Greatness and Misery of the Red Army, (J. Lopez and L Otkhmezuri)

Often the treatment of what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War boils down to a great story of titanic battles and various atrocities illustrated with cold statistics. In their work The grandeur and misery of the Red Army, Jean Lopez and Lasha Otkhmezuri offer us another vision of conflict. A vision drawn from the unpublished testimonies of 12 veterans of Stalin's army, a vision that brings the human back to the center of an inhuman experience.

Structure and content of the book

The greatness and misery of the Red Army, offers us 12 testimonies from Soviet veterans, ten of which come from telephone and face-to-face interviews, carried out by the authors during the spring and summer of 2010. Two testimonies come from different sources, one of extracts from one book of memories and the other from a floppy disk that remained confidential for more than 10 years.

These 12 testimonies (one of them being that of a woman and not just any since it is about Elena Bonner, wife of the famous dissident Sakharov and died on June 18) are those of people of venerable age (between 85 and 92 years old) whose authors are aware that the memories can be uncertain. Thus frequent footnotes will direct the reader to a comparison between historical facts and their perception by veterans.

Obviously subjective, the testimonies presented give pride of place to emotions and passions which can only resurface when evoking the trials of the period. We will also remember the will of the authors to place the veterans in a historical context broader than the Second World War, letting them evoke both Soviet Stalinist and post-Stalinist society. For the figure of the all-powerful Soviet leader is omnipresent, if only implicitly, throughout this work.

On a more political level, Jean Lopez and Lasha Otkhmezuri offer us a panel which, without wanting to be representative, remains an interesting illustration of the differences of opinion regarding the Great Patriotic War and the Stalinist regime. While some speak of the Soviet Union at the time with a certain nostalgia, others readily castigate it.

It should also be noted that the profiles of the veterans and the experiences related are quite different. We find ordinary soldiers, officers, but also prisoners of war. Some are Jews, others Ukrainians, one of them is even Georgian and will do much of the war in German uniform. Note that despite the diversity of their origins (often modest) a number of them, in one form or another, experienced literary activity after the war.

“For Stalin! Or "Your mother!" "?

A question that resurfaces in the book, that of the battle cry of Soviet soldiers at the time of the charge. "For Stalin!" (or for the motherland) or "Your mother!" (Mat! )? Most veterans respond with the second solution and this remains emblematic of the interest of the book, which is that of going beyond the classic readings of the Great Patriotic War.

Because here the words of the veterans paint us the portrait of an abominable conflict certainly, but far removed from the myths resulting from all an imagery forged by propaganda. The then Red Army and an unflattering reflection of the USSR. Paradoxically, more inegalitarian than her Germanic enemy (one has only to compare the treatment of men by their officers to be convinced of this) she is also described to us as undermined by corruption, sexism and racism.

Whether it is the inconsistency and rapacity of officers, alcoholism, the more or less institutionalized prostitution of female recruits and discrimination against anything that is not Russian, the Stalin's army is a reflection of the society that created it. All the frustrations engendered by the Soviet system find expression in the barbaric outlet that is the great patriotic war.

Equally brutal was the experience at the front, marked by a painful apprenticeship of modern warfare through a military system that narrowly escaped destruction in the first 6 months of the conflict. Because it is one of the main interests of Greatness and misery of the Red Army, than to tell us why, according to Soviet veterans, they won over what they often consider to be the best army in the world.

Their response is both frightening and instructive. The broken Soviet citizen, brought down as a brute by the totalitarian Stalinist machine, was best prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. The Red Army, more than its German opponent, was prepared to pay the exorbitant price of victory. And the most astonishing remains although executioners and victims, convinced of the justice of their fight, made common cause to win ...

If the book remains uncompromising as to the darkest aspects of the veterans' war experience (thus the crimes committed by the Soviets in Germany during the last months of the war are crudely exposed), it goes beyond this simple framework by presenting us the trajectories before and after the conflict of the veterans. The worst (famine, deportations, the concentration camp experience) and brighter aspects are mixed in. Veterans often benefit from training that opens up new intellectual horizons for them. Surprisingly, the shadow of great culture, whether Russian or German, hangs over this work.

Our opinion

Reading The grandeur and misery of the Red Army is a trying and educational experience. There is something to tremble at the evocation of the cruelty of an era that cannot be found only in the din of fighting. Beyond this aspect, this book is interesting in more ways than one, because it brings the individual back to the center of an experience that we think has been crushed by the shock of totalitarianisms. There are beautiful portraits of women and men, whose sometimes uncertain memory makes us grasp the reality of the war in the East, free from the myths of propaganda. Putting words on an unimaginable experience for us Westerners, this book is ultimately a very good complement to academic readings on the Great Patriotic War.

J LOPEZ and L OTKHMEZURI, The grandeur and misery of the Red Army, Seuil, Paris, 2011.

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