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Book Review - Red Sky, Black Death

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  • Book Review - Red Sky, Black Death

    Red Sky, Black Death is the memoir of Anna Yegorova, a female combat pilot for the Soviet Union during WWII. She flew the U-2 as a liaison pilot and later the Il-2 Sturmovik as a ground attack pilot. After hundreds of combat missions over the front, she was shot down, severely wounded, and captured by the Germans. She endured months in a prisoner of war camp/concentration camp, and was eventually liberated. Immediately after her liberation, she was imprisoned by the NKVD and interrogated as a traitor. Though she soon secured her own release, her troubles with the NKVD and KGB continued to dog her for many years.

    I ordered this book directly from the publisher, Slavica Publishers of Indiana University. They can be reached directly at 1-877-SLAVICA, which is how I ordered my book, as I don't think it's yet available on Amazon. The man I spoke with on the phone was extremely solicitous and helpful, and the shipping time on the book was quite fast. It only took 3 days to get to me via UPS ground. So, I'm a very satisfied customer with them.

    The book itself arrived in a plastic wrap in mint condition. I wasn't sure what quality to expect since Slavica is a small press that I'd never heard of, but it seems to be a very high quality paperback with no discernible issues with the cover or the binding. The photographs in the center of the book are the standard high gloss you usually get with memoirs so nothing unusual there. A neat feature of the book is that you get a map pocket in the back with a map of the Eastern front. The map seems to be standard paper though. I think it would have been nicer if it had been maybe laminated or put on thicker cardstock or something to make it more robust, but it's still a neat feature nonetheless, and it'll certainly come in handy when reading the book if you're not overly familiar with the Eastern front.

    Though I've been waiting for this book to come out in English for some time, I was only cautiously optimistic about it. I've read Soviet memoirs of the war before, and I've found them to be uniformly of lower quality than the Western ones that I've read. There always seems to be a gloomy fatalism that permeates them, a lack of candor and honesty when discussing anything that vaguely relates to the political situation on the ground, and quite frankly it seems to me that it's hard to translate turns of phrase and complicated ideas from Russian into English. It often seems that the whole thought process of Russians in general is very foreign to a modern American reader. So, I was very surprised when this book turned out to be the best aviation memoir I've ever read.

    The book tells Anna Yegorova's story from her origins in a small peasant village in Russia to her work in Moscow helping to build the Moscow underground, to her pilot training, and finally to her wartime and post-wartime experiences. The first thing that struck me about the book was the vibrancy of Anna's voice. The woman is just so full of life and so full of memorable anecdotes, and the translator and editor do a fantastic job of bringing that to the forefront. The early part of the book is quite endearing and uplifting as she describes her upbringing in a small peasant village, her relationship with her older brother, and her love of flight. Things take a slightly more ominous turn when her brother is arrested and sent to a Gulag for ten years and as a result she is kicked out of her flying school. She talks openly and honestly about how devastating this was for her, how confused she was, and how angry she was. This is the kind of candor about the harshness of the Soviet system that I have found so lacking in previous memoirs!

    When the war begins, Anna ends up volunteering for a liaison squadron flying U-2s. Even if she hadn't moved on to the Il-2, her flights in the U-2 would have been worthy of a memoir in and of themselves. She describes daredevil flights at low altitude over enemy territory, being bounced by 109s in a completely unarmed biplane, crash landings, ferrying around generals, guiding herself through blizzards, and even having a few close encounters with German infantry where she only just manages to escape by the skin of her teeth.

    Eventually, Anna managed to secure for herself a transfer to an attack regiment (ShAP) flying the Il-2 Sturmovik. After a lengthy training period, she describes many combat missions flying ground attack over the Eastern front. Throughout it all though, she maintains a focus on the men who served with her in the regiment, and she fills the book with touching anecdotes about each of the men she served with. Even more than the combat, this is really the core of the book - showing the camaraderie and friendship that existed between members of her regiment during the war.

    In my mind, the most important contribution Anna makes with her memoir is that she manages to humanize the Soviet combat pilot in a way that a Western audience can easily connect with. You understand her as a person. You understand her hopes and fears, her love and grief. Reading this memoir gives the reader a clear differentiation between the Soviet soldier, who was not at all different from the American soldier, and the Stalinist government that commanded them. Throughout, Anna and many of her friends, fellow pilots, and family members are victims of the Stalinist regime. Her husband had been sent to a Gulag in the 30s, just like her brother. She herself had endured interrogations by SMERSH and later the KGB. But none of that dampened her resolve, or the resolve of other victims of the Soviet regime to fight against the Nazis, free their homeland, and keep their families safe. It's an interesting differentiation that I think is hard for many of us to make, looking at it from the outside.

    I cannot recommend this book more highly. It is an entertaining read, a poignant account of a female combat pilot, and an important tool for understanding more clearly the experiences of Soviet soldiers on the Eastern front.

