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Issue 43, November 1999

Russia's War

By Richard Overy, Penguin, 1998, £20
Reviewed by Dylan Murphy

RICHARD OVERY's book is a fine accompaniment to the BBC War of the Century series chronicling the Russian-German conflict during world war two.

Overy provides a fascinating account, revealing how the Soviet Union was able to defeat the German Wehrmacht which, in 1941, had the best trained and most well equipped troops in the world, as well as the vast resources and manpower of a subjugated Europe at its disposal.

Overy starts with a brief description of the development of the Soviet Red Army from the October revolution of 1917 up to the highly damaging purges of the late 1930s. Then Red Army leadership was decimated by a wave of arrests and executions, which greatly weakened its effectiveness as a fighting force. This occurred at a time when German fascism was preparing for a full-scale invasion of the first workers' state in the world.

The author describes in a dramatic manner the disasters which befell the Red Army during the year which followed the German invasion of 1941, when it lost over six million soldiers to the Nazi onslaught. As Overy reveals, the Red Army defeats of this period, which brought the Wehrmacht to the gates of Moscow, can be largely put down to the incompetent military leadership of Stalin, whose interference in the work of the Red Army commanders only served to turn Russian retreats into full-scale military disasters. Overy also gives credit to the tactical brilliance of German military commanders, whose mastery of rapid mechanised warfare was unsurpassed during 1941-42.


During the winter of 1941-42, when the Wehrmacht was laying siege to both Moscow and Leningrad, the Soviet Union appeared close to defeat. Yet by the spring of 1943, the balance of forces on the Eastern Front had been transformed decisively in favour of the Red Army. Overy puts this down to two interlinked processes.

The Russian economy was completely reorganised during the winter of 1941-42 as German troops pressed over 500 miles into Soviet territory. Thousands of factories were dismantled and moved to the Urals and Western Siberia. The entire population was mobilised on a vast scale into war production and the armed forces, which were made up of the Red Army and the partisan units operating behind German lines. Overy pays tribute here to the critical role played by the state-owned planned economy in the successes of the Soviet armed forces. Despite the loss of most of its highly industrialised western regions, the Soviet planned economy displayed a great flexibility and organisational power that enabled it to out-produce the vast German economy. By 1943 the Soviet Union was out-producing Germany in the critical areas of aircraft, tank, and artillery production.

The other factor, following the massive defeats of 1941-42, was that the Stalinist bureaucracy which governed the Soviet Union was forced to ease its iron grip on Russian society. As Overy notes: 'The emergency freed many Soviet officials, managers and soldiers from an atmosphere of passivity and fear of responsibility'. On both the military and home fronts, this led to a period of 'spontaneous de-Stalinisation', which unleashed the long suppressed initiative and creativity of the Soviet people at all levels, ranging from Red Army generals down to factory workers. This led to a great improvement both in the morale and efficiency of the armed forces and the military economy, which were temporarily freed from the dead weight of bureaucratic control.


As Overy points out, despite the significance of the Anglo-American role on the Western Front, it was events on the Eastern Front which broke the back of the German war machine. Over 80% of German battle casualties were on the Eastern Front where the overwhelming weight of the Wehrmacht was concentrated. The Soviet Union 'had to win its war'. The German leaders never expected the Soviet Union to recover its economic and military strength following the devastating losses of 1941-42.

Russia's War looks at the course of the Eastern Front from the point of view of the Red Army troops and partisans, and the ordinary Russian peasants and workers. It also notes the high price which the Soviet people paid for the heroic role they played in the defeat of fascist barbarism. Recent estimates by Russian scholars put Soviet war dead at over 25 million.

Despite its somewhat dry academic style, and some rather poor military maps, Russia's War proves how it was the Soviet Red Army that was largely responsible for defeating Hitler's armies.

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