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Nina Konstantinovna Petrova (Ed.), Zhenshchiny Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny [Women of the Great Patriotic War]

Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial'no-politicheskoi istorii, Institut rossiiskoi istorii RAN, Moskva, Beche, 2014, 692 pages
Kerstin Bischl
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Nina Konstantinovna Petrova

Zhenshchiny Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny [Women of the Great Patriotic War], Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial'no-politicheskoi istorii, Institut rossiiskoi istorii RAN, Moskva, Beche, 2014, 692 pages

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Russia

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1"Dokumenty svidetelstvuiut" ("the documents bear witness“, p. 3) – with these words editor Nina Petrova begins one of the first paragraphs in the introduction. In accordance with this credo she formulates the aim for this source book with 288 very different documents on and by Soviet women who lived through the period of the “Great Patriotic War” 1941-1945: to save the “image of the Soviet woman, the patriot, the warrior, the toiler, and the soldier’s mother in the people’s memory forever” (p.19) – a mission she takes from an undated statement issued by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

2All documents Petrova put together are preserved in the Komsomol subdivision of the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI-M). They range from official mobilizing orders for women issued beginning in the spring of 1942 to letters from forced workers in Germany and memoirs from all kinds of women, commissioned for and collected by the newspaper Komsmolskaia Pravda in 1961-1965, to official reports on the situation of women in Central Asia during the war. Among the previously published and unpublished sources are several documents whose contents are widely known, consisting merely of ritual reference to the presumably widely shared high motivation of Soviet women to serve and to fight, to their heroic deeds and suffering, which basically makes up the still dominant image of the war in Russia. Other sources presented in the book, however, contradict this picture by referring to problems during mobilization or to problems faced by female recruits, that is to experiences that have so far been reflected only in a few rather recent, but critical accounts of women in the Red Army. In addition to these, the book contains also some very rare documents that describe hitherto unknown or just guessed about incidents, for example the mass rape of liberated forced laborers by Red Army soldiers or sexual abuse of women by party officials in Central Asia. Thus, Petrova favors at the same time the current wave of patriotism that sweeps Russia, but also the quite critical accounts that challenge these. In addition to these, the book contains some very rare documents that describe hitherto unknown or only presumed incidents, for example the mass rape of liberated forced laborers by Red Army soldiers, or sexual abuse of women by party officials in Central Asia.

3Unfortunately, Petrova’s source book is, despite its multilayered perspectives, not of much help for her readers, neither for the ordinary but interested one, nor for the professional historian. Petrova fails to provide the reader with a significant table of contents or chapter headings, as well as with a reasonable and easy to grasp clustering of documents that belong together, and a leitmotif that could guide the reader through the oftentimes redundant and very disparate body of sources. Thus, neither an informative reading with a clear-cut narrative, an elaboration of a specific aspect of the broad subject, nor a quick finding is possible.

4Furthermore, maybe because of her naïve belief in the ‘document’s truth’, Petrova also fails to provide any guidance for interpreting the assembled documents. There is an overwhelming lack of sufficient information on the origins of the sources, their context and their authors, not to mention their representativeness. A question, she could have raised, is, for example, who actually answered Komsmolskaia Pravda’s call in the 1960s and turned their memoirs in. And was there a prevailing narrative? Neither does Petrova elaborate on single documents that touch seldom discussed incidents, like the rape of liberated forced workers or sexual harassment in Central Asia. Do the documents refer to the general situation, are they thus representative, or do they cover ‘only’ single cases? Statistical information concerning the number of women among the (liberated and abused) forced workers, within the different branches of the Red Army or in the workforce in unoccupied Soviet territory is also missing or provided just arbitrarily, which complicates any attempt to outline a more holistic picture of “women during the Great Patriotic War”. Instead, Petrova presents in her introduction very different, sometimes contradictory observations and findings. For example, she mentions several initiatives since the war meant to popularize the efforts of women (p.13, 17ff.), just to emphasize the need to publish a source book that does exactly that. Other remarks by her in the introduction touch upon accusations many female soldiers had to deal with after the war (p.14), a topic that is touched only once and among others in the provided documents.

5All in all, it is a pity that Petrova refrains from providing helpful guidelines for her readers, because some very valuable, yet unpublished documents will thus not find the audience they deserve, while others have merely been published once again. In the source book by Nina Petrova the former just drown within the masses of the latter.

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Référence électronique

Kerstin Bischl, « Nina Konstantinovna Petrova (Ed.), Zhenshchiny Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny [Women of the Great Patriotic War] », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [En ligne], Issue 17 | 2016, mis en ligne le 20 septembre 2015, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : http://pipss.revues.org/4147

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Kerstin Bischl

Humboldt University in Berlin

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