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Contemporary Uses of the Second World War in Russia and the Former Soviet Republics - Book Reviews (4 titles)

Iuri Mukhin, Po povestke i po prizyvu – nekadrovye soldaty Velikoi Otechestvennoi [Mobilised and drafted – unskilled soldiers of the Great Patriotic War]

Moskva, Iauza & Eksmo, 2005, 352 pages
Armelle Jeannier-Groppo
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Iuri Mukhin, Po povestke i po prizyvu – nekadrovye soldaty Velikoi Otechestvennoi [Mobilised and drafted – unskilled soldiers of the Great Patriotic war], Moskva, Iauza & Eksmo, 2005, 352 pages

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1The book consists of an introduction and four stories by different authors. Two are war memories in the strict sense of the word. One officer and one soldier tell the everyday story of the war, highlighting all of its difficulties. The other two stories are life tales—the first is that of a young woman who voluntarily enlisted and later became a staunched communist; the second is that of a model Ukrainian workman who was called into service to serve the flag. Those two life tales cover a period that extends up until today. This very long period of time coupled with the tales’ hagiographic and didactic character overshadow the period of the war. The life tales are thereby transformed into two nostalgic evocations, of a period that was both painful and glorious, and of the Soviet people, both of which are turned into myths. These two tales are situated at the beginning and at the end of the book, encompassing the two war memories and thereby laying the ground for the reader’s reception of them, who finds himself caught within somewhat of an ideological vice. Using such a device allows book-maker Iuri Mukhin to establish, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, an absolute analogy between simple Soviet citizen, heroic soldier and true communist; between true communist and the Communist party; between the Communist party and Stalin. This series of syllogisms leads to one further analogy—Stalin, simple soldier and heroic soldier. On top of the historical value found in Nevsky’s and Blizniuk’s direct war memories, the book also allows us to understand the foundations of neo-Stalinism and how this new myth is diffused. The substance of the book therefore appears to be much more than a simple answer to the original question about its subject-matter.

2A brief presentation of the author helps one’s understanding the nature of the book. Iuri Mukhin is not a professional historian. Born in Ukraine in a modest Russian-speaking working-class family, he studied metallurgical engineering at Dniepropetrovsk and had a brilliant career in Kazakhstan. During the perestroika, he became vice-director of an important metallurgical factory but was fired in 1995, at the age of 46, when the Kazakh government sold it to a foreign corporation. He then moved to Moscow where he started his current career as a polemist. He publishes books, takes part in television shows, and maintains his personal website http://www.ymuhin.ru/​. He is currently the editor of the “K bar’eru!” (“To the barrier!”) journal, the successor of “Duel” (“The duel”), in which the four stories which constitute “Mobilised and drafted” were previously published. The titles of his various publications show that he is fighting a battle, and those of the publications’ sections that he establishes a link between his ideas and those of the 19th century revolutionary movement (as shown by the name of the political movement which he founded, “The Army of People’s Will”). Some of his activities have brought him before the courts. Everywhere he commends without nuance the pre-eminence of the small, the humble and of their hereditary wisdom over the leaders, portrayed as self-interested, corrupt and following trends that end up causing the disappearance of traditional values. “Mobilised and drafted” is part of this populist vulgate with a tone that is very polemic, sometimes violent and often rude.

3Mukhin’s introduction, “Money thrown away”, presents the book as an answer to an article which is extensively cited (pp. 6-14). This article was published in 2005 by A.Z. Lebedintsev, a war veteran, whose war memories had been edited shortly before with Mukhin’s comments1: “[…] I feel that either my co-author did not understand me, or else he does not share my opinion since he keeps on […] defending the theory according to which the great losses which we underwent during this war are due to the high degree of ‘civilisation’ of the Germans, to our ‘poverty’ and to our ‘low level of instruction’. […] and because he is not the only one, I have judged useful not to write but to base this book on truthful memories of those who should not have fought but had to do it” [p. 6].

4For Mukhin, Lebedintsev’s point of view constitutes, chronologically, the second explanation, given during perestroika, of the scale of the disaster and the extent of the losses suffered during the Great Patriotic War. He judges it to be just as unfounded as the first explanation — officially introduced under Khrushchev’s rule — that of Stalin’s personal responsibility. Mukhin does not explain how those two explanations are unfounded, but rather formulates a third explanation. In his opinion, the entire responsibility for the disasters incurred by the Red Army and for the millions of civil and military deaths during the “Great Patriotic War” should be borne by the officers. He accuses them of having chosen a military career by venality: “Maybe the cause of our great losses does not lie in the quality of the soldiers but in you, officers, attracted to serving in the army solely because the first nomination guaranteed you a wage twice as much as the one in the civil service? It is an essential question to know why officers chose to enrol in the Red Army—to defend their motherland or to receive a big salary and a big pension?” (p. 26). He accuses them of cowardice: “As soon as the German would surround our armies, the officers in charge would stop supervising them nearly right away, would abandon their soldiers and would surrender or try to survive alone, without their army. The exceptions […] merely confirm this rule” (p. 27). By saying he is publishing “the memories of those who were not paid by the motherland in exchange for a promise to defend it in case of need, but rather defended it when it was needed” (p. 38), Mukhin is de facto accusing the officers of treason.

  • 2 This argument goes on pp.57, and 108-19.

5My dazzling moment” are the memories of Zoia Ketko, written by her son and based on his mother’s tales. Of the 89 pages, only 41 talk about the war. Their style and their structure (an alternation of Z. Ketko’s memories and opinions) render the memories closer to a Soviet novel of the 1940s-1950s than to an historical document. As an example, one can cite the description she makes of the arrival of electricity in her home village: “[…] then people woke up; even those who did not believe in the Soviets’ power became convinced that it was a power at the service of the people. But some, because of their personality or by interest, would cause a nuisance to the general good. Those who were condemned then are now heroes, and both those condemned and their children have more privileges than my brother who died at war has. And it was these kulaks’ and their supporters’ children and grandchildren who would prevent the building of socialism, the amelioration of the quality of life and of the culture of the people. And yet they went to university, they lived like everyone else; but when the war broke out they went to the Germans’, using their fathers’ and grandfathers’ pasts. […] And if we had not cleaned up the country of those bastards before the war, not only would we have not won, but we would all have died. And then the country would have ceased being a great power from that moment on and would have become what it is today, torn apart and sold by these Bukharin, these Zinoviev, these Blücher, these ancestors of Gorbachev, by Eltsin, by Shaposhnikov and other Khakamada of that sort. Thank you, comrade Stalin!” (pp. 46-47)2. “Religion and cult have spontaneously disappeared and it is naturally that the local church has become a canteen” (p. 49).

6Z. Ketko, an exemplary communist who was all of her life at the service of the Party (pp. 108-129), is part of those for whom Stalin remained “the incarnation of our unified country, who had won the war and built a world of peace” (p. 101). She talks about her country before 1985 with so much ardour, enthusiasm and fanaticism that the horror and suffering that she suffered during the war as a young woman voluntarily enlisted become blunted, and the exceptional courage which she showed in Berlin when facing “Germans whom we are now asked to forgive” (p. 55) is somewhat diminished. She gives examples, including ones involving her, of selfless courage, of abnegation and of the primordial role of the basic simple soldier in the victory of the USSR. She tells us about the frequent changes in the supervision of troops, the pressures of lewd officers who were enraged by women’s refusals (pp. 59-61; 63), the luxury of the meals served behind the frontline as opposed to the frugality of those served on the frontline itself (p. 63) and the speculation and privileges of those who were evacuated at Alma-Ata (p. 80). The impression one obtains in reading this story is that of her telling of her experiences of the Great Patriotic War as a way, first and foremost, to expose a Soviet past made of altruism, enthusiasm and courage; a past idealised to the point that it becomes a caricature of the individualism, bluntness and pusillanimity of the new Russia that has appeared since 1985. The nature of this text is therefore much more sociological than historical.

7By contrast, A.V. Nevsky’s story “What I did as a serviceman” chronologically describes in a sober way the advance of a transmission battalion from Arkhangelsk to Königsberg, and all the difficulties which were only overcome thanks to the ingenuity and heroism of the soldiers and of some rare competent officers. This story also distinguishes itself from the previous one because of its historical interest. Indeed, it is based on the “incomplete draft of a ‘History of the 192nd transmission battalion of the Order of the Red Star’, written in 1945 and given to the archives of the Soviet Armed Forces of the city of Podolsk, region of Moscow” (p. 138).

