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.
1936 - 1939
1896 – 1974
Marshal Of The Soviet Union
Responsible for breaking the siege of Leningrad: Zhukov coordinated attacks to weaken German and Finnish lines, creating small openings for supplies to enter the city. It also allowed for evacuations along the frozen Lake Lagoda in 1943. Led successful defense of Moscow. Promoted to Marshall of Soviet Union. Took leading role in battle of Kursk, repelling the German offensive on the eastern Front. Led Liberation of Belarus to The Battle of Berlin.
1883 – 1973
Marshal Of The Soviet Union
Budyonny joined The Russian Army in 1903 and served as a non – commissioned officer in World War One. Fought for the Bolsheviks during The Russian Civil War. At the start of the war, Budyonny commanded the Reserve Army and then Soviet forces in Ukraine. He was severely defeated during the battles of Kiev and Uman. Budyonny presided over one of the largest encirclements in military history. Though all he did was carry out Stalin’s orders not to retreat under any circumstances, Budyonny became a scapegoat for the Red Army’s failures in the early days of World War II. He was demoted to the post of Commander of the Red Army Cavalry, which kept him busy behind the lines. The Red Army’s inability to stop the German advance did little damage to Budyonny’s reputation in The Soviet Union. Budyonny was seen more as a hero from The Bolshevik era as supposed to a failure from The Second World War. Budyonny retired as a three time Hero of the Soviet Union.
1897 – 1973
Marshal Of The Soviet Union
Konev was promoted to Colonel-General after playing a key role in The Defense of Moscow. He lead the southern forces during The Battle of Kursk in 1943, before being sent to Ukraine. Konev was made Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1944 after his army retook Belgorod, Odessa, Kharkiv, and Kiev. He and Gregory Zhukov coordinated a massive offensive in the winter of 1945 that pushed The Germans out of Poland, allowed The Red Army to Capture Konigsberg, and assisted in The Battle of Berlin. While Zhukov was given the honor of taking Berlin, Konev was sent to Czechoslovakia, where his forces fought in The Battle of Prague. Ivan Konev died in 1971 as one of the most popular military figures in Soviet history. He is a two time Hero of the Soviet Union and is buried in The Kremlin Wall Necropolis.
1895 – 1977
Red Army Chief Of General Staff.
Vasilevsky was The Red Army’s Chief of General Staff for most of the war. He oversaw The Defense Of Moscow. Vasilevsky worked with Zhukov during The Battle Of Stalingrad and oversaw Operation Bagration, which liberated Belarus and The Balkan States. He was in command of The Battle Of Konigsberg. Vasilevsky also lead Soviet forces against Japan in 1945. Vasilevsky briefly returned to prominence after publishing his memoirs in 1973. He died in 1977.
1901 – 1946
Soviet General Who Defected To Nazis – tried as a traitor
Vlasov was commanding a mechanized tank group near Kiev when the Nazis invaded in 1941. His unit was one of the few to escape encirclement in Ukraine. In January 1942 Vlasov was featured in wartime propaganda beside Gregory Zhukov for his role in The Defense of Moscow.
In July 1942 Vlasov was attempting to break The Siege of Leningrad when his forces were surrounded in German held territory. He was taken prisoner and began professing an Anti-Stalinist point of view. The Nazis saw the charismatic general, who was popular with his men as a valuable propaganda tool. Vlasov was taken back to Germany where he wrote a pamphlet criticizing Soviet policies that was airdropped into The Soviet Union. He would lecture to captured Soviet POWs, hoping to recruit them into his Russian Liberation Army that would fight on the German side to free Russia from Stalin’s rule.
The Nazis were initially reluctant to allow Vlasov to command an army in battle—rather than creating one for propaganda purposes—but they relented and Vlasov led troops in minor fighting along the Oder River, before moving south in mid-April 1945. The force was stationed near Prague. Vlasov then switched sides again and fought in a few battles on behalf of the Czech resistance. Not wanting to face The Soviets or The Nazis, Vlasov retreated west and surrendered to The Americans. He was forcibly repatriated to The Soviet Union and executed for treason in 1946.
Andrey Vlasov is remembered as a traitor. His Russian Liberation movement inspired other Soviet soldiers to defect and “Vlasov’s forces” came to represent Anti-Stalinist or Anti-Communist soldiers from the USSR fighting against the Red Army during the war. Within the USSR, the name Vlasov and anyone serving in his Liberation Army (“Vlasovites”) became synonymous with the highest form of treachery both during and after the war.
