The Real Patriotic War

Once, during the 1980s, I visited the fortress of the city of Brest. Brest is now in Belarus, just east of the Polish border, but at that time Brest was a Soviet city, and its fortress was the city’s most important shrine to Soviet power. The entrance led through a vast slab of stone, into which had been cut an enormous Soviet star. Inside, the visitor’s eye was immediately directed to a vast, sorrowful human head, carved straight into an outcropping of rock. Ubiquitous loudspeakers piped funereal music throughout the fortress museum, which contained displays commemorating the Soviet heroes of the Nazi siege of Brest, as well as the subsequent Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. In front of an outdoor eternal flame, newlyweds held hands and solemnly laid wreaths, as was then the custom.

The scene was impressive, as it was meant to be. Yet there was something not quite right about it either. After all, until the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, Brest had been a Polish city, not part of the USSR at all. In June 1941, when the Germans invaded, the city’s Soviet identity would have still been pretty tenuous. More to the point, the Nazi siege of Brest, while tragic for those who fought and died within the fortress walls, was not in fact an important battle. It was an early sideshow, a minor distraction from the otherwise decisive initial Nazi rout of the Red Army.

The truth is that the Brest fortress monument, sculpture, music, and all, was designed not so much to commemorate a significant military event, but more to remind everyone in the vicinity of the city after the war who was boss. The Poles had been expelled, Soviet commissars had taken their places, and Brest now belonged to the Soviet Republic of Belarus. In this narrow sense, the Brest fortress is much like many other Soviet war monuments: although grandiose and impressive, and although certainly reflective of the scale of wartime suffering, they don’t always tell the whole truth about the Soviet experience of war.

But that, of course, could be said not only of Soviet monuments to the war, but of Soviet books about the war, Soviet films about the war, and Soviet anniversary commemorations of the war. Until the 1990s, the official Soviet histories of what was always called the Great Patriotic War were riddled with taboos. That Stalin helped start the war, by agreeing to divide Poland and the Baltic States with Hitler in 1939; that the Red Army was shocked and unprepared when Hitler attacked in 1941; that Soviet strategists deployed infantry as cannon fodder, unnecessarily sacrificing hundreds of thousands of men; that ordinary foot soldiers had little to eat, inadequate clothing, and, for many, short, brutal lives; that the Red Army in occupied Germany looted, murdered civilians, and raped women at will; none of this was part of the official record.

In recent years, some Western and Russian historians—Antony Beevor, Richard Overy, Constantine Pleshakov—have started to rewrite that record. Using new archival sources, they have begun to reveal the cruelty and the mistakes that were as much a part of the Soviet war experience as heroism. In Ivan’s War, the British historian Catherine Merridale now addresses what may be the most complicated piece of the Great Patriotic War mythology: the character of the ordinary Soviet soldiers—the “Ivans,” as the British and the Americans called them—themselves.

In order to do so, Merridale had to overcome two sets of stereotypes, and to think her way through two layers of propaganda. The first is her own, or rather our own: Western popular and official perceptions of the “semi-Asiatic” Soviet soldier who, according to a pamphlet prepared by the US Department of the Army in 1950, “is subject to moods which to a westerner are incomprehensible; he acts by instinct. As a soldier, the Russian is primitive and unassuming, innately brave but morosely passive when in a group….”

In fact, far from being an undifferentiated “semi-Asiatic” mass, the Red Army was ethnically diverse, containing Yakuts and Kazakhs as well as Russians and Ukrainians. Most of the soldiers were young men, but patriotic fervor and the demand for troops was so great that older men, some of whom had served in the tsar’s army, fought too. Among the soldiers were the country’s least educated men, but also its best educated: everyone took part.

