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Book Reviews - General (8)

S. Oushakine, A. Golubev, sost., vstup. stat'ia, red.; E. Goncharova, I. Rebrova, podgotovka dokumentov, XX vek: Pis'ma voiny

Moskva, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2016, 840 pages
Brandon Schechter
Bibliographical reference

S. Oushakine, A. Golubev, sost., vstup. stat'ia, red.; E. Goncharova, I. Rebrova, podgotovka dokumentov, XX vek: Pis'ma voiny, Moskva, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2016, 840 pages

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1This is a book about letters rather than a book of letters. It doesn’t so much use letters to tell a story as much as tells the stories of letters. A massive, highly original collection of essays and documents, Pis’ma voiny sets out to define and examine war letters as a genre.

2A challenging, theory-heavy introduction sets the overall stakes and claims of the project as a whole. Oushakine and Golubev define the twentieth century as the era of the war letter. They note the rise of the genre due to mass mobilization, mass education and the creation of a system of regular mail to and from the army, claiming that the rise of cell phones “made the exchange of paper letters superfluous” (p. 14). We are asked not to think of these letters as evidence in an historical argument, but rather as an “independent discursive phenomenon” (p. 13). They complain that letters are often seen as an auxiliary source, mobilized by historians who have mined them for “gold” to prove their point, bringing assumptions about what they will find and how they will use this source with them. Instead, they ask us to “consider the letters in the framework of an approach that could be called the historical poetics of military correspondence” with their own aesthetics and rules (p. 13). As a result, the authors favor letters that are part of a longer correspondence and demonstrate the dynamics of the development of letters as a genre. This obsession with genre and the work that letters do comprises the majority of the text. Letters and the act of letter writing serve to translate the language of war into civilian language, i.e. how war is transformed (or perhaps sublimated) into comprehensible genres – discussions of work, love, money, etc. – in correspondences with loved ones at home. Soldiers are often confronted with the limits of their ability to express what they are experiencing and their letters are filled with silences. Despite these silences, soldiers and their families maintained their correspondences as part of a symbolic exchange and simply as proof of life.

3The book’s thirteen essays explore the evolution of war letters as a literary form through a variety of themes. The chapters themselves vary dramatically in terms of coherency and forcefulness of argument and also in terms of the chronological periods represented. Some essays consider the Boer Wars (via the Russian Red Cross) or Russo-Japanese War through to the Chechen Wars, while several concentrate exclusively on the Great Patriotic War. The chapters can be read together or separately. The themes addressed in the essays vary and include war as work, official ideology in letters, money, denunciations, hunger, hatred and everyday life. Several fascinating chapters are devoted to romance and family relationships during war and finally to death. The collected letters are very rich and provide a window into the subjects they explore and the evolution of the genre. As someone who has read thousands of wartime letters, I can say that there was much surprising and interesting to be found in this collection. The book is richly illustrated. At times these images are major pieces of evidence in the author’s argument, other times there is no clear connection between the illustrations and the text (but they remain striking images). Most of the chapters provide a convincing overview of the particular genre of letter or theme they explore and the book represents quite an accomplishment.

4However, there are a few missing pieces. There are very few letters from the First World War or Civil War. Further. there is surprisingly little attention paid to the materiality of letters. Of particular interest here is the paper shortage under Stalin and how the physical forms of the paper that was available (postcards or blank paper) impacted the genre. While letters are translated from various “non-Russian” languages (e.g. Ingush, Uzbek), there is no discussion of the differing cultural norms among various peoples of Eurasia, the fact that writing in languages other than Russian often significantly delayed correspondence or the acute sense of isolation among many “non-Russians”. Group letters (often called nakaz in which a collective such as a military unit or factory would write another collective or government official about their accomplishments and promise further good deeds) are used several times (pp. 54-57, 70-72) but none of the authors attempts to interpret them as a particular genre or cite other works that have done so.

  • 1 D. Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America, Ch (...)
  • 2 M. Lyons, The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, 1860-1920, Cambridge, Cambridge Univers (...)

5The most significant oversight, given the collective interest in the war letter as a genre on the part of the authors, is a lack of engagement with the significant historiography of the letter in general and war letters specifically, which makes the book at times seem somewhat ahistorical. Consulting authors such as David Henkin1 or Martyn Lyons2 could have gone further to clarify the specifics of the war letter and its poetics. The evolution of conventions of letter writing also receive short shrift in this tome. The choice to eschew engagement with this historiography is particularly vexing given the sparse attention paid to the specifics of the Soviet case in the introduction and in many of the essays. Several authors deal in part with the issues of censorship and surveillance in their chapters (e.g. Hellbeck, Chashchukhin), but the book lacks a systematic discussion of how these factors impacted the genre and any discussion of comparison with contexts outside of the Eurasian landmass. This is particularly striking given that the introduction leans heavily on theoreticians writing on letters in the context of Europe and America and that the authors tend to present claims about war letters in general terms, rather than specifically declaring that they are examining Russian/Soviet war letters as a genre. Given that several authors and the editors work in the United States, this seems like a missed opportunity.

6That this reviewer had to go so deep into the weeds to critique this tome is a testament to its overall quality. Addressing every issue is impossible, even in 840 pages. The book is informative, provocative and at times very touching. It provides some interesting interpretations, excellent primary sources and is sure to inspire further scholarship and debate.

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1 D. Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America, Chicago, US, University of Chicago Press, 2008.

2 M. Lyons, The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, 1860-1920, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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Electronic reference

Brandon Schechter, S. Oushakine, A. Golubev, sost., vstup. stat'ia, red.; E. Goncharova, I. Rebrova, podgotovka dokumentov, XX vek: Pis'ma voiny The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 18 | 2017, Online since 10 December 2017, connection on 20 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Brandon Schechter

New York University

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