Archive for the ‘Great Patriotic War’ Category

Nikolai Vatutin: An Inconvenient General?

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

In keeping with the Soviet tradition of marking the birthdays of important historical figures, the Voice of Russia (Russian text here) marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of General Nikolai Fedorovich Vatutin. While the profile is in general terms a good one, several things about it struck me as more representative of the current state of Russian military historiography than of the actual historical record.

Vatunin isn’t as well known in the West as he ought to be. His record at the 1943 Battle of Kursk and the subsequent liberation of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine from the Germans is an impressive one. Vatunin’s problem is that he died during the war, and as a result left no memoirs and played no role in the shaping of the war’s history in the way that comparable figures like Aleksandr Vasilevskii or Sergei Shtemenko could.

What the article focuses on, though, is Vatutin’s role as an “inconvenient [neudobnyi] general,” one who stood up to the country’s misguided political leadership on the eve of war. While this is an interpretation with obvious resonance in current circumstances of Russian military reforms that are opposed by the bulk of the high command, it’s not clear to me what grounds there are for this judgment in the historical record.

Vatutin’s rise to prominence postdated the 1937 purges, and so he didn’t have much opportunity to say anything especially controversial until 1938. While he did participate in the Main Military Council (the Soviet military’s collective deliberative body) in the pre-war years, it’s not clear that he said or did anything especially noteworthy. The Voice of Russia article cites Mikhail Miagkov to claim that Vatutin, not Georgii Zhukov, was the major force behind the May 1941 idea of a spoiling attack to disrupt Hitler’s obvious preparations for an invasion of the Soviet Union. This likewise seems to me to lack much foundation. Vatutin here seems to be useful as a man who spoke truth to power, and then conveniently died. To credit Zhukov as the real force urging more active measures against the Germans would bring in all sorts of complications with Zhukov’s subsequent political career.

What struck me, though, was how little the article made of the circumstances of Vatutin’s death. He was ambushed by Ukrainian nationalist partisans in early 1944, and died of his wounds in hospital. While the article certainly mentions this fact, it does little with it. Given the Kremlin’s current preoccupation with East European nationalist movements, and its tendency to label as “falsification” any history that sympathizes with them against the Soviets, this was a missed opportunity to lambast the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

If I had it to do all over again . . . new research on the Great Fatherland War

Monday, December 12th, 2011

One of the things that this year’s ASEEES meeting brought home to me is the way in which all of our judgements as historians are inherently and unavoidably provisional. In particular, I heard quite a few things from new research on World War II that made me think about The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945, and the things I’d like to be able to put in that book if I could do it again.

This is not to say I have “editor’s remorse.” As I’ve said previously (and actually meant), I’m delighted with the quality of the chapters in the book. But when you hear about new research, it’s hard not to wish for a chance to find some way to get exciting results in. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for a paperback edition.

One panel in particular had a lot of new material. While Peter Waldron focused on World War I (discussed elsewhere), other papers brought in new and exciting research on World War II.

Donald Filtzer looked at the phenomenon of deprivation and death among the Soviet population, but as a social historian with access to reams of statistical information. We tend to throw around numbers on excess deaths, but given the enormous demographic shifts in the wartime Soviet Union, it’s hard to get a good handle on what was really happening to the population. Teasing out the difference between death from disease and death from malnutrition is quite difficult. Filtzer’s approach is to look at reams of mortality data from Soviet cities during the war. This mortality data is as problematic as you might expect. Lots of deaths took place without much inquiry from medical professionals, so the proportion of causes of death attributed to “other” skyrocketed during the war. Can we make sense of this?

Filtzer argued that though malnutrition can mimic the wasting of tuberculosis (endemic in the Soviet Union), malnutrition can also unleash a previously dormant case of tuberculosis. By combining figures for tuberculosis mortality with “other” mortality, and comparing that to those mortality levels before the war, we can get a reasonable sense of malnutrition-related deaths.

OK–but besides satisfying morbid curiosity, what do we learn? Well, Filtzer finds some intriguing patterns in the data. In the first year or so of the war, malnutrition killed vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, inmates of the Gulag. By 1943, though, starvation was killing males of working age in large numbers, far more than females. This leads to a couple of follow-up questions. One was asked at the panel: could it be that healthy adult males were in the Red Army, leaving the weak and sickly males on the home front to die disproportionately from malnutrition? Of course, it’s sobering to think just how sick someone would have to be to NOT make the Red Army’s standards, given enormous manpower losses. My question is slightly different: evidence from other cases of hunger (like, for example, the Donner party) suggests that women are more resistant to starvation than men; is that what we’re seeing here? We’ll have a better sense with Filtzer’s full results.

