Editor’s note: Wrote this years ago for my old blog that I published 2008-2014 before joining Russia Insider.
In the Second World War the Soviet Union suffered an incalculable number of war death that is usually put at 27 million.i It was the largest death toll suffered by any country in any war. The war razed 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages and hamlets and 100,000 collective farms on Soviet territory.ii In terms of protecting its citizens against other states the USSR can only be judged an utter failure.
The failure of the Soviet Union was all the greater because it was not a power that was simply powerless to do so. On the eve of the Second World War the USSR was larger by land mass than any other political entity in the world exempting the British Empire. It ranked third in the world by population size and by gross domestic product. It could boast the largest, most mechanized army in the world, enormous heavy industry output, and highly competent weapon designers.
To be sure the Soviet Union was also faced with its challenges. It had a very long border to secure. It had to contend with a two-pronged threat emanating from Tokyo on one side of the world and Berlin on the other. Enormous distances and subpar infrastructure impeded transport and communication. Most of its populace had little education and rarely handled modern machinery. What was to be its chief opponent, the German military, was experienced and proficient in the conduct of war.
These difficulties, however, were hardly insurmountable given the aforementioned strong points of the Soviet Union. Yet it would suffer a series of military defeats so catastrophic that at the greatest extent of Axis advance 68 million of its citizens would be subject to a deadly foreign occupation.iii What was the cause of Soviet military debacles that paved the way for suffering on such a scale?
No Sleeping Giant
When the National Socialists took power in Germany the Soviet Union was sufficiently alarmed to come out of international isolation and move closer to France.iv It interfered in the Spanish Civil War to stop a speedy defeat of the Republicans, hoping to in this way drive a wedge between Paris and London and Berlin and Rome.v It provided military aid to Chiang Kai-shek attempting to blunt Japanese expansionism in the Far East and offered itself as an ally to France in the Sudeten Crisis.vi It finally sought security by concluding non-aggression pacts with Germany (1939) and Japan (1941). The Soviet Union was not oblivious of international events but was conscious of potential outside threats.
Between the years 1938 and 1940 the Soviet Union fought a war with Finland, an undeclared border war with Japan, forcefully annexed Bessarabia, the Baltic States and Ukranian and Belarusian areas of Poland. In 1930s it begun throwing much of its industrial capacity into armaments production so that by June 1941 it possessed 15,000 aircraft and 18,000 tanks — more than all the rest of the world combined.vii The Soviet Union was pouring vast resources into its military, which had already fought to defended its borders as well as to expand them. It was anything but a complacent power that had not given thought to war. [Relevant to point out since after the war Stalin tried to claim early setbacks had been a natural outgrowth of “peace-loving” countries like the USSR, France, and the US (in the Philippines) being late to realize the danger of war.]
For much of the interwar period, the Soviet armed forces consisted of two components. The smaller regular forces and the larger territorial forces. The latter comprised a reserve army led by professional officers, but manned by part-timers who held on to their civilian jobs. In peacetime the territorial system represented a cheap method of training large numbers of men. In wartime it could quickly supplement the regular forces with second-line units of some proves. In mid-to-late 1930s, however, the territorial army was swallowed up by the regular forces. In this way, the Soviet Union deprived itself of an organized reserve and became less able to fight an existential conflict on short notice.viii
The Achilles’ heel of the pre-war Red Army was the poor quality of its officer corps. The army had difficulties attracting and retaining officers. Up to 1936, the Soviet Union barred Cossacks, former nobles, and the bourgeois — that is precisely the classes that had provided the Imperial army with the bulk of its officers — from military service. Among the remaining population, there was little inclination for military profession, especially seeing that until mid-1930s the pay [and societal prestige] was higher in industry. Those who could hope to succeed elsewhere were inclined to leave the profession or never take it up in the first place. This state of affairs, coupled with persistent forcing out of officers deemed politically unreliable, left the officer corps under strength, undereducated, and suffering from high turnover rates.ix
Then in 1938, the Soviet Union launched an enormously ambitious program of military expansion. [Only the latest one.] To the existing 98 divisions, the Red Army in just two and a half years added another 205 for a total of 303 ground force divisions on the eve of the war.x At least as of 1941, however, such a titanic army could not be adequately trained, supplied and led. The benefit of the expansion was therefore to a sizeable extent questionable. [In part the expansion plan was so ridiculously ambitious (aiming for a mobilized armed force of 15 million) because the Soviets had wildly overestimated the size of the military the Germans would field in the future.]
