Readers Write In #106: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 5 – Stalin’s Era Part 4

Posted on October 27, 2019


(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Chapter 4 is here.

Soviet Union before 1941:

Inspite of forced collectivisation of agriculture and consequent mass discontent over Stalin’s policies, the over emphasis on industrialisation was beginning to produce considerable economic growth in the USSR. When the Industrial West was reeling under the after effects of economic depression, the USSR in spite of officially inflated figures, was considered a growing economy by various economists. ‘Economic Planning’ by the Centre which was antithetical to the capitalist mode of production was now viewed favorably by the capitalist countries affected by the Depression. Soviet Industrial output was hugely dependent on the military requirements of Russia guided by Stalin’s impressive foresight. Though there were failed industrial experiments here and there, the Soviet Economy managed to compensate by increasing the working hours of the industrial laborers substantially.

The USSR by the end of 1930s, had a better industrial economy, exponentially bigger military strength both in terms of men and munition, a more disciplined bureaucracy and a greater mass of regimented party cadre than it had during the previous tumultuous decade. These were aspects that Hitler might have failed to countenance during the drafting of the plans for Operation Barbarossa.

Ever since the conclusion of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in 1939, the USSR media found it expedient to tone down anti Fascist propaganda in order not to provoke Hitler. Even by early 1941, when signs of Nazi hostility were beginning to surface, Stalin could not bring himself to consider the possibilities of a Nazi invasion in the same year, unless an overt provocation was made from their end. However, this was exactly what Hitler badly needed – a surprise attack that would stun Stalin into abject submission.

Nazis draw first blood:

Hitler overwhelmed by victories over Western Europe was buoyant when Britain started showing signs of breaking under unrelenting air attacks by the German Luftwaffe. And Operation Barbarossa, he presumed would end within a couple of months with Stalin surrendering to the totally unexpected Nazi onslaught.

The Nazi operation which began in June 1941 was multi-pronged with fronts being opened on all sides of the world’s largest country with an unbending intent to decimate the Russians. Soviet resistance was obviously weak and they lost control of Northern Finland, Ukraine, Belarus by September 1941. Hitler was happy to have taken the city of Smolensk which had a direct 400-km road to Moscow and the Nazi press was jubilant to inform German masses that they were just a few weeks away from a historic victory over Russia.

But Nazi soldiers soon after their invasion had begun, began to realise that the Russian civilians, contrary to expectations were not ready to betray their country easily. To their shock, Nazis could see civilians actively enlisting in the Red Army with great patriotism especially when Leningrad came under siege. The peasants before fleeing their villages made sure that their crops were burned, cattle killed and possessions destroyed in order to deprive the invaders of necessary supplies. Hitler’s move to launch Barbarossa earlier than planned was heavily dependent on the possibility of seizure of Russian resources for Nazi military purposes but the Scorched Earth policy of the Russians was completely unforeseen. Their move to take Ukraine’s capital Kiev which was full of oil resources took a great toll on their army strength even though they succeeded in their mission.

However, by October 1941, Hitler was getting reports of victories from all fronts in the USSR even though complaints of supply inadequacies were slowly cropping up. He now pressed his men forward to take Moscow next which, as we shall see was a terrible strategic error, for it was precisely the time when Winter was setting quickly all over Western Russia.

Soviets live to fight another day:

The Nazis were just less than 150 km away from Moscow when snow and rains began to damage road lines leading to the capital city. German tanks were not used to such terrain despite which by November 1941, the Nazi soldiers were able to confidently report to Berlin that they could smell Kremlin just a few miles away. But the Russian winter intensified with the emergence of sudden blizzards making further progress very onerous. This in turn rendered air attacks totally impossible and hence German supplies were terribly hit. The Nazis had no other choice but to wait for a couple of weeks to carry out any further advance. Stalin, on the other hand immediately summoned the forces on the Siberian front (guarding the Russo-Japanese borders) and mobilised plenty of divisions to defend the capital city. Russian soldiers naturally
had no issues fighting amid the relentless winter and their tanks were better engineered to negotiate unreliable terrain.

The Soviet fightback near Moscow was magnificent and the Nazis were successfully expelled out of Moscow’s vicinity in a month long counter offensive. By January 1942, Hitler had to acknowledge secretly that the Battle of Moscow was a debacle and that without a revision of strategy, there would be even more reversals. Meanwhile Stalin felt that it was his chance to take Hitler by surprise and ordered the launching of counter offensives in all German occupied territories. He substantially increased outlays for armament and aircraft production. Nazis’ subsequent attempts to capture Azerbaijan were also severely thwarted by the Red Army and the intensifying winter. Germany also found itself severely lacking in oil in order to meet its increasing fuel demands.