  • #2
    Thanks for the review

    In the book did she comment on if/how she might have been treated a bit 'Differently", being a female pilot? Then how did she rate the training of the Russian airforce, compared to the Germans maybe?

    Cheers, and finally did she ever do that many tank busting missions in her career?

    Thanks

    Tom

    Comment


    • #3
      Hey -

      She doesn't mention busting tanks specifically, though she does mention ground attacks somewhat, and I know that some of her attacks were directed against panzers. However, if you're looking for very specific details like "I fired an RS-82 at a Panzer IV" then you're going to be disappointed, because that's not in there. She describes combat in a more general way, though some of the details of running from German infantry in her U-2 are pretty specific.

      As to being treated differently, Anna was taller than some of the male pilots apparently, so it was hard to tell she was a girl right away in her flight helmet and flight suit and all of that. There are some funny examples where she's scandalized that a male officer is cursing in front of her because he doesn't realize she's a woman. In one example the general later apologized when he found out she was a woman. Another fun example is this same general asking her if she has a cold when he still thinks she's a man and hears her voice.

      There are also quite a few sections where men ask her what she's doing fighting in the war, they try to tell her a woman can't handle a Sturmovik, that kind of thing. Generally though, the misogyny doesn't seem to be that intense. I mean, the men definitely don't think women are equal, but they come to see she can do the job, and that she's competent, and they develop a sort of fraternal love for her.

      She doesn't ever compare the VVS to the Luftwaffe in terms of pilot skill. She calls the German pilots 'buzzards' and 'fascists' and such, and I don't think she would have ever spoken of them in admiring tones. They were the enemy, vicious invaders, and brutal killers in her eyes. Considering her experiences after being shot down, and how many of her friends the Germans killed, I can't blame her. There was none of the sort of grudging respect many western pilots talk about, and certainly not the glowing admiration evident in Clostermann's The Big Show.

      Anyway, I think if you're even slightly interested in the subject you should get the book. It's really worth it.

      Comment


      • #4
        Thanks for the reply

        I just may do that when I have some time to read a book or two. What I really want/looking for is the perspective from the Russian airforce, from earlier in the war until the end. and specific combat stories in english.
        From some of my readings in the past, the Russians had the upper edge, and then some on pilots and machines say by late 1943 after Kursk. But it seems the Russian foot soldier and tanker did'nt see them as often as this it seems. So I am a little curious about the air crews and their thoughts in general.
        Then there is the tank busting, how successfull was the Russian planes in doing this, might it be like on the Western front in Normandy? Like at the time the Allied planes were feared and wracked up some impressive kills, or so it seemed. But after some Post Normany checking on wrecked Panzers, not so much, German vehicles on the other hand they did slaughter.
        Sorry to sidetrack your thread here a bit, but did the Russians ever survey the battlefield to see how many German tanks were actually KIAed by air strikes compared to "other factors"? Maybe this book could give me a piece of that puzzle, maybe......

        Cheers

        Tom

        Comment


        • #5
          This deals with the war from 1941 until 1944 when she was shot down. So, it does cover a pretty vast swath of things. She has first-hand combat reports, many of which are quite exciting. She doesn't actually fly any fighters, so there isn't a lot of air to air action, but she does mention tail gunner kills as well as the dogfights between her escorts (usually LaGG-3's over the Kuban) and 109s and 190s.

          As to specific number of Panzer kills from what source, you'd be hard-pressed to find that in English I think.

          Comment


          • #6
            Thanks for the recommendation Alina! Sounds like a good book.

            You say it only deals with her life from before and during the war?

            Do you know when she wrote it?

            History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon. Napoleon Bonaparte
            _________
            BoRG
            __________
            "I am Arthur, King of the Britons!"

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            • #7
              She wrote it in 1992, but it doesn't include too much post-war, just what happened immediately after 1945, so it doesn't discuss life in the USSR from 45-91 or anything like that. It tells of her life from her childhood up through her marriage at the end of the war, with one extra bit about meeting up with old friends and trying to recover her communist party card, along with being awarded Hero of the Soviet Union in 1965. But, really it doesn't cover much post-war.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Alina View Post
                This deals with the war from 1941 until 1944 when she was shot down. So, it does cover a pretty vast swath of things. She has first-hand combat reports, many of which are quite exciting. She doesn't actually fly any fighters, so there isn't a lot of air to air action, but she does mention tail gunner kills as well as the dogfights between her escorts (usually LaGG-3's over the Kuban) and 109s and 190s.

                As to specific number of Panzer kills from what source, you'd be hard-pressed to find that in English I think.
                Sounds good to me Alina, I'll see what Alex may be able to dig up, or maybe a new thread here.

