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Stalin's Guerillas

by Kenneth Slepyan

“The Soviet partisans,” Slepyan writes, “were the heirs to a long line of irregular warriors in Russian history, the most recent examples of which were the Red partisans from the Civil War. They were surrounded by the rich historical mythology of the Cossacks’ ‘utopian’ military communities and rough egalitarianism of peasant uprisings, which, in popular culture and memory, envisioned freedom from outside authority and control, social justice, and deliverance from noble oppression.”

The partisans were mustered by Stalin’s July 3, 1941 speech – his first public address after the should, he said, form “diversionist groups... to foment guerrilla warfare.” One problem was that guerrilla warfare training had been ended in the army in 1936, since it made a paranoid regime nervous. Civil War partisans were mercilessly purged, their knowledge cast aside. Nonetheless, by the end of 1941, there were some 30,000 partisans active in the war effort, disrupting German supply lines, blowing up bridges, or assassinating SS officers.

But, from the beginning, there was a dangerous tension between the Stalin regime, bent on totalitarian control, and the partisans, who required independence, flexibility and local control in order to survive, to be effective. As Slepyan quotes John Erickson, the partisans embodied an “organized dissidence.”

A good story requires a central, unavoidable tension and this one serves Slepyan well. It also helps that his book is not a dry recounting of the partisans’ battles or movements, but a social history, a description of how these irregular forces lived and fought, how they defined themselves and their place in their society.

Stalin and the Soviet regime needed and idolized the partisans. After all, what better legitimization of the regime than that citizens fight of their own free will to defend or restore it? But, as Slepyan shows, partisans’ real life was rarely as it was portrayed in propaganda films or novels. Nor were they always fighting towards coordinated ends. For their part, the partisans, having transformed themselves into autonomous military and political units, would find it hard to reassimilate to a totalitarian society.

This chapter in Soviet history tells us much about what Russian society was and is become, and Slepyan retells it with care and insight.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2007