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Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 Hardcover – January 24, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 98 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Thirty million men and women served in the Red Army during WWII. Over eight million of them died. Living or dead, they have remained anonymous. This is partly due to the Soviet Union's policy of stressing the collective nature of its sacrifice and victory. It also reflects the continuing reluctance of most Soviet veterans to discuss their experiences—in sharp contrast to German survivors of the Eastern Front. Merridale, professor of history at the University of London, combines interviews, letters and diaries with research in previously closed official archives to present the first comprehensive portrait of the Red Army's fighters. She carefully details the soldiers' age and ethnic diversity, and she puts a human face on a fact demonstrated repeatedly by retired U.S. officer and Soviet military expert David Glantz: the Red Army learned from the experience of its near-collapse in 1941, and by 1945 its soldiers were more than a match for their Wehrmacht opponents. Most poignantly, Merridale reveals that frontline soldiers increasingly hoped their sacrifices would bring about postwar reform—"Communism with a human face." What they got instead was a Stalinist crackdown—and a long silence, broken now by this outstanding book. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

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.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (January 24, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805074554
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805074550
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #381,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. A Forczyk VINE VOICE on March 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Catherine Merridale, a professor of contemporary history at the University of London, has written a nuanced social history of the Soviet soldier in the Second World in Ivan's War. This volume is not a military history and readers expecting such will be disappointed, but Merridale does offer an insightful glance into the soul of "Ivan" - the "G.I. Joe" of the Red Army. Overall, Ivan's War does provide context that is often lacking in other works about the East Front and this is a worthy effort, although the results that Merridale does achieve are open to debate. The main idea that Merridale's work conveys is that the sacrifices made by both the Soviet soldiers and citizens were betrayed by a Stalinist regime that saw them as only "little cogs in a machine." In the end, thanks to Ivan's tenacity, Merridale writes, "the motherland was never conquered" by the fascists but it had been enslaved by its own communist leaders.

The driving concept between this type of approach to history is to use oral accounts from veterans to add texture to broad themes that the author can then develop. To be honest, Merridale does not seem to have much flair for oral history and too many of her accounts are rather tepid. I get the impression that the Soviet vets either didn't want to talk to her since she was a foreigner - she hints at this - and those men she did interview were not the most desirable subjects. Given the availability of better Soviet accounts that have appeared since the fall of Communism, I find it hard to believe that Merridale could not have gotten some better material. Readers should note that Merridale's examination of "Ivan" is far from comprehensive - not only are there no accounts from the Red Air Force or Navy, but important branches such as artillery and cavalry are all but ignored.
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Format: Hardcover
Merridale has written an excellent social history of the Red Army and why Russian soldiers continued to fight throughout the war. Merridale believes that songs about missing loved ones,a personal faith in God, and a belief that Stalin's Russia would change after the war contributed to the fighting spirit of the Red Army soldier. Merridale also describes vividly the hell of the battle of Kerch in which thousands of Russian soldiers suffocated to death and Kursk in which tank crewmen suffered serious burns to their bodies. Merridale also writes about how these soldiers missed and distrusted their wives and this sense of sexual frustration ultimately contributed to the raping of Berlin in 1945. The only weakness of Merridale's book is that she leaves out the works by Dale Herspring which detail how commissars kept alive the morale of Russian soldiers and skims over the works by Robert Thurston who states how the Red Army soldier fought the war for ideological purposes. Despite these flaws this an important contribution to the study of the wartime Red Army.
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This is a great book; it's been well-reviewed both in the press and here on Amazon.

However, the reviews have failed to mention what I found to be one of the most important features of the book: The significant lacunae in the historical record of the Red Army. Merridale shows how completely the historical reality of the Red Army experience has been replaced by the state-sanctioned mythology. Merridale describes sorting through the archives, sealed for sixty years, and finding that even the confidential reports by the internal Party spies are filled with bland pious generalities. Even as they were fighting and dying, the Army was selectively editing its official memory, removing any evidence of venality, cowardice, war crimes, insubordination and so on.

More disturbingly, the veterans Merridale interviews have edited their own memories, often describing scenes from propaganda movies as if they actually experienced them first-hand. Merridale's sympathetic treatment of the veterans' accounts makes this crime against memory all the more disturbing. In fact, Merridale's most vivid primary sources are the letters and diaries of front-line soldiers (most of whom were killed in action), preserved by grieving families.

In an odd way, Merridale's book is the perfect complement to a political-theoretical book like Hannah Arendt's "Totalitarianism". Arendt describes how the totalitarian state can control every aspect of human existence. Merridale shows that this control extended even to the chaos and relative freedom of the front line.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a pretty well-written book, probably worth reading for anyone interested in modern Russia or the Great Patriotic War (the Eastern Front of World War II).

First, it is important to point out that this book is not a work of military history, so if that's what you're expecting you'll be pretty disappointed.

Second, I think one of the blurbs on the book states that the author conducted over 200 interviews in writing the book. This may be the case, but the author seems to rely on perhaps a half dozen of these interviews for much of her anecdotal content. Most of the rest of her content seems to come from letters written by soldiers killed during the war, which are quoted extensively. To me, this heavy reliance on such letters is a weakness, because of the unknown effects of anticipated censorship or actual self-censorship. Who knows what Ivan really wanted to say to his family in the rear? Also, it seems possible that even today many of the families which retain such letters would be reluctant to disclose some letters for fear of their Ivan being seen as unpatriotic, etc.

Third, people already familiar with Russian WWII history are unlikely to learn very much from this book.

Fourth, as pointed out by other reviewers, I don't think that the book is particularly well-organized.

Overall this is a worthy book on a topic which has not received the attention that it deserves. Moreover, given the age of most of the veterans, it might be one of the last opportunities for such a work. That said, for an understanding of Russia and its society during the war, I would probably recommend Alexander Werth's excellent RUSSIA AT WAR over this book.
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