                Cheers

                Tom

                Comment


                • #9
                  I can't say I've noticed Soviet/Russian memoirs to be of a 'lower quality' when compared to others, but it might depend on what you're looking to get out of them. We don't all think alike, nor do the aspects of Soviet history that interest you pertain to the interests of the author. Also, you seem to refer to the Gulag as 'a Gulag', it was not a single camp, but an administrative agency.
                  "This isn't Paris, you will not get through here with a Marching Parade!" Defenders of Stalingrad
                  "Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out... and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.... And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for "the universal brotherhood of man" - with his mouth". Mark Twain
                  "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. Voltaire

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Kunikov View Post
                    I can't say I've noticed Soviet/Russian memoirs to be of a 'lower quality' when compared to others, but it might depend on what you're looking to get out of them. We don't all think alike, nor do the aspects of Soviet history that interest you pertain to the interests of the author. Also, you seem to refer to the Gulag as 'a Gulag', it was not a single camp, but an administrative agency.
                    Kunikov, what I mean by that is that coming from an American with certain Western European expectations, I've found that Soviet memoirs seem to be written almost for an entirely different set of expectations. I also find that most of the translations are clumsily handled, making the task of reading the memoir still more difficult. I didn't mean to imply that the original Russian memoir, taken in its original context was low quality, only that as an American reading translated versions, the experience was oftentimes very confusing and unfulfilling.

                    I'm well aware of the gulag system. However, in modern English, the use of the term 'a gulag' is more specific than something that might be more accurate like 'administrative labor camp' or 'Siberian work project' or any other thing you could think to describe that experience.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Alina View Post
                      Kunikov, what I mean by that is that coming from an American with certain Western European expectations, I've found that Soviet memoirs seem to be written almost for an entirely different set of expectations. I also find that most of the translations are clumsily handled, making the task of reading the memoir still more difficult. I didn't mean to imply that the original Russian memoir, taken in its original context was low quality, only that as an American reading translated versions, the experience was oftentimes very confusing and unfulfilling.

                      I'm well aware of the gulag system. However, in modern English, the use of the term 'a gulag' is more specific than something that might be more accurate like 'administrative labor camp' or 'Siberian work project' or any other thing you could think to describe that experience.
                      Quality of translation may cause problems, but I cannot recall one memoir of the dozens that I've read to date which has stuck in my mind for a 'lower quality' translation. Some translator, like Stuart Britton, do an extremely thorough job and should be commended for taking the time out to translate so many memoirs.

                      As for the gulag, an accurate description isn't needed, nor what I had in mind. Simply replace 'a' with 'the' and your problem is solved.
                      "This isn't Paris, you will not get through here with a Marching Parade!" Defenders of Stalingrad
                      "Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out... and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.... And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for "the universal brotherhood of man" - with his mouth". Mark Twain
                      "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. Voltaire

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Kunikov View Post
                        Quality of translation may cause problems, but I cannot recall one memoir of the dozens that I've read to date which has stuck in my mind for a 'lower quality' translation. Some translator, like Stuart Britton, do an extremely thorough job and should be commended for taking the time out to translate so many memoirs.

                        As for the gulag, an accurate description isn't needed, nor what I had in mind. Simply replace 'a' with 'the' and your problem is solved.
                        I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. I've read 800 Days on the Eastern Front, Litvin's memoir translated by Britton, and I stand by my assessment in putting it in the aforementioned category. Lots of memoirs are worth reading, but in terms of writing I wouldn't put them all in the same league as Clostermann or Lewis, or in this case, Yegorova.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          And have you read his translation of Gorbachevsky's memoir?

                          Some memoirs are simply more interesting than others, but each has something of interest to offer if you know what to look for.
                          "This isn't Paris, you will not get through here with a Marching Parade!" Defenders of Stalingrad
                          "Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out... and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.... And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for "the universal brotherhood of man" - with his mouth". Mark Twain
                          "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. Voltaire

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Kunikov View Post
                            And have you read his translation of Gorbachevsky's memoir?

                            Some memoirs are simply more interesting than others, but each has something of interest to offer if you know what to look for.
                            I think that you'll find that I said that lots of memoirs are "worth reading" but that doesn't mean that they're "well-written" or that they're composed in such a fashion as they're easy to follow and understand. And some may be well-written and composed in a way that is easy to follow and understand for the nation and culture in which it was written, but may not be as accessible to a reader from outside that nation or culture. So, when I was complimenting Yegorova's memoir and comparing it to other memoirs that I've read, I was simply saying that it is accessible and easy to follow and understand to me, from the perspective of an American reading a translated copy, and that this isn't usually the case with Soviet memoirs in my experience. Part of that might be because I'm much more familiar with the air war than the ground war, but I think the lion's share of the credit goes to Yegorova and her translators for producing a memoir of exceptional poignancy and clarity.

                            As to Gorbachevsky's memoir, no I haven't read that yet.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              it should make for good reading then
                              Oh Sure The Old Man's Off His Rocker If Grampa Says He's Dead He Must Be Alive
                              Grampa Simpson

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