It seems appropriate that I finished this book on the eve of Veteran’s Day. Merridale’s relentless Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 is a powerful narrative of the realities of the experience of Soviet soldiers during World War II. Like American soldiers during the second World War, the “Ivans” have been mythologized in the decades since the end of the war. American kids, like Soviet and Russian kids, learn about the veterans as larger than life heroes. We learn that life as a soldier was bitterly difficult. We learn that, without them, it would have been impossible to defeat the Nazis. But it isn’t until later (if ever) that we learn about the complexities and failures of our heroes. Merridale’s book is sympathetic but unflinching in this respect.
Merridale opens her book with an explanation of how she came up with the idea to write it. She had been interviewing Russians about life during the Stalinist era when she noticed that, whenever she asked about the war, many veterans and civilians were reticent to talk about it. There were some, of course, who would talk about their experiences, but many would repeat old, patriotic slogans or give bland accounts. Merridale dug deeper, traveling from archive to archive around Russia to find a more accurate picture of Red Army soldier life. What she found was astonishing—at least to me.
It is true that between June 22, 1941 and September, 1943, the Red Army was the only national army fighting the Third Reich. In the panic after the Nazi invasion in the summer of 1941, millions of volunteers, conscripts, and prisoners were thrown at the invaders. After successfully defending Moscow in the summer of 1941-1942, the Red Army slowly drove the Nazis back. Over the next almost three years, they drove the Nazis back to Berlin, which fell in late April 1945.
That’s the simple version of the history. Merridale’s research and interviews revealed the terror of life as an Ivan. The myth is that the men signed up to defend their rodina, their motherland. What we usually don’t hear about is that there were battalions of NKVD officers and troops who were more than ready to shoot anyone who deserted. The Red Army soldiers had no choice but to fight. Millions of them died. So many died that I am still surprised that there was anyone left alive between Oder-Neisse line and Moscow. Estimates vary but the number of Soviet military and civilian deaths is probably somewhere around 27 million. It’s impossible to say for sure because records were rarely kept and bodies were destroyed, etc.
Merridale shares the extreme hardships of life in the Red Army: lack of supplies, the weather, poor strategy, fear, and more. It’s little wonder that veterans don’t want to talk about it. Merridale also shares the dark side of the Red Army’s advance across eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousand German and Polish women were raped by Red Army soldiers. Red Army soldiers pillaged German territory; they stole everything they could to send back to the Soviet Union. What Merridale found was a deep sense of vengeance among veterans. At the time, soldiers were told that they were taking revenge for what the Nazis had done to their country, but much of what happened was actively suppressed during and after the war.
Ivan’s War is a harrowing read but, I think, a very necessary one. Unlike the American veterans’ experience, Red Army soldiers were fighting (at least at first) on their own soil against a seemingly invincible enemy. They faced death from all directions. Conditions were so terrible, supplies so rare, and leadership so disorganized (at first), that it’s a miracle that the Red Army succeeded. This book presents that miracle in its full complexity, sharing a truly epic history that might have been lost.