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Red Army During World War II

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On November 5, 2008 Sean McCormack, US Department of State spokesman, said that  "the missile defense sites in the Czech Republic and Poland are not aimed at Russia."- They are "designed to protect against rogue states."-  Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's replied that  "the United States had made a wrong decision to deploy the third missile  defense  area  in  Eastern  Europe."-  This threat of military escalation reminded me of a note about the Red Army, recently posted on Montclair State University's discussion list.  Here is my note again, turned into an oped article. 


The basic facts about WWII, as far as The Soviet Union was concerned, are well known. Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, penetrating deep into its territory. According to (1), "by December 1941, six months into the conflict, the Red Army had lost four and a half million men."- But the army was able to mount a counteroffensive and two years later Germans were in retreat.. The Soviet Union and its allies (US and United Kingdom) defeated Germany in May of 1945. The total number of soldiers drafted to fight the war was approximately 30 million in the USSR, 10 million in the US and 10 million in the UK.  The US material help, to the Soviet Union, amounting to 11 billion dollars, included 14,000 airplanes, 200,000 Studebaker trucks, food and other hardware (1).


The first Soviet offensive took place close to where I lived at the time, about 30 miles north of Moscow. How can I forget the first Studebaker seen or the taste of  my first American food (swinaja tushonka)? I also remember that private radios were confiscated as soon as the war started. One can only speculate what would have happened had the population known about initial losses.  Likewise, one can speculate what would have happened had people known that numerous warnings of the approaching war were totally ignored by Stalin. Initial losses would probably have been lower if the Red Army had not been purged (in 1937-1938). Three of five marshals, three of four full generals, all twelve lieutenant generals, 60 of 67 corps commanders and 136 of 199 divisional commanders were liquidated at that time. And who was blamed for the initial fiasco? Eight local commanders, including General Pavlov, were "arrested, questioned, scapegoated for cowardliness, and shot"- (1), two weeks after the war started. 


The undeniable heroism of Soviet people was mentioned in my book on Stalinism (2). But that was not enough. The more I think about Stalinism the more I am fascinated by it. On one hand it was a political system that killed millions of its own people; on the other hand it was an essential factor in the defeat of another tyrannical system, Naziism. It is not at all obvious that Hitler would have been defeated without the heroic contributions of the Red Army. Stalingrad was just as important as D-day.


It is clear to me that nearly every Soviet soldier had at least one family member who was either deported or killed by Stalin. And yet, many of them fought and died while chanting his name. How can this be explained? This question is asked by a British historian, Orlando Figes (3). The major factor, according to him, was relaxation of the party propaganda of class struggle. Kulaks who had survived persecutions, and their children, became as important as poor workers (proletariat) and poor peasants. The same was true for children of surviving aristocrats and other servants of the tsarist government. It is also significant that "-in 1941, Pravda dropped its peacetime masthead, "-Proletarians of all lands, unite!' The slogan that replaced it was "Death to the German invaders!"- (1). 


Figes writes: "The new mood was summarized by Pravda when it argued, in June 1944, in sharp contrast to the Party's prewar principles, that 'personal qualities of every Party member should be judged by his practical contributions to the war effort,' rather than by his class origin or ideological correctness." Poems and songs heard during the war reinforced a natural desire for revenge. All Germans had to be punished for Nazi atrocities. In other words, political and religious control was relaxed. Hundreds of churches were reopened during the war. Appeal to patriotism was reinforced by replacing the old national anthem (the famous Internationale) by a new one emphasizing "indestructible brotherhood of Soviet people united by great Russia." It was also reinforced by replacing the Red Army insignia with old tsarist epaulettes, by popularizing old Russian heroes, such as Suvorov and Kutuzov, etc.


But that was not all; Special Order #227 (issued on July 28, 1942) is also mentioned in (3). That order, "Not a single step backward," was to punish "panickers" and "cowards." Special units were used to shoot soldiers who lagged behind or tried to run away from fighting. How important were these measures? According to the author, they turned out to be ineffective. Defections were reduced when battlefield camaraderie naturally developed during the offensive. Some Soviet people would probably have been less patriotic if they had been aware of deportations of entire nations to Kazakhstan, during the war. Victory was not easy; for every German soldier killed during the was, the Soviets lost three soldiers. According to (1), 8.6 million Soviet soldiers died during the war, including those who lost their lives in Nazi camps.



1) Catherine Merridale,  "Ivan's War: Life and Death It The red Army,1939-1945,"-  Metropolitan Books, Henty Holt and Company, 2006, New York

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Ludwik Kowalski is a retired physics teacher (Professor emeritus, Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA). He is the author of two recently-published FREE books:

1) "Hell on Earth: Brutality and violence under the Stalinist regime" (more...)

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