This week I had several reminders of that unsung "Proletariat of Comrades" known as the Red Army. A colleague at work lent me a copy of a book called Ivan's War about the experience of Soviet soldiers in the Great Patrotic War and at the same time my copy of the latest Tide of Iron expansion -- Fury of the Bear arrived.
Both were thought provoking. To a large extent, of course, it's a common observation that no one who have not been in combat can understand it. The true experience of the combat veteran is probably beyond the ken of mere words to ever express. But even among the inadequate words written about World War II combat the experiences of the Soviet soldier are especailly egnimatic. Nearly all we know comes from their opponents and the official Soviet line -- neither of which is reliable. So Ivan's War, which is based mostly on interviews with survivors and wartime letters and documents, fills a much-needed niche.
It's a fascinating read, filled with compelling stories and unimaginable tragedy. Yet, in the end, it's an unfulfilling work in many ways. As the author admits herself, so much time has passed, too many didn't survive and the official Soviet line is a convenient narrative for too many, for us to be certain we've gotten close to the truth. It seems unlikely they'll ever be a "Saving Private Ryan" or "Band of Brothers" for the Soviet side of the story, although "Enemy at the Gates" isn't bad.
As primarily a social and oral history Ivan's War is light on the nitty gritty organizational and tactical factors that affected the Soviet performance on the battlefield. It contains enough "big picture" to provide context for the overall narrative but few details. Although the book documents the appalling casualty differential between the Soviets and the Germans, it doesn't really explain how it came about. One wishes she had asked the old soldiers more about exactly how much training they received before they saw combat, for example, or how tactical "lessons learned" reached them.
One can glean from the book however, that many Soviet soldiers, especially the drafts in late 1941 and 1942 and the recruits swept up during the liberation of former Soviet territory probably got hardly any formal training at all. So it's hardly surprising that they had such diffculty matching the Germans (who, in contrast, were religious about maintaining the quality of training despite every difficulty).
Which make it interesting to see that on a squad-stand by squad-stand basis, the Soviet troops in Fury of the Bear are equal to the Germans. An interesting call and one I'm hoping to see the implcations of shortly.