI), 17/125/47, 23.
32 O.V. Druzhba, Velikaya otechestvennaya voina v soznanii i podsoznanii sovetskogo i
postsovetskogo obshchestvo (Rostov on Don 2000), 33-4.
33 The evidence includes hundreds of soldiers' letters, some of the most lucid of which, from
Moscow university students, are reprinted in M.Ya. Gefter (ed.), Golosa iz mira, kotorogo uzhe
net (Moscow 1995).
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portrayed the patriot as a good proletarian, a progressive, but the soldiers'


own version of the patriotic was likely to embrace love for home village,
family, language and even - for some - an informal nostalgia for peasant
religion. In fact, the term may well have meant no more than loyalty to what
was 'ours' at a time of great collective danger. This war had ways of igniting
collective emotion. 'It was a war of extermination', a former private soldier
recalled. 'It stirred up hatred, the thirst for revenge, finally ripening into a
cause, which would inspire the Red Army into furious battles over a four-year
period. The name of that cause was patriotism.'34
Patriotism, then, was shorthand for a range of sentiments that ideological
leaders might not have recognized (although they tried to harness them by
reviving the notion of a Russian, as opposed to Soviet, people). It stood for the
frenzy of volunteering in the summer of 1941, for example, but it also covered
the doomed persistence at Stalingrad, the relief of sharing favourite songs, and
the community of longing for one's home. 'Our people' and 'our country' did
not have to mean Stalin's empire, or even, for millions, Russia itself.
Thousands of letters make it clear that what each man was thinking of was his
own home, whether that were Kiev or Ashkhabad. And homesickness was not
merely nostalgia. Many of the men were thinking of invasion, of tanks pounding familiar streets, of their mothers, wives and children, of schoolfriends (and
school buildings) that they might never see again.
This love of home, of village, even of the smell of Russian earth, was not just
a matter for the articulate, for officers.3"Rank and file soldiers were as deeply
attached to their homes - as patriotic - as any communist. Their passion
was reflected in their tastes - the songs they favoured and the verse they loved
(the fable of private Tyorkin, full of sentimental references to birch trees and
open skies, was universally popular). It was also reflected in the doggerel verse
they wrote themselves - screeds of it, incorporating the stock images of
village, motherland, home, comradeship and struggle. The patriotism of the
front was not the dour stuff of later ceremonial. It was maudlin, desperate, a
way of clinging to the pre-war world that had been lost, a way of honouring
the friends who died. It was also enraged, bitter, driven by real images of outrage, cruelty and pain. As the men travelled west, it combined with a new
awareness of the size and beauty of the country for which they had been fighting. 'In the past', a tank man wrote, 'I knew Ukraine only from books; now I
can see it with my own eyes, the picturesque nature, lots of gardens.'36The
state made use of all of this, but that was only possible because reality was
vivid.
If love of country and a sense of outrage drove soldiers to volunteer and
34

GabrielTemkin,My Just War.The Memoirof a JewishRed ArmySoldierin WorldWarII

(Novato, CA 1998), 34.