Much more difficult to overcome, especially in a book which relies heavily on interviews, are the soldiers’ stereotypes about themselves. Soviet poets and writers portrayed the Red Army soldier as simple and healthy, untroubled by trauma or fear. He did not panic, he did not make mistakes, and he did not gang-rape the women of the lands he liberated. He did not even use bad language. Indeed, when trying to find authentic versions—including satirical, obscene, or subversive versions—of the songs and chants that Red Army soldiers had actually sung, Merridale ran into a wall, even when she consulted the work of ethnographers who had studied the army during the war: “No one allowed a folklorist to collect disrespectful versions of the army’s songs.”

But with extraordinary patience and a wonderful ear for nuance, Merridale picks through the minefields laid for her by sixty years of Soviet propaganda and produces what may be the best historical portrait of life in the Red Army yet published. She explores previously unmentionable subjects such as the role of the hated political officers, whose job it was to hang around behind the front lines, listen in on conversations, and make sure nobody shirked, panicked, or deviated from the Party line—and also explains how their influence waned after the Soviet leadership realized it would take military expertise, not ideological purity, to win the war. (They didn’t disappear altogether; in 1945, censors were still able to intercept a letter from Alexander Solzhenitsyn criticizing the regime that was enough to get him sent to the Gulag.)

She examines the bitter national and racial tensions that divided the supposedly “internationalist” Red Army. She catalogs the bad food, shoddy clothing, and mistreatment that were an ordinary private’s lot. She describes the mixed feelings that peasants from impoverished northern Russia or survivors of the Ukrainian famine experienced when they entered Germany (or even Romania and Poland) and realized that the bourgeois countries they had been taught to scorn were incomparably wealthier than their own. “We wept when we saw the houses,” one man told her. “Such pretty houses, small, and all of them painted white.”

She also grapples with the strange relationship between the inspiring propaganda and the brutal reality of soldiers’ lives. One of the hallmarks of Merridale’s previous writing, especially her ambitious book Night of Stone, a history of Russian death rituals, is her ability to understand and convey both the positive as well as the more obvious negative ways in which that ideology affected Soviet citizens. In the course of writing that earlier book, she came to the conclusion, among other things, that the Soviet sense of common purpose and collectivism helped Soviet citizens psychologically endure the multiple tragedies of twentieth-century Soviet history, even when they knew it was based on lies. She makes a similar argument in Ivan’s War, pointing out that that old propaganda image of a “good” soldier—that “combination of patriotism and manliness (a word much used in wartime poetry), loyalty to the collective, and professional skill”—gave soldiers the confidence to fight, even impelled them to acts of heroism.

Years later, it also helped them to live with awful things they had seen. In the epilogue to Ivan’s War, Merridale describes an encounter she had with a group of veterans in Kursk. These were men who had lost their youth, their health, their friends and families in the war. In recent years, their once-generous pensions had been eaten up by inflation, and the system they fought for had collapsed. Yet when they spoke of the war years, she found that “rather than trying to relive the grimmest scenes of war, they tended to adopt the language of the vanished Soviet state, talking about honor and pride, of justified revenge, of motherland, Stalin, and the absolute necessity of faith.” This, she explains, is understandable:

Back then, during the war, it would have been easy enough to break down, to feel the depth of every horror, but it would also have been fatal. The path to survival lay in stoical acceptance, a focus on the job at hand. The men’s vocabulary was businesslike and optimistic, for anything else might have induced despair. Sixty years later, it would have been easy again to play for sympathy or simply to command attention by telling bloodcurdling tales. But that, for these people, would have amounted to a betrayal of the values that have been their collective pride, their way of life.

This argument will certainly seem counterintuitive to Western readers. Soviet soldiers had, as Merridale amply demonstrates, many reasons to dislike their political system and its leadership. Many came from parts of the country which had recently experienced collectivization or mass arrests. Many knew firsthand how unprepared the Red Army had been for the initial invasion. Many could see the evidence of bad management all around them, and were horrified by the brutality of the occupation of Germany. Some would be marked by the war forever. Solzhenitsyn himself turned the horror he felt watching the behavior of his fellow soldiers in East Prussia into an epic poem:

A moaning by the walls half muffled:
The mother’s wounded, still alive.
The little daughter’s on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it?
A platoon, a company perhaps?
A girl’s been turned into a woman,
A woman turned into a corpse.

