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Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945

A-Ivan’sWarFor years, Russia’s official version of its role in World War II was a patriotic whitewash. Though the tally of their losses (some eight million men) and much of their blundering military strategy were known, the saga of the ground soldiers’ day-to-day deprivations was buried deep inside Soviet archives. Unearthed at last by British historian Catherine Merridale, it is a gruesome tale. Wedged between a significantly better-prepared German army and Soviet officers watching for deserters, the 30 million soldiers trained only with wooden guns (Stalin didn’t want peasants to have live ammunition) were ill equipped (helmets served as shovels and pots for boiling potatoes) and embittered at their loss of land under collectivization. Once the tide of war turned at Stalingrad, these resentful peasants turned their rage on German citizens, a macabre coda to this tale of brutal heroism.
Metropolitan Books. 480 pages. $30. ISBN: 0805074554

Spectator (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The lucid, systematically referenced, perceptive and sensitive narrative that Merridale has produced on this basis places her in the front rank of contemporary historians and carves out for her a niche of her own. I doubt if anyone will ever get nearer to Ivan than Merridale has done." Noble Frankland

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a powerful, intimate, and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of the archetypal Russian infantryman who suffered greatly, often at the hands of his own countrymen." Brad Knickerbocker

Foreign Affairs 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Not surprisingly, she finds it difficult to penetrate the psychological shields war veterans erected. Nonetheless, she succeeds admirably in fashioning a compelling portrait, helped immensely by her talent as a writer." Robert Legvold

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"She provides a coherent picture of the tactical decisions and industrial adjustments that altered the course of the war, and at the same time focuses on how such changes were reflected in the day-to-day experiences and feelings of the troops on the ground." William Grimes

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The one glaring fault is the publisher’s: The book has only one map, with none of the front lines and little black arrows standard in military histories. Merridale includes a fine description of the greatest tank battle of the war, at Prokhorovka, but the place is not on the map. A decent military map would have shown the reader not only where it is, but would show instantly why the battle was fought there." Bruce Ramsay

Critical Summary

Doing research in the Soviet archives seems like a trying task, but critics revere the work Catherine Merridale did to prepare Ivan’s War. The professor from Queen Mary, University of London, conducted over 200 interviews with Soviet veterans and visited major battle sites, but the most enlightening information came from tireless vetting of diaries, transcripts, and officers’ reports. That Merridale can plait all this information into "an attempt to fathom war’s meaning, effect and legacy" (Foreign Affairs) proves her acuity as a social historian, a skill she displayed previously with the admirable Night of Stone (2002). Only a curious absence of maps mars an otherwise compelling testament to these tragic, unsung warriors.