To Russia, With Whatever

I’ve been on a Russian reading kick for the last while. I know that most people, (well – some of the book reading people) will assume that I’ve embarked on the classics of Russian literature. You know the ones I mean; the incredibly thick books that remain on bookstore shelves until some poor hapless person convinces themselves that they ‘really ought to read…’ These are the books that could maim or kill you if they fell off a shelf onto your head. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sholokov, Solzhenitsyn usually leap to mind before humorists like Sholem Aleichem.

But no, I escaped from the ‘really ought to read’ thoughts and was perusing some Russian history. I studied history for a short while and can attest to the fact that finding historical authors who are actually readable and interesting is as difficult as picking up a pin wearing oven mittens. Of the ones I think can captivate a reader, the late Barbara Tuchman comes high on the list. If you’ve never read her A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century I recommend it highly.

But the period I was looking into was actually the Russian involvement in WWII. With all the recent coverage of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion just passed, who wasn’t moved by the sight of that dwindling band of veterans who fought in that conflict? Our side, our heroes. And it’s quite reasonable to those of us in the west that our own contribution to WWII should dominate our knowledge.

Unfortunately for most of us in the west, the incredible conflicts on the eastern front are sketchy at best. There were two events in particular I was interested in and by happy chance I found a most compelling account of both by Antony Beevor, a wonderful and readable historian. The first is called StalingradThe Fateful Siege and the second is called The Fall of Berlin1945. Both of these events are the preserve of Russian history and it was terrific to find a historian who could bring these events to life using the latest research in Soviet archives and written in English.

Prior to my reading, I knew that the battle for Stalingrad was considered by many historians as perhaps the key turning point in the war. Even Hitler, when told that his army at Stalingrad had surrendered, remarked that it was the end of Germany. But all I really knew was that the German army was halted was Stalingrad. The Germans fought their way into the city without ever capturing it and then had themselves surrounded by another Russian army. Of the close to half a million soldiers in the siege, about five thousand survived.

How did the Russians do it? The first thing that struck me was the quite horrifying way the Soviets treated their own soldiers in the war, let alone their enemies. Their basic strategy depended on the repeated ability to muster an incredible number of men into arms. With new armies springing up where old ones had been mowed down, it seemed like the Russians operated on a basis similar to the famous driver ants of Africa – the ones who flow in the millions, walking over the bodies of their kind when they run into obstacles and eventually destroying everything in their path.

And what really happened to Hitler’s remains? Why did Stalin cover up the findings, keeping it secret even from Zhukov, the Soviet field marshal who commanded the armies that took Berlin? Beevor’s book addresses these questions while outlining the day to day fighting near Berlin as the lunatic in the bunker continued having his murderous orders carried out. Makes for fascinating reading if you’re fond of military history.

For those who think history is a bore, I’ll be back tomorrow in Kanadoodle taking on the Big Onions!

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