How the Red Army saved us all

Russia's War by Richard Overy Allen Lane/Penguin Press, pounds 20, 394p p; Robert Service acclaims a broad picture of heroism and heartbreak on the Eastern front
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS little that binds Russians together today. They haggle about Lenin. They disagree about the recent burial of the murdered tsar. They are divided about the break-up of the USSR. They don't know whether they like political democracy and the market. Their national self-confidence is at its nadir.

Yet the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995 found them briefly in unity. Russians took rightful pride in the fact that Hitler would have conquered Europe but for the Red Army's power and valour. In 1941 the German tank units looked as though they would overrun the Soviet Union by Christmas. In 1943, the movement was turning in the opposite direction when Field Marshal Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad and the Wehrmacht was defeated in the battle of Kursk. In 1944 the siege of Leningrad was lifted. In battle after battle the Germans were forced to retreat and in May 1945 the Red Army was the first Allied force to reach Berlin.

No doubt existed among the Allies at the time that Russia's war effort had been the prerequisite for the world to survive the Nazi menace. The endurance and self-sacrifice of Soviet citizens in the Red Army and in the rear were not quickly forgotten.

Yet now it is understandably difficult to accept that Stalin, the Saddam Hussein of his day, may have been responsible for our salvation. While confronting Hitler, Stalin was still busily imprisoning and killing his own people; after 1945, he did the same to Eastern Europe. Moreover, Stalin's economic organisation meant that millions of Soviet citizens had barely enough to eat even in peacetime.

But the internal strengths of the Soviet system were real. Hitler's generals knew that they were up against a competent, well equipped and indefatigable enemy. Indeed, this was among the reasons why Operation Barbarossa was initiated against the USSR in 1941: to have delayed the campaign would have given Stalin the leisure to go on building up an insuperable military capability.

Th tale has often been told. In Britain, John Erickson set the standard in works based on Soviet documentary collections and interviews with survivors. He argued that the Red Army was the product of military efficiency and popular commitment, and Richard Overy writes in the same tradition. He is an expert in Nazi history, and not the least of his virtues is an ability to offer measured judgements on the strengths of the Soviet and German fighting machines.

The book relies on translated Russian material and does not refer to several important works in that language. Yet Russia's War gives a masterly account of the connection between the politics of the Kremlin and the rudimentary conditions of life in the USSR.

Overy scrutinises the country as a comprehensive fighting entity. This is at the centre of his explanation of Soviet victory. The USSR had more people and tanks and aircraft than Germany. It also had the advantage of a huge zone into which the Red Army could retreat. But Overy insists that patriotic enthusiasm for the fight was just as important.

Hitler and Stalin are depicted in all their gruesomeness, but Stalin is given a somewhat easier treatment. Yet Russia's War succeeds in integrating the latest Western publications in a vivid, coherent account. No one in Russia has tried to do this. There, the war is still a controversy about details. The broad picture has been left for foreigners to paint. Overy has risen to the challenge, and a Russian publisher should snap him up. The 25 million Soviet war dead deserve a proper epitaph in their own country.

Robert Service is professor of Russian history and politics at London University; his `History of Twentieth- Century Russia' is now in Penguin