35 A woman veteran told Alexiyevich that her comrades would crowd around anyone who
came from 'home' to smell their clothes. It was that smell, the smell of Russia, that brought back
the sharpest memories.
36 Snetkova, Pis'ma s fronta, op. cit., p. 91.
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warmed them as they rested after battle, what sustained them through
episodesof shock is anotherquestion.The momentof volunteering,and even
the last farewellsat home, were followed by just suchan interval.'You put on
a uniform',a veterantold me, 'and it is like a second skin. It is your new personality.'The processwas like losing an old self. Almostwithin a single day, a
new recruitlost not just his civilianclothesand lank civilianhair but also freedom, individuality,home comforts,home cooking and an entirelandscape,to
say nothingof familyand friends(and,for men, almostall contact,for a time,
with membersof the femalesex). Idealsalone were unlikelyto have sustained
many people through so profound a psychologicaland physical upheaval.
New kinds of motivationsoon took over, some of which reflectedthe coarser
social milieu to which each man had to adapt. A recruit'sletters home were
unlikelyto mentionthese, for letterswere a lifeline back to vanishedworlds.
But other evidence,includingreportson crime,suggeststhat what got recruits
through the first weeks was a combination of drink, comradeshipand the
comfort to be gained by stealing tiny marcheson the system, carving out a
niche,whetherthat meantpilferingfood, stealinga few hoursof illicit sleep or
arrangingto wear morecomfortable,non-regulation,boots.
These small pleasuresand little triumphswould continueto keep the men's
spiritsup throughoutthe war. So, too, did front-linehumour,though little is
known of it.37Crude, often racist, and subversivein that it puncturedthe
solemnityof patrioticwar, the men'shumouris absentfrom Sovietcollections
of front-line folklore. Lev Pushkarev,ethnographerand front-line veteran,
explainedto me that the secretpolice bannedhim from writing down men's
jokes. Ironically, the richest collections are often to be found in German
archives, where screeds of the antisemitic remarks and jibes reported by
capturedRed Armymen were cataloguedfor later use.38Censored,approved
humour featuredin the Russianpress, but the jokes that helped troops with
their daily lives went unrecorded.To some extent, the taboo arose from
the languageof the jokes itself, the patois of obscenitythat Russianscall mat,
or mother.Jokes were also intimate,things of the momentand the group of
mates that could not be shared with outsiders. Above all, however, they
reflectedthe men's real world, the one that everyonehas been turningto epic
or romanticfable eversince.
Songswerea differentmatter,andthe textsof manyfavouritessurvive.Again,
the written versionsare innocentof obscenity,a fact that Krupyanskaya,the
wartime ethnographer,later explainedwhen she revealedthat she had been
forbiddento publishthe wordsto any song that lackeda patriotictheme.39
As a
37 One respondent, the veteran ethnographer Lev Pushkarev, informed me that his own attempt
to collect his comrades' jokes at the front line had been quashed by the Special Section, the military police, who permitted songs to be recorded but not humour. On these aspects of soldiers' culture, see my Ivan's War. The Red Army, 1939-45 (London 2005), chap. 6.
38 For examples, see Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv, RH2-2468, 6-7, 27.
39 Ya. I. Gudoshnikov, Russkie narodnye pesny i chastushki velikoi otechestevnnoi voiny
(Tambov 1997), 5.
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result, large numbers of lyrics have disappeared, although the ones that survive
suggest that the propagandists remained hard at work. Catchphrases, songs
and slogans, even when they seemed to belong to the soldiers themselves, could
interact with ideology, and sometimes it was ideology that won. Propagandists
supplied words to the jolliest tunes, they wrote slogans, and they also encouraged the use of a famous battle cry. The veterans I met were all amused by
today's confusion over that roar: 'For the Motherland! For Stalin!' Some
claimed that they had never used the phrase. 'We may have shouted something',
a member of a punishment battalion commented, 'but I doubt if it was that
polite.' The writer Vasil Bykov pointed out that officers and police spies were
usually too far behind the front line to hear what words the men shouted.40By
far the most common, as even the Germans attested, was the drawn-out and
blood-curdling 'Urrah!'. Nonetheless, frightened riflemen needed encouragement, and a collective battle cry was potent, making them feel part of a mass,
more powerful (and less vulnerable) than any group of individuals. When they
used the Stalinist battle cry, the men probably did so in much the same way as
they moved their limbs in unison rather than dragging behind. The sound, and
not the meaning, gave the words their power. But it was also through repetition
like this (and through hundreds of songs) that Stalin acquired the almost sacred
aura with which some soldiers later imbued him.
Official language and official images became important, then, partly because
they served a purpose when people sought things to say and believe in collectively. This observation ought to modify van Creveld's claim, based on
American soldiers, that ideology must be an irrelevance in soldiers' lives,
slipping away like water off a duck's back.41The ideology of patriotic war,
informally, became a part of daily life, explaining and even hallowing the
progress that Red Army soldiers made. Thousands of troops joined the
Communist Party as their faith in victory grew stronger. In other societies,
religion might have played a comparable role, but, with the exception of some
Muslims from Central Asia and some of the recruits from Poland, Western
Ukraine and Western Belorussia, there was little formal religious belief among
Soviet troops. The Komsomol had seen to that, as had the widespread anticlericalism of the 1920s. Totems and protective rituals deriving from religion
were another matter. Soviet troops were as likely to carry a dog-eared photograph or a copy of Simonov's poem 'Wait for Me' as a tin cross.
Though beliefs varied, all soldiers shared some measure of fear. The NKVD
soldier with his pistol, shooting stragglers in the back, is an abiding image of
this war.42Fear began well before a man's first battle. Many soldiers joined up
because the alternative - a labour battalion - was so much worse than army
service.43You could be worked to death on a construction site, and all the time
40 Vasil Bykov, 'Za Rodinu! Za Stalina!', Rodina, 5 (1995), 30-7.
41 M. van Creveld, Fighting Power (London 1983), 83.
42 It is the opening sequence, for example, in the recent film of Stalingrad, starring Jude Law,
Enemy at the Gates.
43 A testimonial to this - another diary - was reprinted in Rodina, 6-7 (1991) ('My - obuza,
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you riskedthe knivesand fists of the professionalcriminalswho reallyran the


