E1 Entertainment // 1995 // 520 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // December 16th, 2009
The history of the Stalin years 1924-1953.
Russia's War is one of the most harrowing historical documentaries ever produced. That may seem like a DVD to be avoided, and it's definitely true that viewers interested in a sanitized view of World War II will find this hard to watch, especially since some of the footage and stories are graphic in the extreme. Nonetheless, this is a remarkable achievement. Though it's been taken for granted that the people of Russia and Eastern Europe suffered considerably during WWII, this is the first time that you will understand exactly what they endured. It's even more painful to learn that not all of the atrocities were committed by the Nazis and that their suffering did not end even when the war itself did.
Russia's War, which originally aired on PBS in 1995, chronicles the years that Joseph Stalin ruled over the Soviet Union and led the country through the years before, during, and after WWII until his death. Here are the chapters compiled on three discs:
* "The Darkness Descends"
After Vladimir Lenin dies in 1924, Stalin seizes power against Lenin's wishes and imposes draconian reforms that lead thousands to imprisonment and death.
* "The Hour Before Midnight"
Though Stalin publicly condemns Adolf Hitler's growing imperialist ambitions, privately he cuts a deal with Hitler to forge an alliance and divide up Poland.
* "The Goths Ride East"
On June 22, 1941, Hitler betrays his deal with Stalin and launches a bloody invasion of Russia.
* "Between Life and Death"
The German army surrounds the city of Leningrad and begins a plan to starve it out of existence.
* "The Fight From Within"
In the eastern Baltic states of Ukraine and Belorussia, the arrival of the Nazis is initially welcomed as a release from Stalin's oppression.
* "The Cauldron Boils"
As the Nazis launch an attack on the oil fields of the Caucasus Mountains, the city of Stalingrad is the site of one of the most crucial battles in the war.
* "The Citadel"
The Soviet Red Army earns a crucial victory in the city of Kursk and begins the process of pushing the Nazis out of Russia.
* "False Dawn"
The Red Army begins liberating the Baltic states from the Nazis, but the days of brutal oppression are far from over.
* "The Fall of the Swastika"
The Red Army enters the eastern region of Germany, harshly punishing German civilians for the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
* "The Cult of Personality"
The end of World War II only brings greater tyranny and unhappiness for the Soviet Union as Stalin imposes even more self-serving reforms.
The overwhelming thread that ties the series together is that Stalin, no matter how much unilateral power he acquired, was driven by an almost pathological paranoia. In seeing enemies everywhere, he frequently undermined his leadership. By purging the Red Army of many capable officers and soldiers, even though there was no evidence whatsoever of any military plotting against him, he left the Army so weakened and demoralized that it lost many of the early battles against the Germans. By imposing horrific sentences on Soviet citizens who dared to have contact with non-Soviets, even those unfortunate soldiers who were prisoners of war, he left the Soviet Union frequently using outmoded technology and methods in economics and the military. More than anything, that paranoia led to imposing land and property reforms that led to millions starving and dying in forced labor camps, almost all of whom were innocent of any crimes, especially against Stalin. Many of these deaths happened after the war was over, after many citizens thought that the worst of Nazi cruelty was finished.
The documentary demonstrates the worst of Stalin's excesses with some extraordinary footage, interviews, and documents. Some of this evidence has been kept secret for decades, so these revelations are often jaw-dropping. There are detailed documents outlining the deportation and imprisonment orders for civilians who were guilty of nothing more than being under Nazi occupation. There are interviews with Red Army soldiers who were members of special NKVD (police) battalions whose sole duty was to instantly execute soldiers who dared to retreat, even if the odds were against them. There is even footage of phony Japanese "border attacks" staged by the NKVD to curry favor with Stalin and feed his conviction that the world was against him. The overall portrait is of a man whose ruthlessness and cunning did help him lead his country in war to a degree but ultimately made him one of the worst despots in history.
The one failing that the series does have is that it doesn't really explain why Stalin was so paranoid. In fact, it gives no real biographical information on Stalin at all. The show starts with Stalin seizing power after Lenin's death, but there is no history prior to that. Stalin is frequently referred to as Georgian in the narration, but it's not explained why that's relevant. Are Georgians supposed to be more paranoid and ruthless than other Soviets? This lack of biographical detail is the only failing in an otherwise impressive series.
Ultimately, Russia's War ends up as a testament to the Soviet people, who endured countless years of horror, catastrophe, and grief but still fought with courage and determination. That this story was kept hidden for so many years is a real tragedy, but anyone who wants to learn about an unfairly neglected aspect of WWII should give Russia's War a look.
Technical specs are typical for a documentary series: full-screen transfer and stereo sound mix, both acceptable. There are no extras.
Not guilty, but truly gut-wrenching.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 520 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated