Archive for the ‘Journals’ Category

Soviet urban warfare and the development of doctrine

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

For obvious reasons, urban warfare has been quite the rage lately.  For a conference a few years ago looking at what was then called MOUT–”military operations on urban terrain,” I put together a piece on the evolution of Soviet thinking about urban combat leading up to the battle of Stalingrad.  The conference volume fell through, so I just published the piece in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies in the second issue of 2009 (volume 22).

One of the things that struck me in doing the piece was how improvised Soviet urban doctrine was in 1942.  I’d like to blame it on the purges, the usual suspect when bad thinking pops up, but the roots go much deeper than that.

Pre-war Soviet doctrine simply hadn’t thought much about urban warfare.  Oriented to the offensive, the Red Army presumed that the cities it encountered would be foreign, and that the poor and working class of those cities would naturally assist it with reconnaissance and such. Needless to say, this proved unhelpful under the actual circumstances of the war.

The first months of the war didn’t provide many practical lessons for fighting in cities.  As I put it in the article, the Soviets conducted lots of “defense of cities, not defense in cities.”  Forced into defending Stalingrad inside the city itself, the Soviets found that this worked remarkably well.

There was certainly a learning process.  The one thing the Soviets did get from pre-war doctrine was an emphasis on individual strongpoints–ochagovaia defense.   This turned out to be too easy for the Germans to reduce systematically.  Improved material circumstances–tanks, artillery, mines, demolition charges–went along with a doctrinal shift to a connected defense network–sploshnaia defense.  The improvement this represented, along with tactical innovations like hugging close to German lines to reduce air attack, and engaging in constant small-scale spoiling counterattacks to disrupt German operations (one good inheritance from pre-war doctrine), produced success.

The other thing worth noting, I think, is just how much Soviet success at Stalingrad depended on individual soldiers.  Storm groups (shturmovye gruppy) were a platoon or so, and the storming sub-groups (shturmuiushchie podgruppy) that forced entry into defended buildings were 6-8 men.  The standard line on the Soviet military has always been that it suffered from a lack of individual initiative.  Clearly, something very different was going on in the streets of Stalingrad.

The Journal of Slavic Military Studies

Friday, July 18th, 2008

As the only English-language print journal devoted to Russian & East European military history and defense issues, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (JSMS) is an essential and highly regarded resource for professional scholars and graduate students. Despite its status as a peer-reviewed academic publication, JSMS has a great deal to offer non-academics as well.

The Journal features readable articles on topics relating to war, diplomacy, and espionage; authoritative reviews of related scholarly and trade books; discussions of works- and research-in-progress; and historically informed analysis of contemporary developments as well as translations of recently released archival documents otherwise unavailable in English.

The Journal’s editors (whose numbers include more than a few “Frontoviki“) are hardly constrained by conventional academic models. They encourage North American and European scholars at all stages of their careers to contribute articles, notes, and related items for consideration of publication. Whether you are a senior scholar, young graduate student, or lay reader interested in the military history of Eastern Europe and the lands of the former Soviet Union,  The Journal of Slavic Military Studies should be considered “must” reading.

For more information on JSMS (including recent Tables of Contents and instructions on subscribing) stop by the Journal’s official website.

What is to be Done?

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

[This is the final part of a four-part series of posts concerning "The Past, Present, and Possible Future of Russian History in America." For background information on this series, click here. Previous installments: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three]

What is to be Done?

For scholars who have themselves been forced to curtail (or forego altogether) archival work owing to a lack of institutional support, the relative decline in research money available to Russian historians may seem inconsequential. It may even occasion a not altogether unjustifiable case of schadenfreude. After all, having long benefited disproportionately from federal largess, scholars of Russia, it stands to reason, have little business whining about declining federal support as governmental attention shifts elsewhere.

Still, while it is certainly true that Russian historians have for many years enjoyed access to funds not available to their colleagues studying, say, Britain, France, or Germany, it is likewise true that Russian historians do not have now (nor are they likely anytime in the near future to have) access to the kind of research support typically sponsored by Western European governments. Given how little the Russian state has done to support the work of its own native scholars, it is hard to imagine that it would ever consent to subsidizing research conducted by foreign graduate students and academics. What would happen to American Ph.D. programs in European history if, over the course of the next five years, the governments in Paris and Berlin reduced by one-half the number of Chateaubriand and DAAD fellowships available to U.S. scholars and graduate students needing to work in French and German archives? This may well be the fate awaiting Russian historians.

Revenge of the Nationalities?

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

[This is the third of a four-part series of posts concerning "The Past, Present, and Possible Future of Russian History in America." For background information on this series, click here. Previous installments: Part One and Part Two]

Revenge of the Nationalities?

Despite the impressive work being done in the broad subfields of cultural, political, social, and military history, the most important trend to have emerged since 1991 has been the growing interest in the geographic and cultural “peripheries” of both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Recently awakened to the place of non-Russian ethnic groups in the history of the country (thanks to their role in the collapse of the USSR) and increasingly influenced by the methodologies of geographers, anthropologists, ethnographers, and comparative sociologists, erstwhile Russian historians and newly emerging scholars have been at the forefront in developing scholarship relating to ethnicity and nationality within Russia proper and in those regions that Russians today refer to as their “near abroad:” Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Military History is Not Dead Yet

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Following up on David Stone’s “Glass Half-Full” piece of 30 August, I submit the following conclusion to a commentary that will appear in a special January 2008 issue of The Russian Review devoted to the Russo-Japanese War. My piece is one of three commentaries written in response to three articles on the conflict, two of which are in the realm of cultural history. The other is by a social historian. As you can see, I had the same thought as David when I read Robert Townsend’s piece in Perspectives last January. I would be interested to know if there are any military historians in our field who do feel beleaguered.

None of the three essays directly addresses military history. This fact might well confirm the worst fears of its practitioners, who periodically lament their field’s decline. In a recent editorial, the Classics scholar Victor David Hanson lamented “the loneliness of the military historian,” a sentiment shared by Frederick Kagan in his essay, “Why Military History Matters.” The discipline incontestably suffered in North America as a result of Vietnam War-era distaste for armed conflict. However, a recent American Historical Association study demonstrates that between 1975 and 2005 the number of history departments on U.S. campuses with at least one specialist in the field has risen from 29.9 percent to 36.2 percent. The study of war has also benefited from the growing awareness among scholars that social, cultural, intellectual, and other disciplinary approaches not commonly associated with the former both enrich the former and enhances its legitimacy. In this regard, the three essays should encourage the military historian in the knowledge that she or he is not so lonely after all.

-from David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, “Rewriting the Russo-Japanese War: A Centenary Retrospective” The Russian Review 67 (Forthcoming in January 2008), 87.