Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Ukraine: ancient history redux

I've been watching ongoing developments in Ukraine with considerable interest.  One of my long-standing interests has been the development of civilization in that part of the world, which goes way, way back.  For a start, the modern city of Kiev was once the heart of the Kievan Rus' tribal federation a millennium ago.  It had widespread influence in a number of other European nations, and from it sprang, in due course, the Russian nation.

Ukraine and the south-western parts of Russia were involved in some of the most dramatic and tragic events of the 20th century.  Three of the most noteworthy include the Holodomor in 1932-33, the deliberate genocide through starvation of Ukrainian peasants by Stalin; the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, one of the most decisive turning-points of World War II;  and the Battle of Kursk in 1943, which was the first defeat of a German strategic offensive.  All are remembered to this day by those living there.  Stephen Hunter, whose latest Bob Lee Swagger novel 'Sniper's Honor' is set in the region, traveled through the area as part of his research, and noted:

The true story of the war in the east is too vast for any one writer, or any ten writers, but in bringing it to a western audience, I aspire to be part of the process of remembering that which must be remembered.

. . .

I wrote the book, becoming enmeshed in an epic all but unknown in the west today, that is, the endgame as the Panzers and Tigers retreated in their thousands while the T-34s advanced in their ten thousands. Hundreds of thousands soldiers and citizens perished in huge fights never featured in western histories of the conflict, battles without names, towns with so many vowels vodka was again called for. In certain zones, I became convinced, I could hear the moans of the dead–unbelievable numbers–in the creaking of the trees, and hoped that with my modest talent I could do them justice.

. . .

I found the Carpathian segments of Ukraine to be a kind of Wisconsin Dells in the ’50s (which I actually remember), a rustic empire struggling to upgrade as it attempts to build an appeal for western tourism. The Ukraines, one learns, desperately want to be of the West, not of the East, and anyone who tells you different hasn’t been there.

I have to see places to write about them, so I believe my immersion into the actual landscapes where the great armies clashed provoked my imagination in ways more powerful than mere reading can ever do. When you see that 70 years later, the Ukrainians still put fresh flowers on the graves and the monuments, you realize that the war visited this part of the world with unrelenting violence and tragedy, and inflicted a wound that even decades later is still as raw as if it had happened two weeks ago.

There's more at the link.

The Russians, too, have bitter memories of World War II and the rivers of blood shed by Soviet troops to retake this area from the Germans.  It's certain that if the Soviet Union hadn't bled the Nazi armies dry, the Western Allies would never have been able to land in and retake Western Europe.  The military equation is very simple.  In many ways it's those memories, in both Ukraine and Russia, that are behind the nationalism and jingoism that are driving regional politics.

If you'd like to read more about the enormous suffering there during World War II, which is still the single most important influence on both nations, I recommend the following books.

  • 'Russia's War' by Richard Overy - a good (although not perfect) attempt to summarize the political, social, economic and military aspects of the war on the Eastern Front.
  • 'When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler' by David Glantz and Jonathan House - focusing more on the military clash between Communism and Nazism.
  • 'Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943' by Antony Beevor - the finest account of this critical turning-point in the Second World War that I've ever read.  Superb.
  • Two books by ordinary soldiers of the Wehrmacht, describing the conditions they endured on the Eastern Front:  'The Forgotten Soldier' by Guy Sajer and 'Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier on the Eastern Front' by Günter Koschorrek.  Both are translations;  both have their flaws and faults;  but both give an unforgettable impression of the savagery, deprivation and plain downright evil of that long-drawn-out conflict.  I wish there were a book from the Soviet side of similar power and impact, but if there is one I haven't come across it yet.  Do any of my readers know of one?  If so, please tell us in Comments.

The conflict described in those books gave rise and/or new impetus to the regional and nationalistic aspirations we see at work in the region today.  You can't understand modern Ukraine, or the intensity of Russian involvement in it, without understanding that historical reality.  As Stratfor pointed out recently:

The impersonal forces of geopolitics are driving Russia to try to retake its critical borderland. Having done that, the nations bordering Russian power will not know how far the Russians will try to go. For Russia, the deeper the buffer, the better. But the deeper the buffer, the higher the cost of maintaining it. The Russians are not ready for any such move. But over time, as their strength and confidence grow, their actions become less predictable. When facing a potential existential threat, the prudent action is to overreact ... The forces are beginning to gather, and if they do, they will not be controlled by good will.



Mike Brahier said...

Dan Carlin's "Ghosts of the Ostfront" series is a great way to brush up on the WWII history of that region.

PeterW. said...

With respect.... I believe that a prior land defeat of a German campaign would be that of Rommel's Afrika Corps by British Commonwealth troops at El Alamein, in late 1942.

Not on the same scale, of course, but still a "first".


Glen said...

From the Russian POV this is a fair source: Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 [Catherine Merridale]

Reading it also explains the great limits placed on former soviet soldiers-and the lack of personal memoirs.

Peter said...

@PeterW: El Alamein wasn't the blunting of a strategic German offensive - only a small-scale local tactical operation (involving three or four German and Italian divisions, as opposed to the scores of German divisions at Kursk).

Old NFO said...

Excellent links Peter, and there is NO question that the war even today is as real as memory can make it to those folks.

PeterW. said...

So the Suez Canal and the Middle-East had no strategic importance to the Axis?...
The Suez was certainly of enormous strategic importance to the Allies and to miss-call it tactical is to misuse the word.

But put that aside, the North-Africa campaign was the first time that an significant Axis force - commanded by their most highly-regarded General - was thoroughly beaten in battle.

It is also notable for being the first campaign in which the Blitzkreig signally failed.the Soviets (not all of them would be happy to be called "Russian" did great things, but let us not romanticise to the extent that we credit them with doing everything.

"Firsts" in warfare are often small, as not every commander with the wisdom and imagination to employ a successful innovation has a whole Army at his disposal.

Comrade Misfit said...

Red Sniper on the Eastern Front: The Memoirs of Joseph Pilyushin is well worth read. He fought at the Siege of Leningrad.

Chas Clifton said...

Military historians have debated the authenticity of The Forgotten Soldier. I don't feel qualified to say.

Thanks for the other recommendations.

Anonymous said...

I'd add "Bloodlands." It looks at the entire region (bit of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus) from Stalin in the 1920s through the end of 1945. Very well written and grim as hell.