Brandon Schechter, a graduate student at Berkeley, looked at the material culture of daily life in the Red Army during World War II. This is something that really hasn’t been done before–we have a good sense, much like the Soviet leadership did, of the big, glamorous items of supply like tanks and aircraft. We have much less sense of mundane issues like uniforms and canteens. Some of what Schechter finds isn’t surprising, either in the specific Soviet experience or cross-culturally: food was vital to morale, for example, and scrounging, improvisation, and theft were quite common.

Other findings are newer and more startling. I didn’t know, for example, that Soviet soldiers carried glass canteens (with concomitant problems of weight and breakage) until very late in the war. The Soviet military initially focused on providing soldiers with high-calorie, low-bulk food that kept them fighting but made them unhappy. Soviet soldiers perceived a clear improvement in the provision of supplies over the course of the war.

My question to Schechter was, given the scale of Soviet pre-war maneuvers, and the Soviet experience of campaigns in Eastern Poland, Manchuria, and Finland, why were there such difficulties of supply in 1941? Was it the purges, the defeats and retreats or 1941, or something else? Schechter suggested that it was a combination of circumstances (distance and destruction), together with the Red Army’s decision to tie itself to field kitchens to keep its soldiers fighting, contrary to the American model of extensive preserved rations to enable soldiers to fight for at least some time without being bound to food supplies from the rear.

Finally, over lunch with Scott Palmer, GlavKom of this blog, I heard a great deal about his upcoming project on technology in Russian history. Of all the chapters that ought to be in the book but aren’t, I’d put science and technology at the top of the list. In part, that omission was a result of the lack of a lot of literature out there on those questions for the wartime years. Palmer’s book promises to be an excellent step in that direction. Perhaps he can be persuaded to share some ideas in this forum.

Shattering Myths

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

I seem to post a disproportionate number of pieces complaining about falsification of the problem of falsification of history, but I can’t help myself when I keep being fed new material. The latest evidence: an ITAR-TASS story (hat tip to Johnson’s Russia List) claiming in its headline that “Russian historians shatter WW II myths.”

Here’s the question: where in the piece is there a single specific example of a myth about the war that Russian historians have shattered? I say this not to demean the work of Russian historians, many of whom are doing fine research. I say it to point out a recurring aspect of Russian official and semi-official discourse on World War II, which is that it is plagued by evil-doing historians who mythologize and falsify the war. There’s never any specific indication of who exactly it is that is doing these terrible things, or of what exactly it is they say that is so awful and wrong.

Vladimir Putin’s Reading List

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Vladimir Putin provided the readers of World War II magazine his suggestions for what to read about the Soviet Union. Given the ongoing debates about falsification of history (see here, here, and here, for example), Putin’s comments are instructive. The English version is here; the Russian version is here.

Putin condemns “any falsifications, any distortions of the history of World War II” as “a personal insult, a sacrilege.” As has become increasingly clear, though, these ritual denunciations of falsification don’t ever actually name individual falsifiers or specify what exactly it is that they have falsified. What had me excited about this message from Putin was the chance to get his sense of who’s doing good history. Sad to say, that opportunity was missed. Putin didn’t name any actual historians, Russian or Western, who are working on the war.

Instead, he suggests novels, all written under the Soviets. This isn’t necessarily bad advice, and he’s not suggesting bad books: Russians certainly know how to write novels, and even the Soviet Union couldn’t quash that. Nonetheless, the authors and books he recommends are quite instructive.

The names Putin gives us are standard figures in the Soviet pantheon of literature, who wrote books on the war that were perfectly politically correct: Konstantin Simonov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Boris Vasiliev, Konstantin Vorobiev, and in particular Vladimir Bogomolov. Bogomolov was a veteran of Soviet military counterintelligence (though there’s some controversy over his military service), and the book that Putin recommends (Moment of Truth, also known as In August 1944) glorifies the work of Smersh (Death to Spies) in restoring Soviet rule in liberated territory.

Two names leap out by their absence: Viktor Nekrasov and Vasilii Grossman. I’ve done no survey, but my sense is that if you asked people who really know literature about the best work to come out of the Great Fatherland War, Nekrasov and Grossman would be the first mentioned. So why doesn’t Putin mention them? I can’t speak for him, but Nekrasov ended up expelled from the Soviet Union and stripped of his citizenship, while Grossman couldn’t get his masterwork Life and Fate published because of the uncomfortable parallels he drew between Nazism and Stalinism. It certainly seems as though Vladimir Putin isn’t comfortable with writers who aren’t comfortable with the Soviet system.

Soviet Union at War now available in the US

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010


The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945
is now available in the US through Casemate, its American distributor. Amazon and other outlets should follow shortly.