Jars Balan, Edmonton.
Given that Russia pulled out all the stops in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of Second World War with a massive spectacle, speeches, and a torrent of propaganda, it is worth reflecting on the record of the Soviet Union in connection with the war, and Moscow’s version of that history.
There is no doubt that the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union suffered enormous losses due to Nazi aggression and the oppressive occupation regimes established by the Germans. Nor is there any question that the Red Army contributed greatly to rolling back the territorial gains made by German forces in the early part of the war, and to the ultimate defeat of the Axis Powers. But the role of the Soviet Union in the war is rather different than the one portrayed in official Soviet and Russian accounts of “The Great Patriotic War.”
To begin with, while Soviet Communism was an ideological foe of German and Italian fascism, Stalin was not above collaborating with his enemies when it suited Russia’s domestic and foreign policy interests. Thus, the Soviets, despite their embargo against dealing with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, engaged in trade with both dictators during the 1930s. The Kremlin, through the Communist International also reined in, undermined, and in some cases betrayed, Communist Parties abroad when it served Moscow’s international political agenda.
Of course, Stalin’s biggest betrayal was the secret pact that his government negotiated with Germany unleashing the September 1939 invasion and dismemberment of Poland that began the Second World War. After jointly crushing the Poles, the Soviet Union helped to provision the Nazi war machine for its assault on Western Europe, and even shared plans for how to construct concentration camps and extract hard labour from inmates with minimal caloric input – knowledge derived from almost two decades of experience in the Gulag. Russian textbooks ignore or downplay these unpleasant truths and characterize the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement as a “tactical” move necessary to buy time for Russia to prepare for war. Little or nothing is ever said about how Stalin refused to believe detailed intelligence reports about the imminent invasion of the Germans. Consequently, despite having the largest army and air force on the eve of the war, and a centrally planned military economy from the early 1930s, the Soviets were ill-prepared to meet the Nazi onslaught, a situation further aggravated by Stalin’s sweeping purges of Red Army commanders between 1937-41.
Much is made by Kremlin propaganda of the horrific toll taken by the war, which is estimated to have killed nearly 27 million Soviet citizens. Among the latter, Belarus lost a quarter of its population, Ukraine over 16%, and Russia almost 13%, although the numbers are often attributed to “Russian” dead. Regardless, millions of those who perished did so unnecessarily as victims of Stalin’s utter ruthlessness, his military incompetence, and his callous disregard for how many lives it cost to achieve his objectives.
Many of those thrown into combat in the Red Army had only minimal training and were poorly equipped. Not only that, they were ordered to never give an inch, and shot by commissars if they attempted to retreat – essentially sacrificed instead of being allowed to regroup for a counter-attack. Some of those dispatched to the front were in “punitive battalions” comprised of common criminals and political prisoners treated as cannon-fodder for the Germans to expend their ammunition on. Others, were males between the ages of 15 and 60 conscripted and sent into battle, sometimes without weapons (they were told to get them from dead Germans), because they were from lands “liberated” during the Soviet counteroffensive. Soviet strategy had been to allow the Germans to occupy Ukraine and Belarus, which were subjected to a scorched earth policy, so as to over-extend German armed forces. The abandoned civilian population along with solders hiding in their midst were subsequently regarded as traitors because they had escaped capture or death to live under brutal Nazi occupation.
Then there was the Soviet advance towards Germany, which paused outside Warsaw as the Germans liquidated the Warsaw ghetto. Months later, the Red Army went on a sanctioned mass rape and looting of Germany in a barbaric act of revenge. While atrocities were committed by all sides during the war, including the Western Allies, Soviet crimes, especially in Berlin, were on an unprecedented scale and remain a black mark on the “victory” over fascism.
It is also rarely mentioned that after the war the Soviets summarily deported hundreds of thousands to Siberia merely because that they been taken to Germany to work as forced labourers. Still others had surrendered and managed to survive German imprisonment, where it is estimated that two million Red Army POWs were starved, beaten, or worked to death.
All of this is worth remembering as President Putin boasts about Russia’s liberation of Europe from fascism, and proclaims that his government is continuing the fight against the alleged “fascist” junta in Kyiv.
Jars Balan is a researcher with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.
A modified version of this article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on May 11, 2015.