1878 - 1953
Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia in 1878. After Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin’s power increased, and after a series of political manipulations he became the country’s sole leader by 1928. Once in power, Stalin instituted economic reforms that centralized the economy through the nationalization of industry, rapid industrialization and forced agricultural collectivization.. These measures helped transform The Soviet Union from an agrarian country into an industrial power. They also resulted in famines and the suppression political enemies though imprisonment, deportation, and murder. His use of force to consolidate power culminated in The Great Purge from 1936-39. Stalin also centralized the Soviet political structure, taking a more direct role in military and economic affairs. By the end of the 1930s, adding “buffer” territories was a key part of his foreign policy. He signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939, which allowed The Soviet Union to annex The Baltic States, Bessarabia, and Northern Bukovina, then part of Poland. The non-aggression pact also made it possible for the USSR to invade Finland without German opposition.
Stalin (left) with Vladimir Lenin in 1919
World War II:
Stalin was unprepared for the Nazi invasion in 1941. Diverting military resources to Finland and prosecuting senior Red Army leadership in The Great Purge left the country vulnerable to attack. The Red Army suffered heavy losses and many civilians were killed in the first months of the war. Though The Red Army was able to stop The German advance at Stalingrad and Moscow, some historians argue Stalin’s meddling in military decisions hindered Soviet operations. Stalin did not cede operational authority to his generals until 1943, after The Battle Of Kursk, when The Red Army began their advance into German territory. With the end of the war in sight, Stalin argued with allied leaders about dividing territory in post war Europe. Though he allowed Generals Zhukov and Konev autonomy in within their units, Stalin rushed The Red Army to cover as much ground as possible, resulting in The Soviet Union reaching Berlin before the other allies in 1945.
Stalin(right) with US President Harry Truman (centre) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (left) at The Potsdam Conference in 1945
After World War II, Stalin led The Soviet Union into The Cold War against his former western allies. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the newly formed East Germany and—initially—Yugoslavia and Albania became Soviet satellite states, dividing Europe between east and west or communism and capitalism. Stalin supported Kim Il Sun in The Korean War against the west and to a lesser extent Mao Zedong in The Chinese Civil War against the American backed Nationalist Party. Stalin initially supported the State of Israel, but when Israel sided with the United States he turned violently against the newly formed state. His anti-zionist policies soon became anti-Jewish policies within the Soviet Union itself. He initiated campaigns against Soviet Jews, culminating in The Night of Murdered Poets and The Doctors Plot.
Stalin developed a cult of personality within the Soviet Union, which intensified after World War II. He continued his practice of consolidating power through fear and intimidation, resulting in regular deportations and arrests. Stalin died on March 5th 1953, officially of a stroke. Though he lead The Soviet Union into the industrial age and through World War II, in the West, Stalin is mostly remembered for causing the death of between 4 and 10 million people. His successor Nikita Khrushchev instituted a de-Stalinization policy that removed Stalin’s cult of personality, cut back on the use of terror, and dismantled much of the Gulag system.
War Against Finland And Japan
War Against Finland
The Soviet Union was involved in two separate conflicts with Finland during the Second World War. The Winter War from November 1939 – March 1940 and The Continuation War From June 1941 – September 1944. The Continuation War forced The Red Army to divert resources to the northeast during World War Two and provided incentive for Finland to work with Germany in The Siege of Leningrad and other situations on the Eastern Front.
The wars were fought over territory near Leningrad that was part of Russia before the revolution but was lost when Finland declared independence in 1917. The Winter War began when Soviet forces invaded Finland in November 1939. The Soviets had more men and vehicles but were unorganized due to Stalin’s purge of military leadership in 1936. The invasion was condemned by The League Of Nations. Finland received humanitarian aid from the US but no international military support. The Finns lasted longer than expected but were forced to cede valuable territory in The Moscow Peace Treaty after 105 days of fighting.
The Soviet Union considered The Continuation War part of the Great Patriotic War against Germany and its allies while Finland viewed it as a separate military engagement. Finland tightened diplomatic relations with Germany between wars, hoping to gain back territory lost in The Winter War. Hostilities resumed on June 25th, 1941 after the Nazis invaded The Soviet Union on June 22nd. Though Finland did support the Germans in conducting the Siege of Leningrad they were significantly less brutal than The Nazis and concentrated their efforts in the disputed Karelia Territory. The Continuation War is generally divided into 3 phases, the Finnish offensive, a stalemate or trench warfare portion, and a Soviet offensive.
