The best books for understanding the experience of Soviet soldiers in WW2

The Books I Picked & Why

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II

By Svetlana Alexievich, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II

Why this book?

Many Americans know relatively little about the war on the Eastern Front and the wartime experience of the Soviet Union. The oral histories presented in this extraordinary book come as a revelation, shedding important new light on the role of women—soldiers, doctors, nurses, pilots, partisans, and others—to the Soviet war effort. Alexievich masterfully weaves these stories together. The reader walks away with a fresh appreciation of the Soviet contribution to the victory, the extent of Soviet suffering under the Nazi occupation, the critical role of women in the war, and the ways that we remember (or choose to forget) the past. This has become my go-to book on the Second World War.


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Life and Fate

By Vasily Grossman

Life and Fate

Why this book?

Sometimes a work of fiction can convey the drama and emotions of an era more powerfully than even the best works of history. Vasily Grossman’s novel is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the Soviet experience of the Second World War. Grossman, who had spent much of the war embedded with the Red Army, recreates the sights, smells, sounds, and sensations (“the distortion of the sense of time”) of life on the front lines. The book is also a reflection on what it meant to be caught between Stalinism and Nazism. “And in 1937 there were times when we shot our own people,” one of Grossman’s characters notes. “But now the Germans have attacked the homeland of workers and peasants. War’s war!”


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Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

By Catherine Merridale

Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

Why this book?

In this deeply evocative book, Merridale takes us with the Red Army through the battlegrounds, wastelands, and liberated territories of the Eastern Front. We see the war and its horrors through the eyes of the Red Army soldiers: the city blocks reduced to dust and ashes, the starving women and children, the corpses stacked upon corpses. We leave the book with a lingering sense of the long-term effects of the war—the fatigue, the shock, and the disorientation—on the soldiers and on the entire Soviet Union.


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

By Brandon M. Schechter

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

Why this book?

This fascinating history of the Red Army in World War II examines the material objects—the overcoat, the boots, the “thing bag,” the spade, the spoon, the bayonet, and other items—that helped turn civilians into Soviet soldiers. By focusing in on “the quotidian details of provisioning,” Schechter provides a unique view of the Red Army and of soldiers’ everyday lives.


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Russia at War, 1941-1945: A History

By Alexander Werth

Russia at War, 1941-1945: A History

Why this book?

This vivid history of the Soviet Union at war by BBC journalist Alexander Werth is worth picking up for the Stalingrad chapters alone. In January 1943, Werth set out by train from Moscow to Stalingrad with a small group of correspondents. His conversations with Russian soldiers, officers, nurses, and railwaymen about the fighting, the Germans, and the Soviet defense of the city are woven into these chapters and make for extremely engaging reading.


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