Book Review - Red Sky, Black Death

Discussion in 'Non-fiction' started by Nightwitch, Mar 6, 2009.

  1. Nightwitch

    Nightwitch Member

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    Before I begin, if this is in the wrong forum, I apologize. I didn't see any forum specifically devoted to books on the subject.

    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. Aaron Brooks Wolters

    Aaron Brooks Wolters Well-Known Member

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    Sounds like I will have to get a copy.:thumbright:
     
  3. Njaco

    Njaco The Pop-Tart Whisperer
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    Thanks for the review. Sounds like a good read.
     
  4. Amsel

    Amsel Active Member

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    Great review, Nightwitch. This sounds like an interesting read. How integrated were the attack units?
     
  5. GrauGeist

    GrauGeist Well-Known Member

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    It sounds like Anna Yegorova will give us all a better insight of the day to day struggle the Soviet pilots experienced.

    Thanks for the great review, Nightwitch!
     
  6. Nightwitch

    Nightwitch Member

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    In terms of male/female? Not very. Anna Yegorova is the most famous female Sturmovik pilot, but she mentions in the memoir there being one other female pilot/gunner Sturmovik crew in the VVS. They might have been the only two female crews on Il-2s in the whole war, but I haven't done enough research to make a claim like that. Still, they were heavily male. Most of the women who fought in the air forces were part of one of Raskova's 3 all-female regiments. Anna Yegorova was one of the few who fought in mostly male regiments. So, throughout the war, she was the only female pilot in her Sturmovik regiment.

    Edit: Sorry that was a reply to Amsel.
     
  7. Amsel

    Amsel Active Member

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    Sounds like Anna Yegorova was exceptional. I have spent most my time studying the Luftwaffe and the USN; I would like to learn more about the VVS. This sounds like a must read. Thanks.
     
  8. Venganza

    Venganza Member

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    I think you'll like reading about the VVS, Amsel. It's very different from the USN and the Luftwaffe, obviously in equipment, but also in tactics. I caught the VVS bug years ago. I'm finishing reading a book about Stalingrad, although it only deals tangentially with the airwar over Stalingrad. What I'm looking for is a good book about the airwar over Kursk (I've already read about the ground war), where the fortunes for the Soviets turned around for good, both on the ground and in the air. Nightwitch, do you have any recommendations about such a book - you seem to be our VVS guru here.

    Venganza
     
  9. Nightwitch

    Nightwitch Member

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    Venganza -

    There's a relatively recent book on my "to read" list that I haven't yet gotten around to. It's called "Kursk: The Air Battle" by Christopher Bergstram. Unfortunately, I don't know a lot about it, it's just something I've been looking toward purchasing.
     
  10. TheMustangRider

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    Have you gentlemen read about the fighter pilot Lydia Vladimirovna Litvak and her exploits as a Yak-1 pilot in the VVS, I have read a little about her and she has an awesome story as one of the finest female pilots the VVS ever had; sadly she was killed in action but her legacy is remarkable and worth telling.
     
  11. Venganza

    Venganza Member

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    Thank you, Nightwitch, I'll look into it.

    Venganza
     
  12. Airframes

    Airframes Benevolens Magister

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    Thank you for an excellent review, Nightwitch. Like Amsel, I know little of the actions of the VVS in the Great Patriotic War, or indeed about the Eastern Front in general, having concentrated on the ETO. Your review has made me want to learn more, so I'll certainly be looking out for this book.
     
  13. mudpuppy

    mudpuppy Member

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    An informative review, thanks Nightwitch!
     
  14. GhostBlue

    GhostBlue New Member

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    Thank you, NightWitch, a most eloquent and professional review. For any who might be interested, the translator/editor has a website about the book and the process.

    Red Sky, Black Death

    GhostBlue
     
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