The Stuff of Soldiers
A History of the Red Army in World War II through Objects
Brandon M. Schechter
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2019, 344 pages
Book Review published on: July 9, 2021
The fight on the eastern front in World War II makes for an interesting study; often, this theater of war is presented in terms of German operations and Soviet reaction, German defense planning and Soviet offensive action. In such studies, Soviet planning by the Stavka is portrayed as inferior to the kind of planning conducted by the German General Staff, the premier military institution of continental Europe.
The soldiers of the Red Army fare even worse. Soldiers of the German army, for all the faults of their political leadership, are portrayed as skilled professionals fighting against overwhelming odds against the “red hordes.” Except for some translated reminisces of the Great Patriotic War from the Soviet era, which read like hagiographies, very little is available about average Soviet soldiers.
One of the most recent books touching upon this topic is The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II through Objects. Generally, books on the eastern front portray Soviet soldiers at their worst: attacking the enemy while drunk, rigid control by politruks and the Secret Police, and trading lives for time or for geographic objectives. The Stuff of Soldiers looks at the Red Army man and woman in terms of their equipment and material needs. The food they were fed, the kind of weapons they carried, the uniforms they wore; all of these things defined the soldiers who fought for the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union’s army was large, but it was also run on a shoestring. Soldiers were not paid much, nor was much spent on field rations. Food was monotonous and basic, but then again, much of the Soviet Union’s food-producing land was under occupation and army stockpiles captured during the initial German offensive. While Red Army rations were not ideal, they were better than most Soviet citizens were getting.
The Soviets did not issue much in the way of individual equipment. They issued greatcoats for sleeping bags, spades for digging foxholes and trenches, and spoons to eat with, so long as soldiers remembered to bring their own when they were conscripted. Stainless steel was ideal. The Red Army soldier did not have much, but then again he did not have unnecessary weight slowing him down when he charged into battle. If he needed specialized equipment, he had to improvise, the Soviet Union would not waste resources on items that might make the soldier’s life easier.
The exception to Soviet stinginess was weapons. Initially, there was a shortage of ammunition but once the loss of prewar shocks was made good by new munitions, the Red Army soldier was equipped with new submachine guns, improved tanks, assault guns, and a host of new artillery pieces. Even as the Soviets reequipped with newer tanks and artillery, as good as or better than what the Germans possessed, the average infantryman kept his Nagant rifle of Czarist vintage.
New weapons and new uniforms came hand-in-hand as the Red Army began to win campaigns. The old enameled badges of rank were replaced by shoulder boards, a symbol of Czarist oppression during the revolution and the civil war that followed. The old tunics were replaced by new designs with chest pockets. Medals and orders were created to recognize courage and merit and were often worn on field uniforms. As the Red Army transitioned to a professional, modern force, it assumed a new look.
Finally, much of Schechter’s book talks about military literature: newspapers, magazines, and books. The Red Army had its own magazines and a variety of books; fiction and nonfiction were published for the off-duty soldier. Newspapers were the primary means of keeping up with events in the first half of the twentieth century and these frontline news organs were produced at front-, army- and regimental-level. This did not mean that there were a variety of opinions; only one interpretation of events was permitted by the State and agitprops were in place to make certain of this. Letters were censored by the party to make sure the “official” way of looking at things was not marred by inconvenient facts. Fake news, indeed.
Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War is effective at looking at the changes within the Red Army as a whole while the war progressed, employing a variety of firsthand accounts. Alexander Pylcyn’s Penalty Strike: The Memoirs of a Red Army Penal Company Commander, 1943-45, follows a punishment battalion and its unique role in the Great Patriotic War. Boris Bogachev’s For the Motherland! For Stalin! A Red Army Officer’s Memoir of the Eastern Front follows one junior officer has he fights and survives some of the most desperate fighting of the eastern front. But The Stuff of Soldiers looks at how the men and women of the Red Army lived from day-to-day, what they used, and how they used it.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas