Teddy J. Uldricks
Review of Boris
Gorbachevsky, Through the Maelstrom: A Red Army Soldier's War
on the Eastern Front, 1942-1945. Translated and edited by Stuart Britton.
Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2008. Pp. xix, 453. ISBN
Boris Gorbachevsky served
in the Red Army, first as a combat infantryman, then as a front-line
junior officer, and finally as a Komsomol (Communist Youth League)
organizer on the Eastern Front from mid-1942 through the end of the
Second World War. His memoir
records experiences he had during those horrible years when the Soviet
people suffered approximately twenty-five million military and
civilian casualties (i.e., about half of the deaths caused by World
War II globally). His central question is "Why did the cost of victory
turn out to be so unimaginably high?" (xvii). One obvious answer is the
unstinting barbarity not only of the Nazis but of the Wehrmacht
as a whole in their treatment of Red Army prisoners and Soviet
civilians in the German-occupied areas of the USSR.
Another answer, to which Gorbachevsky pays grudging respect, is the
tactical skill of German commanders and the tenacity of their fighting
men. But these subjects are not the author's focus; rather he seeks
deeper answers in the way the USSR fought the Great Patriotic War and
the responses of the Soviet people to Adolf Hitler's onslaught.
These latter topics were
the subject of an avalanche of Soviet-era publications from 1945 to
1991, virtually all of which were required to trumpet the myth of the
Great Patriotic War, that is, the legend of the wise leadership of
Josef Stalin and his senior commanders and the willing self-sacrifice
of the Soviet peoples. Even the partial criticism of Stalin during the
administration of Nikita Khrushchev did not dare encroach upon the
sacred myth. After the collapse of the USSR, a new wave of more honest
memoirs and critical works of historical scholarship has emerged.
Gorbachevsky's book is a valuable addition to this trend.
Having asked why victory
was so costly, the author uncovers a number of answers on the Soviet
side. First, the USSR was forced into the war unprepared in many ways.
The Red Army was still wedded to strategic concepts current in
the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920, but fatally outmoded in the 1940s.
Gorbachevsky and his 1942 class of officer trainees learned strategies
and tactics with no relevance to the realities of combat on the
Eastern Front. Clearly, a serious appraisal of the Barbarossa debacle
in 1941 would have been too embarrassing for Stalin and the Red Army's
senior commanders. Moreover, the Great Purges had eliminated the most
innovative and technologically sophisticated general officers. So,
generals fighting the last war led to slaughter ill-trained recruits
often too frightened to oppose even the most suicidally wrong-headed
A second answer follows
from the first: lacking adequate training, weaponry, modern tactical
and strategic concepts, as well as freedom of initiative and
flexibility, Soviet commanders frequently mounted futile "human wave"
attacks that needlessly squandered millions of lives. The author uses
the battles for Rzhev on the central front, where he received his own
baptism of fire, as a case in point. The Germans had absolute mastery
of the skies and a stout, deeply echeloned defense. The Russians
lacked adequate tank and artillery support, sufficient vehicles to
make their infantry rapidly mobile, as well as effective battlefield
communications gear. Their inferior machine guns frequently
malfunctioned. Wave after wave of Red Army troopers were simply fed
into the "meat grinder." In Gorbachevsky's first assault on German
positions at Rzhev, intense machine gun fire, screaming Stuka dive
bombers, and enemy artillery decimated his unit. Soviet forces fought from January 1942 until March 1943 before driving the enemy from Rzhev, losing over a million men in
Gorbachevsky, who was
twice wounded, is understandably bitter about the unwarranted sacrifices imposed on him and his fellow infantrymen:
Our soldiers christened the battles for Rzhev the "Rzhev meat
grinder," into which Stalin, Zhukov, and Konev fed division after
division. Forty-two mass graves in the Rzhev soil contain the remains
of servicemen and women from more than 140 rifle divisions, 50
separate rifle brigades, and 50 tank brigades. The tragedy of this
battle consisted not only of the unparalleled sacrifices but also of
the lack of success of these operations…. The Germans at Rzhev had
qualitatively better equipment, more experienced officers, much
superior command and control over their forces, extensive combat
experience, and professional soldiers…. To offset these German
advantages, the Red Army had only numbers (432-3).
Gorbachevsky addresses is combat motivation. Regarding western,
particularly American, troops, Paul Fussell has argued controversially
that GIs simply fought for their buddies (i.e., to support close
friends and avoid disgrace in their eyes) and that lofty ideological
pronouncements like the Four Freedoms had little relevance.
Gerald Linderman has countered that, while small-unit cohesion was an
important element in combat motivation, so was dedication to
humanitarian and democratic principles, even if often unspoken.
Gorbachevsky has curiously little to say about the buddy phenomenon.
