The Economist, it turns out, shares with the readers not only its expertise on Russia's economy (having predicted 20 or so out of the last 0 collapses of the Russian economy), but also on Russia's history. I was privileged to read its review of Geoffrey Roberts's "Stalin's War" (as well as another book, which is not that interesting) with a certain amount of amusement. Now, I haven't read the book itself, but it is the review that amuses me. Instead of explaining how the book is organized, which sources it draws upon, the review's author for some reason decided to argue with it. It is possible that the reviewed book is crap -- but the reviewer himself displayed such problematic knowledge of Soviet history, that it is exceedingly difficult to take him seriously. And, of course, I never did get to find out if Roberts actually did any archival research of primary sources, or if he is regurgitating same old memoir material.
For starters, we find out about a heretofore unknown "Hitler-Stalin pact". The official name of the said document is actually the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Agreement, sometimes called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, by the names of the two foreign ministers who actually negotiated it and signed it. Or in the west it is propagandistically called the Nazi-Soviet Pact. These are all accurate titles, even if they serve to imply different things. But what does "Hitler-Stalin pact" imply? That Hitler and Stalin personally met to sign it, or exchanged messages discussing the agreement? This does not correspond to reality at all. Some journalist hack might use such sloppy terminology, but not any kind of an expert. But wait... it is The Economist... and it is in fact some journalist hack writing the review. Maybe I'll have to withdraw this objection.
Then, of course, what article on Soviet history would be complete without the tired old cliche of "Stalin the mass murderer". The repressions in Stalin era USSR, and Stalin's own complicity in them, were crimes, without a doubt. But packing the immense complexity of the whole phenomenon into a pathetic and sanctimonious "Stalin the mass murderer" concept, despite the fact that the events still haven't been adequately explained by historians, is an example of such extreme reductionism that it should become an affront to any thinking person. Might as well develop the "Bush the mass murderer" theory, despite the fact that it wasn't Bush alone who started the Iraq war, that he is by far not the only one killing Iraqis, and that intentions were different from the outcome.
Another eye-opening revelation was the "fact" of Stalin's alleged failure to prepare for the Nazi invasion. Yes, Stalin is largely responsible for the screwed up Soviet entry into WW2. But that was a momentary mistake of June 1941. But what about the industrialization, the increase of the size of the standing army to over 5 million men in 1941, compared to one million and change in the 30s? Over 20,000 tanks? Ammunition supplies that could last months of intense fighting? USSR possessed none of it 10 years prior. The military potential of the country was on the level of Poland, and it would've been just as easily overrun by the Germans had it not been for the fact that Stalin had been preparing the country for the war. Which is precisely why the Soviet Union won it. Despite the almost fatal mistake of June 1941, for which Stalin bears responsibility. But then again, what leader in his place would not have made the same mistake? Many forget, and this hardly competent reviewer among them, that there was another actor -- the Germans engaged in a very skillful deception campaign, and the disaster of 1941 was not simply Stalin's error of judgment, but also a very well executed deception operation on the part of the Germans. That operation had a high chance of success, Stalin or no Stalin.
But the best part comes last. In it, we find out that the Soviet High Command did not possess the doctrine of strategic defense because... you guessed it, Stalin executed "most of his military brainpower, among them the real Russian strategic genius of the age, Mikhail Tukhachevskii". Thus, in this review we have a curious mixture of Soviet and anti-Soviet propaganda. After all, the myth of Tukhachevskii's alleged genius arose in the 1960s in USSR, during Khruschev's de-Stalinization campaign. And it is now being faithfully repeated by The Economist. The reality is, we don't know if Tukhachevskii was a genius or not. His Civil War experience was mixed, and that war in general was not representative due to its numerous quirks and specifics. Tukhachevskii was basically a peacetime commander, but we can judge the skill of any military leader only in wartime, and Tukhachevskii never got the chance to prove himself. Ironically, the criminal purges of Soviet high command in 1937-1938 cleared the way for the real certified military genius, Marshal G.K.Zhukov, and enabled him to quickly rise to the top.
But the worst part of this Tukhachevskii claim is not even that. The stunning idiocy of this claim is apparent from the fact that Tukhachevskii was never a proponent of strategic defense. The reviewer hasn't read a single article written by Tukhachevskii, but he is oh so full of claims on the topic. The reason USSR had a strategically defensive military doctrine in the 1920s is simple -- USSR was a very weak state recovering from a ruinous civil war. Once the country managed to industrialize and increase its military might, the doctrine naturally changed to one of strategic offense. And that occurred even before Tukhachevskii's execution. The reason is quite clear -- strategic offense wins wars, while the purpose of strategic defense is to delay defeat as long as possible. In both world wars, every Great Power entered them with an offensive plan -- because they aimed for victory, not avoiding being defeated quickly. The only exception was France in WW2, and it cost them dearly -- their defeat was as spectacular as it was unexpected (in WW1, France was, of course, on the offensive, even though it failed). Even puny Poland had an offensive plan against East Prussia.
The cause of the disaster of 1941 for the USSR was not in the lack of defensive planning. The cause was the fact that the Red Army was incapable of either defense or offense at the start of the war. The two prerequisites for the start of a military campaign are a) mobilization -- where reservists are called up to bring military formations to their full strength and to make them fully combat-capable; and b) strategic concentration and deployment -- where military formations are loaded on trains (or march on their own power) and transported to the theater of operations and deployed there according to pre-war operational planning. If one or both of these prerequisites are not met before the start of major operations, the army is not capable of either offense or defense -- it is incapable any military operations. If its divisions are in the wrong location and significantly understrength, it doesn't matter if they attack or defend -- they are simply irrelevant and have no effect on the enemy advance. And this is precisely the situation in which the Red Army found itself on 22 June 1941 -- the mobilization and strategic deployment had not been completed yet (they started too late due to Stalin's error of judgment), and the Soviet forces could neither attack nor defend adequately. Whatever strategic doctrine the Red Army possessed before the war became completely irrelevant.
Thus, in the end, I did not get to find out what Roberts's book really represents. But I did find out that when it comes to the USSR or Russia, The Economist is not the place to go to look for answers, be it economics or history. So my time was not entirely wasted -- a negative result is also a result.