Ivan's War

Was ever there a group of people so hapless, so luckless…so witless?

There they were, up to 30 million of them in the heartland of Eurasia, some 6,000 years after civilization had begun, 20 centuries after the birth of Christ, 200 years after the Industrial Revolution had begun, and during the living memory of many people reading this reflection. They drove automobiles. They talked on telephones. They listened to Debussy and Chopin on record players. They tuned into the radio, ate food that came in tins, used condoms, and enjoyed nearly painless dentistry…at least in Moscow.

How did these poor Soviet grunts get themselves into such a fix?

And here, we add an aggravating detail. These men thought themselves not backward, but in the very vanguard of human progress. They were men who had chosen to follow the prophets Vladimir and Josef into the land of scientific socialism. Gone were the old traditions. Gone were the old rules. Thrown out the door were the old religions. Now, the Soviets had a new religion of collectivism, new rules shaped by the communist party, and new traditions enforced by the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD) or the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs.

Readers may have relaxed by now, like parishioners at a sermon who see the preacher’s accusing finger pass them by, but not so fast. While the victims in today’s essay are the Soviets, the protagonists — the dramatis personae — of our theme include us all. We may not be communists, or Russians, or soldiers, but we stand on two legs along with them, and breathe the same air.

When war with Germany began, the Soviet soldier found himself in a no man’s land. In front of him was the Wehrmacht, which was, at the time, the best attack force ever put into the field. The German army would most likely kill him or take him prisoner. If he were taken prisoner, he would almost certainly die, partly because the Germans wanted him dead, and partly because they had no way to keep him alive. They had not prepared for the millions of Soviet troops who would fall into their grasp. They had no food to give them and no barracks to lock them up in. Instead, prisoners were often left out in the open, surrounded with barbed wire and used for target practice until they finally collapsed of hunger and exposure.

In back of him, his prospects were not much better. Behind him, Stalin’s police had put up "blocking battalions." Described as an additional line of defense, these troops were meant to shoot their own comrades if they tried to retreat. "Not a step back," Stalin had said in his secret order number 227.

Between the Germans and the blocking battalions, there was almost certain death.

"The rates of loss were …extravagant," writes Catherine Merridale in Ivan’s War. "By December 1941, six months into the conflict, the Red Army had lost 4.5 million men. The carnage was beyond imagination. Eyewitnesses described the battlefields as landscapes of charred steel and ash. The round shapes of lifeless heads caught the late summer light like potatoes turned up from new-broken soil. The prisoners were marched off in their multitudes. Even the Germans did not have the guards, let alone enough barbed wire, to contain the 2.5 million Red Army troops they captured in the first five months. One single campaign, the defense of Kiev, cost the Soviets nearly 700,000 killed or missing in a matter of weeks. Almost the entire army of the pre-war years…was dead or captured by the end of 1941."

Behind these amazing figures is a long story. The Bolsheviks believed they had the secret recipe for a better world. A mood of confidence, of positivism, of rationalism, and of world improvement had settled over Russia. It required destroying the old institutions, relationships, customs, attitudes, traditions and religion. Naturally, not everyone was cooperative. Well, said Lenin, "you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs." So, the shells were cracked with rifle butts.

"Theirs was no ordinary generation," Merridale continues, referring to the Soviet troops. "By 1941, the Soviet Union, a state whose existence began in 1918, had already suffered violence on an unprecedented scale. The seven years after 1914 were a time of unrelenting crisis: the civil war between 1918 and 1921 alone would bring cruel fighting, desperate shortages of everything from heating fuel to bread and blankets, epidemic disease, and a new scourge that Lenin chose to call class war.

The famine that came in its wake was terrible by any standards, but a decade later, in 1932—3, when starvation claimed more than 7 million lives, the great hunger of 1921 would come to seem, as one witness put it, u2018like child’s play.’ By then, too, Soviet society had torn itself apart in the upheaval of the first of many five-year plans for economic growth, driving the peasants into collectives, destroying political opponents, forcing some citizens to work like slaves. The men and women who were called upon to fight in 1941 were the survivors of an era of turmoil that had cost well over 15 million lives in little more than two decades."

This campaign to improve the world included getting rid of experienced military officers who were from the wrong class — as most were. It also involved such an ambitious program of careful central planning that nothing worked properly. You’d think that even a government employee could figure out that soldiers needed rifles, but many went to war without them. Nor did they have proper food, shelter, sanitation or clothing.

Fortunately, from a central planner’s point of view, without weapons or training they were usually killed before they starved to death. Little things were missing, too. The soldiers were ordered to go places, but there were no maps to show them how to get there. Only the Germans had maps. Soviet tanks were equipped with radios, but without an adequate code system, Germans could listen in on their tactical discussions. And the high command in Moscow could think of no tactic other than the frontal assault, and regarded camouflage as cowardly.

By February 1942, three million soviet soldiers had been captured. The Red Army had also lost 2,663,000 who were killed in action. The math was bad, even for a country as large as Russia; for every German who was killed, 20 Soviet soldiers died.

And here, we pause and we wonder. We take our man as we find him, but we cannot quite believe he is the dumb ox he appears to be. There were more than five million armed men at any given time in the Red Army. They could have turned on their incompetent and merciless leaders if they had wanted to. Instead, they lined up and marched to their own slaughter, many of them, perhaps the majority, believing that it would help make the world a better place.

Even now, according to Merridale, they sit around shabby old soldiers homes and congratulate themselves. They beat the fascists! They saved the Proletarian Revolution! Thus, they lived almost their entire lives under the heel of an even more delusional and murderous regime, but didn’t seem to notice.

Here, too, people don’t seem to notice that much of what they take for granted, future generations will take for absurd. The dollar is worth something. You can get rich by spending. Debt doesn’t matter. The American Empire is at war with "insurgents."

People will believe anything …even if it kills them.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.