Finland considered itself a co-belligerent with rather than an ally of Nazi Germany. They received tactical support in exchange for allowing German troops to operate within their borders. Finland began seeking an end to the war after Germany’s loss at The Battle Of Stalingrad in 1943. The Continuation War ended in September 1944 when an armistice was signed between Finland and the USSR. The war formally concluded by the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty. Making peace with The Soviet Union created tension between Finland and The Nazis. This resulted in The Lapland War from 1944-45, between Finland and Germany.
War Against Japan
A Japanese patrol in Manchuria during the 1930s
Tensions between The Soviet Union and Japan can be traced to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Japan was part of a coalition of countries that occupied Vladivostok from 1918-1922 and only formally recognized The Soviet Union in 1925. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931 and established a puppet state called Manchukuo in 1932, encroaching if not crossing the Soviet border. This lead to the Battle of Lake Khasan in 1938, where no territory changed hands but animosity lingered after a month of fighting and posturing.
The Battle of Khalkhin Gol from May to September 1939 was more significant. It started with a border skirmish in Siberia, and resulted in the Japanese being severely defeated by Soviet forces. The Red Army was commanded by General Georgy Zhukov, who debuted techniques against the Japanese that would later be successful against the Germans in World War Two. The resounding defeat at Khalkhin Gol motivated Japan into singing a nonaggression pact with The Soviet Union in 1941.
Stalin promised the other allied leaders at The Yalta Conference in February 1945 that he would attack Japan once Germany surrendered. The Soviet Union invaded Manchuria on August 9th of that year and remained in Japanese territory until September 2nd. Soviet forces liberated Pyongyang and occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, leading to the Korean War with the American held south in 1950.
Political Organizations Active During The War
1934 – 1945
The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs was a branch of The Soviet Government, responsible for what we now call homeland security. Formed in 1934, The NKVD is commonly referred to as Stalin’s secret police department. Though they had officers embedded in most government organizations, there were also many public NKVD officials who worked cases openly, like a traditional police department only with very little oversight or regulations. The NKVD ran the gulag system (forced labour camps), conducted political executions in The Soviet Union, and conducted domestic intelligence work to locate perceived enemies of the USSR. The organization is closely associated with political oppression. In 1945 it was reorganized into the MVD and became the KGB in 1954.
1943 – 1946
SMERSH was the military counter intelligence branch of The Red Army from 1943-1946. SMERSH or “Death to Spies” was created to investigate and then eliminate Anti Soviet elements in armed forces. Operatives were often embedded in Red Army units. Where the NKGB (The People’s Commissariat of State Security) was tasked with international espionage and worked outside of the army, SMERSH had a domestic focus and was mostly contained to the military. It would investigate personnel and vet POWs, locate deserters, and run counter espionage operations. Like the NKVD, SMERSH developed a reputation for brutal tactics. SMERSH operated in parallel to the Red Army but outside its chain of command, led by Viktor Abakumov who reported directly to Stalin. In this way, SMERSH became a means to enforce Stalinist policies under the pretense of security.
While most counterintelligence organizations tended to focus on enemy conspirators, SMERSH’s targets were often motivated by domestic political concerns. SMERSH would accuse Red Army personnel of being Nazi sympathizers as a means of justifying their removal from duty or even murder. Vadim J Birnstein, one of the few scholars to have access to declassified documents in the 1990s, estimates SMERSH affected the lives of millions of people. SMERSH engaged in torture, intelligence gathering and sanctioned killings. In the middle of the deadliest war in Soviet history, SMERSH became another threat to most Red Army soldiers.
Underground resistance movements that fought the Nazis
1941 - 1945
“Partisans” is a broad term for underground resistance movements during WWII. Anyone who took up arms against the German occupation could be called a partisan. Partisan units were informal underground organizations, fighting the Nazi presence in a given area. They generally relied on guerilla tactics. The resistance movements grew more organized throughout the war. They initially conducted small raids and destroyed supply lines, eventually coordinating with allied forces as integral parts of larger operations. The Belarusian Partisans became famous for a sabotage campaign called “the Rails War” that attacked Nazi supply trains. By 1944 they were working closely with Soviet command in Operation Bagration, which liberated the country. The Czech Resistance played a key role in The Liberation of Prague after starting the war as a predominately guerilla force.
