1936 - 1941
Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (left), Joseph Stalin (centre), and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (right) at the signing of the non aggression pact in 1939
Stalin’s Great Purge Of The Soviet Armed Forced
Between 1936 and 1939 Joseph Stalin initiated a campaign of political, economic, and ideological repression against perceived domestic enemies. Sometimes called ‘The Great Terror’ this repression manifested in arrests on false charges, as well as a propaganda campaign legitimizing Stalin’s actions, and by extension his leadership. Though Lenin also used the tactics of terror and mass arrests to consolidate his power before Stalin, The Great Purge is unique for targeting members of the ruling Communist Party. The murder, imprisonment, or banishment of many prominent officials and generals left The Soviet Union unprepared for war with Germany.
The highest officials of the Soviet General Staff, including three of the five Marshals who held that rank in 1937 were killed during the purge, significantly weakening The Red Army’s ability to prepare and orchestrate a large scale war. Marshal Vasily Blyukher was killed in 1938, Aleksandr Yegorov in 1939, and Mikhail Tukhachevsky in 1937. Though all 3 were innocent, Tukhachevsky is significant because he was credited with modernizing The Red Army after the revolution. His theory of “Deep Operations” was adopted with great success by Gregory Zhukov at Khalklin Gol and throughout the eastern front in World War II. Between one quarter and half of the active Red Army Officers were killed during The Great Purge significantly weakening the Soviet Union’s ability to defend itself.
Start Of World War 2
Nazi Germany invaded The Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941. Though World War Two began in September 1939, the two countries signed a non-aggression pact called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. Stalin was unprepared for war, relying on Hitler to keep the pact while engaged in The Winter War with Finland (1939-40), border skirmishes with the Japanese (Khalkhin Gol 1939), and internal military purges.
Though many assumed Germany would invade, The Red Army was far from ready. The German army march into Russia, codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’, leveled cities and occupied Belarus, Moldova, parts of Ukraine, Soviet controlled parts of Poland, and The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). Nazi Germany used 3600 tanks and 4 million men for Operation Barbarossa. The Germans also laid siege to Leningrad before their advance stopped at Moscow and Stalingrad in December 1941.
All veteran interviews, from the veterans who saw active combat in WW2 refer to the fact that the Red Army was barely prepared for the start of the war. Much description is provided about the minimum amount of training they received, between 6 months to maximum a year, prior to being sent to the front. Here are some select examples: Nina Korovkina talks about operating with textbooks after being sent to work as a surgeon, Anatoly Schwartzman describes being sent to the front as a tank operator with less than 6 months training, Moisei Chernoguz tells an incredible story of being placed in charge of a platoon of ex convincts at the ge of 18. See all the veteran stories.