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book review

During the Great Patriotic War (1941 to 1945), an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives.Courtesy of Osprey Publishing

Most Western authors writing about contemporary Russian politics typically tend to present a story with an obvious ideological bias: Pro-Washington and anti-Kremlin, usually emphasizing how President Vladimir Putin celebrates Stalinist Soviet history with rose-tinted nostalgia for the Russian Motherland.

This version of Soviet history is mostly written about from a negative perspective. We read about the suffering of millions in the gulags in Siberia and the totalitarian nature of Marxism in the Soviet Union, where freedom of conscience was a crime, punishable by death. What typically tends to be missing from that narrative, however, is the enormous sacrifice the Soviet Union made during the Second World War to prevent the world from descending into fascism.

Stalingrad 1942–43 (2): The Fight for the City

Robert Forczyk (Osprey)

To fully grasp the monumental scale of the USSR’s efforts, you first have to look at the numbers – they’re staggering. During the Great Patriotic War (1941 to 1945), an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Nearly one million perished in what is still regarded as one of the most brutal clashes in the history of modern warfare: the Battle of Stalingrad (August, 1942, to February, 1943).

Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman once described the Battle of Stalingrad as “more grinding, and more relentless than the Siege of Troy.” His classic 1952 novel, Stalingrad, fictionalizes his experience witnessing the historical, bloody military engagement between the Red Army and the Axis powers, including Nazi Germany.

His vivid descriptions transformed the Ukrainian Jewish writer into a global literary superstar. No such poetic flare or literary flamboyance exists in the new Stalingrad 1942-43 (2): The Fight for the City. Written by Robert Forczyk, an American military historian and former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, the slim book is the second volume in a trilogy that covers the entire Stalingrad campaign, from June, 1942, until February, 1943. This volume focuses exclusively on the fighting in Stalingrad from September to November, 1942. Forczyk’s attention to detail on matters pertaining to military strategy and tactics is excellent, but the author’s single-minded approach to military history has drawbacks. The prose is dull, flat, unimaginative and repetitive. All substance and no style, the scholarly text will appeal to military specialists and serious academics, but it’s unlikely to connect with a wider general reading audience.

Forczyk succinctly looks at the historical road map that led to Stalingrad. The seeds of the military campaign were sown back in the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler began to dream up a vision of global German expansion. A war in the East – first with Poland, and then later with the Soviet Union – was meant to be the ultimate showdown for lebensraum, a racially “pure” living space that would enable an ever-expanding German Reich to grow and flourish.

We get a brief analysis here of why the single, short, brutal campaign Hitler envisioned with the Soviet Union never happened. Stalingrad’s strategic importance was a key factor. As a major industrial and communications centre for the Soviet Union, it was the last city standing between Hitler’s armies and the Volga river. In theory, a Nazi victory at Stalingrad was supposed to leave the Red Army separated from the vital supply chains it needed to gain a dominant military advantage. But the Red Army emerged victorious in the East, giving it the confidence and strength it needed to march westward toward Berlin, where the fate of the Second World War in Europe was ultimately decided: The pendulum of victory eventually swung toward the Allied forces.

Why were the Germans and the Axis powers defeated at Stalingrad? Forczyk dedicates almost all of his energy and ink here to answering that question. He notes that a decline in German morale kicked in after September, 1942, due to the poor health of German front-line troops, disorganized field hygiene, lack of water and sleep, and bad dietary conditions. The Red Army managed to hold Stalingrad against a massive German superiority in firepower largely because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was willing to reduce the city to a pile of rubble, sacrificing greater amounts of men and material in order to buy time until the harsh conditions of winter arrived.

The historian also points to another major flaw in Nazi military policy in the East: The Wehrmacht was ill-prepared for fighting in the claustrophobic and unpredictable setting of urban landscapes. Nazis were able to occupy many large cities in France and the western Soviet Union swiftly and with ease between 1940 and 1941, breeding a hubris and complacency that would later come back to haunt the Germans – especially during the first few weeks of fighting inside Stalingrad in September, 1942, when it became increasingly clear that a Nazi victory wasn’t likely.

Forczyk concludes by looking at how the Battle of Stalingrad’s historical legacy changed as Soviet society evolved. As part of the campaign for de-Stalinization after the dictator’s death in 1953, Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961. But when Putin became Russia’s President at the turn of the millennium, Stalin’s historical legacy was reinterpreted from a revisionist perspective. In 2014, Putin even proposed holding a referendum on whether the city’s name should be changed back to Stalingrad. This patriotic-aggressive brand of social conservatism fits perfectly with the three dominant themes of the Putin political mantra: prestige, power and pride.

