Ivan's War Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

Catherine Merridale




Trade Paperback

480 Pages


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A Choice Outstanding Academic Title They died in vast numbers, eight million soldiers shattered by German shells and tanks, frozen behind the wire of prison camps, driven forward in suicidal charges by the Russian secret police. They were the men and women of the Red Army, Stalin's famous cannon fodder, a ragtag mass of recruits who confronted the most lethal professional fighting force on the continent and by 1945 had defeated it. Sixty years have passed since the Red Army's epic triumph, but the heart and mind of Ivan—as the ordinary Russian soldier was called—remain a mystery. We know something of how the Russian soldiers died but nearly nothing about how they lived, let alone how they saw the world, or why they fought.

Drawing on previously closed military and secret police archives, interviews with surviving soldiers, and private letters and dairies, Catherine Merridale presents here the history of the thirty million soldiers of the Red Army. She follows them from the initial shock of the German invasion and the first days of the national emergency to the costly Soviet triumph in Stalingrad, where life expectancy was often a mere twenty-four hours. Through their eyes we witness the battle of Kursk, the most terrible tank fight in history, and the victory in Berlin, where soldiers' rage and suffering exact their awful toll. Finally, Merridale accompanies the soldiers as they return home full of hope, only to be robbed of the new life they had been fighting to secure.

At once a narrative of the eastern front and a gripping history of Stalin's conscripts, Ivan's War allows us to understand the singular mixture of courage, patriotism, anger, and fear that made it possible for these underfed, badly led troops to defeat the Nazi army. In a work of investigation, Catherine Merridale has rescued the Russian rank and file from the official piety of war memorials and restored to them the voice that they have long been denied.


Praise for Ivan's War

"Ivan's War combines, quite effectively, painstaking historical reconstruction and sympathetic projection. Ms. Merridale, proceeding from campaign to campaign, describes from the top down and from the bottom up. She provides a coherent picture of the tactical decisions and industrial adjustments that altered the course of the war, and at the same time focuses on how such changes were reflected in the day-to-day experiences and feelings of the troops on the ground . . . She is unsparing in her account of the terror unleashed on German civilians, but scathing about the world to which the veterans returned."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"Merridale has done an admirable job of collecting testimony from war veterans (she and her assistants conducted about 200 interviews) . . . It is to Merridale's great credit that she lets us listen to what her verterans had to say, even when it wasn't what she herself wanted to hear."—Sheila Fitzpatrick, The New York Times Book Review
"Drawing on numerous interviews and testimony of veterans, [Merridale] offers revealing insights into the everyday life of soldiers . . . [H]er detached analysis complements the eyewitness accounts."—Andrew Nagorski, The Washington Post
"No army in history suffered causalities in numbers quite like the Russian Red Army. More than 8 million of its soldiers died during World War II, and in this profoundly empathic work of history, Catherine Merridale gets to the bottom of why they were so willing to do so . . . Drawing on letters, diaries, and formerly sealed archives, Ivan's War bears out this emotion in the words of the men who felt it, giving a face and a voice to the 30 million soldiers who bore the burden of bringing the German war machine to its knees, then running out from beneath it as it fell."—John Freeman, Newsday

"Catherine Merridale has picked the locks that kept this history hidden. . . . essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of the time."—The Economist
"[A] breathtaking, sweeping, yet well-balanced and finely tuned study."—The Times Literary Supplement (London)
"With extraordinary patience and a wonderful ear for nuance . . . [Merridale] produces what may be the best historical portrait of life in the Red Army yet published."—Anne Applebaum, The New York Review of Books
"Succeeds admirably in fashioning a compelling portrait, helped immensely by her talent as a writer."—Foreign Affairs
"[Merridale] does a marvelous job. Ivan's War is full of the type of information that will make you find someone to tell."—Richmond Times Dispatch
"This book is the raw and bleeding version . . . a tightly edited, well-paced and very readable account."—The Seattle Times
"Ivan's War is a marvelous book. All of Catherine Merridale's virtues are on display: remarkable research (based in this case on literally hundreds of interviews with survivors and witnesses); a clear, unpretentious style that belies the complexity of her material; comfortable historical command of a dauntingly large theme; and a rare compassion and empathy for her subjects. Ivan's War confirms what anyone who read Night of Stone already knew: that Catherine Merridale is a superb historian, among the very best of her generation."—Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

