- Stalin’s Guerrillas: Soviet Partisans in World War II
Since the end of World War II, historical interpretation of the Soviet Partisan Movement has shifted seismically from Cold War assessments of military insignificance to an all peoples' war as "mythologized" in Soviet literature as the cult of Joseph Stalin and the war itself.
Kenneth Slepyan's Stalin's Guerrillas offers a persuasive exposé of the movement from a different perspective: its social and political roots, juxtaposed alongside a regime that both needs and fears its existence.
Slepyan begins with an examination of guerrilla warfare during Russia's Civil War, and up to the eve of World War II, showing that partisans as an effective mass movement did not materialize until the exigency of German invasion in 1941. Aware of ethnic tensions, extant in occupied territories, and conscious of his "decapitation" of senior Red Army ranks, Stalin recognized the multifaceted utility of partisans.
Weaving together popular folk tales, cinematic perceptions, partisan songs, and detailed memoirs, Slepyan produces a rich mosaic of social and political life in partisan organizations. Accordingly, in 1941 partisans are disorganized; by 1942 they have a central command structure; and after 1943 they have grown to brigade strength and tactical independence (p. 85). By war's end, partisans form armies, regions, and "fiefdoms," each with distinct "ethnonationalistic" tendencies, and each with commanders brandishing power as "Little Stalins" (p. 230).
Free of Stalin's tyrannical grip yet mindful of their obligation to the state, partisans underwent a metamorphosis as they fielded new identities as new model Soviet citizens fighting to preserve their country and Stalinism. Isolated from Moscow yet inexorably linked through propaganda and Stalin's administrative functionaries, numerous categories came to define their existence in destruction battalions, Red Army stragglers [Okruzhentsy], and women, all grouped under the rubric of people's avengers. One minor criticism is the lack of more detailed information on women partisans.
Slepyan acknowledges one paradox. The war, "despite it horrors became a liberating experience for partisans, allowing them to think and act independently. That independence was far removed from the homo sovieticus of the 1930s" (p. 292).
At the end of the war, partisans were stunned as sanitized versions of their accomplishments relegated their contribution to supportive roles (p. [End Page 1276] 278). Stalin's postwar censorship of memoirs and filtration of partisan leaders through SMERSH created a sense of betrayal and marginalized identities. In short, partisans became a microcosm of endemic disillusionment for many groups in Soviet society who gave much in victory and expected a "pay-off" for their efforts, not a rejuvenated cult of personality.
This well-researched book is "bottom-up" history that exposes the war within war that partisans suffered. It also illustrates the cruelty of partisans against their own brethren.
Commanders vied for control amid fierce competition and had to answer to two masters—the Soviet regime and their own troops.
Kenneth Slepyan adds his name to a growing list of historians whose access to newly opened Russian archives has helped to reexamine specific elements in the Great Patriotic War. In doing so, he vindicates the accomplishments officially denied this group, the important function they performed, and the "imagined community" and identity they sought.