camps.'At least when we got to the front',a formerconvicttold me, 'we knew
which direction the bullets would be coming from.' Most, they expected,
would issue from the guns ahead. Their own police would only shoot the
hindmost.But 'blockingunits',the specialbattalionswhose guns were trained
on their own fellow-Soviets,were used along the front from 1941. The
penaltyfor cowardicewas death, and brutalmethodswere employedto make
men fight and keep them in the field. Stalin'sfamous orderno. 227, 'Not a
StepBack',merelyreiteratedregulationsthat were alreadyin force.
The point was that they needed repetition.Fear of their officers was not
enoughto makeRed Armysoldiersfight. At least untilthe end of 1942, fearof
the NKVD was balancedby the fear of certaindeath at the front line. Poor
trainingand scant faith in possible successallowed for panic, and sometimes
the officersthemselvescould be the firstto turn and run.More decently,many
withdrew and watched proceedingsfrom the safety of a moving - and
retreating- vehicle.44The men had so little faith in such commandersthat
most fearedGermanbulletsmore. They also fearedfor theirhomes, knowing
that theirown familieswere in dangerwhile they sat rottingin the woods. This
kind of fear drove thousandsto pick up their packs and walk. Desertions
continuedwell into 1943. It was only after Kursk,when the Red Army was
advancingrapidlyto victory,that the numberswould dropto a few hundreda
month and '1943 partisans',the stragglerswho had held out in the woods for
months, emergedto offertheirsupportto the side that seemedset to win.
Fearwas only partiallyeffective,then, and it was also double-edgedbecause
soldiers themselveswere armed. The hated agents of their state were often
the first to catch the bulletsin the field. 'Oh yes', a formerofficertold me. 'It
happenedquite often. You had to win the friendshipof the men, or else you
would not know whichway they would shoot.' An armyin this mood, as even
Stalin realized,would scarcelywin a war. In 1941, the leader orderedthat
'persuasion,not fear' was neededto keep soldiersin the field.45Frederickthe
Great'smaxim- cited by Hew Strachanin this issue- that a soldiershould
be 'more afraidof his officersthan of the dangersto which he was exposed'
was an irrelevancein the battlefieldconditionsof Stalin'swar.46Laterin the
war, too, officers (many of whom had been promotedfrom the ranks) and
men, by now much better-trainedand seasonedin the field, formedclose comradeshipsbasedon sharedexperienceand a sensethat they were now set apart
from the civilianworld.
Outragecomes closer to explainingthe men's enduranceand their victory.
In the first months, after all, despairwas common. Some mutteredthat one
my - vragi'), 66-9. See also V. Astaf'ev, Proklyaty i ubyti (reprinted Moscow 2002), whose early
chapters recreate the labour battalion in literary form.
44 Tsentr dokumentatsii noveishei istorii Smolenskoi oblasti (TsDNISO), 8/1/212, 4.
45 Velikaya otechestvennaya, vol. 2, part 2, 108-9.
46 Hew Strachan cited in E. Colby, Masters of Mobile Warfare (Princeton, NJ 1943), 83.
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dictatorshipwas very like another.47Surrenderwas better, it was felt, than


