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Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars - Book Reviews (4)

Brandon M. Schechter, The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II Through Objects

Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2019, XXIV + 315 pages
Gabor Rittersporn
Bibliographical reference

Brandon M. Schechter, The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II Through Objects, Cornell University Press, Itjaca, 2019, XXIV + 315 pp.

Index terms

Countries :

Soviet Union

Research Fields :

History
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1Since time immemorial, common people, philosophers, biologists and other scientists have mused about the materiality of the human being and its relationship to the inner world of men and women. Few, if any, thinkers have sought to view this issue through the prism of an army, its weaponry, the environment it shaped and the objects its soldiers used, cherished or robbed.

2Brandon M. Schechter is the first to embark upon this intellectual adventure. He explores the materiality of the Red Army at the time of WWII, from the body of the warriors to their armament, to the few personal items they possessed and to the trophies the survivors of the deadly battles took from the homeland of their vanquished enemy. His extensive research incorporated hundreds of archival documents, wartime interviews, diaries, letters, post-war memoirs and scholarly studies. He manages to make sense of the interplay of living and dead bodies with their closer and wider environment reaching from utensils like spades for digging trenches, the country they defended and the ways to rationalize their own suffering.

3The story begins with the soldier's body which became government issue, "a little cog in a giant war machine", as Schechter puts it with reference to a speech of Stalin, and with the uniform that signaled its seriality. Schechter shows how the changing design of the uniform which reverted to the tsarist tradition at a time when the war was far from won, and the introduction of the Old Regime's shoulder boards to distinguish officers reflects the new regime's shift from Bolshevik customs to the cult of time-honored symbols of nationhood and authority. The change, which diverted human and material resources from war-related production was meant to motivate the army and it succeeded beyond expectations, among others through fostering a corporate identity for soldiers of different service branches. So did the introduction of a profusion of tiny objects, medals and orders which indicated the soldier's participation in victorious operations and often testified to his bravery or heroic deeds.

4The food which fed (or failed to feed) the warrior and the ways to provide or attempt to provide it receive as much attention from the author as decorations and garb. After all, the food motivated no less than accoutrements. A humble instrument such as the infantryman’s short spade also merits more attention than one might think. It was often a question of life and death to dig in and eventually to link foxholes in order to construct trenches, veritable "cities of earth" as Schechter calls them. He aptly compares their painful construction to the vagaries of Soviet urbanization.

5Schechter does not miss an opportunity to emphasize the occasional similarity of the soldier's military experience to that of his civilian life. He shows how the process of learning to handle arms resembled learning to deal with machines for newcomers to the factories. Most of these people were yesterday's peasants and so were the millions of soldiers who constituted two thirds of the troops. They found much equipment that was no more than a militarized version of familiar items: their tunics, the foot wraps soldiers had to wear instead of socks, the omnipresent wooden spoons, the mud huts of the trenches, and the knapsacks which were indistinguishable from the villager's bindle.

6Soldiers must undergo specific training to learn how to use weapons. The Red Army could not always properly prepare its troops for battle, especially during the disasters of the first months of the war and their immediate aftermath. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers arrived to the front with a minimal preparation. Like so many workers who learned their trade on the shop floor, warriors learned to kill and avoid being killed on the job. Most of them were hesitant to kill at the start and some of them could never bring themselves to put their weapons to good use. But nearly all soldiers developed an attachment to their arms, even to large sitting targets like tanks.

7The soldiers carried few items which were not issued by the government. There was hardly any place for personal possessions because the average burden of a soldier was 24 kilograms. The few civilian objects he carried in his bag had sentimental value. It is hard to guess that one of the most precious items was the tobacco pouch. But it goes without saying that the dearest things were letters received from home. Schechter devotes an excellent chapter to the correspondence.

8He shows how men (and also women) who would otherwise never meet congregated around the soldier's stuff and became a veritable army of a motley crowd of retreating fighters. Their equipment was modest and yet they still defeated a formidably equipped enemy. Students and peasants, intellectuals and criminals freshly released from prison, cattle drivers and shock workers, erstwhile nomads from Central Asia and Slavs from the country's heartland changed into the people of the Soviet Motherland, regardless of their beliefs and convictions.

9The reader has good reason to curse the publisher who did not want to waste paper on a bibliography, which would facilitate the perusal of the book. And he has the best reasons to be grateful to Schechter for a study that opens new horizons.

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References

Electronic reference

Gabor Rittersporn, « Brandon M. Schechter, The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II Through Objects », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 20/21 | 2019, Online since 12 March 2020, connection on 15 July 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/5806

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About the author

Gabor Rittersporn

EHESS

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Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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