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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 122-124

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Amir Weiner, Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fall of the Bolshevik Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. xv 1 516 pp. $39.50.

For those of us who have had regular contact with the Soviet military cohort of 1923—the 18-year-old conscripts who went off to war in 1941—there has never been any question that the war, known officially as the Great Patriotic War, was the defining event of their lives and of their relationship to the Soviet regime. The victory in that war gave the Soviet regime a degree of popular legitimacy that it otherwise could never have attained. The generation of the victors dominated political, cultural, and intellectual life in the Soviet Union for many decades. As Nina Tumarkin pointed out in The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (New York: Basic Books, 1994), the Communist Party's cult of victory put a distinct spin on the meaning of the war. The regime embraced certain popular themes but rejected others and sought to focus attention on its own decisive role in the victory. [End Page 122]

Amir Weiner has written a brilliant book that carries the issue further and shows that the diversity of wartime experiences posed a distinct challenge to the Soviet Communist Party's claims of revolutionary legitimacy. As Weiner observes, the regime's Marxist-Leninist ideology envisaged the building of a utopia using ordinary bricks and straw, ordinary blood and sweat. For the prewar generations the Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war, collectivization, and crash industrialization embodied that impulse even as it led to the systematic destruction of "hostile elements" who supposedly stood in the way of the utopia. Purge and progress were intimately linked. Stalin's contribution was his notion that the struggle with treacherous elements would intensify the closer Soviet society got to the creation of Communism. What the war did to this version of utopia is a fundamental question. Much scholarship has suggested that the war simply legitimized the Soviet model of mature Stalinism. Weiner offers a far more subtle and informative argument regarding the war's impact on party cadres, military veterans, partisans, nationalists, local peasants, and urban dwellers trapped by war, occupation, and liberation.

Weiner focuses on the region around Vynnytsia in Soviet Ukraine. It is here that the various wartime legacies come into play. Weiner examines the Communist Party's own reconstruction in an area that was under German occupation, and he highlights the tension created by the legacy of the Ukrainian partisan movements in the purges of undisciplined elements. He also discusses the prominent role of Red Army veterans in providing cadres for party, state, and collective farms organs, and he notes the determination of higher-party bodies to counter the perceived threat posed by those who had lived under occupation and who collaborated or came under the influence of Nazi or capitalist enticements. In this regard the war became a test of Soviet society, but it also stimulated a distinctly negative interpretation of nationalism in Ukraine. Weiner points out the tensions surrounding the question of nationality in the Soviet polity. He shows how some could find salvation in the Soviet victory, whereas others viewed it as a source of national oppression. Weiner's treatment of the nationalist issue is particularly valuable inasmuch as it provides a compelling explanation for the tendency of the Ukrainian nationalist resistance to see the victory as both a triumph and a betrayal—a triumph of Jewish Bolshevism and a betrayal of Ukrainian national ambitions. Weiner skillfully notes the different sentiments found in western and eastern Ukraine as a result of differing historical, cultural, and demographic legacies. He also shows that the regime's effort to portray the war as having resulted from the contradictions of capitalism led over time to the emergence of a distinct Ukrainian myth of victimization and martyrdom that served...