Friday, November 15, 2019
Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War
Catherine Merridale's book, Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, represents a very important contribution to the historiography of the Soviet Union's participation in World War II. Unlike most other books on the subject, the book depicts perhaps the most destructive military event of modern history from the bottom up. Rather than spend time analyzing the decisions of Stalin and other politburo members, or the actions of Soviet generals and diplomats, Merridale helps her readers to understand how ordinary Soviet soldiers lived through the war and experienced its trials and triumphs. Merridale deserves a great deal of credit of moving our understanding of the war away from jingoistic accounts of Soviet military heroism and toward a more nuanced understanding of the horrors of war. In particular, Merridale does not shy away from discussing the fact that so many Soviet soldiers helped to terrorize the women of Germany and other conquered countries in Eastern and Central Europe. If Merridale deserves any criticism, it is only that her subject is too vast for a single book. After all, it's difficult to maintain a general narrative of the war's many phases while also striving to cover so many different aspects of the soldiers' everyday lives. And one also can't help but think that Svetlana Alexievich's two oral histories of World War get more directly at the lived experience of Russians in the war. Without the overarching narrative, Alexievich gets even closer to the psychological realities of life at the front. But of course, Merridale is dealing with the whole of the Soviet soldiery, and Alexievich tries to find out something unique about Russian women and Russian children experienced the trauma of war. Another of Merridale's books, Night of Stone: Death and Memory in the Twentieth-Century Russia, would seem to be the natural bookend to Merridale's overall "argument" about the war's impact on Russians, both at the time, and over time.