death. But the Wehrmachtitself destroyedthis mood. 'However much they
write in the papersabout atrocities',a Ukrainianofficerwrote to his wife, 'the
realityis muchworse. I've seen the burned-outtowns and villages,the corpses
of women and children.The spiritof those places has affectedme, and it has
grown in all our soldiers.'48The Soviet authoritiesnurturedthe mood, and
Ehrenburgwould becomethe apostleof hatred,enjoiningmen to kill and kill
again. Most armiesuse hatredin one way or another, but in this case there
were abundantreservesupon which to draw.The Germanarmytook so many
prisonersthat many - tens of thousands- would escape. The makeshift
camps were simply too crude to contain thousands of men. Those who
escapedtold storiesthat would chill the blood. One refugeereportedthat the
populationof his prisoncamp had fallenfrom about 80,000 in the summerof
1941 to 3000 the following spring.The rest had died of hunger,cold, disease
or from the torture and baiting of their captors. Twelve had been shot for
cannibalismin a single week.49'If the Germanstreatedour prisonerswell', a
Sovietcolonel told AlexanderWerthin 1942, 'it would soon be known. It's a
horriblething to say, but by ill-treatingand starvingour prisonersto death,
the Germansare helpingus.'S0
The balancebetweenpatriotismand vengeancetipped in 1944. As the Red
Army drew close to its own border,many soldiersbegan to mutterthat their
job was done. The spur that Stalin used to force them on was hatred, the
need 'to destroythe beast in his own lair'.s1Vengeance,they were told, was
theirs, and the word echoes in the lettersof 1945, letterswrittenas the army
crossedonto Prussiansoil. 'Happyis the heartas you drivethrougha burning
German town', one man wrote to his parents. 'We are taking revenge for
everything,and our revengeis just. Fire for fire, blood for blood, death for
death.'52

Violence,indeed,would soon becomean end in itself. Therewas no shortage of men in the Red Armywhose lives had been markedby state violence,
whose consciousnesswas formedin the brutalityof civil war. Germanatrocities on Sovietsoil compoundedimagesthat had been part of life for 20 years.
A kind of wild amoralityprevailedalong the front, especiallyamongthe huge
numbersconscriptedin the last year of the war. Most of these came from
regionsthat had survivednot just Germanoccupationbut also the horrorsof
Sovietinvasionback in 1939. Theserecruitshad learnedhow to survivein an
anarchic,brutal world. Many had little reason to love Stalin, let alone his
party. But vengeance,and personalsurvival,were high on theirlist of private
47
48
49
50
51
52

Knyshevskii,op.cit., 184.
RGASPI-M,33/1/360, 3-8.
RGASPI,17/125/169, 5-8.
A. Werth,Russiaat War(New York 1964; reprinted2002), 422.
This themebecamethe leitmotivof Stalin'sspeechesfrom 1 May 1944.
RH2-2688, 12.
Capturedfieldpost, Bundesarchiv-Militararchiv,
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goals. Even the Sovinformburowas shocked by the stories from Romaniain