"Unprecedented in its approach, Catherine Merridale's research into the lives of Red Army soldiers combined with her perception makes this a most fascinating and important work."—Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad

"Catherine Merridale has done something very unusual. The Soviet war effort has been described many times but her new book tells the searing story from the bottom up. Her account of the sufferings of the Red Army soldiers and their families is unlikely to be bettered."—Robert Service, author of Stalin: A Biography

"This is an inventively researched and evocatively written study of the Soviet soldier on the blood-ridden Eastern Front. Using freshly available archival materials, as well as sparkling interviews with a vanishing generation of veterans, Merridale has provided an empathetic and realistic portrait of the men and women who, more than any other combat soldiers, brought down the Third Reich."—Norman M. Naimark, author of The Russians in Germany and Fires of Hatred

"Merridale's new book is excellent. This unique, strikingly original account of the Red Army in World War II is a first-rate social history as well as an important military study, and a stellar example of the combination of oral history with standard archival research. It makes the soldiers of the Red Army come alive.”—Stanley Payne, Hilldale-Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

'Thirty million men and women served in the Red Army during WWII. Over eight million of them died. Living or dead, they have remained anonymous. This is partly due to the Soviet Union's policy of stressing the collective nature of its sacrifice and victory. It also reflects the continuing reluctance of most Soviet veterans to discuss their experiences—in sharp contrast to German survivors of the Eastern Front. Merridale, professor of history at the University of London, combines interviews, letters and diaries with research in previously closed official archives to present the first comprehensive portrait of the Red Army's fighters. She carefully details the soldiers' age and ethnic diversity, and she puts a human face on a fact demonstrated repeatedly by retired U.S. officer and Soviet military expert David Glantz: the Red Army learned from the experience of its near-collapse in 1941, and by 1945 its soldiers were more than a match for their Wehrmacht opponents. Most poignantly, Merridale reveals that frontline soldiers increasingly hoped their sacrifices would bring about postwar reform—'Communism with a human face.' What they got instead was a Stalinist crackdown—and a long silence, broken now by this outstanding book."—Publishers Weekly

"The Soviet Union lost far more men in World War II than any other power, Allied or Axis. Yet for all the ink spilled over the Red Army's role in defeating the Nazis, very little has dribbled onto the Soviet soldiers themselves-onto the everyman combatant dubbed 'Ivan'—owing in no small part to the secrecy and myth in which the Soviet system enshrouded them. Merridale seeks here to unravel the riddle of how they lived and why they fought, especially for a regime that notoriously devoured its children. The reasons that emerge are legion: Ivan fought out of fear and necessity, pride and patriotism, because he believed his cause was just, because he knew nothing else. Ultimately, while no one picture emerges, Merridale has effectively captured the lives of these ordinary, and extraordinary, soldiers as they face bitter defeat in Hitler's surprise Operation Barbarossa attack and victory at Stalingrad, reap vengeance in Berlin and return home, forever altered . . . [A] harrowing and deeply compassionate portrait of the individual Ivans. Recommended . . . [E]ssential for all Soviet and World War II collections."—Library Journal

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Ivan's War
Whenever people think that they will have to fight a war, they try to picture what it will be like. Their stories seldom correspond to reality, but forecasting is not the purpose. Instead, the idea that the boys will soon be back or that the enemy will be destroyed with surgical precision, like the myth that it will all be over by Christmas, serves to foster a confident, even optimistic, mood at times when gloom might be more natural. In 1938, as the momentum for large-scale war gathered, the citizens of Stalin's empire, like
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  • Catherine Merridale

  • Catherine Merridale is the author of the critically acclaimed Night of Stone, winner of Britain's Heinemann Award for Literature. The professor of contemporary history at the University of London, she also writes for the London Review of Books, the New Statesman, and The Independent.
  • Catherine Merridale