By mid 1942, the Russians had, owing to initial reversals lost close to a million soldiers and infrastructure worth billions. But Stalin’s dynamic leadership ensured that the morale of the Red Army and the civilian populace never plummeted as a result of which the soldiers fought difficult battles more valiantly than their German counterparts.

The unlikely savior (1943-45):

Two battles that occurred in the next two years decisively changed the course of the war- the Battle of Stalingrad (October 1942 – February 1943) and the Battle of Kursk (July to August 1943). Hitler after facing reversals in Moscow now shifted his sights onto the industrial town called Stalingrad which served as one of the biggest manufacturing hubs in the Soviet Union. The capture of Stalingrad and destruction of the city, Hitler believed shall choke the Soviet war economy. Nazis also wanted to seize the water routes of Volga river which could easily be facilitated by the capture of Stalingrad. The water routes could help Germans to manage supply lines and also help them to march towards oil-rich Baku (Azerbaijan).

The battle for Stalingrad took place for over six months with Nazis achieving key breakthroughs initially. In fact in the first four months, the Germans captured more than ninety percent of the town’s area and went on to destroy factories. The civilian population was not evacuated properly by the Red Army which led to a lot of casualties. However the Red Army soldiers fought from unconventional positions in the city such as the sewerage lines, rooms in evacuated office buildings posing stiff resistance. Soon the Nazis were flabbergasted to see a few divisions of the Russian army consisting of women soldiers and even untrained civilians. Towards January 1943, the Sixth Army of the Germans was surrounded on all sides by newer divisions of the Red Army and all supply lines from Germany were cut off. Close to 200,000 soldiers were locked inside the town and they had to depend solely on the supplies from the Luftwaffe. As the weeks passed, the visiting Luftwaffe planes were attacked by those of the Soviet air force and the number of operative aircraft at the invader’s side was fast dwindling. By February 1943, Hitler took over as the Chief Commander of the Wehrmacht and he vehemently rejected appeals from the Sixth Army to surrender at Stalingrad. Meanwhile, the armament factories located east of the Urals in Russia were operating at full capacity and newer military equipment were supplied at a rapid pace to the Red Army. By the end of February, the famished and demoralised Sixth Army decided to surrender to the Russians infuriating an intransigent Hitler. The battle of Stalingrad is considered to be the bloodiest battle in human history with casualties on both sides amounting to millions. Victory in the battle of Kursk followed the same year for the Russians and by then, the Germans had virtually been pushed into the defensive.

Stalin was hailed all over the world for his effective leadership and the international press was forced to hail Russians for their wonderful resistance. Meanwhile, the tables had turned on in the West with Japan drawing a dormant United States into the war and Hitler had to oversee military operations on two fronts none of which were giving good news. Italy’s surrender to the Allies in 1943 also struck a solid blow to the fortunes of Axis powers. Stalin ordered the Red Army to march into Germany after the liberation of the occupied territories. The Wehrmacht was by early 1945 draining the German economy while Hitler was fast losing his allies. Observers in America including top military personnel admitted that Communist Russia almost single handedly managed to stop the inexorably perilous Nazi advance at a massive human and  economic cost. Close to 25 million Russians had been killed during their struggle against the Nazis and the Soviet Economy slumped back into yet another crisis.

Adolf Hitler, having been surrounded by Allied troops on all sides, in May 1945 committed suicide at Berlin. The Nazi soldiers who had massacred millions of Jews, POWs in the occupied areas were punished at the Nuremberg trials.

Josef Stalin once decried by the world as a contemptible barbarian, had now established himself in the world scene as ‘the Hero who saved the World from jaws of Fascism’. The stature of USSR among the world powers was now completely undeniable and this led to the inclusion of the country in the new-born United Nations as one of the five Permanent members. But the completely unexpected emergence of the USSR as the defender of world peace, sovereignty and equality had more lasting and varied repercussions.

Post World War II, it would be in Berlin, the world’s erstwhile fountainhead of Fascism that the edifice to mark newer and bigger ideological clashes of the future would be erected, in the form of the Wall that divided the city into West and East.

To know more about the World War II:

1.Come and See (1985) a film by Elem Klimov
2.Patton (1970) a film by Frank J. Schaffner
3.Downfall (2004) a film by Oliver Hirschbiegel

And books mentioned at the end of the previous essays.