1944,1"and thesewere just a preludeto the rampagein the north.54
Fastidiouspatriotsbeganto expressmisgivings.'Thesoldierof 1941 fought
for his land, he was defendinghis own soil', Samoilovwrote.'Itwas enoughfor
him to know just this, and that knowledgeitself made him strong.'Unfortunately, as Samoilovalso observed,'therecannot be a humanewar.' The rot set
in, he added,when the war of self-defencebecamea war of aggression."Like
manyothers,he was nostalgicfor Stalingrad.Backthen,Soviettroopshad been
fighting a true, just war. Now they seemed capable of outragesthat looked
uncannily like those that their enemy had perpetratedin 1941. They also
seemedfar too keen to amasspersonalwealth. The wristwatchesand bicycles
and schnappsthat brightenedthe road towards Berlinare well-documented,
but in fact looting, andprivategain in general,had featuredwhile the armywas
on Sovietsoil. Hundredsof tons of goods went missingeveryyear, from army
food suppliesto livestock,home-brewedalcohol, blackmarketguns and even
boots.56Aftertwo decadesof Sovietpoverty,afterthe enforcedcollectivization
of agriculture,the chance to amass real wealth, and also to make sense of
miserablearmylife by turningit to advantage,was too attractiveto resist.
When it cameto the heat of battle,however,the prospectof booty was more
likely to divert a man's attentionthan to keep him in the field, just as some
army transportsmeant for stocks of shells were hijackedto take food and
featherduvetshome. The secretof Ivan'sresiliencein the field surelylies somewhere else. Adrenalinapart,three things- training,friendshipand pride seem to have helped the men to get throughreal fire. A fourth, the fatalism
that comes from having no alternative,was bolstered by reservesof black
humour. Meanwhile,appallingmortalityrates disguisedthe numberof psychological casualties, making it difficult to assess how many reached their
breakingpoint despiteall this, and for what reasons.
The effects of trainingwere clear from the autumnof 1942. First came a
reshuffleamong the militaryleadershipthat saw the removalof incompetents
like KlimentVoroshilovand the poisonous Lev Mekhlis.Thenceforth,leaders
whose backgroundwas in war, not politics, began to analyse the men's
conduct.Theynoted the weak liaisonbetweenthe infantry,artilleryand tanks.
They noted the poor state of militaryintelligence.They noted, above all, the
lack of disciplinethat led to randomfire, wastage of shells, and panic on the
battlefield."5
Habits that dated from the civil war were quietly abandoned.
More emphasiswould now be placedon drill and less on comic-stripheroics.
Wherea man's class or social originhad definedhim before,the armystarted
emphasizing skill. Orders to improve training, and especially the tactical
RGASPI, 17/125/241, 91-5.
For an eyewitness account, see Lev Kopelev, No Jail for Thought (London 1977).
Samoilov, op. cit., part II, Avrora, no. 3 (1990), 81.
These issues are explored in my Ivan's War, op. cit. The main sources include the army's own
reports in Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (2).
57 TsAMO, 1128/1/4, 61.
53
54
55
56

