The best books on the Soviet Union in World War II

Wendy Z. Goldman Author Of Fortress Dark and Stern: The Soviet Home Front During World War II
By Wendy Z. Goldman

Who am I?

I am a professor of Russian history at Carnegie Mellon University. I have visited Russia many times and spent years working in Russian archives. I am keenly aware of the impact World War II and the Nazis had on the country: a loss of 26-7 million people, wide-scale suffering, mass murder of civilians, and destruction of cities, towns, and villages. The majority of German divisions were concentrated on the eastern front, and it was here the Red Army broke the back of the Wehrmacht. Yet because of divisions created by the Cold War, Americans are taught little about the central role the Soviet Union played in this victory. As a historian, I am strongly committed to bringing the full story of the war to light.

I wrote...

Fortress Dark and Stern: The Soviet Home Front During World War II

By Wendy Z. Goldman, Donald Filtzer,

Book cover of Fortress Dark and Stern: The Soviet Home Front During World War II

What is my book about?

After Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, German troops seized the heartland of Soviet industry and agriculture and turned the occupied territories into mass killing fields. The Red Army, overpowered by the blitzkrieg, fell back in disarray. Yet in contrast to the initial military disaster, the state's policies on the home front were far more effective. Fortress Dark and Stern chronicles this epic story: the evacuation of industry, rationing of a dwindling food supply, public health and epidemics, and the civilian labor draft. State propaganda, which changed over the course of the war, mobilized popular support through radio, art, poetry, and frontline journalism.  After Stalingrad, the liberation of the occupied territories brought new challenges of feeding and reincorporating a traumatized people into the war effort.

Fortress Dark and Stern examines the efforts of ordinary people who withstood starvation and horrific living conditions to provision the front lines and make the Allied victory over fascism possible. 

The books I picked & why

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The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad

By Harrison Salisbury,

Book cover of The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad

Why this book?

After the German army encircled Leningrad, Hitler vowed that he would let the city starve to death. Leningrad, blockaded for 900 days in the longest-running siege in modern history, lost almost one million people to starvation. Salisbury tells the gripping story of the siege, following the lives of survivors, their families, friends, and neighbors. He brings us into the icy, darkened apartments, where the dead lay unburied and the daily bread ration, wrung from the city’s remaining food stocks and deliveries hauled over the treacherous ice of Lake Ladoga, became the only link to survival.

Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought: The Red Army's Military Effectiveness in World War II

By Roger R. Reese,

Book cover of Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought: The Red Army's Military Effectiveness in World War II

Why this book?

Why are soldiers willing to fight and die, often despite horrific odds, for a cause?  And why do whole armies fall apart under less difficult conditions? The Red Army, which lost millions of men and suffered massive encirclements by the Wehrmacht provides the perfect case study of these questions. After months of retreat, the Red Army turned the tide at Stalingrad and drove the Nazis back to Berlin. 

Reese’s careful research and balanced conclusions note that morale and motivation fluctuated depending on soldiers’ nationality, social group, and personal circumstances. Many were deeply motivated by Soviet patriotism, which was sometimes, but not always coincident, with socialist ideals and support for Stalin. The army quickly proved that despite catastrophic losses of people and equipment, it could regroup and deliver victory. Its successes were tied in no small measure to the efforts the Soviet state poured into creating strong morale and motivation. Credit, in Reese’s view, belongs to the young urban workers and students, the communists, the Komosomoltsy, and the officers. Long after the war ended, veterans continued to believe that they had fought a “just war,” part of a morally-justified, global crusade against fascism.

To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War

By Rebecca Manley,

Book cover of To the Tashkent Station: Evacuation and Survival in the Soviet Union at War

Why this book?

Manley’s beautifully written, insightful book focuses on one of the greatest feats of World War II: the Soviet evacuation, one step ahead of the Wehrmacht’s lightening advance, of up to 25 million people, along with the industrial base. Evacuation not only saved millions, but made possible the construction of a new industrial base outside the reach of German bombers. Manley follows over 100,000 citizens to Tashkent, a major destination city in Central Asia. She vividly brings to life the long difficult journeys of evacuees and refugees and their struggles to find work, food, and housing in a city flooded by people in flight. She reveals the conflicts that emerged between those who remained under occupation and those who left, between refugees and evacuees, and between new arrivals and those who sheltered them. Her book not only chronicles an epic exodus but also offers an incisive analysis of the political meanings and identities that came to define the experiences of Soviet citizens on the home front.

My Life in Stalinist Russia: An American Woman Looks Back

By Mary M. Leder,

Book cover of My Life in Stalinist Russia: An American Woman Looks Back

Why this book?

Mary Leder was an American teenager in the 1930s when her Jewish socialist immigrant parents, poverty-stricken by the Great Depression, decided to return to Russia to build a Jewish homeland in Birobidzhan. After a brief period of difficulty, they left the Soviet Union and returned to the United States, but Leder was detained due to passport difficulties.

In this moving memoir, she discusses her life in Moscow as a student, a factory worker, an editor, and a young wife and mother. She provides a tragic and compelling account of the repressions of the 1930s, the chaotic evacuation of Moscow in 1941 as the Germans approached the city, the death of her baby girl in evacuation, and the growing anti-Semitism after the war.  At one point she shared a communal apartment with a young, very kind Vietnamese revolutionary who she later learned was Ho Chi Minh. The journey she narrates, from socialist idealism to bitter disillusion, was not abstractly political as it was for many but based on her intimacy with Soviet life.

The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry

By Ilya Ehrenburg, Vasily Grossman, David Patterson (translator)

Book cover of The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry

Why this book?

Most Western readers are familiar with the holocaust carried out by the Nazis in Europe, but know little about the almost two million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. Here, the Germans embarked on a “holocaust by bullets,” rounding up the Jewish inhabitants, imprisoning them in camps and ghettos, and then shooting them at the edge of vast pits and ravines. 

Grossman and Ehrenburg, renowned Soviet war journalists and members of the Jewish Anti Fascist Committee, began collecting eyewitness testimonies and other documents during the war. Yet the Soviet state, following the policy, “we do not divide the dead,” refused to permit publication of the book they assembled because it was too focused on the particularity of Jewish suffering. The Complete Black Book, a powerful compilation of firsthand reports, is essential to understanding the full scope of the German campaign for Jewish annihilation.

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