Russia Prelude to War
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
When German troops invaded Poland, the Soviet Union was ill prepared to fight a major war. Although military expenditures had increased dramatically during the 1930s and the standing army was expanded in 1939, Soviet weaponry was inferior to that of the German army. More important, eight of the nation's top military leaders, including Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskiy, had been executed in 1937 in the course of Stalin's purges; thus the armed forces' morale and effectiveness were diminished. The time gained through the pact with the Nazis was therefore critical to the recovery of Soviet defenses, particularly because Hitler's forces had overrun much of Western Europe by the summer of 1940. To strengthen its western frontier, the Soviet Union quickly secured the territory located in its sphere of interest. Soviet forces seized eastern Poland in September 1939; entered Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in October 1939; and seized the Romanian territories of Bessarabia (later incorporated into the Moldavian Republic) and northern Bukovina (later added to the Ukrainian Republic) in June 1940. Only Finland resisted Stalin's program of expansion, first by refusing to cede territory and then by putting up a determined defense along the Mannerheim Line when the Red Army invaded in November 1939. The Soviet-Finnish War (also known as the Winter War) of 1939-40 exposed grave deficiencies in Soviet military capabilities, which Hitler undoubtedly noted.
As the European war continued and the theaters of the conflict widened, Hitler began to chafe under his pact with the Soviet Union. The German dictator refused to grant Stalin a free hand in the Balkans, instead moving the German forces deeper into Eastern Europe and strengthening his ties with Finland. Hitler thus prepared for war against the Soviet Union under a plan that he officially approved in December 1940. At this point, however, Stalin still apparently believed that the Soviet Union could avert war by appeasing Germany. To achieve this goal, regular shipments of Soviet materials to Germany continued, and the Soviet armed forces were kept at a low stage of readiness. But despite Stalin's efforts to mollify Hitler, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union just as 180 German divisions swept across the border early on the morning of June 22, 1941.
The Great Patriotic War
The German blitzkrieg, known as Operation Barbarossa, nearly succeeded in breaking the Soviet Union in the months that followed. Caught unprepared, the Soviet forces lost whole armies and vast quantities of equipment to the German onslaught in the first weeks of the war. By November the German army had seized the Ukrainian Republic, besieged Leningrad, the Soviet Union's second largest city, and threatened Moscow itself (see fig. 5). The Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Union and then Russia have called that phase of World War II, thus began inauspiciously for the Soviet Union.
By the end of 1941, however, the German forces had lost their momentum. German movements were increasingly restricted by harsh winter weather, attacks from bands of partisans, and difficulties in maintaining overextended supply lines. At the same time, the Red Army, after recovering from the initial blow, launched its first counterattacks against the invaders in December. To ensure the army's ability to fight the war, the Soviet authorities moved thousands of factories and their key personnel from the war zone to the interior of the country--often to Central Asia--where the plants began producing war matériel. Finally, the country was bolstered by the prospect of receiving assistance from Britain and the United States.
After a lull in active hostilities during the winter of 1941-42, the German army renewed its offensive, scoring a number of victories in the Ukrainian Republic, Crimea, and southern Russia in the first half of 1942. Then, in an effort to gain control of the lower Volga River region, the German forces attempted to capture the city of Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd) on the west bank of the river. Here, Soviet forces put up fierce resistance even after the Germans had reduced the city to rubble. Finally, Soviet forces led by General Georgiy Zhukov surrounded the German attackers and forced their surrender in February 1943. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad proved decisive; after losing this battle, the Germans lacked the strength to sustain their offensive operations against the Soviet Union.
After Stalingrad, the Soviet Union held the initiative for the rest of the war. By the end of 1943, the Red Army had broken through the German siege of Leningrad and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. By the end of 1944, the front had moved beyond the 1939 Soviet frontiers into Eastern Europe. With a decisive superiority in troops and weaponry, Soviet forces drove into eastern Germany, capturing Berlin in May 1945. The war with Germany thus ended triumphantly for the Soviet Union.
In gaining the victory, the Soviet government had to rely on the support of the people. To increase popular enthusiasm for the war, Stalin reshaped his domestic policies to heighten patriotic spirit. Nationalistic slogans replaced much of the communist rhetoric in official pronouncements and the mass media. Active persecution of religion ceased, and in 1943 Stalin allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to name a patriarch (see Glossary) after the office had stood vacant for nearly two decades. In the countryside, authorities permitted greater freedom on the collective farms. Harsh German rule in the occupied territories also aided the Soviet cause. Nazi administrators of conquered Soviet territories made little attempt to exploit the population's dissatisfaction with Soviet political and economic policies. Instead, the Nazis preserved the collective farm system, systematically carried out genocidal policies against Jews, and deported others (mainly Ukrainians) to work in Germany. Given these circumstances, the great majority of the Soviet people chose to fight and work on their country's behalf, thus ensuring the regime's survival.
The war with Germany also brought about a temporary alliance with the two greatest powers in the "imperialist camp," namely Britain and the United States. Despite deep-seated mistrust between the Western democracies and the Soviet state, the demands of war made cooperation critical. The Soviet Union benefited from shipments of weaponry and equipment from the Western allies; during the course of the war, the United States alone furnished supplies worth more than US$11 billion. At the same time, by engaging considerable German resources, the Soviet Union gave the United States and Britain time to prepare to invade German-occupied Western Europe.
Relations began to sour, however, when the war turned in the Allies' favor. The postponement of the European invasion to June 1944 became a source of irritation to Stalin, whose country meanwhile bore the brunt of the struggle against Germany. Then, as Soviet armies pushed into Eastern Europe, the question of the postwar order increased the friction within the coalition. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin clashed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill over Stalin's plans to extend Soviet influence to Poland after the war. At the same time, however, Stalin promised to join the war against Japan ninety days after Germany had been defeated. Breaking the neutrality pact that the Soviet Union had concluded with Japan in April 1941, the Red Army entered the war in East Asia several days before Japan surrendered in August 1945. Now, with all common enemies defeated, little remained to preserve the alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union.
The end of World War II saw the Soviet Union emerge as one of the world's two great military powers. Its battle-tested forces occupied most of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had won island holdings from Japan and further concessions from Finland (which had joined Germany in invading the Soviet Union in 1941) in addition to the territories seized as a consequence of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. But these achievements came at a high cost. An estimated 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians perished in the war, the heaviest loss of life of any of the combatant countries. The war also inflicted severe material losses throughout the vast territory that had been included in the war zone. The suffering and losses resulting from the war made a lasting impression on the Soviet people and leaders that influenced their behavior in the postwar era.
Data as of July 1996
NOTE: The information regarding Russia on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Russia Prelude to War information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Russia Prelude to War should be addressed to the Library of Congress.