- The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II through Objects by Brandon M. Schechter
In her oral history of Soviet women in World War II, Svetlana Alexievich recounted the story of a woman partisan veteran who brought personal memorabilia for the local history museum to display, among the other usual objects of war. These possessions included a blouse and underwear made of parachute silk. The museum curators, however, rejected these clothes, chuckling "Whatever for? Who needs it? What's so heroic about it?"1
Brandon Schechter's The Stuff of Soldiers tells us why these seemingly ordinary things were indeed heroic, as well as much else about the daily lives of Red Army soldiers in the Second World War. This engagingly written history, based on archival sources such as the testimonies contained in the Commission on the History of the Great Patriotic War, and soldiers' memoirs, is a valuable addition to the post-Soviet historiography on the experiences of the Red Army, like Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War (2005) and Roger Reese's Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought (2011). It is not only a thick description of the Soviet military's material culture but it is also an analysis of the role played by objects in the transformation of wartime Soviet society and individuals. This study provides an innovative and unforgettable perspective on what the Great Patriotic War meant for the ordinary men and women who fought in the Red Army's ranks; it illuminates ways that the Soviet state used the war to transform its population, and was itself transformed by the war.
The book's structure elegantly conveys its argument. The chapters first examine the bodies of civilian recruits and how they were transformed into supposedly standardized and modern soldiers, then clothing and equipping these bodies to fight a modern mechanized war, feeding, housing, and arming them. Final chapters look at the personal things soldiers carried, and the underlying cultural meanings and tensions behind the "liberation" (or plundering) of goods taken from foreign civilians as the Red Army stormed into the heart of Germany.
The book covers too much terrain to address adequately in a short review, so I shall focus only on a few themes. A central theme of this study is the way in which soldiers imbued seemingly everyday objects with deep meaning. The simple unassuming spoon, for example, took on great significance for soldiers. It was one of the few objects in a soldier's kit that actually belonged to [End Page 173] the soldier, and recruits were told that they should bring a spoon from home (thus saving the army from having to supply it). Soldiers often decorated their spoons to remember loved ones, whether from home or in the unit, and after the war the spoons were handed down as family heirlooms. But the spoon's importance was, of course, also functional as it was the only eating utensil the soldier had, thus making it essential for nutrition. Hence while spoons lacked the "heroic qualities" museum curators associated with unit banners and weapons, to soldiers they were no less important as both a symbol and a critical piece of equipment. In another chapter, Schechter persuasively shows how the lowly spade was, "after their weapons, the most important item to [soldiers'] survival," as with them soldiers constructed "cities of earth" (trench systems and dugouts), enabling shelter and protection from enemy fire (120).
Yet as Schechter convincingly demonstrates, objects also played their role in the larger Soviet project, namely the attempt to transform Soviet individuals and society itself into something modern, mechanized, and urban. Uniforms, for instance, converted individuals coming from different class, regional, and ethnic backgrounds into a standardized mass army. As most recruits came from a rural or peasant background, the easily produced Red Army uniform and equipment converted them into "modern" Soviet citizens, even as Schechter notes that much of the Red Army's equipment had a "peasant soul" (244...