Russia Upside Down

Joseph Weisberg (Public Affairs)

But does the standard image in the Western media of Putin as a deceitful Machiavellian-murderous-political-cynic really stand up? “[Putin] is at the very least complicit in poisoning some of [his political opponents],” writes Joseph Weisberg in Russia Upside Down. Still, the American television writer-producer and novelist says the image of Putin as a cold-blooded assassin, devoid of any sense of moral conscience or political credibility, is both reductive and simplistic.

Weisberg was once a hard-line American patriot who viewed the Cold War as a zero sum game of good versus evil. It inspired him to join the CIA for three years, where he was placed in the division that spied on the Soviet Union. He never made it beyond a rookie trainee, and never went on any real spy missions either. But he was fully convinced at that time that Washington was morally and spiritually superior to Moscow. Digging deeper into Soviet history eventually helped him reconsider that position.

Political beliefs, he posits, always come with their own set of prejudices, and an examination of our own unconscious cultural values can help us understand our enemies better. Weisberg believes that if the West wants to build friendlier ties with Russia any time soon, a new kind of diplomacy is urgently needed. He calls it “self-aware politics.” Weisberg suggests the United States begin its own self-analysis by letting go of the outdated and delusional mantra most commonly known as American exceptionalism. This would mean no more lecturing other countries about the benefits of liberal democratic values.

Weisberg doesn’t have a pro-Putin or pro-Stalin agenda. But his book achieves what it sets out to do from the outset: understand Russia, and the Putin mindset, from a more objective perspective, with some sense of distance and nuance. He continually cites research from a number of credible first-rate historians, such as Peter H. Solomon, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and Timothy Synder. Reading their work has helped Weisberg understand why Russia and the West today have different political aims and goals.

The Soviet Union never had anything even remotely close to civil society. This meant the intelligence services and the secret police were the glue that held Soviet society together, often through force, violence, and coercion. The KGB normalized the practice of spying, lying, and imprisoning any citizens who questioned the state’s authority. But the CIA hasn’t exactly got a squeaky clean record either. It too has lied, tortured, and deceived. Especially when protecting American national interests abroad. “On balance, the CIA and KGB were in many ways more similar than different,” Weisberg writes.

He then moves onto a potential new cold war that could be emerging between Russia and the United States, after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and a proxy war that began (and is still today being fought today) in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military. The U.S. has reacted to Russian aggression in Ukraine with economic sanctions that have sabotaged the Russian economy. Russia, meanwhile, sore from sanctions, and what seems to it like an ever-evolving NATO expansion eastwards, has retaliated by undermining American democracy. Most noticeably in 2016 U.S. presidential elections, where Russia conducted a sophisticated and aggressive online campaign that is said to have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. “Putin may have been motivated to interfere in our elections [but] few mentioned that his fears about the United States, even if they included some paranoid elements, were largely justified,” Weisberg writes.

This unfiltered, no-nonsense tone is the book’s most appealing quality. It’s personal, punchy, political, confessional, informal and immediate. Sometimes the author can be flippant and naive though, and slips into lazy journalese. “My sense of KGB officers themselves had been formed by watching James Bond movies,” he writes without irony. Weisberg is, however, also aware of his limitations as a writer. He lacks the expertise of, say, a seasoned political scientist, or the finesse of a learned historian. “All of this could be different by the time you read this,” Weisberg writes with self-deprecating honesty and well-honed philosophical intention.

Indeed, the situation he is writing about has changed dramatically. The book’s political analysis concludes at the beginning of 2021. But a year is a long time in geopolitics. The political tensions that have developed between Russia and Ukraine in the interim open up his central argument to many flaws. The unpredictable world of global politics requires adaptability and realpolitik as events unfold in real time. In recent weeks U.S. Intelligence has estimated that Putin has deployed up to 175,000 Russian troops on the border to its nearest and most hostile neighbour. Potentially, this could spiral into a devastating military confrontation not witnessed in Europe since the Second World War.

Even as Joe Biden and Putin sat down to a virtual meeting in early December that was ostensibly meant to ease tensions with calm and measured diplomacy, Russia was inching closer and closer to launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And yet, Putin keeps on insisting to the West that Russia has no strategic plan to either invade or annex Ukraine entirely. In early January, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said that “Russia should be in no doubt that further military aggression against Ukraine [will] have massive consequences.” Right now, those threats remain vague and ambivalent. Weisberg argues that Washington must end its economic sanctions on Moscow immediately. From Biden’s perspective, however, that would amount to political suicide. The author also believes that, to avoid a second Cold War, the West should “make a conscious decision to stop fighting Russia and remove ourselves from the conflict.” But the United States, and its Western allies, may not have the luxury of choosing that option in the coming weeks and months, as the political and military situation in the Slavic world desperately deteriorates.

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