There were several underground movements in Poland. The Home Army and People’s Guard both fought to free Poland from German occupation, and provided some assistance to the Jews of Warsaw during The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Polish underground movements coordinated the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a full scale revolt in the city of Warsaw a year after the uprising in the ghetto. Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish Home Army infiltrated Auschwitz in 1940. He organized resistance within the camp and sent reports to his commanders on the outside, providing some of the first evidence to an international audience about the specific course of the Holocaust. Pilecki stayed in the camp for 3 years, before escaping in 1943 and participating in The Warsaw Uprising. He was killed in 1948 for working against the Soviet occupation of Poland. Jan Karski, another Polish Home Army member, also gathered evidence about the Holocaust by infiltrating the Warsaw ghetto and a camp in the Lublin area, then transported this information to the Polish government-in-exile in London.
Yugoslav Partisans are considered the most effective anti Nazi resistance movement. They coordinated with Soviet leadership and other allied countries early in the war, launching a successful campaign from 1941-45. The Yugoslav Partisans were a relatively large resistance movement and therefore engaged in more formal battles. They shared intelligence with The Red Army and were given supplies from several allied countries. They liberated Belgrade in 1944 as part of a joint operation with The Soviet Military. Their leader, Joseph Broz Tito became the President of Yugoslavia after the war until his death in 1980.
Yugoslav Partisan leader Joseph Broz Tito
Most resistance movements would accept anyone who could provide their own weapon, though there are examples of Jews or other ethnic groups forming their own brigades within a larger partisan movement. In the occupied Soviet Union, Komosol activists sometimes mobilized their existing network into a resistance organization. The partisan movements in Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, fought the Germans from the moment their countries were occupied. There were also underground movements fighting against communism or Soviet rule, like The Latvian Forest Brothers and Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
Soviet poster praising the work of partisan movements
Medals Awarded To The Veterans
photos courtesy wikipedia.org
Order of the Patriotic War (1st and 2nd Class)
Given to all members of the Soviet Armed Forces that participated in World War 2
Order of the Red Star
Awarded to Red Army personnel for exceptional service in defense of the Soviet Union in war or peace time
Order of the Red Banner
Awarded in recognition of an extraordinary military deed
Order of Glory
Awarded to soldiers for bravery. Recipients move from bronze, to silver, to gold with each heroic act.
Medal for Battle Merit
Awarded for combat action resulting in military success
Medal for Courage
Similar to the Order of Glory though slightly less prestigious and typically awarded in defensive situations
Medal for Partisan of the Patriotic War (1st and 2nd Class) wikipedia.org
Given to all partisans who fought on the Soviet side without being official members of the armed forces
Medal for Defense of Leningrad
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the defense of Leningrad
Medal For Defense of Stalingrad
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the defense of Stalingrad
Medal For Defense of Moscow
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the defense of Moscow
Medal For Defense of Kiev
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the defense of Kiev
Medal For Capture of Berlin
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the Soviet capture of Berlin
Medal For Capture of Budapest
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the Soviet capture of Budapest
Medal For Capture of Konigsberg
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the Soviet capture of Konigsberg
Medal For Capture of Prague
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the Soviet capture of Prague
Medal For Liberation of Warsaw
Awarded to all personnel who contributed to the Soviet capture of Warsaw
Medal For Victory over Japan
Awarded to all personnl who contributed to the soviet campaign in Asia
Medal For Victory over Vienna
Awarded to all personel who contributed to the Soviet capture of Vienna wikipedia.org
Liberation of Riga
Awarded to all personel who contributed to the Soviet Liberation of Riga
Victory over Germany In The Great Patriotic War
Awarded to all Soviet personel on active service during the Second World War
Liberation of Vienna
Awarded for the Soviet capture of Vienna
Battle of Stalingrad
Awarded to all personel who contributed to the Battle of Stalingrad
Battle of Danzig
Awarded to all personel who contributed to the Battle of Danzig
Liberation Of Caucuses And Crimea
Awarded to all personel who contributed to the Battle of Danzig
Medal for the Capture Of New Lands
Awarded to all personel who contributed to operations resulting in Soviet territorial gains
Awarded for Bravery and Courage in Naval Theatres
*115 out of the 1643 people made Heroes of the Soviet Union during World War 2 were Jewish. The second highest decorated ethnic group despite Stalin’s decree not to award medals to Jews.
MedalsGuyHeadless haaretz.com IMAGE
Many of the medals the veterans are wearing in their interviews are commemorative. There are “jubilee” medals celebrating the 20th, 30th, and 40th anniversary of the war, given to every Red Army and Partisan soldier still living at the time. Brezhnev created over 200 different anniversary medals, meaning some veterans have different medals for the 38th and 39th anniversary of a given battle.