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From Nicholas to Putin: Russia Since 1900: The Great Patriotic War: 1941–1945

By David M. Durant

The Great Patriotic War: 1941–1945

It is impossible to understand the Putin regime or contemporary Russia without examining the Soviet experience of the Second World War. In many ways, the Great Patriotic War, as it would come to be called in the USSR, was a microcosm of Stalin’s rule. The Soviet Union would prevail over a tremendous challenge and expand its empire beyond the farthest western boundaries reached by the Tsars. But it would do so only after many disastrous setbacks and amid endemic levels of inefficiency, incompetence, oppression, and brutality. In the end, it would pay an unimaginably horrific human cost, some twenty-seven million deaths, far more than any other nation at war has ever suffered.

Above all else, the Eastern Front of World War II was the largest and bloodiest armed conflict ever waged. Beginning with the military history of the Great Patriotic War, the best, current single volume is When Titans Clashed by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, published in a revised edition in 2015. Glantz is arguably the foremost historian of the Eastern Front, and he and House produced a richly detailed overview firmly rooted in Russian archives. Also valuable is Jonathan Dimbleby’s 2021 book Operation Barbarossa: The History of a Cataclysm. Dimbleby focuses on the first six months of the war, June through December 1941, which culminated in the German defeat before Moscow. In his view, “it was on the killing grounds of the Eastern Front between June and December 1941 that the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed” (p. 488).

During the Cold War, one of the most challenging areas of scholarship was documenting the experiences of ordinary Soviet citizens, military and civilian, during the Great Patriotic War. As noted earlier, the fall of Soviet communism opened a wealth of primary source materials to Western scholars. As a result, there are now a trio of books that shed valuable light on the social history of ordinary Russians and other Soviet citizens during the war. The essential work on the experiences of Soviet soldiers in World War II is Catherine Merridale’s 2005 classic Ivan’s War. The Nazis occupied large parts of the western USSR, eventually prompting the rise of partisan warfare against the invaders. Historian Kenneth Slepyan produced a seminal work on the partisan experience, Stalin’s Guerrillas. Finally, Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer’s Fortress Dark and Stern offers a groundbreaking look at the Soviet home front.

The great achievement of these three volumes is that they succeed at restoring agency to ordinary Soviet citizens. They were not mindless automatons. They had a variety of reasons for acting as they did. They also knew all too well that Soviet authorities lied to them on a regular basis. To take just one example, Goldman and Filtzer note how the phrase “fighting in the direction of,” featured in official communiqués, soon became recognized as a euphemism for having been driven out of the location in question. Interestingly, both Russian and Ukrainian military communiqués during the present war regularly use this same phrase.

There are a number of other books worth examining on the Soviet experience of World War II. Mark Edele’s Stalinism at War: The Soviet Union in World War II offers an excellent brief overview, including the 1939–1941 period of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the brutal postwar reimposition of Soviet rule in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Alfred J. Rieber’s Stalin as Warlord makes clear the contradictory, or in his words paradoxical, impact of Stalin’s leadership. Through his horrifically brutal and arbitrary actions as autocrat, Stalin simultaneously strengthened and weakened the USSR. The terrible price of victory in 1945 was the result. Finally, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin traces the broader history of how both totalitarian tyrants sought control over Poland, the Baltics, Belorussia, and Ukraine. As with Nicholas II in 1914, both Stalin and Hitler required control of Ukraine to fulfill their respective visions of empire.

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