More than thirty-five years after it first aired, The World at War remains the preeminent television documentary series about World War II. In twenty-six hour-long episodes it attempted to give an authoritative overview of the entire war from the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933 to the occupation of the defeated Axis powers in 1945 and beyond. Although this British series was exceptionally well-researched, it was a product of the Cold War. Though acknowledging that the Eastern Front accounted for the largest numbers of Allied and Axis casualties by far, the series devoted just three hours to the epic clash in the East. This cursory coverage of the Eastern Front can be chalked up to a lack of access to the Soviet and Eastern European archival materials and eyewitnesses still locked behind the Iron Curtain when The World at War was made.
In 1997, some twenty-four years after The World at War aired and six years after the fall of the Soviet Union, another British television documentary series returned to the subject of the Eastern Front. With new, previously unavailable, access to Russian and Eastern European archives and eyewitnesses, the ten-part series Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow finally achieved the depth of account of the Eastern Front missing from The World at War.
Based upon the book of the same name by British historian Richard Overy, Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow was narrated by Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister). Over ten 52-minute episodes, the series provides an accounting of the war together with its antecedents and post-script, beginning with the rise of Stalin in 1924 and ending with his death in 1954.
In the first two episodes, "The Darkness Descends" and "The Hour Before Midnight", the groundwork for war is laid. As presented, Stalin's rise to power occurs through the purge of perceived political and military rivals, and culminates in forced agricultural and industrial collectivization, mass relocation and massive penal labor initiatives. Though the Nazis and Soviets are natural ideological enemies, Hitler and Stalin cooperate in the dissection of Poland in 1939. Thereafter, while Hitler blitzkriegs through western Europe conquering France and the other continental states on Germany's western borders, the operationally-crippled Red Army, still reeling from Stalin's deep purges of its leadership, blunders its way through an appallingly poorly-executed invasion of tiny Finland.
Hitler, given supreme confidence by rapid German successes heretofore and by the Red Army's abysmal showing against the Finns, preps for a blitzkrieg invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941. Hitler's expectation is to score a quick capitulation by Stalin before winter allowing him to then turn his undivided attention to Britain. Though Hitler's preparations for war are too massive to hide, Stalin steadfastly refuses to believe that Hitler will attack until well after the invasion commences.
The next two episodes, "The Goths Ride East" and "Between Life and Death", are devoted to the Germans' rapid successes in the summer and autumn of '41 against the demoralized and under-supplied Red Army. With Leningrad surrounded in the North, Red Army units pushed with back to the suburbs of Moscow in the middle, and German units blitzing for the oil fields in the south, and Red Army units surrendering en masse everywhere, Stalin considers capitulation.
Episode five, "The Fight from Within", explores the partisan resistance that springs up behind the German lines. Though Stalin remains distrustful throughout the war of these partisans whose loyalties are frequently more nationalistic than ideological, he begrudgingly begins supplying them while also attempting to subvert their independent leadership.
Episode six, "The Caldron Boils", marks the apex of the German thrust into the Soviet Union, and the war's turning point following the Battle for Stalingrad. By episodes seven and eight, "The Citadel" and "False Dawn", the momentum has shifted decidedly in favor of the Soviets who begin rolling back the German forces. More and more tanks, artillery, and aircraft roll off the Soviet production lines just as Anglo-American bombing decimates Nazi production lines in the West.
Episode nine, "The Fall of the Swastika", addresses the capture of Berlin, the death of Hitler and his cronies, and Stalin's political maneuverings against the Anglo-Americans to retain control of Eastern Europe following the war. While the final episode, "The Cult of Personality", addresses the early stages of the Cold War up to Stalin's death in 1954.
The paranoia and cruel indifference of Stalin to the plight of his people are emphasized throughout the series, but just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get you. For example, in the final episode Stalin's 1952 prosecution of Kremlin physicians for plotting to poison him is dismissed as delusional paranoia, yet in 2003 (six years after this series first aired), a joint study of Russian and American experts concluded that Stalin's eventual death by brain hemorrhage probably was caused by poison. So Stalin may have been wrong about who was or wasn't plotting to kill him, but he was prescient about his fate it seems.
Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow is encoded on three dual-layered DVDs in a dual-fold cardboard and plastic case with a slipcover.
Video & Audio:
Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Composed predominately of archival black and white film and modern analog video, the series looks fairly good. The archival material is of varying quality, but is mostly fine, while the analog video looks about as good as can be expected despite some softness and color inconsistencies.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital English audio track sounds monaural, but the audio is clear and voices are understandable throughout. Optional English subtitles are also provided for the deaf or hard of hearing.
By accessing previously unavailable Eastern European and Russian archival sources and eyewitness, Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow makes for an excellent standalone overview of the Second World War's Eastern Front or a worthy supplement to the otherwise superior The World at War series.
Highly Recommended for the arm-chair military historian on your Christmas list.