8A reserve officer, Nevsky, starts by telling about his military service (1925-1927), the army’s poverty and the illiteracy of the great majority of the conscripts; about his dazzling promotion because he is a teacher; about his arrival in a transmission unit whose role was to ensure the proper transmission of information and to that end, received a device which was then unheard of—a radio— a part of which was missing. Those facts tell the story of a Red Army that was badly organised, poor, and led by officers who had not been prepared enough to fight, neither for the Finland War (September 1939 – October 1940, pp.135-137) nor, later, for the Great Patriotic War.

9The unit in which Nevsky was incorporated in 1941 was created six months after mobilisation (p. 141) and consisted of men, 90% of whom arrived directly from the camps (p. 142). They engaged in the operations four months later (p. 143). Ten months thus passed after the German attack before the unit would join the Volkhov front.

10The majority of military leaders were badly trained or incompetent (pp. 142, 160, 162-163, 179-180) and were constantly moved from one unit to the other (p.175); dishonest, they did not hesitate to steal the stocks of vodka and food (pp. 153, 156, 161, 164, 168, 174); they were rivalling one against the other (pp. 153; 164); presumptuous, they disregarded their inferiors’ advice (p. 173), would set unattainable goals (p. 145) and commit grave errors (pp. 144, 171-172) which would cause great losses (p. 147). Such errors were also due to the lack of armament and the low quality of that which they had (pp. 141 ; 143 ; 144 ; 184). To this issue was added that of the permanent shortage of men at all levels, even at the highest level (pp. 162), and even at the very end of the war. Moreover, there was no real management of troops (p. 185), which had to compensate their total lack of training (p.188) by their resourcefulness (p. 141, 155, 157, 159), their capacity to learn (pp. 148, 185), their comradeship (p.202), their heroism (pp. 145, 147).

  • 3 This expression is especially striking since the author never uses coarse language.

11It is only in January 1944 that conditions got better. Led by competent military chiefs (pp. 176, 200), the unit gets to Latvia where their arrival was not always seen with hostility (pp.186-187), to Poland where it celebrates the New Year in a benevolent village (pp. 190-192), and in oriental Prussia where it manages to take Königsberg in extremely difficult conditions (April 10th, 1945). It participates in the evacuation of the Germans from oriental Prussia and is then stationed in Poland where it contributes to reducing “the garbage of all sort”3 that is stationed in the forest of Augustów. It is then sent to re-launch agricultural activities in Ukraine and is finally dismantled in January 1946. Nevsky thereafter returns to civilian life and moves back to Arkhangelsk.

12In his story Nevsky rapidly revokes the Soviet soldiers’ retaliation as a consequence of their feeling distressed and angered by the destructions and tortures which the occupying forces had performed (“After Königsberg was taken, Potakhov, radiant and satisfied, recognised that he had started the fire in spite of the reigning order. Can we blame him?”, p. 194). Still based on his unit’s example, he raises the unanswered question from the beginning of his story regarding the responsibility for the millions of deaths of the Soviet victims: “’Who had the idea of this breakthrough [on the Volkhov]?’ No answer is given. Just as no answer is given to the question as to why no one is responsible for the death of nearly an entire unit.” (p. 146). Nevertheless, nothing is ever said about the main cause that is generally accepted as an explanation for such weaknesses—the great purging of the high commandment in 1937.

  • 4 The Forty-first is the title of a story by Boris Lavrenev, a classical book of the Soviet literatur (...)

13It was not The forty-first!4 was written by N.I. Blizniuk, a simple soldier of the mountain troops, an artilleryman who first rode mules and then drove tanks. His style is more familiar than that of Nevsky, and his focus is different—it is centred on the soldiers’ daily lives, on the debacle and the civilians’ reactions to the war, to the German occupation and then to the liberation and to the arrival of the Soviet troops.

