Filling the Gaps: Soviet Life in Battle and on the Home Front in World War II

December 10, 2021   •   By Maria Bloshteyn

The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II through Objects

Brandon Schechter

Fortress Dark and Stern: The Soviet Home Front During World War II

Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer

MORE THAN SEVEN DECADES have passed since the end of World War II and what was once part of lived communal knowledge has gradually fallen away. Many of those who experienced the war firsthand have died and the inheritors of their stories are more and more disconnected from the realities their grandparents and great-grandparents witnessed. This is true for all the nations involved in the conflict, even the states that were once part of the Soviet Union, which — always one for superlatives — had mobilized the biggest army the world has ever known, and the biggest labor force on the home front to assist in a policy known as “total war.” Two remarkable recent books do much to awaken the modern reader to the immensity of the collective effort that brought the seemingly undefeatable Nazi war machine to its knees. Brandon M. Schechter’s The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II through Objects is a compulsively readable account of the material culture of the Soviet Army, focusing on the mundane objects that helped turn what was a “desperate, retreating band” in 1941 into the victorious troops that began to push the Germans back in 1943. Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer’s Fortress Dark and Stern: The Soviet Home Front during World War II is the fullest story to date of the Soviet home front, of the civilians who lived in dire conditions, often working double and triple shifts and sometimes dropping dead on the factory floor, in order to keep the army and the country going.

The Stuff of Soldiers considers how the materials allocated to men and women entering the army — their weapons, their spades, their spoons, and so forth — were both symbolic of larger issues at the front (supply of ammunition, hygiene, provisioning, etc.) and served to transform their bearers from civilians into soldiers. The discussion of the importance of spoons is particularly eye-opening. My father served on the Kalinin Front as a 17-year-old, and as a child I’d often hear him joke, as I reached for the spoon by my morning porridge: “A soldier without a spoon is not a soldier!” I understood, of course, that spoons were a part of a soldier’s mess kit, but I had no appreciation of just how important they were. Schechter quotes from the memoirs of Alexander Lesin, soldier and poet — who, incidentally, also fought on the Kalinin Front. Lesin writes, “Without a spoon, just as without a rifle, it is impossible to wage war,” and explains that one needed this simplest of tools to eat even dry rations. A soldier’s equipment, stripped down to the bare minimum, thus consisted of a rifle and a spoon. The spoon had additional significance, as one of the very few things that a soldier actually owned. And although spoons were part of government issue (Shechter notes that in the third quarter of 1942 alone, 1.9 million wooden spoons were ordered as supplies), they were an item that draft inductees were instructed to bring with them and were thus a link with the soldiers’ former lives, their homes and families. Spoons varied in material (wood, metal, plexiglass) and appearance, and were further individualized with initials, important personal dates, and artwork. In one moving example Schechter provides, a quartermaster sergeant carved into his spoon the dates of his wedding, the birthdays of his children, the day he was drafted, and the day he was wounded, which he then gave to his wife, who came to visit him in the hospital; a month later, he was killed in action, the spoon becoming a family relic. Indeed, these carved spoons served as informal IDs, as many soldiers resisted filling in the personal information sheets they were supposed to carry, believing them to be bad luck. To this day, newly uncovered Soviet soldier remains are often identified by their spoons. Sergey Shvetsov, a poet and war correspondent, wrote,

People get killed at the war all the time.
I lost my ID, but if I meet my end,
Here’s my spoon that they’ll know me by —
And take me back to the Motherland.           

Schechter is keenly interested in the experience of outsiders on the front, and his book includes the many “others” usually left out of Soviet World War II narratives — the natzmen, or national minorities, such as Muslims from the Soviet Central Asian republics, some of whom left their native villages for the first time when they joined the Soviet army. The experience of women is also highlighted. Schechter draws on a broad variety of sources, including wartime letters, diaries, memoirs, fiction, and interviews, as well as official documents. He also pays careful attention to the differences between how it felt to be a soldier at the beginning of the war and how it felt after the turning point of Stalingrad, a factor that is, surprisingly, often overlooked in historical reconstructions of the Soviet frontline experience. As Vasily Grossman testified in 1945, in one of the many sharply observed articles he wrote as a war correspondent, to be included with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s translation of his novel The People Immortal (NYRB Classics, September 2022):

Back then, in our memories of 1941 — bogs, dugouts, the dusty roads of retreat, the wind howling across deserted, snow-covered fields, men in caps with earflaps and wadded trousers and jackets. And now — the impeccable discipline of victors, smart uniforms all spick and span, HQs located in palaces, with carpets, armchairs, and mahogany tables. Past and present — two opposite poles, like night and day, like a cruel winter and a generous summer.

The Stuff of Soldiers takes readers through the long winter and generous summer of the Soviet wartime experience, allowing us to learn the ropes as new draftees did, object by object.

Goldman and Filtzer’s Fortress Dark and Stern is the perfect companion volume to Schechter’s book, in that it depicts in vivid and often horrifying detail what life was like for noncombatants, whose enormous sacrifices supported the army’s efforts and contributed to the victory over the Nazis. The two main state-crafted experiences of Soviet civilians in the war (as opposed to those devised by the enemy) were evacuation and mobilized labor. Within days after Germany began Operation Barbarossa, two new governmental bodies with extraordinary powers were formed: the Soviet for Evacuation, which by fall 1942 had evacuated close to 25 million people, and the Committee to Distribute the Labor Force, which mobilized and transferred free labor for industries that supported the war effort. As Goldman and Filtzer write, “The entire able-bodied population in town and country was subjected to compulsory labor mobilization.” This included teenage boys too young to be conscripted, men found unfit for army service, women (first, under the age of 45, and then, as the war progressed, 50), and young girls. All of these groups could be mobilized and transferred to distant industrial sites, but would then have to be cared for. Not only did these logistical nightmares of unprecedented proportions present ample opportunities for micro- and macro-failures, but they were also open to all kinds of abuses, which the book examines in heartbreaking detail.