While he produces a few examples of small-unit bonding, most of the
soldiers he commanded were strangers to each other – separated by
ethnicity, religion, ignorance, and fear. Appeals to fight for Stalin
and communism fell largely upon deaf ears, especially among peasant
conscripts with bitter memories of the unacknowledged civil war that
had marked the collectivization campaign.
Initially, before the
pivotal Stalingrad victory, defeatism was rampant among Soviet forces.
Even Stalin himself feared for a time that the Germans would win. This
led to massive desertions (half a million in 1942 alone), unforced
surrenders to the enemy, and numerous self-inflicted wounds to avoid
combat. The regime's only partially successful measures to enforce discipline included draconian punishments for
officers whose troops defected to the other side, blocking detachments
to fire on soldiers fleeing battle, and Stalin's famous "not one step
back" order (of which the author strongly approved). The real
turnaround in motivation and discipline among Soviet troops came after
Stalingrad. The German "supermen" were clearly no longer invincible.
Beyond a growing confidence in victory, another factor inspired Red
Army men: by this point every soldier had seen, or at least heard of,
the pervasive barbarity of the Germans – the deliberate destruction of
towns and villages and the unprovoked slaughter of their innocent
inhabitants. Hate replaced fear as the dominant emotion of Soviet
servicemen. Regime propaganda skillfully exploited this,
emphasizing defense of the motherland and the historic tradition of
repelling Germanic, Polish, Swedish, and French invaders.
By 1943, a new Soviet
Army was emerging, not only buoyed by the Stalingrad victory, but
better armed and equipped, thanks to heroic Soviet production efforts
and Allied aid (which Gorbachevsky readily acknowledges – his favorite
examples being American canned stew and Studebaker trucks). Just as
important, by 1943 the Soviet Army – both generals and front line
troops – had learned how to fight the Germans. Knowledge which might
have been acquired from a serious, if painful, study of the 1941
disaster, was gained only by bloody trial and error the following
year. Yet, better morale, weapons, mobility, and tactics did not put
an end to wasteful frontal assaults. Even late in the war, as the Red
Army swept into Germany, Soviet troops were forced to storm enemy
strong points that the Germans were defending to the death, though
these bastions could easily have been isolated and bypassed.
Beyond the fighting
itself, Gorbachevsky reports several significant attitudes and actions
prevalent among Soviet troops, including a pervasive anti-Semitism
among both ill-educated infantrymen in the trenches and professional
officers in the command bunkers. As a Soviet Jew, he is
especially sensitive to this defect in the Marxist experiment. In
addition, men of all ranks frequently complained about the continuing
delay of an Allied second front in western Europe--Stalin and his
Politburo henchmen were not alone in fearing that Winston Churchill
and Franklin Roosevelt might be willing to fight Hitler to the last
Russian. Also, the author reports the common feeling that the Russian
people deserved a better, more prosperous, and freer life after the
war. Many believed the unparalleled sacrifices made by this generation
had earned it a better future.
Finally, Gorbachevsky admits that their experience of German savagery
and Russian tragedy drove many Red Army men to seek vengeance in acts
of pillage, vandalism, and rape as they overran eastern Germany.
Readers of this memoir
should be aware that it is based largely on memory and hearsay.
The author kept a diary in the first months of his military service,
but was soon forced to burn it. He later saved a few documents
(orders, reports, etc.), but his written evidence base is quite thin,
making it difficult to distinguish which parts of the memoir are based
on vivid personal memories (like some of the battle sequences),
conversations with other soldiers, or later historical accounts.
Gorbachevsky admits to "reconstructing" many of his quotations. Given
the warnings of professional psychologists about memory and learning,
that is a weakness, though not a fatal flaw.
Those already familiar
with the substantial existing scholarship on the Eastern Front will
find few surprises here. Overall, however, Through the Maelstrom
is a worthy installment in the soldier's-eye-view literature on the
Second World War and will be especially useful to western readers, who
often know little about the Eastern Front, even though it was the
decisive theater of operations in the struggle against the Third
The University of North
Carolina at Asheville
 Previously published as Rzhevskaia
miasorubka: Vremia otvagi. Zadacha--Vyzhit' [The Rzhev Meat
Grinder: A Time of Courage. The Task--Survival] (Moscow: Iauza &
Eksmo, 2006). The English edition contains some additional
material not in the original.
 This gruesome subject has been persuasively
analyzed in Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German
Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (NY: St. Martin's,
 Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the
Second World War (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1989).
 The World Within War: The American Combat
Experience in World War II (NY: Free Press, 1997).
 These themes are fully developed in Amir Wiener,
Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the
Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 2000), and
Elena Zubkova, Russia after the War: Hopes, Illusions, and
Disappointments, 1945-1957 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998).
 See, e.g., Daniel L. Schacter, Seven Sins of
Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Boston: Houghton