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preparationof infantrymen,streamedfrom the GeneralStaff.s8As the correspondent of the soldiers'paper Red Star put it that autumn:'Nothing in the
Soviet land will sustain an ignorant or unskilled leader - not personal
courage,not honoursfrom the past.' The time for 'conservatism'was over."s
Hard economicfact would underscorethe changeof mood. In the summer
of 1942, the Soviets'capacityto turn out weapons, shellsand tanks recovered
after monthsof dislocation.So many factorieshad been destroyedin the first
weeks of war that the revivalof manufacturingseemedlike a miracle.Tanks
and aeroplanessoon cameto symbolizethe Sovietrecovery,with Chelyabinsk,
the new manufacturingcentrein the Urals,earningthe nicknameTankograd.
Mass-productionacceleratedeverything.Manufactureof the world-beating
T-34 mediumtank, for instance, was adapted so that the turretscould be
stamped, not cast. Troops soon dubbed it the 'matchbox',partly becauseit
caughtfire all too readily,but also becauseT-34s pouredoff productionlines
in such prolific numbers after 1942.60Meanwhile, lend-lease military aid,
principallyfromthe USA, beganto make a crucialdifferenceto the supplyof
weapons, aeroplanesand food.61
Bettertrainingand supplywere backedup by a new emphasison hierarchy
and appearance.On 30 August 1942, a campaignbegan to get the soldiers'
boots mendedand polished, to inspect officers'uniforms,eliminatedirt, and
The men themselves were set to cobbling
drill the ranks in self-respect.62
leathersoles and sewing seams. Armiesof women scrubbedand launderedin
makeshift wash-houses near the front. 'Nina, don't worry about our uniforms', an officer wrote to his wife just before Stalingrad.'We dress better
these days than any commanderfrom the capitalist countries.'63They also
boasted new ordersto distinguishthe brave.Elevenmillion decorationswere
awardedto membersof the Soviet militarybetween 1941 and 1945. By contrast, the USAawardedonly 1,400,409.64The US army often took as long as
six monthsto processindividualawards.In Stalin'sarmy the equivalentwas
frequentlythreedays.6 Most medalsentitledtheir bearersto additionalprivileges, and some, in theory,allowedmen'sfamiliesto receiveextra food.
Front-linefriendshipswere even more vital than pride or recognition.The
literatureon wartime 'buddies'in armiesacross the world is voluminous.In
otherwars,men seemto fightout of a kind of love.66Whatevergot themto the
58 For examples, see Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (2), 281-3 and 318-20.
59 TsAMO, 206/298/4, 6. For more on the play, see also Werth, op. cit., 423-6.
60 Temkin, op. cit., 137; Werth, op. cit., 622.
61 See Richard Overy, Russia's War (London 1999), 195.
62 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (2), 287.
63 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 36.
64 Garthoff, op. cit., 249.
65 Van Creveld, op. cit., 112; RGASPI, 17/125/78, 123.
66 Among the earliest offerings are Samuel Stouffer et al., The American Soldier. Combat and
its Aftermath (Princeton, NJ 1949); S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire. The Problem of Battle
Command in Future War (New York 1947); and Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz, 'Cohesion
and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II', Public Opinion Quarterly, 12, 2 (1948).
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front in the first place, fear of disgracing themselves or of betraying their frontline companions becomes the primary motive for some soldiers' efforts. In the
Soviet case, the argument is problematical. True, Red Army policy on replacements was more thoughtful than its American equivalent at this time, for
units were withdrawn for retraining and replenishment, not filled piecemeal
with individual recruits, but the rate of turnover was so rapid that many
soldiers scarcely had the time to make close friends. At Stalingrad, average life
expectancy would drop to a mere 24 hours in the winter of 1942. Relationships were hardly sure before they shattered for ever. Some that survived were
overshadowed by the attentions of spies and informers, the dreaded ears and
eyes of SMERSh. 'The fear of SMERSh truly cemented relations at the front
for a time', Samoilov wrote. 'But in the end it corrupted our strong sense of
being a people facing invasion together.' As he added, 'We almost never knew
who the SMERSh informers were among us.'67
The veterans discount each of these points. 'It does not take long', they say.
They would seek out and learn the qualities of their mates in hours, not days,
especially under pressure. Technology also dictated certain kinds of trust; for a
tank or air crew, jammed together in a confined space and destined, if one
failed, to die together, learned mutual dependence rapidly. Aside from these,
the strongest friendships were often between people from the same locality,
and the arrival of a 'countryman', someone from a man's own region, was
often the occasion for long conversations, the exchange of news. Meanwhile,
the power of front-line loyalties endured and even strengthened in the midst of
death. Blood cried for vengeance, and rendered each man's cause more sacred.
The love that soldiers felt for their fallen friends was often the strongest of all,
and some even returned after the war to marry fallen comrades' sisters or
become honorary sons in their lost buddies' homes.68
Pride, finally, grew with successive victories. In the 1930s, Soviet citizens
had learned to avoid responsibility, to follow crowds. By 1943, combatants
knew their lives depended on their training and personal skill. Those who
survived would discover a different sense of self. 'We looked in our hearts',
one writer remembered, 'and did not find slaves there.' Lads from the villages
were no longer peasants. To the people they would liberate, indeed, at least on
Russian soil, they were heroes. By 1945, such combatants would feel that they
had earned the right to comment on government policy and even to advise
their leaders. The fires of Stalingrad gave birth to a sense of citizenship that
even postwar levels of repression took several years to kill.
The new sense of self-worth came at a price. Quite apart from the millions
who died, few soldiers escaped physical injury, and many also carried psychological wounds. Far from growing confident about their manly strength, Red
Army men noted the toll that war had taken - grey hair, disfigurement, aches
67 Samoilov,Avrora,vol. 2, 1990, 67.
68 Examplesof each of these areto be foundin soldiers'lettersand memoirs.See,for example,
RGASPI-M,33/1/261, 33-8.
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Merridale:
Culture,
Ideologyand Combatin the RedArmy