One problem with the expansion was that it further diluted the quality of an already mediocre officer corps. To fill tens of thousands of command positions being created every year the training of new officers had to be rushed, which reflected on its quality. As there was no way of attracting so many new candidates to the profession, most new officers served by compulsion. Most new officers were conscripts who had been elevated to junior commander and then officer rank. The extent of their officer training was a special course that lasted between three and six months.xi Many of the others were young Communists and Komsomols who were dispatched to abridged officer training programs in military schools as a way of fulfilling their obligation to the party. Even by taking such shortcuts officer shortages could not be eliminated entirely. On the eve of the war the infantry, which was the service branch most affected by shortages, had no more than 79% its prescribed number of officers.xii
The army then was conscripting a huge number of men and placing them under command of officers that had been promoted to posts for which they were barely qualified. One predictable consequence of this was the poor quality of training of the rank and file. The training of soldiers overseen by thinly spread officers in over their heads left much to be desired. To make matters worse training was often impeded by equipment shortages, particularly of boots and coats, and the need to devote time to erecting quarters, messes, stables and supply dumps for the enlarged army.xiii Political indoctrination and growing food on unit farms represented additional distractions from acquiring military skills.
Increase in the size of the armed forces was done without an adequate increase in the ability of the rear services to supply the enlarged army and maintain its equipment in repair. It affected the planned modernization of the Red Army. With so many new units needed to be equipped old equipment could not be phased out.xiv Industry spewing out weaponry could not pause to retool for production of alternate, superior designs. When the war broke out the majority of the enormous Soviet tank and air fleets, albeit state of the art in mid-1930s, would already be outdated. The newer models had only begun entering service so that there had not yet been time enough to properly train the men operating them.
At around the same time the military was engulfed by the purges of the Great Retreat and dealt a severe, debilitating blow. Just as the expansion of the Red Army greatly increased the need for trained officers regime had many of them censured, imprisoned and shot. At their most severe in 1937 and 1938, the purges did not cease until after the German invasion of 1941.xv Over 34,300 officers were purged, albeit at least 11,600 were later reinstated, some of them after having endured torture.xvi By losing 23,000 badly needed officers the army was rid of experience and expertise that could not be adequately replaced. The purges hit party members the hardest and so disproportionately affected high-ranking and more experienced officers that were more valuable.
The purges did more to the Red Army than just deprive it of useful officers. Their psychological impact was paralyzing. The purges stifled initiative, lowered morale and sapped enthusiasm.xvii They hit research bureaus as well, inhibiting development of new weaponry and causing the Soviets to fall behind in aeronautics.xviii They devastated military intelligentsia by liquidating the Red Army’s most advanced theoreticians, wiping out the Red Army’s lead in conceptualizing combined arms warfare. As the works of uncovered enemies of the people were thrown out of circulation, theories that had been part of the Red Army’s intellectual mainstay were now dangerous to voice.xix
Predictably given its state, the Soviet military did not give a good account of itself in the Winter War. [Albeit it did considerably better in the little-noticed but very consequential border war with Japan.] As if to provide contrast, the German military shortly thereafter stunned the world by defeating France in a rapid manner, paving the way for German hegemony in Europe. Stalin responded by ordering a sweeping reorganization of the Red Army. Mobilization plans were revised, war plans laid out anew, commanders replaced, mechanized corps re-established, personnel retrained, responsibilities shifted, units rearmed.
The program of reform sensibly aimed to remove deficiencies that had revealed themselves in the war with Finland. The sweeping nature of the reforms, however, caused transition shocks and threw the massive bureaucracy that was the Red Army into temporary disarray. The reorganization of the army was so widely conceived that it would not be complete until mid-1942. Thus in 1941 when the German attack occurred the Red Army was in a worse state than if reform had never been attempted.xx
In the 1930s the Soviet Union had clearly determined to respond to the deteriorating international situation by radically bolstering its military power. Its military spending rose steeply, it represented 3.4 percent of the state budget in 1933 but rose each year to reach a staggering 32.6 percent in 1940.xxi Expansion and reorganization of the army as well as the officer purge were measures central to its effort to enhance its military stature and were meant to decisively answer the question of its security. In its effort to prepare for war, however, the Soviet Union was aiming for more than it made sense to aim for given the time and resources available.