14In June 1941 Blizniuk performs his military service at the Iranian border, in a Red Army that was poor and had very difficult living conditions (pp. 220, 221). Russian-speaking, he is right away given a promotion as a non-commissioned officer (p. 223). In his story, the officers’ snobbery and extravagant orders and manoeuvres go hand in hand. At the end of July 1941, in order to prevent the Germans from reaching Baku and from its petroleum passing through Iran (p. 223), Blizniuk’s army is sent there through impassable ways, chosen by officers seeking personal glory through the achievement of their soldiers at great risk to the soldiers’ lives (p. 224). The human losses, here without combat, are also due to the officers’ absolute insensitivity (p. 225). This theme comes back later in the story, when Blizniuk talks about the attribution of decorations (pp. 272, 276-277). The officers’ depiction is completed by their mortal acts of bravado (p.261), their drunkenness and their debauchery (pp. 263, 277).

15Blizniuk lives the great debacle in occidental Ukraine from June 1941 to the summer of 1942: “[the 25th September 1941] there was no front line, there were no troops of ours, there were Germans who advanced east as much as they could, nobody was stopping them” (p. 227). In order to prevent their encirclement, an order was given to withdraw; to destroy and abandon all cannons (pp. 228-230). The crushing defeat was endless and extremely difficult: “we do not know where we are, where we go, what is expecting us” (p. 236). Such defeat starts again after the winter truce and the failure to free Kharkov in May 1942: “[…] we did not move back, we quickly shoved off […] and sometimes we would not find our division […] the Germans had torn it into threads, they had bombed the way” (pp. 241-242).

16In this general disarray, it is only resourcefulness that would allow one to survive. Left to themselves, soldiers would go “receive their pay from a girl” that is, be fed by, stay with and eventually do more, even moving in with her (p. 232). The local population thought more about the future of its very young widows than to that of the USSR. Generous and thrown into confusion, worried to be abandoned to the enemy (p. 251), these civilians are not seen by Blizniuk as traitors, yet he castigates the collaborators (pp. 234, 251) and those who inflicted injuries on themselves—frost-bitten feet or hands pierced by bullets (p. 248).

17The situation radically changes during the summer of 1942, when American war equipment starts to arrive and whose accumulation at the end of autumn (p. 244) would allow for the launching of the battle for Stalingrad. Wounded, hospitalised, and then very succinctly trained, Blizniuk escorts the first Soviet tanks from Sverdlovsk in Ukraine. Despite such new equipment, the Red Army’s advance was slowed down by the heavy losses (p. 260) which were hard to make up for (p. 256) in spite of all men being conscripted (pp. 252, 261); partly due to the too great distance from the rear (p. 242) and to the overall deficiency of the Soviet army. Now a breakdown was punished by a death sentence (p. 253). The solution, again, was to be found in one’s resourcefulness—until the end of the hostilities (p. 258), the tanks with low performance would be repaired with pieces recovered from destroyed engines, some of which were still on fire and surrounded by corpses (p. 273).

18At the end of 1944 Blizniuk crosses the border of oriental Prussia, i.e. that of Germany, where the atrocities committed by the Red Army are equivalent to those of the Germans in the USSR: “The night before there was a meeting, the [political] commissioner made a speech and said: ‘[…] Are there any questions?’. There was one: ‘and what if we do something wrong?’ Answer: ‘the prokuratura will be on leave’. It was on leave for three days, and then was called back to work: we did as much as the fascists […]. The prokuratura came back from leave and an order was given to shoot those of us who would steal” (p.275).

19The story ends on a page written in memory of one of Blizniuk’s war companions, who was degraded and condemned for killing a captain when drunk, then put on a train which left for an unknown destination in the East and disappeared. On the same page, in contrast, Blizniuk tells how the regiment’s execrated commander Lykov, who was wounded when falling down (he too was drunk) was sent to Moscow to be treated. The alcohol is omnipresent in this repetitive story of the daily difficulties of the soldiers who acted throughout the war as a substitute for the lack of equipment, of organisation, and of competent leaders. Of the four stories, this is the one that achieves best the official goal of the book.

20My father” concludes the book. Just as Z. Ketko’s story, it is a life story told by the protagonist’s son. Rather than told, it is reconstructed: “[…] I know very little about his biography” (p. 278); “[…] all I know about my father, I have learned by chance” (p. 279); “Many episodes of my father’s biography are based on the impressions that the stories he would tell ‘by chance’ left me with; they have not been verified or precised. This story is rather a sort of first degree impressionism” (p. 281). In fact, the war years only occupy a fifth of the 72 pages of “My father”. The description of the Red Army’s lack of preparation, incoherencies, lack of cadres, disorganisation and of the summary executions in response to such chaos (pp. 293-297) quickly gives way to long developments on two main themes—the despising of the little people by those who had power and authority, and the moral degradation of contemporary Russia.

