Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung Regensburg
herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Ausgabe: 64 (2016), 1, S. 162-163

Verfasst von: Mark Edele


Aleksandr Gogun: Stalinskie kommandos. Ukrainskie partizanskie formirovanija, 1941–1944 [Stalins Kommandos. Ukrainische Partisanenverbände 19411944]. Moskva: Rosspėn, 2012. 526 S., Abb., Tab., Ktn., Graph. = Istorija stalinizma. ISBN: 978-5-8243-1634-6.

Alexander Goguns impressive study of Stalins Commandos in Ukraine is the to date most complete exploration of irregular warfare in the Soviet Second World War. While claiming to focus on the Soviet partisans only, in fact Gogun, in long excursions, also explores the history of Ukrainian and Polish irregulars as well as Jewish survival groups. Moreover, in terms of the Soviet partisans, this is the only study which encompasses all three subgroups of Soviet special forces operating behind German lines: military scouts, irregulars under the command of the communist party (i.e., the Ukrainian Staff of the Partisan movement), and NKVD troops. To simplify somewhat, the first were most interested in counting trains, the second in blowing them up, while the third were predominantly engaged in targeted assassinations of occupation troops and collaborators. The three agencies were not particularly well coordinated, at least before 1943. As they rarely shared operational information, tense stand-offs were common and lethal incidents not infrequent when units met behind the front-line.

Despite the poor preparation and initially haphazard organisation of the Soviet side, the Germans lost the war behind the front-line. Gogun gives three reasons: Like others before him, he stresses (1) the weakness and over-extension of German occupation forces and (2) Nazi brutality shifting the loyalties of the population. More original is the third observation: that the German polycracy hindered the development and implementation of a clear and united policy against the partisan challenge. Wehrmacht, SS, and civilian administration were in constant battles over competencies and rarely collaborated efficiently. The three different agencies composing the Soviet guerillas, meanwhile, began to collaborate better as time went on, embedding representatives in each others structures, and sharing more and more information. In the end, the revolutionary bureaucrat Stalin was better at coordinating his resources than the revolutionary bohemian Hitler.

The book is based on an unparalleled source base: Gogun consulted archival holdings in Germany, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine; he conducted oral history interviews with 21 informants; and he read widely in a breath-taking range of published sources. This primary base is matched by secondary literature in German, English, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian.

The book is organised systematically: after a comprehensive (and at times sharply worded) historiographical overview comes a chapter introducing the organisational structure of the Soviet partisan movement, followed by a short overview (of 74 pages) of its history. Several chapters explore the major activities of the partisans, their social and ethnic composition, problematic questions of the Soviet partisan war, disciplinary problems, and internal conflicts among partisans.

The concluding chapter revolves around a very useful double comparison of Stalins partisans with the Ukrainian nationalist guerillas (UPA) on the one hand and the Polish Armia Krajowa (AK) on the other. As they all operated in similar circumstances, Gogun argues, this comparison distills what was particularly Soviet about the Soviet partisans. And the results are truly interesting. While Gogun is not a historian to whitewash Stalinist terror (he includes a whole chapter on it, flanked by more description of violence in the chapter on disciplinary problems), he concludes that both the UPA and the AK killed more civilians than did the Soviet partisans. Despite everything, class violence was more discriminate than ethnic violence: Soviet terror against collaborators and whatever class enemies they could find was not as all-encompassing as the ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians by the AK and Poles by the UPA. Meanwhile, both AK and UPA tried to avoid civilian casualties among their respective ethnic groups (by not operating in the vicinity of villages in order not to expose them to German revenge). Stalins guerillas had no such qualms and were quite willing to sacrifice the local population if this seemed politically or militarily necessary. The UPA tried to protect Ukrainians from the wrath of German armed men, and many AK officers saw their main role as saving Poles from Ukrainian violence. Soviet partisans were neither ordered to do the same with Soviet citizens – be they Ukrainian or Russian victims of German repressions or Jewish and Romani targets of genocidal violence – nor were local commanders likely to get into conflicts with their superiors because they desired to do so themselves. The Soviets were also not, like UPA and AK, insurgents engaged in an uprising. They were commandos whose raison d'être was purely military: to disrupt lines of communication, to spread panic among the occupiers, to collect intelligence, or to target German functionaries and their collaborators.

Gogun does not paint a pretty picture of life behind German lines. One suspects that this is one of the reasons that it has become hard to buy this book in Russia today. This is unfortunate. While not pulling his punches when confronting historiographical pieties with archival evidence to the contrary, Gogun is not out to simply replace the Soviet mythology of the heroic partisan war with the kinds of counter-myths, which had become popular in the liberal intelligentsia ever since Perestroika. Rather, he explores a diverse, complex, and contradictory movement engaged in a multi-sided war with local insurgents, different parts of the German occupation machine, and the local population. For example, in the chapter on problematic questions he deals with two complexes: first, the problematic of how partisans supplied themselves while operating behind enemy lines, and second the controversy over whether or not the partisans deliberately provoked German atrocities in order to force the civilian population to take sides. In the first case, he concludes that there was a wide range of behaviour, from being willingly supplied by the local population to forced requisitioning at gun point. The extent to which the partisans resorted to coercion depended on the local situation they were in, the commander in question, signals from the political leadership, and the military situation. As far as provocation of German crimes is concerned, he shows that while there is considerable circumstantial evidence to support the suspicion that this was what Stalins irregulars did, the available source base does not allow certainty that this was or was not central policy. Only further declassification of top-level documentation – more than unlikely in the current political climate in Moscow – could settle the debate. Likewise, while dealing in a systematic fashion with the darker side of partisan life in chapter six, Gogun insists that not every requisitioning can be seen as robbery, even if the victims sometimes saw things in these terms. Rather, he assumes a historical perspective which implies that only those cases of armed expropriation be thus classified, which Soviet partisans defined as such. That Soviet partisans did nevertheless often fleece the population, and even by their own standards behaved in frequently outrageous ways, is not Goguns fault, but a simple fact of historical record keeping.

Overall, then, Gogun has written an important contribution to the scholarship on the Soviet Second World War. Given the revival of the Soviet myth of the Great Patriotic War, it is refreshing to read the work of a scholar able to rise above the polarised positions in the current history wars. Lamentably, the fact that this is indeed a subtle and balanced book will be lost on many in Russia today.

Mark Edele, Crawley, Western Australia

Zitierweise: Mark Edele über: Aleksandr Gogun: Stalinskie kommandos. Ukrainskie partizanskie formirovanija, 1941–1944 [Stalins Kommandos. Ukrainische Partisanenverbände 1941–1944]. Moskva: Rosspėn, 2012. 526 S., Abb., Tab., Ktn., Graph. = Istorija stalinizma. ISBN: 978-5-8243-1634-6, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/Rez/Edele_Gogun_Stalinskie_kommandos.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

© 2016 by Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung Regensburg and Mark Edele. All rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact jahrbuecher@ios-regensburg.de

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