This is an english translation of a memoir that was originally written in Russian. And its a pretty good translation: sometimes books translated from another language can read very heavily, but here the translator has captured the essence of the original story.
Peter Mikhin was studying at a Mathematics student when Germany invaded Russia in 1941. He and his contemporaries were summarily ‘recruited’ as artillery officers – with little or no choice in the matter – and after rudimentary training were sent to the front. Mikhin seems to have lived a charmed life, and somehow managed to survive the war relatively intact. Along the way he fought numerous battles, often at close quarters. Although he was nominally an artillery officer, frequently Mikhin and his men were assigned infantry-esque duties, such as snatching prisoners.
The real value of this book is the valuable insight that it gives us into life on the eastern front. Perhaps in the west we have not heard too much about the social history of the Russian Soldier of the Second World War. Sure, we all know the rough outline of Moscow-Stalingrad-Kursk-Berlin. But what we need to remember is the sheer scale of the fighting, from the Arctic circle to the Black Sea, sucking in million upon million of men. Compared to the Eastern Front, the Western Front was a relatively short sideshow.
Its very interesting indeed to read about the nature of discipline in the Red Army – of course in a totalitarian, politicised regime, officer-men relations take on a completely different shape. But interesting, they always seem to have referred to each other as ‘comrade’, regardless of their rank. We also read about the Russian soldier’s attitudes to death – namely that since they had no choice but to obey an order, they were resigned to their fate. But even as atheists, they often refer to fate, and a belief in some kind of higher power. The political officers and the NKVD loom largely too, and seem to have been feared more than the Germans. It is also noticeable that on the Eastern Front life was much more expendable, especially when contrasted with a British Army that strove at all costs to avoid the losses of the Somme and Passchendaele.
And remember that until the fall of the Berlin Wall such accounts from behind the Iron Curtain were very rare indeed. Its very noticeable that as Mikhin was writing his recollections in 1984 there are still vestiges of Soviet propaganda, the motherland ‘and all that’. Yet aside from the deep politicisation, many of the anecdotes told by Mikhin will be familiar to soldiers the world over – time and time again we find that a soldier is a soldier, no matter what uniform he wears.