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“Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-45” by C. Merridale Essay

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Updated: Nov 30th, 2021

The Second World War was the most destructive in the history of mankind. A lot of people died, became invalids and orphans; European towns were tumbled into ruins. To my mind, people should be aware of disasters brought by wars and try to prevent armed conflicts. It is important to know about the reasons, course, and results of war and people, who sacrificed their lives in the name of victory. We know much about tactics, strategy, battles, military leaders, but know not much about average soldiers of the army. The book Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army by Catherine Merridale is an attempt to investigate the destinies of ordinary people, who served in the Red Army, in the course of the Second World War and after it.

The most valuable achievement of the author is a successful comparison of the true-to-life actions of Soviet soldiers on the battlefield with an idealized image of the Soviet soldier, which was propagated by the Soviet Union. The book shows selective and preconceived stories about war-time deeds of the former Soviet soldiers. A lot of war crimes and inadmissible elements of their real behavior were intentionally or unintentionally withheld from the public.

The book comprises facts about operation Barbarossa and the defeat of the Red army at the beginning of the war. Merridale considers the battle of Stalingrad and operation Bagration as turning points of the war; the battle of Kursk crushed the unconquerable army of the Wehrmacht. But the author focuses predominantly not on the course of the war from a military point of view. She investigates the life of the Soviet soldier on the battlefield.

A lot of political, social, and personal factors contributed to the formation of the Red army. That is why the military life in it differs from that in the Wehrmacht, the American Army, or the British Army. The Great Purges, famine in Ukraine, organized by Stalin’s state machine, collectivization of peasants, and the Finnish war explain the discouragement and rage of the soldiers during the first year of the war. “…the Red Army in 1939 was a testament to the country’s social atomization after decades of hardship and state terror” (Merridale, Chapter One). The Soviet Union had to keep high pressure on soldiers in the frontline and their families on the home front. Commanding officers, osobists could execute on the spot anybody, who exhibited treacherous and craven behavior. Thus, the main difference of the military life in the Red Army was not uniform, organization, tactics, or supply, but double pressure by the German enemy and Soviet terror.

The author supposes that neither NKVD nor terror of the state contributed to victory so much as willing to take enormous losses. The Red Army was the only army that could accept such heavy casualties. The British and the Americans kept records of every fallen soldier, the Soviet state afforded to suffer heavy casualties. Poorly educated peasants and workers have become soldiers. The swearing-in ceremonies raised morale. The awarding of names of honor to regiments and divisions contributed to fighting and the high character of the corps. No army underwent such ideological pressure as the Red army. At the same time desire to overcome the injustice and cruelty of the Nazis reigned in all co-belligerents.

The Soviet soldiers struggled because of hatred of the Germans. Horrors in concentration camps and inhuman treatment of Russian turned this war into revenge.

An advantage of the book is that it deals with what happened to many soldiers after the ending of the war. Many of them were sent to Manchuria to fight again, others were accused of betrayal and crime against a state if they were in captivity. Many years after the war veterans talked about it in the manner, resulting from the propaganda of the state. “…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 the motherland, Stalin, and the absolute necessity of faith” (Merridale, Epilogue). Throughout the whole book, we can feel nostalgic memories of the veterans shared by the author. She feels sorrow for the fallen and is proud of her courageous survival. In the hearts of veterans, there was no malice toward unjust treatment during the war; they were satisfied that their motherland was not conquered. For me, the most terrible part of the book is the description of the victory parade in the last chapter. The winners were emaciated and joyless marching in the rain. The author deals with the cultural aspect of the Great Patriotic War as it is called in Soviet textbooks. She listens to songs, literature, poems and rhymes of war and tries to estimate their influence on the soldiers and how they boosted morale. She admires old veterans and their genuine feelings while remembering awful carnage and their fallen comrades.

To my mind, this book should be recommended for further reading because of its true-to-life and sincere description of the life of the Soviet soldiers. The point is that the popular image of the Red Army in Western countries was distorted. So it was in the Soviet Union. That is why this book is useful for an unbiased estimate of soldiers’ behavior. It comprises not only facts and figures, but also a shrewd and diligent investigation of ordinary people’s destinies, ruined by the war. The author tries to be objective and reveals a complex of factors influencing extremes of human behavior.

Works Cited

Merridale, Catherine. Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-45. New York: Picador; Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

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IvyPanda. 2021. ""Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-45" by C. Merridale." November 30, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ivans-war-life-and-death-in-the-red-army-1939-45-by-c-merridale/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) '"Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-45" by C. Merridale'. 30 November.

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