Catherine Merridale's book is the first to put the experience of the ordinary Russian soldier at the heart of a narrative of the war on the Eastern Front, displacing the dictators and their generals who have dominated books on the subject for the past sixty years. Ivan, the archetypal Russian infantryman, emerges at last as a human figure. Merridale has explored letters, diaries, military records, the documents of the secret police and the testimonies of hundreds of surviving witnesses in an attempt to let us hear the voices of those who lived through the worst war in history. She found reports on morale by the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, medical surveys of illness and wounds (and denial of the reality of shell shock), and confiscated letters that said unguarded things about Stalin and sent their authors to punishment battalions. We hear the testimony of men and women about to die in suicidal attacks, facing German tanks with inadequate weapons and clothing, surviving terrible prison camps whose only purpose was to starve captives to death or living rough in the woods as partisans.
She tries to understand how soldiers could fight so doggedly and for so long for a regime that treated them like dirt or cannon fodder. She has to dig beneath the jargon and ritual phrases of Soviet-era memory, which also clog the memories of the veterans who survived the war. Merridale breaks through that hard, accumulated crust of official dogma - even today, the Russian state does not like having the myth of the Great Patriotic War tarnished by fear, cowardice, looting or rape, all inseperable from the astonishing courage of these Ivans who died in their millions to stop the Nazi army that would otherwise have enslaved the whole of Europe. The experience of the soldiers is set against a masterly narrative of the war in Russia. In a moving final chapter Merridale shows how the veterans were treated with chilling ingratitude by Stalin, and later exploited as icons of the war by Brezhnev - before being sidelined once more in Putin's new authoritarian capitalist Russia.