Yet Merridale’s observation that many veterans not only maintained their faith in Communist ideology but also derived psychological benefits from doing so is certainly justified, both by her interviews and by the writings of soldiers at the time. It is even justified by the writings of the most famously frank, honest, and by the end of his life anti-Stalinist of the Soviet war correspondents, Vasily Grossman.

Grossman is probably best known outside Russia for his epic novel Life and Fate, a sweeping, almost Tolstoyan account of several Russian families’ varying experiences of the war (and a wonderful example of what social realism could have been like if it had just been realism, without the social part and without the censorship). But Grossman was equally well known in his lifetime for his front-line reporting. Already a published novelist when the war broke out, Grossman was invited to report on the war for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) the official newspaper of the Red Army. He became justifiably famous for descriptions of the “Ivans,” about whom he also wrote a much-loved novel, The People Immortal, a celebration of the heroism of ordinary Red Army soldiers.

But strictly for his own purposes, Grossman also chronicled the war in an extraordinary set of notebooks, whose preservation, in a Moscow archive, has been an open secret for some time. The British historian Antony Beevor first read them while doing research for his book on the Battle of Stalingrad, which Grossman had witnessed at first hand. Marveling at the “extraordinary accumulation of detail,” he obtained permission from Grossman’s family to translate and edit the notebooks—which had never been published before—with the help of his longtime research assistant, the talented Luba Vinogradova.

The result, A Writer at War, is a collection of spectacularly honest accounts of soldiers’ lives during wartime, written by a man who was extraordinarily brave or extraordinarily naive, or perhaps both. Soldiers were absolutely forbidden to keep diaries at the front, and people were jailed for even discussing many of the things Grossman describes, let alone writing them down. Yet because Grossman writes as if he had no idea such things were controversial, the notebooks make the perfect antidote to the Brest fortress, the censored histories, and the accumulated decades of propaganda. Think, for example, of the stiff, ranting language used about traitors and enemies in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and then read Grossman’s not entirely unsympathetic account of a deserter—a “young peasant with bright blue eyes”—being interrogated by the colonel of his former regiment:

He isn’t a human being any more, all his movements, his grin, his glances, his noisy, greedy breathing—all that belongs to a creature that senses a close and imminent death.

Or compare Grossman’s description of the fall of Berlin to the wooden, one-sided official accounts and the cinematic, patriotic photographs of that day that were published afterward:

2 May. The Day of Berlin’s capitulation. It’s difficult to describe it. A monstrous concentration of impressions. Fires and fires, smoke, smoke, smoke….

Corpses squashed by tanks, squeezed out like tubes. Almost all of them are clutching grenades and sub-machine guns in their hands….

A dead old woman is half sitting on a mattress by a front door, leaning her face against the wall. There’s an expression of calm and sorrow on her face, she has died with this grief. A child’s little legs in shoes and stockings are lying in the mud. It was a shell, apparently, or else a tank has run over her….

Grossman’s most personally wrenching experiences of the war were not at the front line, but rather during his visits to Treblinka, to the remains of the Warsaw ghetto, and above all to the killing grounds of Berdichev, a Ukrainian town whose Nazi occupiers had murdered between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews—among them Grossman’s mother. For the rest of his life, he was tormented with guilt about her death. Like one of the main characters in Life and Fate, he had delayed asking her to leave Berdichev for Moscow when it became clear that the city was going to fall to the Germans, in part because of objections from his wife, who feared crowding in their small apartment. He channeled some of that regret into a project that later became known as The Black Book—a highly detailed, factual account of the fate of the Soviet Union’s Jews under Nazi occupation. But although written in collaboration with the Soviet Union’s other great war correspondent, Ilya Ehrenburg, The Black Book was suppressed after the war, both because Stalin preferred the nation to remember Hitler’s victims as Soviet citizens, not as Jews, and because Grossman and Ehrenburg described examples of Ukrainian and other Soviet collaboration in the Holocaust, a subject which remained taboo until the 1990s.