The Red Army in 1941 was a flawed force in a state of upheaval and nowhere yet ready for war. It was such precisely because of the combined shocks of an overly ambitious expansion, a sweeping reorganization and a murderous purge. The enormous scope and ambition of the effort to prepare the country for war actually worked against its purpose and undermined its effectiveness. On the eve of war Soviet defenses were nowhere near as robust as they should have been given the extent of energies invested into them. [That is to say, the limited resources should have been concentrated into a smaller but more settled fighting force instead of being spread so thinly across a vast force that was still only emerging and was still being disrupted all the time.]
Prelude to Invasion
Hitler begun planning an invasion of the Soviet Union as soon as France had fallen and committed to it by December 1940.xxii The attack, code-named Operation Barbarossa, would commence next summer.
Information gathered by the Soviet intelligence on the German buildup and intentions in the east was plentiful. Detailed and accurate reports from agents and military attachés abroad were received warning of a planned invasion. Military commanders and party officials from the border areas submitted reports detailing preparations for war taking place across the border. The ever-increasing density of incursions by German reconnaissance aircraft, sometimes to a depth of one hundred kilometers, readily testified to the intention of the Germans. Despite these and many other indicators Stalin stubbornly refused to believe Germany was preparing to strike.xxiii
Stalin had more than enough information needed to foresee the German attack. Red Army commanders G.K. Zhukov and S.K. Timoshenko did so albeit they were privy to far fewer intelligence reports than Stalin. When they asked for preparatory measures to be taken they were rebuked by the dictator. The difference between his army commanders and the dictator was Stalin’s fear of disinformation. Facing a peculiar knowledge problem Stalin had access to vast numbers of various reports from his subordinates but no way of knowing if they were fully truthful or at least in part meant to mislead him. Consequentially he was inclined to mistrust reports and recommendations that went against his preconceptions. This being the case few would risk sowing suspicion about themselves in the dictator’s mind by offering dissent. As a result albeit there were those who did not share Stalin’s delusions, conditions for debate that may have swayed the dictator did not exist. Public debate on what the buildup meant was not possible in the state-run press, and internal debate among officials was hampered by Stalin towering over the cowed state hierarchy.
As reorganization of the armed forces would not produce a truly combat-capable Red Army until summer 1942 it had left the Soviet Union vulnerable. Aware of this weakness Stalin [after the unexpected fall of France] was extremely fearful of a war with Germany. This translated into an obsessive preoccupation with avoiding provocation that may give the Germans cause to attack and trigger a war he believed could be avoided. [More like forced himself to believe since the opposite would mean having to admit his Ribbentrop-Molotov decision had in the end gifted Hitler the mastery of Europe and left him to face Germany without allies.] To this end, severe restrictions were placed on the Red Army. It was to limit its air activity, it was not to take up defensive positions, it was not to speedily mobilize, it was not to fire on border violators.xxiv Stalin was pursuing a policy of appeasement that was so extreme it was detracting from the ability of the Soviet Union to defend itself.
At the same time, the obligations of the Soviet Union under the Soviet-German commercial agreements were fulfilled to the letter. In the eighteen months before the German invasion, the Soviet Union shipped two million tones of petroleum products and various other raw materials to Germany.xxv These materials were difficult for Germany to obtain, but were critical to its industrial production and military buildup. Stalin hoped that by complying with the agreements he would help avoid war. As it was the supplies Germany received helped made its drive into the Soviet Union possible.
Appeasement could have its merits in the 1930s when Hitler was much less powerful and much more attuned to reality. Now that the victorious German armies had made him the master of Europe and his policies were guided by ideology and fantasy it is was positively nonsensical. It undermined any deterrent to attack the purged Red Army fresh from a fiasco in Finland still represented. Passivity of the Soviets in view of German border violations was interpreted as a weakness and made the war Stalin was hoping to avoid all the more certain.xxvi The Soviet Union was even now incredibly powerful, but Stalin was inadvertently encouraging Hitler to think the opposite.
At least one other aspect of Stalin’s activity in the international sphere would come to haunt the USSR. His territorial appetites acted upon in 1939 and 1940 provided Germany with its key allies in the east. Soon after Stalin forced Romania to cede Bessarabia the Soviet Union, pro-Axis elements took power in Bucharest and entered Romania into the Axis. Finland likewise linked with Germany hoping to recapture the areas it had been forced to cede to the Soviet Union in the Winter War. The contribution of Finns and Romanians to Operation Barbarossa would add up to 650,000 invasion troops.