323

and pains. 'Perhaps you will not recognize me', was a common anxiety as they
wrote to their wives, although in general women at home had aged no less
during the war. Apathy, which diarists recorded but could not explain,69was
frequently a sign of exhaustion and battle stress. Those who fell ill without a
clearly physical cause, however, were likely to find little help. Red Army
doctors gave trauma and battle stress short shrift throughout the war, and
patients who did not recover from disabling symptoms often underwent punitive tests, including simulated drowning, before they were sent for treatment.
It is estimated that about 100,000 of the Red Army's active service troops
eventually became permanent casualities of the mind, a figure so low that it
suggests that only acute mental illnesses like schizophrenia were recognized as
disabling.70
The general exhaustion of most veterans played into the hands of a regime
staffed by people who had stayed at home. 'The most painful thing', commented the nationalist writer Victor Astafev, 'was the realization that, because
we were exhausted by the war, because of the strain of the postwar years, we
were not going to be able to maintain the high level of moral development that
we had achieved during the war, and which we had created for ourselves.'71He
might have added that this high moral development was anyway a sham, since
crime, alcoholism and domestic violence would all reach record levels in the
shadow of the war. Ivan was not a superman. Some soldiers were heroes, most
made the best of war, but large numbers were wracked by memories of
violence and many never shed their brutal sense of the life and death.
In other words, Ivan was human. The Germans could not believe it, shivering in their own dugouts, but Soviet soldiers felt the cold like everyone else,
suffered when they were hungry and grieved for their dead friends. They
always had done, even when that seventeenth-century Englishman had first
observed them. The cold he noticed, that made the Germans swear and long
for Paris and Berlin, was no easier for Russians, but it was at least the cold
of home. The crucial element in almost every war in which Ivan showed the
qualities that outsiders would admire was self-defence. On his own soil, he
fought with a tenacity that invaders, so far from all that was familiar, could
only fear. It was not some exceptional national characteristic that turned Ivan
into a fighter. Eventually, again despite German beliefs, the quality of his
training played a part. But through it all, the main impulse that kept him in the
field was the emergency itself. He may explain it in more epic ways, drawn
from his culture and times, but in the end, he simply had no choice.
It takes an effort to get beyond the enduring legend of Ivan, but there is
much to find. It is not present in the ceremonial and banqueting of today's
69 'Belov', 12 December 1943, 464.
70 The figure is cited in Richard A. Gabriel, Soviet Military Psychiatry (Westport, CT 1986),
47, and compares with 36-9 per thousand in the US army at the same time. As Simon Wessely
pointed out to me, the likelihood is that Soviet doctors were recognizing adult-onset schizophrenia
in youths recruited before the symptoms appeared.
71 Cited in C. Merridale, Night of Stone (London 2000), 316.
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324

of Contemporary
Journal
HistoryVol41 No 2

dignitariesand town councillors.It is more likely to be found in the silenceof


the old men as they gather at their battle sites each year. 'They don't talk
much', the woman who looks after the monumentat Prokhorovkatold me.
'Sometimesthey just stand and weep.' For that, for their very ordinariness,
these old people commandrespect.If their bloodcurdlingstories seem incongruous on elderlylips, if they have lived a seriesof morepeacefullives, raised
children,chosen new careers;if they have now retiredto sit and chatterover
cups of tea, that, too, is a kind of triumph.
CatherineMerridale
is Professorof ContemporaryHistoryat QueenMary College,
Universityof London.She specializesin Russiansocial and cultural
historyand has a particularinterestin the historyof violence,trauma
and memory.Her most recentpublicationis Ivan's War.The Red
Army, 1939-45 (London2005).

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