Journal of Cold War Studies 6.2 (2004) 86-88
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Alexander O. Chubaryan and Harold Shukman, eds., Stalin and the Soviet-Finnish War, 1939-1940. London: Frank Cass, 2002. 301 pp. $80.00.
This book is an English translation of the verbatim record of a high-level meeting in Moscow on 14-17 April 1940 regarding the performance of the Red Army in the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 (or the Winter War, as the Finns call it). Together with key Soviet Politburo members, such as Josif Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Kliment Voroshilov, the participants consisted of Soviet army commanders who had taken part in the campaign. The tone of the meeting was unexpectedly self-critical, and it is clear from the minutes that the Soviet officials genuinely wanted to learn from mistakes made in the war. Although Stalin and his associates were not about to accept any responsibility for these mistakes, they did not gloss over the Red Army's deficiencies in combat readiness. To be sure, the Stalin cult was not wholly absent from the meeting. As one participant put it, "Each soldier went to fight with the great name of Comrade Stalin on his lips, the name that was the great banner of victory, inspired heroism, and was a great example of how one should love our homeland and struggle for it" (p.9). But this example, and several others (pp.151-152, 218), are more the exception than the rule.
As is well known, the Red Army grossly underestimated the scale of Finnish resistance to the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939 (pp.4, 18). The Soviet Union ultimately won the war, but only after three-and-a-half months of fierce combat and extensive bloodshed. The costly success and flawed performance of the Red Army damaged the international stature of the Soviet Union. To Stalin's unpleasant surprise, it was revealed at the meeting that the peacetime army did not require its soldiers to conduct field exercises at temperatures below minus 15 degrees centigrade (p.20) and allowed them to take an hour's nap in the afternoon (p.252). Such "kindness" toward the army was, of course, denounced as a source of great disciplinary weakness. Because of the experience of the Soviet-Finnish War, the Soviet government decided to strengthen its command staff and accelerate the modernization of the army. There was not much time to implement these reforms before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, but the Soviet government made a belated effort to redress the lack of preparedness exposed in the campaign against Finland (pp.78, 96-97, 269-271).
This is not a book for the general reader, and, frankly, even specialists may find it at times boring. After all, the meeting itself take up most of the text; the minutes are strictly devoted to military strategy and tactics, and repetitions abound. It gives [End Page 86] nocomprehensive account of the campaign itself but only complements it. The non- specialist would be better off consulting Carl van Dyke's The Soviet Invasion of Finland, 1939-40 (London: Frank Cass, 1997), before venturing into this jargon-filled terrain. The title of the book is also slightly misleading. True, Stalin plays an active role in the meeting, even if his comments are often short and banal—"Our staffs must be taught to work in difficult war conditions and understand the combat situations" (p.97)—and he ends the meeting with a long speech on military policy. Nevertheless, the army commanders are the main actors in this story: it is mostly a summary of their experiences, successes, and, not least, failures.
Despite the narrow focus, the book is a worthy contribution to the study of Soviet military thinking. It illuminates the tactics used by the Red Army and the lessons drawn from its chastening experience in the Soviet-Finnish War. The foreword (by Alexander Chubaryan) and introduction (by Harold Shukman) put the text into a much needed historical perspective. One of the main reasons for...