Unless you have stumbled upon this blog by pure coincidence, chances are you have an idea about what spetsnaz is. But how much do you really know about their history and current status, not to mention the different units which at one time or another have been described by the word? A Swedish book by historians Joakim von Braun and Lars Gyllenhaal clear up the picture, and tell the story of Russian (and Soviet) elite units from the birth of the Soviet Union to the present day.
Ryska elitförband och specialvapen (Russian elite units and special weapons) first came out a few years ago, but was rather quickly followed by a significantly revised and expanded second edition which was published by Fischer & Co in 2016. It is this edition which is the subject of this review.
As the name implies, the book covers the whole spectrum of Russian military and paramilitary forces, stretching from the naval OMRP combat divers and the Vityaz of the MVD, to larger specialised forces such as the airborne VDV and naval infantry.
The book follows a roughly chronological order, starting with two pages dedicated to pre-1917 units such as oprichnina and the korvolant, before moving on to the main focus of the book with a chapter on the earliest Soviet special units. To cover the bewildering array of different units that has passed through the ranks during the last hundred years, the book mixes big and small stories, featuring smaller anecdotes and case studies in between the major developments. In part this is also due to the secretive nature of the topic, there are cases where there simply aren’t much information available!
One example of the latter is the spetsnaz units operating on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. However, this chapter also provide an example of the unique nature of the book: by combining the sparse Russian and German sources available with interviews made with the relatively large number of Swedish volunteers who served in the units, a picture can be made of a largely forgotten part of the Spanish conflict. The sabotage missions behind enemy lines are also interesting in that they provide insight into the way communist sabotage rings were expected to operate in other countries as well, an example being the rather large operation that was active in Sweden during WWII.
As can be expected from a Swedish book, much attention is given to Swedish individuals serving in Soviet units, as well as to Soviet (and DDR!) units operating in Sweden. While these at times fail to spike my interest as a non-Swede, the use of Swedish sources does add significant value especially to the chapters dealing with developments around the Baltic Sea and the aforementioned Spanish Civil War chapter. Underwater incursions into Swedish waters and their role in Soviet military planning also gets covered in depth, and reading the chapters on these raises interesting questions with regards to Finnish Cold War history.
But back to the book. As VDV and different special forces were the preferred tools of trade in any interventions abroad, the book also deals with the Soviet foreign adventures of the Cold War. Some of these are largely forgotten today, like the Soviet-led Ethiopian operation that turned the tide of the Ogaden War by airlanding large amounts of light armour behind Somali lines. Others are well-known operations, but the role played by elite units in these might be overlooked. This is the case with Operation Danube, the invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968. The case-study of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is especially interesting, showing that little-green men is far from a new phenomenon.
Speaking of little green men, the book goes right up til early 2016 in Ukraine and Syria. Though to be fair, if your interest is the use of Russian special forces in these two conflicts in particular, you are better served elsewhere.
Where this book does shine then, is by providing a bird’s-eye view of more or less all Russian and Soviet elite units post-1917. Without getting caught up in minute details, you get a good overview of not only what kind of units have been created over the years, but also their use, equipment, and further developments. In some cases I wish there were more details given, but considering the sheer number of units raised by the armed forces, intelligence services, borders guards, and ministry of internal affairs, covering everything in depth in a 200-page book is simply impossible. In general I think the amount of time spent on each topic is fairly well balanced, though this naturally varies with taste. While the book can be read cover-to-cover, something I enjoyed doing as part of this review, this really is one of those books you want to have in your bookshelf to be able to pull out and use as a reference when encountering yet another Russian acronymed unit. The chapters are clearly defined and structured in a way that if you want to know the difference between the different combat divers of the navy or get an overview of the presidential guard, you can quickly skip to that chapter and get the answers you need. Some of the more interesting units presented include not only the brief history of the sole Soviet unit to feature jaegers (created by two Finns), but also a close look at the secretive deep-water research agency GUGI and its hydronauts. From a Finnish point of view, the fact that GUGI (like other underwater spetsnaz) extensively trains and performs evaluations and developments projects in the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga is of special interest.
Edit: Having heard of my issue with the binding, the publisher contacted me and expressed their surprise at the issue. According to them, this was very rare, and they offered to ship a replacement at no cost. The new book has now come, and I am happy to report that as far as I can tell there are no issues whatsoever with the quality of this one.
One unfortunate issue I had was that the quality of the binding left to be desired, and already during the first reading I noticed that one of the signatures had started to shift. It still holds together, and doesn’t seem about to loosen further. Naturally, I can’t say if this is representative of the edition as a whole, or if I was just unlucky (or if one of my kids somehow managed to have a stab at it without me noticing…).
What else is there to say? The book is well illustrated, largely in colour, and features both a timeline and an extensive source list (though, as always, I would have loved to see end-notes). As the title indicates, the special weaponry used is also covered, including some exotic pieces of gear like underwater grenade launchers. I dare say that some of the info included, especially those parts that are based on Swedish and/or untranslated Russian sources, is previously unpublished material not only in Swedish, but in the west as a whole. If you are able to read Swedish and interested in Russian (or Soviet) armed forces, this is the book for you.
Starting now I will be posting reviews every first Friday of the month. The book in this case was kindly provided for review by Fischer & Co. And Lars, wouldn’t a revised and expanded edition of Elitförband i Norden be an excellent companion to this one?