For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.
The subject of Enstad’s book is how people living North West Russia (roughly speaking the area immediately east of Estonia and Latvia) reacted to German occupation from 1941 to 1943. The primary features of the area’s population were that the vast majority were Russian and most were peasants. In essence, therefore, this is a book which describes how the Russian peasantry responded to being conquered by the Germans.
Enstad lays out clearly the brutality of the occupying forces, describing the mass murder of Jews, Roma, and the mentally and physically disabled. The Nazis’ murderous policies had little psychological impact on the Russian peasantry, however, as they themselves were not directly targeted in this way. The winter of 1941-42 witnessed severe food shortages in areas directly behind the front lines, resulting in thousands of deaths. But further to the rear, the situation was rather better. For the mass of peasants, German occupation at first was not particularly bad.
In fact, says Enstand, many peasants welcomed the Germans’ arrival, or at least regarded it with some hope. The collectivization of peasant farms by the Communists in the early 1930s had been extraordinarily unpopular. The peasants took the opportunity provided by the German occupation to engage in spontaneous decollectivization. Whereas in other parts of the Soviet Union, the German authorities resisted this and insisted that the peasants remain in collective farms, in North West Russia they allowed the peasants to do as they wished. Consequently, by September 1943, the region had gone entirely over to private farming. The results, from the peasants’ point of view, were very positive. Production rose, while German food requisitions were relatively mild compared to that of the Soviet authorities. Peasant living standards improved.
Another factor which affected peasant attitudes to German occupation was the return of Orthodox priests to the region. Prior to the war, the Russian Orthodox Church had been almost entirely destroyed. Under German occupation, it gained a new lease of life. Churches reopened, religious education resumed, and numerous peasants, including young people, were baptised. Orthodox priests were generally supportive of the German occupation, preaching sermons of a definitely pro-German orientation, but they also generally refrained from informing on partisans, regarding their mission as being to serve all Russians. Enstad argues that the return of the Orthodox Church was very popular with the peasants, and contributed to a longer term revival in Russian, as opposed to Soviet, nationalism.
The consequence of these developments was that most peasants were not particularly opposed to the German occupiers, although those whose sons had been mobilized into the Soviet army tended to be an exception. As a result, peasants generally regarded partisans with some hostility, and many joined auxiliary police organizations to defend their villages against them.
This does not mean, however, that peasants were for the most part ‘collaborators’. On the whole, they were just looking after themselves. The prevailing attitude, says Enstad, was ‘calculated pragmatism’, a sort of balancing act in which ‘few supported this or that power wholeheartedly’, but instead practiced ‘evasionism’, trying to stay out of they way of both German and Soviet authorities and ‘being prepared to shift professed loyalties in accordance with expected changes in the balance of power, and having a foot in both camps’. It was only in late 1943 that the peasantry shifted its loyalty en masse towards the Soviets, and it was only then that the partisan movement began to acquire significant strength. But this was not because peasants had grown especially disenchanted with the Germans or had suddenly become pro-Soviet; it was simply because it had become clear that the Germans’ days were numbered.
I can see that Enstad’s analysis might antagonize some patriotic types who cherish the myth of a Russian people united in its resistance to Nazi invasion. But the analysis is grounded in very extensive research, from both Soviet and German archival sources, as well as memoirs and interviews and a long list of secondary literature. Enstad treats his sources with a critical eye, and avoids overt bias. In short, his description of events is well-founded. This is an excellent book, a model of historical research, clearly written, and interesting and provocative to boot. I strongly recommend it to anybody interested in the history of either the Soviet Union or the Second World War.
Enstad shows very clearly that the communist regime failed to win the loyalty of the Russian peasantry prior to 1941. Most peasants were glad to see Soviet power destroyed. This, of course, did not turn the Germans into liberators, and it was the peasants’ misfortune that their hopes for a better future were to be so cruelly disabused.