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Masha Cerovic, Les Enfants de Staline. La guerre des partisans soviétiques, 1941-1944

Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2018, 384 pages
Elie Tenenbaum
Bibliographical reference

Masha Cerovic, Les Enfants de Staline. La guerre des partisans soviétiques, 1941-1944, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2018, 384 pages

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Soviet Union

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Editor's notes

Pipss is grateful to Kevin Roberts who edited this book review

Full text

1Renewing the historiography of the Second World War, one of the most studied conflicts of all time, particularly the battle between Soviet partisans and Nazi Germany, is no small task. However Masha Cerovic manages to brilliantly do so in her new book Les enfants de Staline [Stalin’s Children] which sheds new light on the brutal “irregular warfare” that ravaged Western Soviet territories for three years. Working with unpublished sources from Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine and Germany – including fascinating private papers and oral history material rarely used in Western publications –, Cerovic gives voice to the combatants of those “dead areas” whose ghosts still haunt much of what remains of the forests and swamps of Belorussia and Central Russia.

  • 1 Let us mention for instance inter alia, the works of B. V. Sheperd, War in the Wild East: The Germa (...)

2As a specialist in Slavic Studies, Cerovic provides a welcome and timely complement to recent scholarship on this under-studied dimension of the war which has heretofore been examined primarily through the lens of German archives. Such historiography was therefore oriented towards the “anti-partisan struggle” rather than the partisan phenomenon itself1 – a bias towards counterinsurgency that one finds in many irregular wars. While Cerovic does reflect on the nature of Nazi violence – especially in its “pre-exterminatory” dimension and on the catalyzing influence it had on the Soviet partisans, she also demonstrates very convincingly how these were also the true “children of Stalin”: not so much through their adherence to the Party apparatus or ideology but rather by their collective imagery and radical practices.

3While the book is not by any means a military history per se, it does provide some strategic narrative. Cerovic rightfully shows how the partisans were very much a product of the Blitzkrieg tactics employed by Operation Barbarossa, whose fast advance left vast numbers of surrounded, isolated Soviet troops behind the rapidly moving frontline. This was especially true of Army Group Centre’s capture a million and a half prisoners of war: “only a small percentage of these, evading or escaping captivity sufficed” (p. 48) led to great numbers of partisans in this area, up to 180,000, in 1944. The first motivation of the partisans was therefore to avoid capture and the well-known mistreatment endured by Soviet POWs in German hands. The brutal and often incompetent occupation policy enforced by the Army Group Rear Area Command, unable to offer any prospects greater than elusive land reforms did the rest in helping foster the insurgency.

4Contrary to the mythology promoted by the Soviets for decades after the war, the book shows that the partisan movement was born of the need to survive rather than patriotic fervor, abidance to the high command in Moscow and the Party hierarchy is another myth that Cerovic aptly deconstructs, stressing first the logistical difficulties of liaising across the frontlines and then of coordinating actions dozens if not hundreds of kilometers away. Though from the summer of 1942 onwards Moscow attempted to take over the reins of mouvement, it never managed to utilize the partisans effectively at a strategic level. Even the “Railway war” operations of 1943 and 1944 failed to achieve any significant successes against Wehrmacht supply lines.

5In a subsequent chapter, Cerovic makes good use of the analysis grid developed by the “historical anthropology of warfare” trend now so influential in French studies of war. She thus carefully reviews the perceived as well as material experience of the partisan “at the ground level”: the boredom as well as the suffering, the disease and the injuries. She also attempts a small (but successful) incursion into the realm of identity politics, showing especially the awkward status of Jewish partisans, still victims of Russian anti-Semitism among their fellow fighters, and in the field gender studies, exposing the dire realities facing women in partisan society.

6In the following chapters the author turns to a more innovative examination: that of the unorthodox – to say the least – polity that emerged from the partisan movement. She describes a world on its own, built on some sort of primal almost tribal society, bound by a warrior ethos – brotherhood in arms, hatred of the enemy – more than any elaborate ideology or political ambition. This polity however could not grow without soil: just as the Maoist saying goes with fish and water, the partisans needed the local population to breathe and survive. This symbiosis was anything but perfect of course and Cerovic carefully documents the toll exacted from the locals, sometimes with their consent and sometimes without. The reluctant ones were soon to be grouped with the traitors, and collaborators of the enemy. Whether actual collaborationist civil servants, police forces and informants or mere relatives or the former, the “traitors” were the real target of partisan violence, thus stressing the long taboo “civil war” dimension of the conflict. It is in this fratricidal violence rather than in their war on the Germans that the partisans proved to be the true children of Stalin.

7Finally, as in a Greek tragedy, the book concludes with a somber dénouement: the savage liquidation of the ephemeral partisan republics by the German army. As the Wehrmacht started to retreat west and the frontlines came nearer to partisan areas, these were dealt with ruthlessly by the German command. From Operation Cottbus in the Spring of 1943 to the “Belarussian ordeal” of 1944, the partisan movement did not suffer so much as the civilian population linked to it by the retreating and vengeful Nazis. The eventual liberation of the summer of 1944 was made all the more bitter in that the partisans were, in a dark twist of history, enrolled by the Soviet authorities (especially NKVD) to track down the stragglers from the German army and rival insurgent movements – especially Bandera’s Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA). This closing certainly helps to put into perspective the history of the Soviet partisans, reintegrating them in the wider “Bloodlands” paradigm.

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1 Let us mention for instance inter alia, the works of B. V. Sheperd, War in the Wild East: The German Army and the Soviet Partisans, Harvard University Press, 2004: Ch. Ingrao, Les chasseurs noirs. La brigade Dirlewanger, Paris, Perrin, 2009; A.J. Kay, J. Rutherford, & D. Stahel (Eds), Nazy Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941: Total War, Genocide and Radicalization, Rochester, NY: University Press, 2012.

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Electronic reference

Elie Tenenbaum, « Masha Cerovic, Les Enfants de Staline. La guerre des partisans soviétiques, 1941-1944  », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 04 February 2019, connection on 18 November 2019. URL :

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About the author

Elie Tenenbaum


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