Alexander Gogun’s excellent study, Stalin’s Commandos: Ukrainian Partisan Forces on the Eastern Front, sometimes reads like an analysis of Putin’s commandos in the eastern Donbas. In both cases, the official Moscow line was and is that they’re a popular movement generated by discontent from below. In fact, Stalin’s commandos, like Putin’s, were largely creatures of the Kremlin—a point Gogun, a Russian scholar currently based at the Free University in Berlin, makes forcefully, repeatedly, and convincingly.
Gogun details how the partisans were structured and led (from abroad), what they did (terrorism) and whom they fought (the Germans and Ukrainians), how they interacted with the local population (with abandon), what their behavior looked like (robbery, drunkenness, and rape), and how they compared with the Ukrainian nationalist insurgents, the UPA, and the Polish nationalist guerrillas, the Home Army (AK). One table (p. 160) has a wealth of information: the 11 largest units of the Soviet Ukrainian partisan movement consisted of 45,478 fighters. Just over 11 percent were killed; 2 percent were executed or deserted; 7 percent were women; 57 percent were Ukrainians, 25 percent were Russians, and only 13 percent were members of the Communist Party. Their job was not to defend the people, but to fight the Germans, regardless of the exceedingly high toll the local population paid for their actions. Both the UPA and AK, in contrast, were careful to defend the people they claimed to represent.
Unsurprisingly, Stalin’s commandos were most active in the forest and marsh regions of northern and northwestern Ukraine. That fact greatly contributed to one of the major secondary-theater wars during World War II: the bloody Ukrainian-Polish conflict in Volhynia. As Gogun’s evidence demonstrates, the presence of Soviet partisans in this volatile region populated by large numbers of indigenous Ukrainian peasants and many Poles, both indigenous and recent settlers, may have sparked the large-scale violence that engulfed both communities in mid-1943.
Ethnic relations were anything but simple in Volhynia. The Germans terrorized the Poles and Ukrainians and fought the UPA, AK, and the Soviets. Many Poles, and above all the AK, viewed Ukrainians in general and Ukrainian nationalists in particular as their sworn enemies and sympathized with the Soviets, especially after the Polish government-in-exile allied with Moscow by means of the Sikorski-Maisky Pact of July 30, 1941. Many Ukrainians, and above all Ukrainian nationalists, viewed Poles, the AK, and the Soviets as their sworn enemies and the Germans as their situational allies (in early 1941 and 1944) or their situational enemies (1941-1943). The Soviets regarded the Germans and Ukrainian nationalists as their enemies, mistrusted the Ukrainians, and viewed the Poles and the AK as situational allies.
Soviet propagandists and neo-Soviet scholars generally ascribe the UPA’s initiation of anti-Polish violence in mid-1943 to an innate proclivity to kill. The approach is racist and the evidence is unpersuasive, but more important, the story makes no sense as it excludes context. Thanks to Gogun, that context has been brought into focus. It’s highly likely that Ukrainian nationalist suspicions of Poles reached a boiling point and translated into ethnic cleansing just as Soviet partisans began expanding their influence and threatening Ukrainian positions in Volhynia in early 1943, while many Poles looked on, or appeared to look on, approvingly.
One of Gogun’s great virtues is to present this and other controversial issues objectively, without recourse to the sub rosa invective that frequently accompanies such narratives. His final chapter, a comparison of the UPA, AK, and the Soviet partisans, is especially useful, as it accomplishes what demonizers and hagiographers of these groups signally fail to do: provide a comparative analysis demonstrating that all three movements were guerrilla forces with pluses and minuses to their credit and detriment. All three could be brutal. All three resorted to extreme violence. And all three pursued wartime political agendas and none were simply crazed killers.
Gogun purposely shatters the Soviet mythology surrounding Stalin’s commandos, but he also reminds us that myth-making is inimical to good history and that good history always rests on detailed demonstrations of complexity appropriately contextualized. The high standard he sets is welcome.