This is a gripping, yet fascinating and necessary book. Based on an enormous wealth of sources - interviews with veterans and survivors, memoirs, letters, diaries, scientific monographs -, the author traces the living and dying of millions of ordinary Soviet soldiers in the Second World War. The book follows a strictly chronological order: starting out with the pre-war world of the Stalinist Soviet Union and its imagination of how heroically correct and antiseptically clean future war would unfold, it touches upon the strange experience of the short Polish campaign of September 1939, the first traumatic encounter with near-defeat during the winter war with Finland, the disasters and tragedies of 1941 and 1942, the victorious defence of Stalingrad that turned the war (not only for the Soviets, but for all allies!), the painstaking, bloody roll-back of the German invaders, eventually the storm on Berlin and the triumph of the red banner fluttering over the Brandenburger Tor. Then there are the unspeakable horrors Soviet prisoners of war suffered at the hand of their German captors, the survival of soldiers left behind in the forests and swamps, the panic and hopelessness that pervaded the Red Army in 1941 and 1942 while on permanent retreat. Finally, the daily lives of the frontovik, the soldier at the front, with the cold nights and freezing winters in an earthen dugout, the dirt, the lice, the rheumatism, the poor food, the cursing, the swearing, the drinking, the camaraderie, the sorrow over lost friends, the disdain for and yet occasional collusion with officers, the constant worry about wives and sweethearts back home and what they might do in the absence of husbands and financés. From all this emerges the average Ivan and the author gives the anonymous Soviet soldier - so much cultivated by the regime propaganda, but also demonised by the German enemy - a human face, with all its inhuman, atrocious facets.
"Ivan's War" is an impressionistic book. The author may have wanted to give the ordinary soldier a voice as much as possible, letting him speak in his own words. These individual and singular accounts often coalesce only with difficulty into a more coherent picture: there we have a political commissar who ends up behind the German lines, but continues fighting and never wavers in his belief in Communism; this is followed by the report that thousands of Ukrainians and other non-Russians, but also ethnic Russians themselves deserted the Red Army in droves because they did not want to fight for a regime that had collectivised farming. There is of course the simultaneity of the incongruent, but contradictory parallels make it sometimes difficult for the reader to get a global picture. In another example, the author writes that by early 1944 the Red Army had become a capable, well-trained, well-organised, well-equipped and well armed striking force. But then, further on, she dwells on how entire battalions marched into Romania bare-footed because there were not enough boots. The latter certainly raises doubts about the validity of the first statement although both accounts of course are true.
The reader may also have wished more analysis. The evidence given by veterans touches upon many different topics. But only a few are really explored with some depth. There are exceptions: the role of military psychiatry, the post-war, state-sponsored victimhood cult of Russia as the country having uniquely suffered in World War II, the first encounters of Soviet soldiers with the wealth of capitalist countries, even of comparatively poor ones such as Poland or Romania, the role (or rather non-role) of religion among front line soldiers etc. But these are only a few nuggets of solid analysis. Many other issues remain unaddressed - and would be of enormous interest to understand better, particularly to us who are living in tolerant, democratic, permissive societies. Stalin's (in)famous order 227, released in summer 1942, with large swathes of the European Soviet Union occupied by the Germans and the Red Army still in retreat, threatened every commander and soldier with death at the hands of the NKVD if they continued to yield. How on earth, would we contemporaries of the 2010s say, how on earth could such a brutal order that basically left Ivan with no other option that to die from German or Soviet bullets have a `morale-boosting' effect, as it apparently had? Why, for Christ's sake, did they not simply revolt or run away, as their fathers and grandfathers had done in 1916/17? Admittedly, understanding why and how homo sovietus endured Stalin's rule may never be really comprehensible to us post-modernists. But in a book like this, there should be more on the role of the NKVD and their `blocking detachments' than just the repetitive allusion that the NKVD was ever present and followed the Red Army like a shadow. In the end, the book probably suffers from its strict chronological order. A thematic structure, or a mixture of a chronologic or thematic approach, may have worked better and made the text more reader-friendly. Now the style is breathless and broken over large parts of the book and the return to the same topics over the different periods of the war is tiring.
There are a few factual errors, not many. Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel was not German head of state when he signed the capitulation on 9 May 1945. He was Commander-in-Chief of what was left of the Wehrmacht - head of state by then was another military, Karl von Dönitz. But these errors are not material in a book like this.