One of the first and most ill-fated evacuations was that of Moscow on October 15, 1941 — the so-called Day of Shame. As the Wehrmacht broke through the capital’s main strategic defense line, most of the government and Moscow elite began to evacuate, leaving the less advantaged behind; stories abound of members of these privileged groups taking carloads of their belongings out of the city amid general chaos. Moscow’s evacuation is examined in the book through well-chosen eyewitness accounts, such as that of Mary Leder, an American-born wife of a Soviet officer:

No one who lived in or near Moscow will ever forget that day. Panic gripped the city. All over Moscow, in government offices, research institutes and factories, staff members were burning papers to keep them from falling into German hands. The great evacuation of Moscow had begun, both organized and unorganized. The organized evacuees departed by train. The unorganized took what they could carry and walked or hitched rides whenever and by whatever means they could.

The state made a distinction between organized or registered evacuees and unregistered ones or refugees; the former were to be provided housing, employment, and ration cards at their destination, while the latter had to fend for themselves. But, in truth, both groups suffered, decimated by enemy strikes, hunger, and illness. Where were all these people going and what happened to them? The answer is found in official documents, which Goldman and Filtzer cite, but the data is brought to life by the many individual testimonies they sensitively incorporate: “They put us on a train going to Central Asia […] We were starving […] many people were dying on the train, and their bodies were taken to a special car”; “We boarded a cattle freight train […] We were bombed on the way […] people got killed and wounded”; “We boarded the ‘Derbent’ tanker […] about 5,000 refugees […] no water […] only two toilets on the tanker […] dead people [were] taken off the tanker.” The authors also emphasize that those who did make it safely to their destination found that “they had to summon new reserves of energy and strength,” as living conditions were harsh and working conditions often next to impossible.

In theory, the state was supposed to supply the labor force with housing, food, and all the necessities of life. In practice, this didn’t always happen. Goldman and Filtzer describe the experience of a group of young workers, mainly girls, who were mobilized to work in the Stalin motor vehicle factory, far from their hometown. Their housing, which consisted of bare walls, with no bedding, was not only far from the factory but also the target of repeated attacks by local thugs, who would burst in, beating the girls and stealing their belongings with impunity. Worse, the girls were starving, swelling from hunger. This would be terrible enough if there were really no food to feed them, but, in fact, the provisions meant for the workers were often illegally diverted and used to provide the privileged with a better diet, as Goldman and Filtzer show in devastating detail in the chapter titled “Illicit Provisioning: Inequality, Leveling, and Black Markets.”

The authors also tell the painful story of what happened to the mobilized “others” on the labor front — the Uzbeks, Tadjiks, and other natzmen. The workers from the Soviet Central Asian republics were mostly unprepared for the factory work expected of them, didn’t understand Russian well, and were unfamiliar with Russian food and the customs of the places to which they were brought. They suffered terribly and died in large numbers. One sympathetic eyewitness wrote, “The Uzbeks wilted right before your eyes; many of them died right there in the shops.” They also faced widespread prejudice and systemic discrimination. As Goldman and Filtzer write, “Abused by their foremen, Central Asian workers were also spurned and harassed by other workers.” By 1943, the state attempted to stem racism at the factories and to provide national minorities with familiar foods, but for many natzmen, these changes came too late.

And yet, somehow, despite all these problems and abuses, the workers on the Soviet home front persevered, often at the cost of their own lives. As Goldman and Filtzer convincingly write in their conclusion, the workers provided the objects and the equipment that made possible the Soviet Army’s push west, breaking “the backbone of the Wehrmacht” to liberate the concentration camps (though not the killing camps of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, as the authors claim; these were all part of Operation Reinhard, which was shut down before the Soviet Army arrived). Similarly, despite the fact that that the soldiers of the Soviet Army, as Schechter shows, “confronted the terrors of modern warfare at a distinct disadvantage,” they also persevered. Together, these two books provide all the knowledge a reader needs to understand, in Shechter’s words, how the Soviet Army, an army “of amateurs, composed mostly of peasants, defeated the most professional, modern, and terrifying army in the field, one that had already conquered Europe.” The poet Vadim Kovda, who was five when the war began and who died last year in Germany, wrote a poem about a meeting between a German veteran and a Russian one many years after the war, with the German obsessively pondering the very question that the two books answer:

We were winning … Then it was over …
I remember … I’m mentally fit.
How is it that we lost to YOU then?
Look around — you’re still drowning in shit!

This country could have been heaven —
but the trash, the potholes, the stink …
It’s a pigsty, as if we had only
just now rolled through in our tanks!

All those faces, haggard and drunken!
All those rivers flowing with waste …
I can’t figure out how we failed then —
we should have crushed you posthaste!

How we marched! How our voices soared proudly!
We’d take Moscow in no time flat …
If we’d lost to the Brits or the Yanks … Well …
But to YOU? No … No sense in that!’

Our old Ivan with booze on his breath,
just smiled, his eyes full of tears,
while the Fritz sucked his fancy cigar
and threw us all sullen stares.


Maria Bloshteyn is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020).