21The officers’ absence of consideration for the simple soldiers who ensured the victory is illustrated by the question (recurrent throughout the story) about the decorations which were meanly attributed in particular in the infantry in which Mukhin’s father served (pp. 300-305), but were by contrast abundantly distributed at the top of the hierarchy, even long after the war was over. Mukhin asserts as evidence Alexander Yakovlev’s decorations, this “greedy skunk with an intellectual’s face” (p. 301), nominated by M. Gorbachev chief of the propaganda service and then secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU): “It is sufficient to see how this ‘hero’ covered his chest with medals to understand what a bastard [sic] he was” (p. 301). By contrast, Mukhin’s father “long refused to wear his medals under the pretext that their holes damaged his suits” (p. 301).

22A. Yakovlev symbolises the degeneration of contemporary Russia, populated with “moral monsters” (p.332) due to the modish “pseudo-pedagogic stupidities” (p. 332) and to the managing of the country by “stinky little Gaïdars” (p. 333). He methodically contrasts, with each word, the new Russia with the USSR. The story is so scrupulously lived and told that it becomes de facto his autobiography - selfishness and generosity; work culture and idleness culture; consumer society and the rustic character of a self-sufficient life; etc.

23The father’s apologue is thus first and foremost one of a Soviet past in the eyes of the son, which is nowadays unjustly criticised: “the turpitudes of the contemporary press and television spit on our past. Mocking the then famous sentence: ‘Thank you, Stalin, for our happy childhood’ has become so ordinary that it makes us vomit. But one should remember our childhood and see what is going on today in order to not want to go on vomiting, and to understand the sense of this maxim. Thank you, yes, including to Stalin! But first to my dad, with whom Stalin worked as a chief” (p. 336). The sentence’s final philological pirouette does not attenuate the hymn to Stalin (“the extent of what he did for the USSR makes one shiver of a fear which only admiration tops”, p. 348) and to Beria’s police (p. 316) which is very much what this text is. The language used, full of invectives, reminds one of the official press and literature of that period. The author’s attitude - that of defending the small against the big, the losers against the winners (p. 350) - is also that of Stalin in his time.

24Mukhin junior never adhered to the CPSU, which enables him to decline any responsibility in the evolution which led Russia to a state of affairs he deplores. He judges himself all the more legitimate to jump over forty years of history, and to establish, in the name of the contemporarily humiliated and offended people, a continuation with the 1930s and 1940s USSR, which ensures the validity of his neo-Stalinism (p. 349).

25 As a conclusion, “Mobilised and drafted” clearly shows the current ambiguity that surrounds the theme of World War II in Russia, with the war being both considered as a historical event (Nevsky’s and Blizniuk’s war memories) and used as a foundational basis of neo-Stalinism (Zetko’s and Mukhin’s life stories).

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Notes

1 Accessible on internet on Liewar.ru website: <http://liewar.ru/content/view/39/8/>.

2 This argument goes on pp.57, and 108-19.

3 This expression is especially striking since the author never uses coarse language.

4 The Forty-first is the title of a story by Boris Lavrenev, a classical book of the Soviet literature published in 1924. It tells about the love that flourishes between a young revolutionary woman and a white prisoner officer, thrown by destiny on a desert island. Their feelings are stronger than the hatred of the classes, but their sense of responsibility takes over and when the Whites come alongside, Mariutka kills her lover and then mourns him. The story has been repeatedly adapted in theatres and cinemas. It received a prize at the 1957 Cannes film festival.

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Référence électronique

Armelle Jeannier-Groppo, « Iuri Mukhin, Po povestke i po prizyvu – nekadrovye soldaty Velikoi Otechestvennoi [Mobilised and drafted – unskilled soldiers of the Great Patriotic War]  », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [En ligne], Issue 12 | 2011, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2011, consulté le 02 septembre 2014. URL : http://pipss.revues.org/3847

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Armelle Jeannier-Groppo

University of Paris Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense

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