The Russian military was so very different during World War Two

Photo, Moscow Military Museum

A long time ago in 1985, in the dying days of the last Soviet gerontocrat Chernenko, just before Gorbachev came to power, I went to Moscow with a small BBC team to make radio   programmes marking the 40th Anniversary of victory in what is to us the Second World War, but is still to Russians today the Great Patriotic War, a war of survival in which 20 to 25 million died.  Events like the Battle of Britain and D Day were  side shows  compared with Stalingrad and the series of colossal offensives  featuring massive tank battles around Kursk and the three battles of Kharkov in Ukraine, now Kharkiv. Scorched earth, civilian massacres and  the sacrifices of  whole armies  unimaginable in the West even during WW1 were its essential characteristics. Exemplary courage in the ranks was reinforced by political cadres in the rear who were under orders to shoot solders tempted to defy orders to stand their ground.

We were commemorating a great wartime alliance that was soon to degenerate into the occupation and oppression of Eastern Europe by Stalin, determined never again to trust a western rival like Hitler and to put as much territory as possible between the Soviet Union and a resurgent Germany. We also wanted to test out the new era of comparative openness introduced by the Helsinki Final Act signed by 27 countries including the USSR, which recognised the frontiers of 1945 as final and promised progress on human rights in the East.  Little did we realise that within four years, every Communist regime would have fallen and within a generation the subjugated nations of the Warsaw Pact would have joined Nato.

Our tests focused on a subject that might have been expected to appeal as much to Soviet commanders and historians as ourselves. But their full cooperation was not to be taken for granted.  The road to total victory had been paved not only by stupendous patriotic effort but appalling mistakes and utter ruthlessness towards not only Germans but the ordinary Soviet soldier.  The presenter was my dear late friend Gordon Clough best known from Radio 4’s World at One, but a fluent Russian speaker and translator of Russian novels.   On national service Gordon had spent time “bobbing about on a boat in the Baltic” listening in to Soviet military traffic. A ban on his entry to the USSR had only recently been lifted.

The lynchpin of the operation was John Erickson,  the celebrated Edinburgh professor who was the leading historian of the Soviet War in any language. He has overcome Russian suspicions  through dogged persistence and a complete objectivity that impressed them.  Contrary to what you might think, the Soviet military welcomed an objective approach and were no more interested in Cold War spin on this subject than Erickson.  The shadow cast over his work by Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 lifted with the success of his Edinburgh Conversations relying on unofficial contacts under John’s sponsorship

The annual East-West talks would see the professor use his contacts to gather powerful state figures around the same table. This unofficial role of mediator would truly come into its own in 1983, when rearmament on both sides of the Iron Curtain led to a “peak” in state paranoia.[12] This period was characterised by events such as the Soviet shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which occurred only sixteen days before the Conversations were due to resume.[13] Despite backlash in both the UK and the U.S.A., Erickson remained adamant that the strictly non-governmental discussions continue as a means of keeping both sides talking.[14] The professor was even successful in introducing an official US presence at these discussions, with former Arms Control Director Eugene Rostow telling a heated British press that “I believe in having talks on serious subjects especially when things are a little stormy”.[1

Insight into Soviet life was uniquely provided by the  Ukrainian born Russian Jew Vitali Grossman whose great documentary  novels Life and Fate and Stalingrad portrayed  this period of unique struggle with a vivid humanity that  defied  censorship while staying just on the right side of  the capricious and ruthless regime.  Life and Fate was only published in 1985, the year of our visit.

What is the point of these reminiscences?

First, amid the praise even the euphoria  for the Ukrainian resistance today lies a  pointed reminder from history that the Russians are capable of making titanic efforts in war to achieve victory. Compared the epic struggles of 1941- 45, the horrors of the last  few weeks are little more than skirmishes.

Second, I saw for myself that Russians generals are not all troglodytes. They are capable of making candid judgements in certain circumstances. In the war  Stalin’s  marshals  were prepared to  overrule  his  early  injunctions to hold  ground at all costs,  unlike German generals with Hitler, although they all knew better. Grossman shows us that the Russian people were capable of heroic effort.   But the fatalism that then pervaded Soviet life has since deepened to sharp cynicism.  Enthusiasm for Putin’s patriotic case for  the invasion of Ukraine  seems muted.   The monster Stalin was deeply mourned as Vozdh or great leader. It’s hard to imagine the same fate for Putin.

The Russian state of Putin is incomparably weaker than that of the USSR of Stalin or even Brezhnev. An ideology however debased was the essential glue that held together a vast network of cronyism and compulsion right up to the point of sudden collapse. Today’s Russians have had their glimpses of freedom of expression and have acquired a taste for western style consumerism that in 1985 was denied to the great majority. The course of Soviet history showed that rule by the ultimate arbitrament of the KGB failed to create long term viability. That is surely even truer today.

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