In recent years, the "Greatest Generation" has been celebrated in
books, film, and television documentary. American veterans of World
War II, their numbers dwindling, make pilgrimages to the beaches
they stormed, the cemeteries where they left friends, the sites of
horror and glory.
Historians have had much to work with. Official documents and
photos, letters and diaries, interviews with those who were young
men at Normandy or Anzio or Guadalcanal.
Not so with the war in Europe's eastern front.
Josef Stalin and his successors made sure the story of Soviet
history in the war was crafted and protected in a way that served
their political purposes. Great monuments were built, but documents
were sealed. Pensioned soldiers and their families were honored as
"heroes," but they were kept from telling of experiences that might
have deviated from the official line - especially anything
traumatic. Historians, Russian and foreign, were prevented from
With the collapse of the Soviet Union that's changing, and
Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army,
1939-1945 is an example of the extraordinary scholarship that has
begun to result from this new openness. More than that, it's a
powerful, intimate, and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of the
archetypal Russian infantryman who suffered greatly, often at the
hands of his own countrymen.
In researching this thoroughly footnoted, and highly readable
book, Ms. Merridale (professor of contemporary history at Queen
Mary, University of London) traveled to many of the major battle
sites, including Kerch, Kiev, Kursk, and Sevastopol. She gained
access to military and secret police archives. And she interviewed
more than 200 veterans, many of whom shared their private letters
The numbers of those who fought the German Wehrmacht and were
lost are staggering: Between 1939 and 1945 more than 30 million men
and women were mobilized into the armed forces, more than 8 million
of whom died from starvation, disease, and the violence of combat.
Twice as many civilians as soldiers died, and 25 million were left
The early years of the war were the worst. By early 1942, 2.7
million had been killed in action and nearly 3 million captured. The
Red Army had to be virtually rebuilt twice during the war.
Some three-quarters of all infantrymen had been peasants - a
group not the most enthusiastic about communism, especially forced