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February 28-March 6, 2007

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'Stalin's Folly'

Stalin's Folly
(By Constantine Pleshakov; Mariner Books; 326 pages; $15.95 paper)

All of America's talk and movies about the Greatest Generation and the defeat of the Nazis often overlooks the enormously higher price in human lives paid by the Soviet Union. Hard figures are impossible to ascertain, but the estimated death toll for Soviet soldiers in World War II runs as high at 11.4 million, with nearly 6 million soldiers captured and sent to Nazi concentration camps. The reverberations of this bloodbath have affected Soviet and Russian society ever since. As Constantine Pleshakov, working from new sources revealed after the collapse of Communism, shows in Stalin's Folly, the war couldn't have begun worse for the Soviet Union. While Hitler actively planned a thrust on the Eastern front, Stalin toyed with a pre-emptive strike but never acted. Instead, as Pleshakov makes clear, "Stalin's regime proved staggeringly inept at everything except crushing domestic dissent." The purges of the late '30s soothed Stalin's paranoia but also let his army bereft of skilled generals. When the German attack came, on June 22, 1941, the Soviet forces were sent reeling from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea in a 10-day blitz, the course of which Pleshakov recounts in sometimes bewildering detail. As with Napoleon, however, the invading army eventually succumbed to the mud and snow of a terrible Russian winter. Despite the failures of his forces and even his own bizarre behavior, Stalin could surrender vast regions and millions of soldiers and still survive. What is more mysterious is why, during the darkest moments of terrible first days, no one tried to assassinate Stalin. Pleshakov speculates that the regime had been too successful in depriving "people of their will."

Review by Michael S. Gant


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