This book (published by Penguin, Random House, UK, 2017) gives a detailed account of the days leading up to the German attempt to take Stalingrad in the summer of 1942, doing so by tracing the exploits of a group of former prisoners, taken from the Gulag and given the chance to redeem themselves by becoming a special unit of the Russian army known as Shtrafniki.
Amongst the motley crew of murderers, swindlers and cut-throats, whom the reader learns to know and identify by name, is a Jew and former writer by the name of Benya Golden, whose death sentence for supposedly plotting to assassinate Stalin, has been commuted to a lifetime of hard labour in the Kolyma mines of the Gulag.
As part of the training of the new recruits they are formed into a cavalry troop, assigned horses and weapons, taught to ride and initiated into the niceties of methods of killing the enemy. The endless steppes of Russia form the backdrop to the events that follow as, having completed their training period, the men begin to advance toward the Don River, where Stalingrad is situated. Along the way they clash with enemy troops as well as with splinter-groups of other Russian units who have defected to the German side. Among the armies fighting alongside the Nazis are Italians, Ukrainians and Hungarians, most of whom are also on horseback, although some tanks are also involved. The Italians, recognizable by their feathered caps, display a more humane attitude to the civilian population, and are not as quick to murder and pillage as the other troops. Their army is also equipped with medical personnel and equipment for treating the wounded.
In that terrain and at that stage of the war cavalry was still utilized in combat, providing greater speed and ease of movement than tanks, and it is Golden’s horse, Silver Socks, who comes up trumps and rescues her rider from dangerous situations. Golden himself, who is the book’s main protagonist, manages to survive the various battles, and even to escape pursuit together with the Italian nurse who has tended his wounds, but eventually finds himself alone with two companions from his original troop. After various encounters with murderous Germans, a kind-hearted doctor who appears to be a defector and any number of enemy soldiers, he is invalided out of battle and ends up in a Moscow hospital.
Along the way, displaying considerable knowledge of the Soviet hierarchy and the Russian front, the author provides us with a glimpse into the workings of Stalin’s inner circle, life in the Kremlin, and the machinations which decide the fate of millions of subjects of the USSR. The entire fate of the country rests in the hands of a few powerful men, and it is their jealousies, rivalries and desires which determine which way the dice will fall.
The book ends with a series of surprises that leave the reader somewhat taken aback by the twists and turns, but without a doubt it is a well-written and thoroughly-researched read. The very informative epilogue gives the author’s insights into the process of researching and writing the book, and there is no doubt that it shines a light on a period of Russian and WWII history about which not very much is known.