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Robert Dale, Demobilized Veterans in Late Stalinist Leningrad. Soldiers to Civilians

London, Bloomsbury, 2017, 272 pages
Steven G. Jug
Bibliographical reference

Demobilized Veterans in Late Stalinist Leningrad. Soldiers to Civilians, London, Bloomsbury, 2017, 272 pages

Index terms

Countries :

Soviet Union, Russia

Research Fields :

History
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Pipss.org is grateful to Victoria Clement who edited this book review

1Soldiers’ return from a warzone marks the beginning, not the end, of the modern process of demobilization. Robert Dale’s thorough study of Red Army veterans in the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1953 emphasizes this reality through a case study of the Leningrad region. His robust source base includes central and regional archival documents from an array of state agencies, published materials, newspapers, veterans’ memoirs, diaries, oral history interviews, and letters to newspapers. Throughout the monograph, Dale situates Red Army soldiers’ experience within the larger context of demobilization after the world wars in enemy and allied states. He argues that a typical demobilization experience did not exist for Soviet veterans, and that what they shared above all was a common struggle to gain the resources and recognition from Soviet institutions that would facilitate their reintegration into civilian life.

2After an initial chapter-length narrative of the process of return from the front, Dale organizes his study thematically. Each chapter emphasizes a facet of the demobilization experience, and usually focuses on a civilian institution or source base. He engages changes over the 1945-1953 period to the extent they affected the processes and institutions under scrutiny. The first chapter emphasizes the logistical complexity of demobilization for veterans and the variety of veterans, including former prisoners of war and child soldiers, which further complicated Soviet demobilization processes and veterans’ experiences. Dale proceeds to focus on five major challenges of reintegrating Red Army veterans: housing, employment, medical care, criminality, and the politics of postwar life and war remembrance. In examining each of those five chapter-length topics, he draws from a different matrix of primary sources centered on records of the Soviet institution in Leningrad that documented particular requests from, successes of, or problems with, returning veterans. The often contentious interaction between veterans and Soviet officials, limited resources for institutions aiding veterans, the variety of veterans’ circumstances and needs, and veterans’ agency in navigating their reintegration receive consistent attention throughout.

3Dale’s case study approach demonstrates the value of a focused, deep examination of demobilization in a city-region such as Leningrad. By focusing on a discrete set of themes and the local institutions involved with them, the variety and complexity of veterans’ experiences shine through in every chapter. Dale’s treatment of disability, health, and trauma best illustrates these merits, as he moves beyond macro-level statistics and ignored complaints sent to Moscow to analyze the factors that shaped individual experiences, such as how local doctors fought against the rigidity of national disability classifications, or the hidden firing of disabled veterans. His use of local medical institutions’ documents also enables access to the challenges veterans faced but could not easily, if at all, articulate for themselves, such as veterans suffering various symptoms from concussions and traumatic brain injuries. Likewise, Dale’s discussion of crime shows the complexities of demobilization. He considers how veterans could be victims as well as perpetrators, and often had to confront a more criminal civilian world, such as a growing black market, rather than reign in their comrades or their own violent impulses. Dale’s findings show that neither local officials nor the public considered veterans to be inordinately dangerous or violent, despite the inevitable participation of some veterans in criminal activity.

4While well-researched overall, the monograph does not consistently present veterans unmediated voices on the topics each chapter covers. Memoir accounts and oral history interviews appear with some frequency, yet they do not compare to the use of institutional reports, criminal proceedings, and complaints to state agencies. While such a critique may seem to be simply a problem of the reviewer’s expectations, rather than a central focus in the text, Dale regularly makes claims like: “All veterans understood…” (p. 129) or “[G]rumbling about the injustices of demobilization was inevitable” (p. 181) without devoting much space to expressions of those understandings or grumbles. Chapter 6, Demobilizing the Mind, appears as a missed opportunity to engage not only questions of subjectivity but also to support his argument about the importance of veterans’ “remarkable creativity and initiative in circumventing the difficulties of postwar readjustment” (pg. 183). The chapter focuses on party membership and the political of drama of the Leningrad Affair and Zhadanovshchina, before acknowledging that: “These moments of high political drama hardly impinged on veterans’ everyday lives” (p. 169). As a result, the chapter does little to present veterans’ views as distinct from those of the public at large in Leningrad, and is nearly silent on the issue of emotions. A clearer emphasis on the mind as a site of postwar political controversy and dissonance between memory and the war cult without raising emotions and agency would likely have provided a streamlined final chapter without raising questions it does not answer sufficiently. That said, Dale does an excellent job analyzing Leningrad’s postwar politics and social dynamics through the demobilization of veterans, and provides strong evidence for his interpretation.

5Above all, Dale’s study provides presents a textured image of veterans’ interactions with state institutions, and thus the complexities of both demobilization and postwar Soviet society at large. He convincingly depicts how postwar Stalinism operated for a supposedly celebrated and privileged group of citizens in the particular site of Leningrad. His study should serve as a valuable resource for Soviet social and cultural historians of the postwar period, as well as an example of effective case study work for Russian history graduate students. Thanks to consistent international comparisons, the text can serve as a valuable survey for non-Soviet scholars studying the demobilization of veterans through political, sociological, or legal frameworks.

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References

Electronic reference

Steven G. Jug, « Robert Dale, Demobilized Veterans in Late Stalinist Leningrad. Soldiers to Civilians », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 18 | 2017, Online since 15 October 2017, connection on 20 September 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4287

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About the author

Steven G. Jug

Baylor University

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Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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