Soviet empire-building of 1939-40 was the means by which Stalin, after alternatives had shown themselves to be lacking in his eyes, meant to attain security.xxvii Once again moving to tackle security challenges in a seemingly decisive manner played into German hands and made the Soviet Union less safe.
German attack on the Soviet Union was launched on 22nd June 1941 and achieved surprise at every level. Because the Soviet state had cut the flow of information to its populace and army, and sent them reassurances that proved deceptive, the Soviet Union accomplished the unlikely feat of being caught off guard by the largest military offensive in world history involving nearly 4 million troops.
When the war broke out only 2.8 million Soviet troops, of the 5.3 million total, were in theater and integrated into their units.xxviii Even these were mal-deployed. Based on Soviet war planning the greater part of Soviet strength in the west was in the region south of the Pripet Marshes, but the brunt of the German attack came north of it.xxix Early defense plans had been based on the correct assumption the main thrust was likeliest in the north, but had to be changed after Stalin signaled his disagreement.xxx
Red Army units were garrisoned rather than in the field, oftentimes with component units spread out over a large area. Divisions were manned at half strength and lacked their full complement of artillery and ammunition. Particularly damaging was the severe shortage of trucks, radios and skilled radio operators. These deficiencies coupled with enemy activity, cumbersome organization and poor leadership meant resupply and command and control promptly broke down.xxxi
Units struggled for fuel and ammunition, some were without food. Performance of the Red Army hierarchy was poor and contributed to the confusion. Numerous tank formations greatly dissipated their strength before they ever met the enemy as they abandoned broken down vehicles on forced marches urgently moving into position. Others received changing, contradictory orders shifting the destination they were to move to, until they ran out of fuel and could move nowhere.xxxii
Operation Barbarossa ultimately failed to defeat the Soviet Union in a single blow as was its aim. It was a strategic failure for the Germans which had wildly underestimated the Soviets. The Soviet leadership for their part, however, wildly overestimated the Red Army. The Communist USSR with its can-do attitude had built an army geared for the attack, now that the war broke out it expected of its military to move on the offensive and carry the day.
Whenever possible Red Army Main Command threw units large and small into poorly coordinated counterattacks, counterstrokes and counteroffensives. These were bloody, suicidal affairs in which the Soviets were forsaking the one clear advantage they could still claim — the advantage of fighting on the defense. One after another fronts, armies and corps would be sent into the teeth of the stronger, advancing enemy.xxxiii What ensued was a defeat in detail in which much of the massive Red Army was destroyed piecemeal. Numerous units were ground to dust attacking in appalling conditions that were crying out for defense or withdrawal. [Then when they found themselves encircled by the more cohesive and locally numerically superior foe, the Soviet formations that would have had a difficult time just defending were immediately ordered to conduct the most difficult maneuver in warfare of them all, and break out of their encirclements — and disintegrated quickly in the attempt with their men captured individually and in small groups trying to carry out the impossible order. Instead of once again playing perfectly into the Germans’ hands it would have been far more beneficial to expect of the encircled formations nothing more but to stand their ground, and delay the enemy for as long as possible, and to sell their hides dearly as encircled units had done before in Finland where they often held out for weeks and months and fought to the last bullet and man. Alas, that would have demanded the acceptance of imperfect reality and limits on what was possible that Communist ambition could not reconcile itself to.]
By December 5th, when it was finally stopped, Barbarossa had advanced more than 1,200 kilometers into the interior of the Soviet Union. It reached the outskirts of Moscow and delivered millions of people to the mercies of a lethal occupation. On the way it inflicted cumulative losses of 4.5 million on the Red Army including 2.3 million captured.xxxiv
The extent of the territory lost and the blow to the Soviet military delivered guaranteed a protracted and bloody campaign to force back the enemy. Before the end of the Soviet-German War the Red Army would emerge as an accomplished and enormously capable force, but in late 1941 this was still a long time into the future. Before then the Soviets would continue to blunder regularly and experience defeats and debacles that greatly added to the casualty lists and pushed back the day of triumph. These, however, did not have consequences quite as far-reaching as the blunders of 1941 and the prior years. [Of course, the operational defeat of 1941 and the effective loss of almost the entire pre-war military in the first five months of the invasion placed the Soviets into an impossible situation where they would have to reconstitute an entirely new army while also having to fight a war of survival at the same time. Requirements of military-building demanded new conscripts be held back for training, equipping, and cohesion-building, but the advancing enemy demanded something be thrown against it to plug the gaps immediately. This conflict between what was needed for good army-building and the immediate needs of the battlefield guaranteed more horrendous losses in the future. Thus the defeat of 1941 continued to cast a long shadow and to exact a horrendous sacrifice into 1942 and 1943 as newly raised units all too often had to be committed far before they were ready.]
Red Army retarded by the Great Officer Purge, destabilized by an ill-timed reorganization, stunned by the artificial surprise of the June invasion and thrown against the attacker under an unrealistic comprehension of reality could barely keep from not being annihilated, it made a poor protector of Soviet Union and its populace.
The catastrophic defeat of the Soviet Union early in the war was to a large extent self-inflicted. Advantages the USSR held over competing powers were negated by its own leadership. Softening up the Red Army for Hitler, providing him with allies, supplying his industries, and gifting the German army the element of surprise were blunders that cost millions of lives. The enormity of war death and suffering in the Soviet Union was as much a consequence of incompetence and paranoia of the Soviet leadership as of the invader.
In the end, the invader was pushed back and vanquished through the superhuman effort on the part of the Soviet people, of the factory worker, the Red Army man, and the partisan alike. The reason this effort needed to be so enormous was because it needed to not only drive back the Germans, but also make up for the failings of the Soviet state. The Soviet people had to fight the war in the worst of circumstances, stuck between the hammer of Nazi invasion and the anvil of Soviet arbitrariness and repression and suffered accordingly.
What scholars easily agree on is that for all its other faults the Soviet system was without equal in mobilization ability which ultimately saved it. Mobilization ability, however, is nothing more than the ability of the state to place its populace between itself and its enemies. In demanding ever more sacrifices from its people to make up for its incompetence Stalin’s USSR was indeed expert.
In the Soviet Union, more of life went through the state than anywhere else in the world, and still the state in a spectacular manner failed to protect its people against a power that could approximate neither the size of its armed forces nor the size of its military production. That the country in the ensuing struggle nonetheless emerged victorious is a testament to the spirit and sacrifice of the Soviet people. That this person needed to bear such gruesome losses to do so, is a condemnation of the Soviet state that had nearly brought about its downfall and extinction.
i Michael Ellman and S. Maksudov, Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note – Europe Asia Studies, July 1994
ii Velikaya Otechestvennaya vojna Sovetskogo Soyuza 1941—1945: Kratkaya istoriya (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1984), 497
iii Soviet territory under Axis control in November 1942 was home to 45% of USSR’s populuation pre-war. The number of people under occupation is this figure less evacuees (16.5 million) and conscripts.
iv In 1935 France and the Soviet Union concluded a pact of mutual assistance meant to contain Germany.
v A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (1961; reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 128
vi Ibid., 172, 177
vii David M. Glantz, Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 294
viii Roger R. Reese, Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers: A Social History of the Red Army, 1925-1941 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 32-33
ix Ibid., 100-130
x Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 34
xi Ibid., 160
xii Roger R. Reese, Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917-1991 (London and New York: Routledge, 200), 99
xiii Reese, The Soviet Military Experience, 95 and Reese, Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers, 174, 179
xiv Reese, The Soviet Military Experience, 95
xv Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 26, 189
xvi Reese, The Soviet Military Experience, 87
xvii Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 31-33
xviii David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 37
xix Richard W. Harrison Architect of Soviet victory: The Life and Theories of G.S. Isserson (Jefferson and London, McFarland & Company, 2010), 194, 199
xx Glantz, House, When Titans Clashed, 44
xxi Reese, Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers, 166
xxii David M. Glantz, Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941 (Strout: Tempus Publishing, 2001), 14
xxiii Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 233-246
xxiv Ibid., 246, 256 and Glantz, Barbarossa, 30
xxv Ibid., 30-31
xxvi Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 256
xxvii Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), 14-16
xxviii Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 295
xxix Pripet Marshes are wetlands covering nearly 100.000 square kilometers in southern Belarus and northern Ukraine.
xxx Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 90-93
xxxi Ibid., 129
xxxii Ibid 134-135, 137 and Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers, 199
xxxiii Glantz, Barbarossa, 59
xxxiv G.F. Krivosheev, Soviet Casulties and Combat Losses in the Twentieh Century (Pennsylvania, Stackpole Books, 1997), 93