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

Who am I?

Francine Hirsch is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches courses on Soviet History, Modern European History, and the History of Human Rights. She spent fifteen years researching and writing about the Soviet Union’s experience in World War II and the role that it played in the Nuremberg Trials. Her recently published Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg was awarded the 2021 Certificate of Merit for a Preeminent Contribution to Creative Scholarship from the American Society of International Law.

I wrote...

Book cover of Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal After World War II

What is my book about?

Organized in the immediate aftermath of World War Two by the victorious Allies, the Nuremberg Trials were intended to hold the Nazis to account for their crimes and to restore a sense of justice to a world devastated by violence. As Francine Hirsch reveals in this immersive, gripping, and ground-breaking book, a major piece of the Nuremberg story has routinely been omitted from standard accounts: the part the Soviet Union played in making the trials happen in the first place.

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The books I picked & why

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

By Svetlana Alexievich, Larissa Volokhonsky (translator), Richard Pevear (translator)

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

Why did I love 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.

By Svetlana Alexievich, Larissa Volokhonsky (translator), Richard Pevear (translator)

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Unwomanly Face of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A must read' - Margaret Atwood

'It would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original' - Viv Groskop, Observer

Extraordinary stories from Soviet women who fought in the Second World War - from the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

"Why, having stood up for and held their own place in a once absolutely male world, have women not stood up for their history? Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown... I want to write the history of that war. A women's history."

In the late…

Life and Fate

By Vasily Grossman,

Book cover of Life and Fate

Why did I love 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!”

By Vasily Grossman,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Life and Fate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based around the pivotal WWII battle of Stalingrad (1942-3), where the German advance into Russia was eventually halted by the Red Army, and around an extended family, the Shaposhnikovs, and their many friends and acquaintances, Life and Fate recounts the experience of characters caught up in an immense struggle between opposing armies and ideologies. Nazism and Communism are appallingly similar, 'two poles of one magnet', as a German camp commander tells a shocked old Bolshevik prisoner. At the height of the battle Russian soldiers and citizens alike are at last able to speak out as they choose, and without reprisal…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Catherine Merridale,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ivan's War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A powerful, groundbreaking narrative of the ordinary Russian soldier's experience of the worst war in history, based on newly revealed sources.

Of the thirty million who fought in the eastern front of World War II, eight million died, driven forward in suicidal charges, shattered by German shells and tanks. They were the men and women of the Red Army, a ragtag mass of soldiers who confronted Europe's most lethal fighting force and by 1945 had defeated it. Sixty years have passed since their epic triumph, but the heart and mind of Ivan -- as the ordinary Russian soldier was called…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Brandon M. Schechter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stuff of Soldiers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Stuff of Soldiers uses everyday objects to tell the story of the Great Patriotic War as never before. Brandon Schechter attends to a diverse array of things-from spoons to tanks-to show how a wide array of citizens became soldiers, and how the provisioning of material goods separated soldiers from civilians.

Through a fascinating examination of leaflets, proclamations, newspapers, manuals, letters to and from the front, diaries, and interviews, The Stuff of Soldiers reveals how the use of everyday items made it possible to wage war. The dazzling range of documents showcases ethnic diversity, women's particular problems at the front,…

Book cover of Russia at War, 1941-1945: A History

Why did I love 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.

By Alexander Werth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Russia at War, 1941-1945 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1941, Russian-born British journalist Alexander Werth observed the unfolding of the Soviet-German conflict with his own eyes. What followed was the widely acclaimed book, Russia at War, first printed in 1964. At once a history of facts, a collection of interviews, and a document of the human condition, Russia at War is a stunning, modern classic that chronicles the savagery and struggles on Russian soil during the most incredible military conflict in modern history.

As a behind-the-scenes eyewitness to the pivotal, shattering events as they occurred, Werth chronicles with vivid detail the hardships of everyday citizens, massive military operations,…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Soviet Union, World War 2, and Russia?

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