THE REAL STORY OF THE RUSSIAN FRONT
Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War
By Chris Bellamy: A tremendous contribution to the record of Russia’s struggle, for which future historians will owe a debt
Reviewed by Max Hastings
Moderation is conspicuously absent from the experience of the Russian people. Through the centuries, they have displayed a capacity for excess that leaves westerners gasping, sometimes at its magnificence, sometimes at its horror.
The second world war was the supreme example of both. Between late 1941 and D-Day in 1944, the British became blushingly conscious of how little their own armies were doing to defeat Nazism. They were seized with an admiration for Russian fortitude and heroism. The achievement was real enough. But British workers might have been a trifle less impressed had they known that Stalin’s forces were impelled not only by love for Mother Russia, but also by the knowledge that if they flinched they would be shot by their own leaders, as were at least 200,000 Red Army soldiers.
Those who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner by the Germans became nonpersons. In 1945, tens of thousands of surviving POWs were shot or sent to the Gulag. Westerners have wasted an absurd amount of sympathy on the fate of the Cossacks whom Britain shipped back to their deaths at Stalin’s hands in 1945, after they had fought for Hitler. What about all the Russian POWs who had fought for the allied cause, yet were also sent home to die? Marshal Zhukov, a monster like almost all of Stalin’s commanders, wanted to strengthen the deterrent against surrender by also executing the families of such offenders, although this proved too much even for Moscow.
When Marshal Rokossovsky, in Chris Bellamy’s view the greatest of Soviet battlefield leaders, was rehabilitated and given an army after a bracing spell of imprisonment during the purges, he was obliged to acquire a new set of steel teeth. Most of his own had been kicked out by Stalin’s torturers, who also smashed his toes with a hammer. Here was one trifling manifestation of the universe of blood that was the Soviet Union, long before Hitler invaded in 1941. Probably only a dictatorship as savage as Stalin’s, and a people as inured to barbarism as the Russians, could have broken Hitler’s power. The story of how they did so has never been one for weak stomachs.
Much of what was written afterwards by the Russians was myth. Bellamy recounts the example of a unit of 28 men, to whom a memorial still stands outside Moscow, celebrating their part in its defence during the winter of 1941. The glorious 28, it was said, held out against overwhelming superior forces, killing dozens of Germans and destroying 18 tanks. In reality, says Bellamy, the story was nonsense. As early as 1948, Moscow discovered that one of the 28, decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union, had become a police chief in the German occupation zone. But the Russian state valued its giant edifice of patriotic propaganda far too much to allow it to be tarnished. The truth was locked in the NKVD files.
To this day, almost all credible accounts of the Russian wartime experience are the work of foreigners. The pioneer British researcher was John Erickson, who in 1975 published a history of the Red Army’s wartime doings. Erickson gained extraordinary access to Soviet archives and surviving commanders. But some of us have always thought his works were compromised by an exaggerated respect for the credibility of Russian sources. For instance, in his text he refused to attribute responsibility for the massacre of more than 4,000 Polish officers at Katyn to the Russians, even through their guilt had been well known in the West since 1943.
He once put the argument to me that the Red Army was superior man-for-man to the Wehrmacht, which is nonsense. The Russians had mass and some supremely gifted commanders. They showed notable tactical gifts in reconnaissance, as artillerymen and night fighters. But their victories were mainly attributable to a willingness to sacrifice almost unlimited quantities of cannon fodder. In 1941-42, they were often losing 15,000 men a day. In less than a week, therefore, they suffered as many casualties as the British and Canadian armies in the 1944-45 northwest Europe campaign.
Bellamy was one of Erickson’s PhD students. He has now composed a new narrative history, based upon extraordinary access to Moscow’s archives. His work is infinitely superior to his former professor’s, and is probably the best account of the Eastern Front we shall see until President Putin relaxes his newly imposed restrictions on foreign access to the files.
Bellamy has no delusions about the nature of Stalin’s regime, and displays the scepticism that is indispensable to studying Russian accounts of almost everything. He focuses overwhelmingly on the first two years of war. Only the last 130 pages address events from the triumph at Stalingrad in early 1943 onwards. This is sensible. Antony Beevor and others have written excellent recent books about the later period. Moreover, after Stalingrad and then Kursk in August 1943, the die was cast. It was merely a question of how long Hitler’s army took to perish.
The Soviet Union acknowledged western aid only in the most grudging fashion. Stalin cared overwhelmingly about what America and Britain would not give him: a second front in northwest Europe in 1942 or 1943. Bellamy calculates that British and American supplies contributed 5% to Russia’s resources in 1942, 10% in 1943 and 1944. If this sounds marginal, he reckons it was probably decisive in enabling Russia to survive.
Bellamy’s mastery of sources is impressive. He has read thousands of reports by the NKVD, Stalin’s military enforcement arm. He notes, for instance, that 226 people were arrested for cannibalism during the siege of Leningrad, which cost one million lives.
In 1941 and 1942, commanders as well as ordinary soldiers were shot wholesale for failure on the battlefield. The author describes the grotesque legal proceedings that preceded the firing squad. The evidence was all lies, of course, but the Soviet system demanded that the most flagrant injustice was perpetrated with due formality. There is harrowing detail. An 11-year-old girl described in her school exercise book the successive deaths of each of her family during the siege of Leningrad, ending with the laconic words, “only Tanya remains”. Yet she, too, perished within a year. It was a miracle to survive Russia’s war.
I would take issue with Bellamy on a few points. Paying tribute to the extraordinary contribution of Russian women on the front line, he writes: “They may have had some civilising influence on their male colleagues.” On the contrary, almost every Russian veteran I have met recalls with dismay the ruth-lesssexual exploitation ofwomen, especially by senior officers.
More reflective passages would also have been welcome. What happened is here, in masterly detail, but the author could have speculated more about the grand enigmas – above all why most of the Russian people rallied under their unspeakable leadership.
Stalin’s lies persisted to the end, in small things as in great. The famous photograph of a Russian sergeant setting his flag atop the Reichstag in April 1945 showed the man wearing two watches – every Red soldier in Germany looted timepieces. When Moscow noticed, one was painted out of the photo. The legend of the Great Patriotic War must be unsullied, as Putin wishes it to remain even now.
Bellamy has made a tremendous contribution to the record of Russia’s struggle, for which future historians will owe a debt. The triumph of Stalin’s armies was indeed extraordinary, but it was achieved by methods that must make fastidious citizens of the western democracies blanch. Allied victory would have been nigh impossible without the Russians. But their wartime record mocks 1945 British and American bromides about “the triumph of freedom”.
A rather awed Soviet soldier cross-examines a giant of a German POW
Russian POWs executed
Disposing off bodies of dead Russian soldiers in a transit camp for POWs
Dour Russian POWs
This Russian POW is in a bad shape
General Krueger near Leningrad. 1941.
Colonel-General Richthofen with a group of officers in a discussion of the situation. 1941 in Ukraine
Soviet soldiers in action in Kiev.
German soldiers are in a hurry to move into Russia. 1941.