The brilliant Running Iron Report piece I spent a couple of days on turned out to be a piece of crap, so I junked it. A high volume Russian Kettlebell workout in 36-degree temperatures kicked my ass. Watching a couple of hours of impeachment hearing over a fantastic lunch with my friend Jack McGowan was good fellowship, but bad for my cynicism.
When the dusk descended — early as it does at this time of year in these parts, I had nothing. Didn’t want to pick up the guitar; didn’t even want to read. I just wanted to sit on the couch. But I can’t abide just lying around; just can’t do it. So I fired up the Amazon Prime and started rolling out Soviet Storm: World War II in the East.
The series is a deep and detailed dive into the most titanic conflict in human history — the Soviet vs. Nazi throwdown that took millions of lives and reshaped the world. The scope and scale of the war is hard to wrap your head around. Two of the darkest tyrannies humankind ever produced contended for domination of the Eurasian landmass. The stakes were as high as they get.
Soviet Storm recounts the bloody road the Red Army rode from abject defeat in the wake of the German invasion on June 22, 1941 to total victory by May 1945. It’s an unflinching look at the most brutal of wars.
Soviet Storm blends computer graphic animation, reenactment and historical footage to illustrate the war across 18 episodes. Given my interest in resistance movements and in “the ranging way of war” that characterized frontier conflict across the globe, I was particularly interested in the episode on the partisan war.
The partisan operations that flared up almost as soon as the German Wehrmacht started slicing into the Soviet Union in June 1941, created an almost separate theater of war. This was “the ranging way of war” writ larger than it has ever been before or since. As with everything associated with the German-Soviet War, the scale is almost unimaginable. Much of the Ukraine, Byelorussia (Belarus) and parts of Russia itself remained a battleground far behind the German front as bands of partisans took to the forests to resist the German invasion and to exact revenge for the savagery inflicted upon the people by a German Army that was explicitly fighting a war of annihilation.
Partisan operations tied down significant numbers of German troops and inflicted massive casualties — as many as 500,000 in Byelorussia.
Of course, the partisans themselves were not necessarily noble. Some were outright bandits, and even legitimate partisan forces could behave brutally toward the civilian population, especially those suspected of collaboration with the Nazis. And partisan attacks and sabotage inevitably led to German reprisals, which fell upon civilians whether they cooperated with partisans or not.
It was a ghastly conflict in every respect. There’s a reason historian Timothy Snyder referred to this Eastern Europe frontier zone as the Bloodlands. Snyder takes a dim view of the Partisans, for a variety of reasons that boil down basically to the belief that partisan activity intensified the conflict and made things much worse for civilians. He questions whether the game was worth the candle. From where I stand, he misses the point. The Partisans of the Bloodlands fought, and in the fighting itself they rebuked the darkness. As Emiliano Zapata put it: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
You have to respect the courage and fortitude of those who chose to resist — and resisted effectively while surviving the attentions of partisanjaeger units and the harsh conditions of an outdoor life in the woods in country subject to extraordinarily harsh weather.
It is important to understand that the Partisans were not freelancers. They were organized and centrally coordinated, used as a strategic asset to disrupt the Germans during major operations. By May/June 1943, Partisans were staging 1,000 operations per month in the rear of the German Army Group Center — mostly train derailments at which they became masters.
Women played a very significant roll in the Partisan Movement, including as combatants, and they faced even greater dangers than their male counterparts — not least sexual coercion from their own side. Women could be forced into “camp wife” relationships, and the potential for rape and torture at the hands of a captor was ever-present.
Some of the partisans were treated as heroes by the Soviet Union (those who were reliably communist), others were regarded with great suspicion by the notoriously paranoid Premier Josef Stalin. Those who were seen as too independent were treated as threats in the post-war world. Some ended up in labor camps, much like Soviet POWs who were considered by the Soviet leadership to be contaminated by their forced sojourn in the West.
After running through multiple episodes, I’d salvaged the evening; learned something, wrote something and was reminded yet again that there is nothing more intoxicating than a deep draught of history. Turns out, a few hours spent in the Wild East was time well spent. I recommend it strongly.