Top critical review
One person found this helpful
Russki Battles with Plenty of Love ..but with Sex off-Limits
on 16 May 2011
"He who controls the past", argued George Orwell in his 1984, "controls the future." One the daily duties of the principal character, Winston Smith, in the Ministry of Truth, was eliminating all traces of past differences in the present, which meant removing, or rewriting texts or pictures that differed from the present orthodoxy. His totalitarian Big Brother state was the face of the 1930-52 of Joe Stalin's Soviet Union, that was later extended throughout its satellite states. For a decade, with Glasnost and the break up of the Communist world, westerners hoped to devour stories about real Russians in wartime without having to drill through the permanent coating of official ideology.
In Russia, the tale of a 30 year Ukrainian's war may not be very revealing, interesting or significant. Covering just two years from the outbreak of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Motherland in June 1941 to the end of 1943, soon after the great Kursk battle, they might criticise it as being incomplete, modest in character, and too personal, as it is centred on isolated areas and none of the big boys appear or get a mention - which even if for western eyes may be small, it is still novel and positively illuminating.
Surprised along with his countryman by Hitler's Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union, young amateur sketch artist Nikolai Obryn'ba became an instant soldier in the Moscow Opolchanie [People's militia] just in time to join the Red Army and be swallowed up with 350,000 of his fellow Red Army soldiers in the infamous Viaz'ma encirclement in the autumn of 1941, where he marched westward as a prisoner-of-war. He miraculously survived the brutal rigors of several SS POW camps, which aimed to break Russians physically and mentally and turning them into untermensch beasts, by escaping to join a Partisan band operating in the German Army's deep rear and, equally miraculously, lived to return to safety behind Red Army lines in the Lepel region of Belorussia, centred on Ushachi, that endangered the security of the German garrison to be overoccupied to be withdrawn, and successively in the spring of 1943 to act as useful support troops of the main Army in various ambushes. It ends when he flies home to Moscow, presumably to his wife, Galka, a nurse, and lived happily ever after.
His creative artistic talents proved both the spark of resistance to live on in the POW camps, and later to spread pride, increase confidence and continual love for the Motherland after the victories of the Red Army at Leningrad and Stalingrad against the "Fritzes". At the organisational level, Obryn'ba reveals a permanent separation and enmity between the hierarchical Red Army and the indepedent partisan detachments, with the former eager to blame escaped POWs among the partisans for having been overrun and surrendered, and their distrust of any unofficial and autonomously organised unit as singularly sinister, dangerous, and fifth-columnist in influence against themselves; whereas unlike French, and Italian partisans who lived a free liberated life in communities, in Belorussia (and indeed in Tito's Yugoslavia) love between the sexes and heavy drinking was strictly forbidden with any breach of the rule resulting in severe punishment by demotion, since nothing was to hold back their immediate duty - the removal of the invader from Soviet soil, and total victory. Without mentioning, this excessive puritanical ethical prudery in contrast to what they might describe as "liberal bourgeois decadence" may explain for the explosion of uncontrolled carnal lust that the Soviet forces demonstrated after 1944 when they crossed their borders, raping and pillaging other populations wherever they went. They had showed they could assert their manhood by killing and being killed; now they demanded complete control and dishonour of the earlier victors.
The author also presented each detachment as being fully self-sufficient and skilled in maintaining its artillery pieces in operation; of designing mortars from steel piping, and transforming semi-automatic STV rifles into submachine guns, or downed aircraft. cannons being turned into heavy machine-guns which were carried over the snows on sleighs. In 1943, his detachment even had sufficient numbers of persons with a training in survey to properly map out a runway with poles and chains, so that planes could evacuate serious casualties back to frontline hospitals. The most amazing device used was the spreading of leaflets to locals and to the enemy with kites. It gave the impression that the detachment had access to their own fleet of aircraft in the middle of occupied territory even before the real planes arrived, and this brought fear to battle hardened Germans who sensed day by day they were being gradually encircled. The leaflets were their Z mark as in Zorro.
At the psychological level his narrative shows a change in feeling towards his superiors in the Stavka, the Soviet General Headquarters, including Stalin, as distant, thoughtless, unprepared, and incompetent, but with greater and more frequent news of Soviet advances after his escape in October 1942 there emerged a hightened sense of eventual self-sacrificing glory by the fighters on the battlefields.
At the personal level his account demonstrated even in 1941 a feeling of comradeship and respect with and towards the fighting frontline enemy troops; of divisions between fanatical adherents of the "Mad Lance Corporal" (Hitler), regular aristocratic Junker officers, and the ordinary soldiers (including distinct differences between Austrians and Czechs from Germans in the Wehrmacht), with a few soldiers, officers and nurses ready to help captives not only with privileges of food, blankets and clothing, but even overlooking the presence of Jews ordered for transfer to work camps, and assisting them to escape. Here there is a hint that Oscar Schindler (or his cinema presentation through Liam Neeson) was not a unique individual among the brutal Germans; he is remembered because of the Australian novelist and anti-monarchist, Thomas Keneally, and film producer, Steven Spielberg. In contrast, the author reveals that the power of the German dominance was assisted by their ability to divide their opponents, by employing some either in their own anti-Communist independence forces under Gen.Vlasov, or their local collaborating policing groups, the Polizei, and explains why when the Soviets started to regain territories they were harsher and vindictive against such Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian or other local national collaborators and their families who had discovered to their misfortune that survival in the enemy held enclaves could entail informing, if not even turning on against their former comrades.
Small though the material may sound to Russian ears it is something original and complete, and may be more important in future since the arrival of Putin and Medvedev, eager to press forward past Russian / Soviet imperialism, and to rehabilitate Stalin further, and with the Russian Orthodox Church, declaring him a saint, as well as proclaiming that any negative comments were both unproven and smelt of western propaganda. This sounds like turning the clock back to the days of Orwellian "double think" when 2+2 was 5, 22, or any figure which the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party chose it should be. For western readers, the I remember website at [...] Pen & Sword, and the translator, Vladimir Krupnik have done a good service. Read it carefully, because if the next Cold War breaks out it may be a long time before another work by a little honest Russian will see the light of day in English about an age when violence was all the rage, but when sex was off-limits. It is small for the blinkered nostalgics because it is controversial. For US historian, David M. Glantz, it is a must read for those seeking a "human face on this most inhuman of Twentieth Century wars."