By early 1942, the Soviet Union appeared done for. Over 2 million Red Army soldiers were dead and another 2.5 million had been captured. (In the Battle Kiev alone 700,000 Soviet troops had been taken captive.) Its air force lay crippled after hundreds of warplanes were destroyed in the war’s opening days. Just under half the nation’s population suffered behind enemy lines. Of the USSR’s largest cities, Kiev and Minsk were in German hands, Leningrad was besieged and starving while the capital Moscow clung to dear life. All that stood in the way of a complete and crushing Nazi victory were the poorly trained, poorly led and poorly equipped remnants of the Red Army. But in less than four years, the USSR would rebuild its military two and half times over, drive out the invading Germans and plant the Soviet flag a top the ruins of a conquered Berlin.
How the USSR went from being on the ropes to the master of continental Europe is one of the most amazing stories of the 20th century. While there’s no shortage of history books that examine this titanic conflict, there aren’t many that tell this story from the perspective of the very men and women who did the fighting. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Catherine Merridale’s 2006 book Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 so much. When it comes to writing about WWII – or any war for that matter – it’s impossible to do so without incorporating the big picture world of generals, politics, strategy and massive troop movements. While one can find all of that in Merridale’s book, Ivan’s War is about those on the ground who did the fighting, as well as the dying. This book recalls their love affairs, ethnic rivalries, fears of Stalinist oppression, heroic deeds and even criminal activities.
Ivan’s War is a very good book. Despite (or maybe because of its) scope and depth it never feels slow and tiresome. If you’re a World War II fan, this book is for you. It also makes a great companion to Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain in addition to Willy Peter Reese’s A Stranger to Myself. It’s inspired me to read a pair of books that have been languishing in my personal library for the last two years or so, namely Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat. Maybe now I will.