By Alexander V Pyl’cyn
Published in 2009 by Stackpole Books
4 out of 5 stars
Penalty Strike is, at first glance, a lot like most Soviet World War II memoirs. It’s a lot of “we lost a lot but saved the world from the Hitlerite pigs.” They usually gloss over the nastier aspects of the Soviet state, even the ones written after the fall of communism. Alexander Pyl’cyn does nothing of the kind. Captain Pyl’cyn’s book has a rate bit of humanity and humor and doesn’t at all portray the security organs of the Soviet state in a kind light.
What comes through is a decent officer who is stuck between a merciless enemy and his own merciless state and ordered, in some ways, to be an executioner for that state by commanding first a platoon in a penal battalion or shtrafbats, as they were often referred to in Soviet parlance. Pyl’cyn’s battalion seemed to be typical of such units. The 80 percent casualty rate suffered by his battalion seems to have been the norm.
What makes it sadder is that many of the people that have been sentenced to Pyl’cyn’s unit were sent for trivial reasons and marked as traitors in the paranoia that gripped the Stalinist state. But even then, these castaways, fit for little more than to take on the worst assignments, did their duty the best they could.
Were there actual criminals and cowards in the ranks of these units? Yes. And Pyl’cyn admits it. He isn’t shy about pointing it out, and he does so with only decorum and respect for the dead keeping him from naming names.
While I wish I could give this book five stars, as it is a rare look inside the system of Soviet penal units from World War II, there were problems, none the fault of the author, but they detracted from the quality of the book. First, Pyl’cyn wrote this book as an old man, and his memory was fading at the time. He readily admits this, but it does detract a bit from the story.
Another issue with the book is that, frankly, even he internalized some of the Soviet propaganda and made it sound like the shtrafbats were little more than “military reform schools for wayward Soviet boys.” They were not, they were a deadly serious business, and while only a half-million Soviet servicemen served in such battalions, high casualty rates were, as I said, the norm. Many did not survive the 30-to-60-day sentence to “expiate their guilt in blood.”
Finally, there were obvious translation issues, and this isn’t unusual in a lot of military history works translated from other languages. Such issues can lead to you scratching your head trying to figure out just what the original author was trying to say?
So? What is the Value of this book to Wargamers?
Other than the obvious fodder for tactical gamers, as there’s a ton of small unit actions that could be researched further and pulled from this book, there’s a mindset that can be examined.
The Soviet state was as brutal as anything in Nazi Germany. It routinely murdered, tortured, and did whatever it had to maintain the power of a coercive state. Pyl’cyn, no matter his own recollections and protestations, was a small representation of that state. He carried out his orders without fail and took assignments that were little more than suicide missions. As the old saying goes, “it was a feature, not a bug” of the Soviet state.
What is of value is to see the penal battalions as they were, from someone who helped run one. We get an insight as to the morale and willingness to fight found within these units. One myth it does dispel is that these units were more poorly equipped than most Soviet units or that there were blocking detachments from other units to ensure no one ran. Pyl’cyn admits that he and his fellow officers were the blocking detachment.
All in all, it gives one insight into what these units were and were not. Is it a completely well-researched and authoritative account? No, but what recollections are valuable indeed, and one should, with that in mind, purchase this book. It can be found for $18 on Kindle (free if you join Kindle Unlimited). Hardbacks range from $40 to $57.99. Paperbacks will run you anywhere from $9.30 to $24.00, so deals to get copies of the book are doable.
In short, I would encourage everyone to add this volume to their library. You won’t be disappointed.
At Epoch XP, we specialize in creating compelling narratives and provide research to give your game the kind of details that engage your players and create a resonant world they want to spend time in. If you are interested in learning more about our gaming research services, you can browse Epoch XP’s service on our parent site, SJR Research.
(This article is credited to Jason Weiser. Jason is a long-time wargamer with published works in the Journal of the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers; Miniature Wargames Magazine; and Wargames, Strategy, and Soldier.)