Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Commentary on "Russia's War" by Richard Overy

I have had great expectations of this book Russia's War by Richard Overy but I had not been able to get around to reading it even two years since I bought it. And so I have finally begun. I see that this book recounts history of the second world war attack on Soviet Russia by Germany. But this is written with Russia, its people, army and polity, in the fore. It leverages some recently released archives to build a complete but not excessively detailed account. It's full of references to monumental sacrifices borne by the russian people and also to their unimaginable bravery, grit and fight against all odds. It all begins with a background of the Communist revolution and the bloody Civil war in 1917-1918. Then it goes on to focus on Stalin's leadership, misery heaped on russian people by a range of calamities, from famines, collective farming, secret police, to purges and torture.

Some of my impressions on reading this book are as follows,

About Soviet psyche : I came closer to understanding the soviet people. I had heard that the soviets are very lovable and gentle people who have borne such a monstrous deal of suffering, sacrifices and bloodshed. I would like to attribute all this to the russians specifically even if I write "Soviet". The soviet army did fight ferociously in the war, dumbfounded the germans who thought it was all suicidal. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, it was widely expected to win in less than a few months even in the minds of observers as far away as in the US. The germans had won most of Europe in less than 18 months and had tremendous momentum going for them. The soviet army was supposed to be a primitive fighting force and a the country full of semi-asiatic people, they were the proverbial underdogs. I just love to see an underdog getting into a fight, against all odds and making history. Prof. Overy has made a case for the soviets by giving them due for forcing a win over Germany. This conflicted with my understanding hitherto that it was primarily the bitter russian winter and a series of blunders by Hitler that made Germany lose the war. So its not that Germany just lost the war, the Soviets did something to win it. Improvisation, military reforms, and massive hard work did it for the soviets. In recent times, reports of mathematical skills among soviets are abound, they have been among some notorious criminal hackers in the computing world.

Soviet feeling of being understated by Westerners : There is persistent mention in this book of the soviets being underestimated by the western powers. On one occasion, the soviets were not invited for peace talks with Germany. Above all, there is an unmistakable expression of disdain and racial/ethnic hatred among the germans and the british reserved for the russians. The Soviet Union suffered 80 % of the casualties among all the allied powers. Germany too had most of the defences lined up against the soviets compared to the british and americans. So even as I feel that the Britsh losses in second world war more than anything else won India its independence, its the german defeat at the hands of the soviets, more than anything else, that won the allies the world war.

Numbers of people dead, vanquished : The numbers are just mind-numbing. Just how cheap a soviet life was ! The pages are full of mention of thousands and millions of lives lost. By the time I finished, I could not really recollect some infamous massacres, like the one in Katyin forest of the Polish nationalists. I am certain that in spite of so many invasions that my country, India has faced, there has been no war or massacre or plunder that comes anywhere near half as close as what the soviets suffered.

Stalin : This is the personality at the centre of the russian response to German aggression. As in many other books, Stalin is a mysterious, power hungry, unpredictable and extremely cruel being. To me, Stalin appears to be an almost legendary master at accumulating power, setting people against each other, taking credit for others' achievements. But most notable is Stalin's capability to retain supreme power even as he goes on extracting bloody scarifices out of everyone. He vanquished ("purged" is the apt word) not only the obvious enemies of the collective farming (rich peasants or Kulaks) but also ukranians, minorities, intellectuals, army, and even the Communist party itself. He arrested and exiled the wife of a serving army general. Not even the celebrated Marshal Zhukov was spared of Stalin's caprice, hysterical suspicion and pathological cruelty. He let the secret police arrest, torture and kill any threatening opponents and then also proceeded to purge the secret police themselves ! Am reminded of Martin Amis (in "Koba, the dread"), where he says that Stalin was exceptionally harsh on Ukranians, Jews, minorities, and also georgians. Wonder what, Stalin was himself a Georgian. He hated his son because his son was a georgian, and his son was georgian because Stalin was georgian. Amis writes all this with remarkable effect.

Finally, I loved reading this book. Towards the end, Stalin dies. Beria is executed. The book has a slight documentary feel to it (has ample tables on wartime figures and maps but maps are tacky). Not quite as colourful and expressive as Martin Amis's piece (Koba, the dread). But Prof. Overy has changed some of the impressions I had about the war and also showed how the Russians actually did it. It challenges some myths about Stalin, particularly the manner he bowed to several of his generals' wartime decisions in time of crisis. The end is poignant too. Final assertion in the book is that even as the war was won and the soviet people had a momentary sweet taste of victory but the despotic oppression lasted much beyond the war.