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Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought: The Red Army's Military Effectiveness in World War II.

Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought: The Red Army's Military Effectiveness in World War II. By Roger R. Reese. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011. Pp. xix, 386. $37.50.)

Why did Stalin's soldiers fight? What compelled them to risk their lives for a regime that was directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of their fellow citizens in the decade before the war? Were the mass surrenders of Red Army soldiers a reflection of political opposition to the Soviet state? In short, can we use the behavior of Red Army soldiers to measure the popular legitimacy of Stalin's Soviet Union? Roger R. Reese argues that, given the complexity and variety of reasons why Soviets fought in the Second World War, this last question cannot be answered. However, he does provide an extraordinarily rich analysis of why Stalin's soldiers fought and also why they, at times, did not.

The author of several social histories on the Red Army, Reese relies on newly available memoirs and websites containing veterans' firsthand accounts to describe and analyze the experiences of Red Army soldiers from recruitment to combat. Reese devotes separate chapters to the Red Army in the "Winter War" with Finland (which he argues served as an overlooked precedent for what occurred in the Second World War) and to the phenomenon of encirclement in 1941-1942, in which millions of soldiers were captured. Ensuing chapters focus on mobilization and the ways in which fear and coercion, propaganda, leadership, material and psychological incentives, and personal relationships affected Red Army military effectiveness and morale. The final section explores the motivations and experiences of the more than eight hundred thousand women who donned the Soviet uniform.

Although Reese agrees that political motivations, both supporting and opposing the Soviet regime, influenced some of its soldiers' willingness to fight, he finds that other factors were far more compelling, especially in the midst of combat. Certain social groups, such as educated urban Russian youth, tended to be more enthusiastic recruits than peasants, older citizens, and non-Russians, who often found ways to delay their entry into the armed forces. He also notes that, as in other armies, factors such as the quality of leadership, the availability of food and military equipment, and awareness of mission heavily influenced soldiers' morale and their willingness to fight. Indeed, he argues that the mass surrenders of 1941 resulted much more from the specific military and logistical situations than from political alienation from the regime. Russian patriotism and the desire for revenge drove many others to fight. Following other recent works, Reese contends that the idea that the notorious "blocking detachments" played a significant role keeping Red Army soldiers in the field was "essentially a myth," although he observes that Soviet soldiers nevertheless faced an impressive and often terrifying coercive apparatus (175). Reese argues that many Soviet women fought for the same reasons as men. The historical precedent of Russian women fighting in World War I and the Civil War and the explicit acknowledgment of socialist calls for women's equality with men both influenced women to serve and compelled the regime to allow them to fight at the front. Their experiences stood in stark contrast to that of women in other contemporary military forces, who were prevented from manning the firing line.

Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought is a significant addition to the growing number of works on Soviet soldiers' experiences in the Second World War. Reese's investigation avoids easy stereotypes and instead explores the complex motivations that impel men and women to risk their lives and those of others, at times, to seek safety. It should also be read by those interested in comparative analyses with other World War II armies or those hoping to enhance their understanding of the relationship between motivation and combat.

Kenneth Slepyan

Transylvania University
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Author:Slepyan, Kenneth
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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