Catherine Merridale has already earned the gratitude of Russians with a majestic oral history. In Night of Stone , published in 2000, she showed how the relatives of Stalin's political victims coped with concrete evidence of their loss, as mass graves were uncovered after five decades.
While researching that book, she found herself interviewing Red Army veterans and was struck by the silences that lurked behind their tales. She wanted to learn more and realised the time was ripe: the crumbling of Communism had brought padlocks off archives and weakened taboos. When she asked groups of Russian teenagers which historical subject they wanted to study, the universal answer was the Second World War; when she gate-crashed a veterans' club in Kursk and invited them to reminisce, their wall of silence broke down in an avalanche of memories.
Ivan's War is the fruit of 200 such interviews, plus information culled from police archives, medical surveys, letters and diaries pencilled - in defiance of official prohibition - at the front. Even in the 1990s, she notes, veterans were defusing their shared horror by sticking to the war's official script; no Soviet book ever mentioned panic, self-mutilation, cowardice or rape. Censors had banned Vassily Grossman's novel Life and Fate for daring to dwell on soldiers' fear, but this worked hand in hand with the survivors' need - in Merridale's felicitous phrase - to "tame the clamour of their past".
And what a clamour that was. The statistics are staggering: after the first six months, 4.5 million Red Army soldiers had died on landscapes of charred steel and ash; almost the entire prewar army was dead or captured by the end of 1941; losses among officers ran at 14 times the rate of the Tsarist army in the First World War. Merridale deploys her narrative gifts to powerful effect in her account of Prokhorovka, the fiercest tank battle in history; her informants allow her to describe exactly what it was like to be inside a burning vehicle. But she also explains what drew men to this dangerous trade: for farm boys used to driving tractors, dashing over the countryside in state-of-the-art machines was a glamorous thing to do.
For that was what most of them were: peasant boys, whose instincts led them to care even for their enemies' looted livestock; young men whose mental horizons had hitherto not gone beyond the edge of their village, and who were imbued with a timeless fatalism. The "Ivan" of Soviet myth was, says Merridale, "simple, healthy, strong and kind, far-sighted, selfless and unafraid of death". And she points out that there was an alternative Ivan-myth in German propaganda, which Cold-War America went on to enshrine in a pamphlet called "The peculiarities of the Russian soldier". The ways of "this semi-Asiatic", it began, "are strange and contradictory".
But not when you consider the inhuman stresses they were under. Stalin's name may have been part of the Soviet battle cry, but he was an irrelevance to the men in the trenches, and his People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs - the infamous NKVD - was a constant source of terror. If you turned tail under enemy fire, or simply dropped from exhaustion, the NKVD would shoot you for "malicious desertion", and tens of thousands died that way. To go missing in action - sometimes even to be captured - was a stigma in itself, for which your family might be punished. Some men got a chance to redeem themselves by carrying out suicidal missions in "punishment battalions": they died, but their families might be spared.
Merridale has unearthed poignant letters from men who knew they would never see their loved ones again, or who felt forced to prepare their wives for the fact that their wounds had made them impotent; the converse was the "Dear Ivan" letter informing them that their marriages were over. Is it any wonder that when the Red Army rampaged through the newly conquered villages of Romania and Prussia, they vented their sexual rage on every woman they met? In one of this book's most gruesome scenes, officers direct the men of a Red Army battalion to rape the women in a column of Prussian refugees - and then murder them if they choose.
Officers were seldom punished for such behaviour, any more than they were punished for looting and black-marketeering: the picture Merridale builds up is one of progressively institutionalised amorality. Perhaps Stalin's greatest crime, she suggests, was the theft of his people's idealism.
One of this book's achievements is to keep a fine balance between the big political picture and the intimate personal close-up. It is fascinating on everything from camp songs, battlefield taboos and the awkward assimilation of female recruits to the spoons soldiers stuck in their boots, and how they foraged for food and clothes: one man was seen carrying a sack of frozen human legs, which he was going to thaw on the stove to make the boots easier to remove. As Merridale shows, the Red Army turned from a chaotic rabble into a formidably professional fighting machine after the battle for Stalingrad, but the gulf between Ivan-myth and Ivan-reality never closed. Post-war demobilisation left these soldiers still chained in spirit: signing a compulsory promise to keep their wartime experiences to themselves, they were forced to collude in the official lie. Merridale's conclusion, after listening to their often tear-drenched tales, is sympathetic and generous: "Perhaps the survivors' ultimate victory should be measured, in their old age, by their achievement of a kind of ordinariness, by the sharing of tea and sweets, pictures of grandchildren, home-grown tomatoes from the dacha. That triumph, the least spectacular but the most enduring, is part of the uniqueness of this generation." With this superb book Merridale will earn the respect of historians - and the gratitude of Russians - all over again.
Michael Church is a writer and broadcaster specialising in the culture of the former Soviet states.
Ivan's War: The Red Army 1939-45
Author - Catherine Merridale
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 396
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 571 21808 3