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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 51, New Delhi, December 5, 2020

Book Review: Rowe-McCulloch on Enstad, ’Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile Loyalties in World War II’

Saturday 5 December 2020

Johannes D. Enstad. Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile Loyalties in World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 272 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-42126-3; $32.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-43166-8.

Reviewed by Maris Rowe-McCulloch (University of Regina)
Published on H-Russia (July, 2020)
Commissioned by Oleksa Drachewych (Western University)

Johannes Enstad’s Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation: Fragile Loyalties in World War II is a history of the territories of northern Russia that were occupied by Germany’s Army Group North during the Second World War. He argues that the long-held view that the Soviet war effort was fueled by a Russian patriotism emanating primarily from ethnic Russians is a vast oversimplification. Instead of discovering evidence of pervasive patriotic resistance in his region of study, Enstad found that “a substantial part of the population in northwest Russia actively supported or passively acquiesced in German rule” (p. 5). Although initial pro-German feelings lessened with time due to deadly occupation policies and German “colonial condescension” (p. 6), the local population tended to support the Germans up to their retreat in late 1943 due to a series of interconnected factors Enstad identified: material interests, political and patriotic passions, and “calculated pragmatism”—a “strategy of heeding the stronger power, shifting one’s loyalties when needed, and working the prevailing system to one’s least disadvantage” (p. 6).

The book’s findings offer valuable insight into life within the wartime USSR, and demonstrate the Stalinist system’s prewar failure to create meaningful bonds of loyalty between the regime and the majority of the Soviet population. Enstad’s work helps to fill a gap in existing Soviet historiography, which has long overlooked the experiences of Soviet citizens who fell under German occupation during World War II. It does so by focusing on a particular region of occupied Russia, expanding on the insights generated by the few existing studies of occupied Russian territories (the RSFSR), particularly Laurie Cohen’s Smolensk under the Nazis: Everyday Life in Occupied Russia (2013), which examines an urban area. The book is also a welcome complement to studies of occupied Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states that have been published over the past twenty years.[1]

Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation contains eight chapters, which are based on a combination of documentation from local Russian archives, Soviet partisan materials, and wartime sources created by the German occupiers. Chapter 1 addresses local life under Soviet rule in the 1930s, prior to the occupation. Chapter 2 examines popular responses to the 1941 German invasion, and chapter 3 focuses on mass killing and German campaigns of genocide. Enstad’s integration of different types of primary sources works especially well in this chapter, where regional Soviet sources make it possible to understand Jewish experiences and those of mentally and physically disabled residents, German military sources are key for understanding the targeting of local Roma (so-called gypsies), and both source types come together in the discussion of Soviet prisoners of war. Looking at these groups targeted for violence together—without suggesting their experiences were identical—the chapter highlights how the Holocaust was embedded within an extensive German program of mass killing and starvation in the occupied USSR. This serves as a much-appreciated contribution to the developing trend of integrating the fields of Soviet and Holocaust histories.

Chapter 4 looks at the local effects of mass hunger, particularly in the extremely difficult winter of 1941-42. Chapter 5 investigates everyday life in rural areas, which involved villages spontaneously decollectivizing. Chapter 6 looks at religious revival, focusing on the traveling Pskov Orthodox Mission that moved through the territory of Army Group North. This chapter documents the extent of church cooperation with the occupiers as well as the generally receptive attitude of the population to restoring some form of worship in uncertain times. Chapters 5 and 6 both draw on a host of new primary materials, allowing for nuanced discussions of why German rule was not wholly unpopular and offering valuable new insights into the Soviet experience of occupation from a local perspective. Chapter 7 outlines the various ways that inhabitants related to representatives of German and Soviet power (in the Soviet case, primarily the partisans), nuancing the loaded concepts of collaboration and resistance. The final chapter looks at occupation’s end and life in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet return to power. The book as a whole offers an excellent overview of events in wartime northern Russia.

Alongside its many strengths, there are two issues with this work that seem worth raising. The first, more minor one involves the author’s decision to place a subsection called “Working to Survive,” about so-called Hiwis (Hilfswilliger, or volunteers) and people working for the Germans in the chapter on hunger. Locating it there implies that these workers were largely motivated to serve the Germans by their need for food. Yet Enstad himself points out that some workers exploited labor shortages, traveling around seeking higher pay and shorter hours, and later concludes that “there is little to indicate that … the starvation induced by German food policy had a decisive impact on popular attitudes and behavior ” (p. 223). Instead, this section on collaborator-workers might have functioned better in the later chapter about relating to Soviet and German power, which would have allowed the author to more explicitly connect worker motivations to his valuable concept of calculated pragmatism.

The second, larger issue is that after pointing out in the introduction how gender-imbalanced northern Russia was while under German occupation—with a male-to-female ratio of 1:2—the book fails to take up women’s or men’s particular, gendered experiences throughout the vast majority of the text. Outside of a few isolated mentions, the existence of sexual violence is not discussed, not even in the short section acknowledging the creation of Wehrmacht-run brothels and relationships between local women and German soldiers. This leaves readers without necessary context for understanding women’s choices within these relationships. What evidence is there that local women had the ability to safely say no if approached by a German soldier interested in sex or intimacy? Although it is admittedly often difficult to find direct references to sexual violence in Soviet sources, oblique references or witness accounts do sometimes exist, and a commitment to recovering this aspect of history is an essential first step in locating whatever sources survive.

Elsewhere, in the few places gender differences do come up, they sometimes seem reductionist. In the chapter on religion, Enstad notes that society in northwest Russia had become more pious because the most atheist groups—“party and state functionaries and young men in general”—were largely absent (p. 156). Of course, young Soviet women could also be enthusiastic Communists, as well as atheists, particularly in urban centers, leaving it a little unclear why all women are assumed to default to piety. In my own research on wartime Rostov-on-Don, the German occupiers noted almost no uptick in interest in religious services among city residents, who were also disproportionately female.[2] This suggests that the urban-rural divide was more salient than gender. In any case, more specific evidence from the region to support this finding would have been welcome.

Overall, wrestling with the impact of gender more openly and directly would have served to further deepen and nuance an already strong and detailed study. One of the book’s clearest contributions is its emphasis on the peasantry. Some of Enstad’s findings differ from the few existing histories of occupied Soviet Russia, particularly Cohen’s study of Smolensk, hinting that the rural nature of his region of focus may be an important explanatory factor. The value of the book’s insights will become even clearer over time, as more local histories of different occupied Soviet regions emerge to reveal the “tangled web of deeply ambiguous experiences, a mosaic of individual and collective histories,” and it becomes possible to synthesize them together into a larger picture of “how Soviet society lived through its Great Patriotic War” (p. 221). As it stands, this book will be much appreciated by anyone interested in Soviet experiences of World War II as well as anyone interested in better understanding how tens of millions of Soviet citizens—particularly rural residents and collective farmers—felt about the Soviet state in the 1940s.


[1]. Karel Berkhoff, Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard, 2004); Tanja Penter, Köhle für Stalin und Hitler: Arbeiten und Leben im Donbass 1929 bis 1953 (Essen: Klartext, 2010); Bernhard Chiari, Alltag hinter der Front: Besatzung, Kollaboration und Widerstand in Weissrussland (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1998); and Geoffrey Swain, Between Stalin and Hitler: Class War and Race War on the Dvina, 1940-46, (New York: Routledge-Curzon, 2004).

[2]. Maris Rowe-McCulloch, “The Holocaust and Mass Violence in the German-Occupied City of Rostov-on-Don, 1941-1943” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2020).

(via H-Net Reviews. July, 2020)

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