Considering the number of shelves laden with books on the Soviet Union in World War II, it may be surprising that few convey the war as experienced by the foot soldiers, tank operators, and pilots who fought it or the peasants who endured it. Merridale's chronicle is not so much of the sights and sounds of war or of the agony and gore although all this is there as it is an attempt to fathom war's meaning, effect, and legacy for the peasant boy or girl sucked from his or her village or factory dorm and sent into the maw, often ill equipped and ill trained, to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades who sometimes came from ethnic worlds apart, to master war's forms and tools, to do war's awful deeds, and then to somehow resume a normal life at war's close. Not surprisingly, she finds it difficult to penetrate the psychological shields war veterans erected. Nonetheless, she succeeds admirably in fashioning a compelling portrait, helped immensely by her talent as a writer.
The Soviet Union lost far more men in World War II than any other power, Allied or Axis. Yet for all the ink spilled over the Red Army's role in defeating the Nazis, very little has dribbled onto the Soviet soldiers themselves-onto the everyman combatant dubbed "Ivan"-owing in no small part to the secrecy and myth in which the Soviet system enshrouded them. Merridale (history, Univ. of London; Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia) seeks here to unravel the riddle of how they lived and why they fought, especially for a regime that notoriously devoured its children. The reasons that emerge are legion: Ivan fought out of fear and necessity, pride and patriotism, because he believed his cause was just, because he knew nothing else. Ultimately, while no one picture emerges, Merridale has effectively captured the lives of these ordinary, and extraordinary, soldiers as they face bitter defeat in Hitler's surprise Operation Barbarossa attack and victory at Stalingrad, reap vengeance in Berlin and return home, forever altered. What this engaged study sometimes lacks in narrative thrust it makes up for in spades with its harrowing and deeply compassionate portrait of the individual Ivans. Recommended for public and academic libraries; essential for all Soviet and World War II collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/15.]-Tania Barnes, Library Journal Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Glorified by Soviet myth-makers as simple, heroic "Ivan," the common soldier in the Red Army in fact grappled with despair and his own government as well as the Nazis. Merridale (Contemporary History/Univ. of London; Night of Stone, 2001) has rescued this legendary generation of Soviet soldiers from history's black hole-a remarkable achievement, given government censorship and citizens' desire to forget the horrors of WWII combat and civilian atrocities. Ivan and Ivana (women served on the Eastern front, too) matched America's "greatest generation" in hardships endured and sacrifices made. The Soviet army began the war under significant disadvantages. It was virtually devoid of commanders (purged by Stalin), its rank-and-file were untrained and it was caught completely off-guard by the Nazis' "Operation Barbarossa" in June 1941. Merridale carefully traces the successive responses of soldiers reeling from overwhelming blows: initial "tank panic" in the face of Nazi might, desertions, the grim realization that they faced a war of annihilation and growing self-confidence. Newly opened archives; recently discovered secret diaries and letters; and interviews with more than 200 veterans enable Merridale to narrate in gripping detail the epic tank battle of Kursk, the siege of Stalingrad and the unexpectedly bloody final drive to Berlin. She poignantly tallies the scars left on the Soviet soul by the carnage. The Red Army suffered eight million deaths, its losses exceeding the German army's by more than three to one. Revolted by the damage the Nazis inflicted on their families and communities, chafing under political operatives in their midst, Soviet soldiers engaged in their own orgies oflooting and rape as they pushed into Germany. In other ways, however, the ordinary soldier was positively transformed by the war. Merridale notes that Ivan grew more sophisticated through contact with foreigners and more hopeful that peace and brotherhood would result from the Soviets' sufferings. Revealing history that renders the struggles on the Eastern Front in telling detail and with searching moral scrutiny.
"Catherine Merridale has picked the locks that kept this history hidden. . . . Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of the time.” The Economist
“[A] breathtaking, sweeping, yet well-balanced and finely tuned study.” The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“With extraordinary patience and a wonderful ear for nuance . . . [Merridale] produces what may be the best historical portrait of life in the Red Army yet published.” The New York Review of Books
“Combines, quite effectively, painstaking historical reconstruction and sympathetic projection.” The New York Times
“[A] profoundly empathic work of history.” Newsday
“An impressive work of history, managing to give a sense of the amazing hardships of the frontoviki's experience.” The New York Sun
“Succeeds admirably in fashioning a compelling portrait, helped immensely by her talent as a writer.” Foreign Affairs
“[Merridale] does a marvelous job. Ivan's War is full of the type of information that will make you find someone to tell.” Richmond Times Dispatch
“This book is the raw and bleeding version . . . a tightly edited, well-paced and very readable account.” The Seattle Times"
"Unprecedented in its approach, Catherine Merridale's research into the lives of Red Army soldiers combined with her perception makes this a most fascinating and important work.” Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad
“Catherine Merridale has done something very unusual. The Soviet war effort has been described many times but her new book tells the searing story from the bottom up. Her account of the sufferings of the Red Army soldiers and their families is unlikely to be bettered.” Robert Service, author of Stalin: A Biography
“Merridale's new book is excellent. This unique, strikingly original account of the Red Army in World War II is a first-rate social history as well as an important military study, and a stellar example of the combination of oral history with standard archival research. It makes the soldiers of the Red Army come alive.” Stanley Payne, Hilldale-Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Ivan's War is a marvelous book. All of Catherine Merridale's virtues are on display: remarkable research (based in this case on literally hundreds of interviews with survivors and witnesses); a clear, unpretentious style that belies the complexity of her material; comfortable historical command of a dauntingly large theme; and a rare compassion and empathy for her subjects. Ivan's War confirms what anyone who read Night of Stone already knew: that Catherine Merridale is a superb historian, among the very best of her generation.” Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
“This is an inventively researched and evocatively written study of the Soviet soldier on the blood-ridden Eastern Front. Using freshly available archival materials, as well as sparkling interviews with a vanishing generation of veterans, Merridale has provided an empathetic and realistic portrait of the men and women who, more than any other combat soldiers, brought down the Third Reich.” Norman M. Naimark , author of The Russians in Germany and Fires of Hatred