For Grossman, the ending was not happy. Partly as a result of The Black Book, and partly thanks to some scenes in Life and Fate which were openly critical of Stalin and Stalinism, Grossman lost his official standing. Neither book was published in his lifetime, and neither appeared in Russian at all until the 1990s. He died in deep poverty in 1964, believing that his greatest work would never appear in print. That royalties from A Writer at War will go to his remaining family is a small compensation.

Yet despite his disillusion with Stalinism, his troubles with the authorities, and his battles with censors, it is nevertheless true that Grossman maintained in his published articles, as well as in his private notebooks, some authentic allegiance to Soviet ideals, or at least allegiance to the ideal of the good and brave Red Army soldiers. Indeed, optimistic, upbeat anecdotes about individual soldiers are scattered throughout the notebooks, lightening up the otherwise gloomy tales of blood and gore. Early on in the war, amid the terrible destruction being wrought by the Nazi invaders, Grossman found hope and inspiration in the story of one commander who, though retreating in the face of an overwhelming Nazi attack, “looked at the grey, tired faces of his reconnaissance men, looked at the grey houses of the village, so defenceless and small, looked at the incessant flow of German troops,” and nevertheless scribbled a note for the invaders to find: “You’ll never see Moscow! The day will come when we will ask you: ‘How many kilometers to Berlin?'”

Later, Grossman referred to the Stalingrad trenches—a place of death, cold and starvation—as a “new city which gives its people a triumphant freedom,” a place where one meets “hundreds of men wearing quilted jackets, greatcoats, ushanka hats, doing the sleepless labor of war…. They are so majestic and matter-of-fact in their heroism.”

And later still, as the war came to a close, Grossman reflected back on what he had seen:

…Suddenly on this spring morning by the Oder, I remembered how in that iron winter of 1942, in a severe January snowstorm, on a night which was crimson from the flames of a village which Germans had set fire, a horse driver muffled in a sheepskin coat shouted suddenly, “Hey, comrades, where’s the road to Berlin?”… I wonder if this joker, who had asked the way to Berlin near Balakleya, is still alive? And what about those who laughed at his question three years ago? And I wanted to shout, to call to all our brothers, our soldiers, who are lying in the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Polish earth, who sleep for ever on the fields of our battles: “Comrades, can you hear us? We’ve done it!”

There is certainly a contradiction here. Grossman’s notebooks reveal, beyond any doubt, that their author understood the war propaganda was false. And at some level, everyone knew it was false, both at the time and later on as well. Yet, as the notebooks also reveal, it had a strange appeal. Although the Communist regime manipulated its veterans for its own political ends, although it twisted their experiences beyond recognition, although it forbade them even to discuss the most traumatic moments of their lives, that same regime’s insistence that the war had been fought for an exalted cause helped some veterans give their suffering meaning.

If nothing else, old soldiers could comfort themselves for the rest of their lives with the thought that their fallen brothers and comrades—the men who “sleep for ever on the fields of our battles”—had achieved something worthwhile. They had prevented the country from falling under Nazi rule. One of Grossman’s daughters described in a memoir how the family would sometimes urge him to sing the army songs he loved, in his “stern, thundering voice”:

Arise, the huge country.
Arise for the mortal battle.
With the dark fascist force,
With the accursed horde.

Grossman always stood up when he sang this song, his daughter explained: “My father considered this song a work of genius: he said so often and with much conviction.”

It is not surprising: without that conviction—and without the belief that he and his countrymen had suffered for a purpose—Grossman, like Merridale’s Kursk veterans, would have been left with nothing but bitterness and the memory of horror.

[1] Catherine Merridale, Night of Stone, (Viking, 2001), p. 323; see my review in these pages, The New York Review, October 24, 2002.

[2] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Prussian Nights, translated by Robert Conquest (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), p. 39.

[3] Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (Viking, 1998).

[4] Conversation with Antony Beevor, February 15, 2006.

Scroll to Top