The Russian Army Was So Different In WWII – Slugger O’Toole

Photo, Moscow Military Museum

Long ago, in 1985, in the dying days of Soviet gerontocrat Chernenko, just before Gorbachev came to power, I traveled to Moscow with a small BBC crew to do radio broadcasts marking the 40th anniversary of victory in what is for us the Second World War, but it is still today for the Russians the Great Patriotic War, a war of survival during which 20 to 25 million people died. Events like the Battle of Britain and D-Day were side shows to Stalingrad and the series of colossal offensives featuring massive tank battles around Kursk and the three battles of Kharkov in Ukraine today. today Kharkiv. The scorched earth, the massacres of civilians and the sacrifice of entire armies unimaginable in the West even during the First World War were its essential characteristics. The exemplary courage in the ranks was reinforced by political cadres in the rear who had orders to fire on soldiers tempted to defy orders to hold their ground.

We were commemorating a great wartime alliance that would soon escalate into the occupation and oppression of Eastern Europe by Stalin, determined never again to trust a Western rival like Hitler and to put as much territory as possible between the Soviet Union and a resurgent Germany. We also wanted to test the new era of comparative openness introduced by the Helsinki Final Act signed by 27 countries including the USSR, which recognized the 1945 borders as final and promised progress in human rights at ballast. We did not realize that in four years all communist regimes would have fallen and that in one generation the subjugated nations of the Warsaw Pact would have joined NATO.

Our tests focused on a subject that could have interested Soviet commanders and historians as much as ourselves. But their full cooperation should not be taken for granted. The road to total victory had been paved not only by prodigious patriotic effort, but also by appalling mistakes and utter ruthlessness towards not only the Germans but the ordinary Soviet soldier. The presenter was my dear late friend Gordon Clough, best known from World at One on Radio 4, but fluent in Russian and translating Russian novels. During his military service, Gordon had spent time “riding around on a boat in the Baltic” listening to Soviet military traffic. The ban on his entry into the USSR had only recently been lifted.

The kingpin of the operation was John Erickson, the famous Edinburgh professor who was the leading historian of the Soviet war in any language. He overcame Russian suspicions with dogged stubbornness and total objectivity that impressed them. Contrary to what you might think, the Soviet military welcomed an objective approach and was no more interested in the Cold War twist on this subject than Erickson. The shadow cast on his work by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was lifted with the success of his Edinburgh Conversations based on unofficial contacts under John’s sponsorship.

The annual East-West talks would see the professor use his contacts to bring powerful figures in the state together around the same table. This unofficial role of mediator took on its full meaning in 1983, when the rearmament of both sides of the Iron Curtain led to a “peak” of state paranoia.[12] This period was characterized by events such as the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which occurred only sixteen days before talks resumed.[13] Despite backlash in the UK and US, Erickson remained adamant that strictly non-governmental talks are continuing as a way to get both sides talking.[14] The professor even succeeded in introducing an official American presence to these discussions, the former director of arms control, Eugene Rostow, declaring to an impassioned British press that “I believe it is important to have discussions on subjects seriously, especially when things are a bit rough”.[1[1[1[1

A glimpse into Soviet life was uniquely provided by Ukrainian-born Russian Jew Vitali Grossman whose great documentary novels life and fate and Stalingrad portrayed this unique period of struggle with a vivacious humanity that defied censorship while remaining just on the right side of the capricious and ruthless regime. life and fate was not published until 1985, the year of our visit.

What are these reminiscences for?

First, amid the praise and even euphoria for the Ukrainian resistance today is a sharp reminder of history that the Russians are capable of making titanic efforts in war to achieve victory. Compared to the epic struggles of 1941-45, the horrors of recent weeks are little more than skirmishes.

Secondly, I saw for myself that not all Russian generals are troglodytes. They are able to make frank judgments in certain circumstances. During the war, Stalin’s marshals were ready to rescind his early orders to hold ground at all costs, unlike the German generals with Hitler, even though they all knew better. Grossman shows us that the Russian people were capable of heroic effort. But the fatalism that pervaded Soviet life then has since turned into acute cynicism. Enthusiasm for Putin’s patriotic arguments for invading Ukraine seems mixed. The monster Stalin was deeply mourned as Vozdh or great leader. It’s hard to imagine the same fate for Putin.

Putin’s Russian state is incomparably weaker than Stalin’s or even Brezhnev’s USSR. An ideology, however degraded, was the essential glue that held together a vast web of cronyism and coercion to the point of sudden collapse. Today’s Russians have glimpsed freedom of expression and acquired a taste for Western-style consumerism which, in 1985, was denied to the vast majority. The course of Soviet history has shown that the ultimate arbitration rule of the KGB failed to create long-term viability. This is surely even more true today.

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