Monday, December 11, 2006

Russia's War

For the last few weeks, news out of Europe has been dominated by the questions surrounding the death of Alexander V. Litvinenko, the former K.G.B. agent, who was apparently poisoned by exposure to polonium 210. Coincidentally, I stumbled upon Richard Overy's "Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945," and was reminded that intrigue has a long and tragic history in both the Soviet Union and Russia.

Overy's book has two main strengths: first, he is the beneficiary of the post-Cold War release of materials from the Soviet files; second, Overy has the confidence and the command of the subject to write briefly - the whole work is barely 300 pages. (I should also note that Overy's book was apparently a follow-on piece to a series of documentaries of the same title produced in 1994-95. I am trying to locate the series.)

Overy takes advantage of the new primary source materials to refute certain of the pieces of WWII conventional wisdom about Stalin and the Russian effort in the war. The infamous Ribbentrop/Molotov accord in 1939 is blamed not on Stalin's "treachery", but rather on the German desire to secure its flank to be able to fall upon France and the Low Countries to the West. ("[Stalin] could as easily made a pact with the imperialist West as he could with fascist Germany...Yet the German alliance was neither expected nor sought in 1939. Only when the German offer was on the table did it prove irresistible."(p.50))

Likewise, the collapse of the Soviet defense in the face of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 is usually attributed to the hollowing out of the Soviet officer corps in the wake of the purges of the late 1930s. While Overy does not flinch in describing the torture or worse inflicted on many senior officials who rose to prominence under Stalin, he attributes the German success in the summer of 1941 to Stalin's own failure to acknowledge Hitler's willingness to attack his erstwhile ally, especially in light of the military difficulties that Stalin recognized the Germans would face. It was not that the Soviet military professionals did not predict the coming storm - it was that they were not willing to risk life and limb by contradicting own Stalin's view that the German/Soviet pact was built for the long-term.

Winston Churchill's reputation also suffers under Overy's pen. In a telling detail, Stalin in the 1943 conference in Teheran pushes both Churchill and FDR to commit to a specific timetable for the Overlord (Normandy) invasion that would relieve some of the pressure off the Soviet army. While Stalin pulls on his pipe and waits in silence for an answer, FDR is seen winking at Stalin, leaving Churchill outnumbered and, eventually, forced to commit to a Spring 1944 landing. More telling, Overy reports that it was Churchill in Moscow in 1944, and not FDR in Yalta or Truman in Potsdam in 1945, that agreed to the divvying up of Europe into spheres of influence. Although sourced to Churchill's own memoirs, Overy states that the British PM's list of influence (90% Soviet influence in Romania; 50% in Hungary and Yugoslavia; 75% in Bulgaria, etc.), "makes a mockery of [Churchill's] later credentials as a Cold Warrior, just as it compromised his relations with Roosevelt. It amounted to a virtual acceptance of more than Stalin could have hoped for in Eastern Europe." (p.251-52)

While Churchill is a bit player, and FDR even less so, the main focus of the book is on Stalin, his key generals, and the contradictory nature of his rule. Stalin is seen as a master manipulator (he would always sit to the side at meetings, and never preside (p.16)), and unafraid to use terror and betrayal. But as a Georgian, he was nonetheless ruthless in crushing nationalist uprisings throughout the Soviet empire. Likewise, a committed Communist, at the moment of crisis in 1942, he allowed to revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, and invoked the names of Russian (i.e., pre-Revolutionary) heroes as part of the war effort.

There have been several popular histories of the Eastern Front over the past few years, including two by Antony Beevor ("Stalingrad" and the "Fall of Berlin 1945.") Overy's book is every bit as readable, and offers a new perspective on Stalin's side of the war. A quick read, but well worth it.

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