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Book Reviews - General (4)

Emilia Koustova (Dir.), Combattre, Survivre, Témoigner. Expériences soviétiques de la Seconde Guerre mondiale

Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2020, 469 pages
Kristy Ironside
Bibliographical reference

Emilia Koustova, Combattre, Survivre, Témoigner. Expériences soviétiques de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2020, 469 pages

Index terms

Chronological index:

Soviet Union

Research Fields:

History, Historiography
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Full text

  • 1 Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin, Cambridge: Harvard University (...)

1Despite being portrayed as a “people’s war,” the Second World War’s impact on the lives of millions of citizens was downplayed by the postwar Soviet government until the Brezhnev years, when a cult of the war emerged that prized heroic narratives and uncritical accounts of their experiences. The present volume constitutes a welcome contribution to the historiography of the Soviet experience of the Second World War, surveying the kinds of archival sources available to the historian seeking to uncover ordinary citizens’ perspectives on it. These sources range from diaries and letters to memoirs and petitions to Soviet authorities years later. Each chapter revolves around an archival source, excerpted or printed in full, prefaced by a contextualizing essay exploring the production of the document in question, the life of the person(s) who produced it, and in some cases the functions of these documents in both the construction and deconstruction of official memory. As Emilia Koustova notes in her introduction, the construction of the “I” of each writer—the goal of the subjectivity school of Soviet historiography and the work of Jochen Hellbeck, in particular—is not the focus here.1 Instead, this volume is principally concerned with how the individual translated his or her experience into written form and the contexts in which these accounts were produced (p. 34).

2This collection is divided into four parts corresponding to the type of document examined. The first half looks at eye-witness accounts. Part One focuses on intimate diaries. Alain Blum examines the diary of Elena Spirgevičiūtė, a young devoutly Catholic woman who was allegedly murdered by Soviet partisans in 1944, whose diary not only provides insight into life under Soviet and Nazi occupation, but also the Shoah as it unfolded in Lithuania. Elena’s diary was later used after the collapse of communism in a bid by her brother to obtain sainthood for his sister. Emilia Koustova looks at the notebooks of Piotr Lidov, a journalist whose famed “Tania” article helped to build the cult of executed partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. Lidov recorded his conversations, observations, and other information about life during the war, as well as his often-critical reflections on the journalism profession in the Soviet Union, as he moved with the front and before his death in June 1944. Part Two focuses on letters. Vanessa Voisin’s contribution looks at the correspondence between documentary cinematographer Mark Troianovski and his superiors in Moscow. Amandine Regamey explores the letters written by Nataliia Kovchova, a young Komsomolka who enlisted as a volunteer sniper, before her tragic death on the front. Kovchova, Regamey emphasizes, was not merely a young patriot willing to sacrifice herself, but someone who identified with a collective cause and sought to process her family history through her involvement in it (p. 183).

3The second half turns its attention to ex post facto accounts. Part Three focuses on memoirs. In a second contribution, Amandine Regamey looks at the memoirs of Alexander Levine produced under the auspices of the Mints Commission, an interview project launched by historians of the Academy of Sciences. Levine’s account is unique, as it was produced before the war was over and features corrections that helped to bring his account in line with the already-emerging official narrative. Oleg Budnitski and Liudmila Novikova’s piece explores a selection from the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System, the recollections of an anonymized respondent who lived through occupation in Ukraine, was sent to forced labor in Germany, and emigrated from the Soviet Union. Finally, Part Four focuses on documents produced by the secret police. Alain Blum and Emilia Koustova explore the interrogations of Jews who survived the war and the Shoah in Kaunas, Lithuania, who were later accused of Zionism and, in their encounters with police drew upon Soviet heroic narrative tropes to prove their resistance to the Nazis. Vladimir Solonari looks at an unsuccessful petition to avoid the death penalty by Aleksandr Petrovski, leader of an underground Party cell in occupied Odessa, who, under arrest, named names to Romanian occupiers, only to later be arrested by the Soviets and shot for treason. Finally, Boris Kovalev charts the life of a charlatan, Ivan Amozov, who passed himself off as a Civil War hero and spent time in the gulag for fraud before the war, only to pass himself off as a priest in occupied Pskov during it and be arrested for treason when the Red Army recaptured the area. Amozov accomplished a final reinvention, successfully petitioning for his rehabilitation and spending his last years living peacefully on a state pension (p. 356).

4Each of these contributions highlights the enormous diversity of Soviet citizens’ experiences, despite the homogenization that official narratives and the effects of time and distance would produce. Despite propaganda that extolled their unquestioning sacrifices for and loyalty to Soviet power, Soviet citizens were often forced to make difficult ethical choices, particularly in the context of occupation, as the documents show. They also bring to the fore the many contradictions that existed between Soviet ideals and reality, as the subjects in question witnessed the real-life state of the Soviet countryside, the Red Army’s poor provisioning and crushing defeats, and shortages of food, to name but a few examples. At the same time, official narratives bled into unofficial interpretations, and thus they cannot be neatly separated.

5The archival sources presented here, many of which are published in translation for the first time, will be of enormous use for teaching undergraduate courses in Soviet history, on the Second World War, and historical methodology; moreover, the volume is beautifully illustrated with propaganda posters and photographs from the time that provide helpful visual context for the essays and primary sources.

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1 Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

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Electronic reference

Kristy Ironside, “Emilia Koustova (Dir.), Combattre, Survivre, Témoigner. Expériences soviétiques de la Seconde Guerre mondiale”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 22 | 2021, Online since 21 March 2021, connection on 04 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kristy Ironside

McGill University

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