History professor Ken Slepyan autographed copies of his new book during a session in Transylvania's bookstore.
Slepyan book examines guerilla warfare in the Soviet Union
History professor Kenneth Slepyan was fortunate to be in the Soviet Union during the 1991-92 academic year, doing research for his dissertation at the University of Michigan on the partisan movement in that country during World War II. While there, he took advantage of a relatively brief period when that country opened many formerly closed archives to historians.
“I arrived not long after the August 1991 coup, which started the events that put Boris Yeltsin in power, and he seized control of the main communist party archives,” Slepyan said. “They opened up the archives that fall, and I was one of the first historians to be able to look at them without any kind of restrictions.”
By the mid-1990s, Slepyan said, the lid had gone back on most of the archives he had seen. “It’s not completely closed off now, but it’s a lot harder to get access than it was for me. If I went back now, I wouldn’t get that kind of access. I was very lucky.”
That was also a fortunate turn of events for readers of Slepyan’s recently published book, Stalin’s Guerrillas: Soviet Partisans in World War II (University Press of Kansas). The book looks at the experiences of the partisans to explore how the war affected the Soviet state, and Stalinism in particular.
When the German Wehrmacht rolled into the Soviet Union in June 1941, it got more than it bargained for. In spite of the Red Army’s initial retreat, Soviet citizens in the form of partisan units fought fiercely against the occupiers, engaging in raids, sabotage, and intelligence gathering, largely without oversight from Stalin or the Soviet state.
This people’s army consisted of irregulars fighting behind enemy lines and included not only civilians—many of them women—but also stranded Red Army soldiers, national minorities, and former collaborators.
While others have documented the military contributions of the partisan movement, Slepyan is the first to analyze it as a social phenomenon. He looks especially at how Soviet citizens rethought their relationship to the communist state, in light of the self-reliance and initiative they practiced in fighting a guerilla war, and how those thoughts may have either consolidated or undermined communist control during the war and afterwards.
“There has been an assumption on the part of most scholars that victory in the war helped legitimize the communist party in the minds of the citizens because it proved capable of defeating Nazi Germany,” Slepyan said. “Others have argued that the war created more freedom because the partisans underwent a kind of spontaneous de-Stalinization. The state wasn’t doing it for them, so they had to take on responsibilities of their own.”
Slepyan’s conclusion is that some of both occurred, but that there was certainly no liberal movement toward a democratic state.
“The war confirmed the Stalinist ideas that Soviet citizens lived in a world of external and internal enemies, in the form of the invading Germans on the one hand, and through spies who might have betrayed the existence of the partisans to the occupiers on the other hand,” Slepyan said. “So in that sense, the basic values of the Soviet Union are accepted by the partisans.
“Where the war worked to undermine that notion is in the partisans’ desire for personal autonomy and their ability to separate themselves from Soviet institutions. They called on these institutions to help them during the war, but they didn’t want them to interfere any longer in their daily lives.”
David M. Glantz, author of Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War, 1941-1943, said of Slepyan’s book, “By far the most accurate, comprehensive, and perceptive political and social history of the Soviet Partisan Movement during the Second World War. Clear, cogent, and articulate, it will undoubtedly become the standard work in its field.”
The book was recently designated by both the History Book Club and the Military Book Club as an alternate selection, and is carried in the Transy bookstore.