By Brian Moynahan
Published in July 1989 by Houghton Mifflin
3.5 out of 5 stars
Claws of the Bear is one of those books that is something of a snapshot in time. July 1989 was on the cusp of many changes in the Eastern Bloc. In three years, the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact would be no more, and the Soviet Army would be dissolved some five months later. But the book is a solid snapshot of all of its flaws.
The book is a whistle-stop tour of the Soviet Army’s beginnings during the Russian Civil War, its fumblings during the early part of the Second World War, and its penultimate victory in 1945. Claw of the Bear then shifts to the Soviet Union’s struggle for relevance in a nuclear-armed world. It then goes on to cover the four invasions the Soviet Army found itself involved in to maintain the Soviet sphere of influence and how one of them, Afghanistan, became a trap that the nation didn’t survive.
The book then ends with a look at the “present” Soviet Army, how it is organized, and what the future may hold in the wake of the turbulence gripping the nation. It is telling that the last chapter is, of course, about the nightmare scenario of a Soviet attack on Western Europe. I like Moynahan’s analysis about the chances for Soviet victory in such a situation and how the Soviets would have to win quickly or not at all.
But Moynahan also writes with authority, he argues, with more than a bit of evidence that the Soviet Army was the one institution in Soviet life that worked as intended and was unerringly loyal to the state. At the time that he had made the statement, it was true. Moynahan could not have known about the August 1991 coup.
What I also like is Moynahan’s style. The book is a well-done mix of political and social history, and we get to know the great personalities of the Soviet Army, such as Trotsky, Zhukov, Koniev, and the General Secretaries they served in war and peace. Claws of the Bear is probably the penultimate work on the Soviet Army while there still was a Soviet Army and was the most that could be done before the union’s collapse and the State Archives opened to Western researchers.
Another of the book’s strengths is the human factor worked in. It manages to show us the lofty heights of the men mentioned above, but occasionally, we get a glimpse at the life of the average Soviet soldier in the eras the book covers. I especially like the anecdote at the beginning of the book describing the liberation of a German POW camp full of American, British, and Soviet prisoners during World War II. For the Americans and British, their ordeal was over, and they were going home. For the Soviet POWs, they had made the mistake of being captured, and they had traded one ordeal for another.
The flaw of the book is that occasionally, it can ramble depending on the chapter. Some chapters are better written than others and at least one map was, to me, in the wrong section of the book and detracted in my mind from the chapter it was in. There also seems to be some confusion as to the accuracy of dates of various historical events in the manuscript.
Value to the Wargamer
The book in its entirety isn’t an immediate value to a wargamer, but in my mind, it is good at giving someone a deeper understanding of the Soviet Army at the various stages of its lifetime. It truly was a superpower all of its own, and the book, when used in combination with later works such as Glantz or Zaloga, cannot help to bring context
I think the World War II chapters and the chapter entitled “Vonya” are of most value to a wargamer. These chapters cover both the most gamed out periods in wargaming, and as I said before, provide context to other more specific works. While the book is, first and foremost, a work by a journalist and not someone who usually writes military history, it is, even with its flaws, a solid read.
The book is sadly out of print. But it’s not hard to find and it’s affordable. I was lucky enough to find my copy via a library sale, but copies are available on Amazon for between $1.40 and $18.00. For what the book is, it’s not a bad price at all and makes this a cheap, easy read to get a better context on the Soviet army in its prime. I’d certainly recommend buying it while keeping in mind what the book’s limitations are.
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.)