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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8.1 (2007) 209-214

Reviewed by
Mark Edele
Catherine Merridale, Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945. 462 pp. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006. ISBN 0805074554, $30.00 (cloth); 0312426526, $15.00 (paper).
Aron Shneer, Plen: Sovetskie voennoplennye v Germanii, 1941–1945 [Captivity: Soviet Prisoners of War in Germany, 1941–45]. 620 pp. Moscow: Mosty kul´tury; Jerusalem: Gesharim, 2005. ISBN 5932731958.

The Great Patriotic War, or to put it in Western language—the Soviet experience of World War II in Europe—is having a renaissance among historians. After the long hiatus that followed such classics as Alexander Werth's Russia at War, and after the wave of research on late Stalinism looked at the war years largely from the perspective of their impact on postwar society, more and more historians are now starting to explore the war itself.1 Recently, two new and important additions have been made to this emerging literature on the Soviet experience of World War II: Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War and Aron Shneer's Plen: Sovetskie voennoplennye v Germanii, 1941–1945.2

These are two very different books. Merridale attempts the delicate balancing act of targeting an educated audience beyond academe without losing sight of the latter. Her book is beautifully written, illustrated with [End Page 209] interesting photographs, and minimally footnoted. Following the lead of Elena Seniavskaia, it tells the story of frontline experience from below as well as from the East—a long overdue counterpoint to Omer Bartov's work on the Wehrmacht.3 Shneer's book is at the other end of the spectrum. It is a classical monograph with long, careful, and detailed footnotes, drawing on primary and secondary sources in an impressive range of languages (Russian, German, English, French, Latvian, and Polish). It is targeted to a specialist audience and part of an already established research field: the history of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs).4

In terms of source base and conceptual problems, however, the two volumes have a lot in common. Both combine as wide a range of sources as they can muster—memoirs, letters, diaries (in the case of Merridale), archival evidence, and interviews with survivors. Merridale worked in Russian and German archives and talked to Russian survivors. Shneer worked in Israel, contacting Jewish survivors and exploring the holdings of the Yad Vashem archive—clearly a rich archival repository that more historians of Russia should note. Aside from geographical differences, the two source bases contain similar types of documentation, and both historians attempt to compensate for the problems of one genre by supplementing it with documentation of a different type. The two volumes also share a similar conceptual problem, a problem well known to any historian dealing with group experience: on the one hand, one needs to tell a story common to all; on the other hand, knowledge of a wide variety of primary sources alerts the historian to the many differences cutting across the group. Red Army soldiers were far from undifferentiated. Men of three generations served alongside a significant minority of (mainly young) women; Russians served alongside Ukrainians, Belorussians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Moldavians, Armenians, or Jews (to list just a few); peasants served together with urban dwellers, intelligenty alongside those barely literate; party members served together with non-party people, internationalists alongside antisemites; those who had profited from the Stalin revolution and the Great Terror served alongside those who had been victimized by one or the other or even both of these upheavals. To tell the story of such a diverse group of people, to find a common denominator, to distill a typical experience out of this diversity is a serious challenge to any historian. [End Page 210]

The two books deal with this problem in fundamentally different ways. Merridale starts with the assumption that there is a collective singular—"the true Ivan"—which the historian can set out...


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