The Great Patriotic War and the Cold War, 1941–1953

The Soviet Union may have lost twenty-seven million people during the Second World War. Most of them can be blamed on Adolf Hitler and his murderous hordes, who invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Stalin’s Red Army purges, his obstinate refusal to accept intelligence about an impending German invasion in the spring of 1941, and his foolish strategic decisions after war broke out caused the death rate to be much higher than necessary, however. Not without reason, some critics have argued that Stalin could have prevented this catastrophic tragedy. In the early 1930s, the Soviet leaders ordered the German Communist Party to reject any political alliance with the German Social Democrats; this move paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power.

Despite Stalin’s blundering, the war was nonetheless won by the Soviet armed forces, and by its end the Soviet Union and the United States seemed the only powerful states left standing in the world (when Great Britain, economically crippled, became embroiled in extricating itself from its vast colonial empire). Although Soviet leaders had always admired the U.S. economic might and technological ability, they saw the United States as the epitome of capitalism. Because of that perception, as well as the hostile view of Stalin’s empire harbored by most American politicians, the wartime alliance was doomed once peace descended on Europe and Asia in 1945. Within a mere three years, the two wartime allies had become each other’s inveterate foes in a Cold War, which threatened to become hot at any moment.


When war broke out in 1939 in Europe, Stalin believed he had outfoxed the capitalist leaderships of France, Britain, and Nazi Germany, setting them against each other. According to his thinking, the war was the logical outcome of capitalist contradictions. In his Marxist worldview, he made little distinction between the three countries, since parliamentary democracy was just as much as fascism a bourgeois sham. He hoped that the Western powers would exhaust themselves fighting each other, while he kept his powder dry. In a sense, Stalin was right in believing that the war would lay waste to the three Great Powers of Europe. The French and British overseas empires proved unsustainable, after the moral abyss of Nazi-ruled Europe had put paid to Western concepts of “civilized Europe” and the war effort had emptied the imperial coffers. Thus, the Western Europeans were forced to grant independence to their colonies decades before the Russians had to give up most of theirs between 1988 and 1992. But despite the war’s ultimate outcome of the fall of France, Britain, and Germany as Great Powers, Stalin did come to rue the absurd confidence he developed in his ability to manipulate the capitalist countries and to predict Hitler’s every move. Dismissing the threat of a German invasion in 1941 as nonsense, Stalin’s lack of preparation for the Nazi invasion had devastating consequences for the Soviet population. Perhaps one-sixth of them died between June 1941 and September 1945.


Historians these days no longer adhere to the idea that the Second World War began with the Nazi invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Instead, many argue that the conflict began with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Certainly, in the Soviet case that might be a good point to start, for the Red Army fought two major battles with the Japanese at Khalkin Gol and Lake Khasan in 1938 and 1939, even if both countries remained formally at peace. In some ways, too, the Spanish Civil War that raged from 1936 to 1939 was a prologue for the carnage in Europe. The war in Spain was in part a proxy war, in which one side (the democratic-republican) received military support from the USSR, while its opponent, the insurgent military-fascist coalition under General Francisco Franco, was (more substantially) aided by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Stalin’s support for the Spanish Republic was never enthusiastic, even after he had received the Spanish gold reserve for safekeeping. Already then he was suspicious of the motives of France and the United Kingdom, whose governments found pathetic excuses not to support Spain’s legitimately elected government against Franco’s hordes. Marxism-Leninism (or Stalinism) was of course an already morbidly suspicious creed, as we saw, and its paranoia about capitalist collusion was fed by inaction of the Western democracies in the Spanish Civil War.


Figure 8.1. Molotov signs Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, August 1939 (Picture Collection, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

Increasing Stalin’s apprehension about their motives, at the Munich Conference in September 1938 the French and British prime ministers conceded parts of independent Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The German dictator claimed that the territory he demanded was populated primarily by German speakers, which was true; the elevated region in which they resided, however, was the key strategic area from which the Czechoslovak government planned to defend its country in case of a foreign attack. With a stroke of the pen at Munich, this Czechoslovak defense was erased. Neither Czechoslovak nor Soviet leaders had been invited to the Munich Conference. And its agreement negated the military alliance that the USSR and France had concluded to defend Czechoslovakia in 1935. Stalin’s trust in the Western powers further diminished.

In 1939, relations between Nazi Germany and France and Britain rapidly deteriorated. In the spring, Hitler helped himself to the defenseless Czech plain and made Slovakia into an independent satellite state; he made a sidestep by taking over a coastal part of helpless Lithuania (the Klaipeda, or Memel, area). He also began to utter threatening sounds toward Poland, demanding the territory that separated eastern from western Prussia (the so-called Polish Corridor). The Polish government was caught between a rock and a hard place: most of the members of its military dictatorship had personally fought the Soviets in 1919–1920 and saw no reason to trust Stalin’s good faith any more than Hitler’s. The Soviets had claims on eastern Poland, on the grounds that the majority of the population in this region was Belarusyn and Ukrainian (which means that the residents spoke those languages as their mother tongues) rather than Polish. In April, a desperate Poland gained the Western democracies’ guarantee that, if it were attacked by Nazi Germany, they would declare war on the Reich. Stalin now faced a complicated situation. It did seem, however, that if he played his cards right, the Soviet Union could recover some of the substantial territory lost in the chaos of the Russian Civil War.

By 1939, Stalin had abandoned any reliance on the Comintern as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. It had enjoyed no success in fostering Communist revolutions, and its existence riled most governments. More useful to him was the foreign branch of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). It was rather skillful at gathering crucial intelligence, but its foreign-espionage branch had been gutted in the Great Terror. In addition, some of its efforts abroad were frivolously wasteful, such as the operations hunting down Soviet enemies like Trotsky and his family. Trotsky was finally murdered in Mexico City in August 1940. But despite the purges of NKVD ranks in the Great Terror and the distraction provided by the organization of Trotsky’s assassination, Soviet agents continued to gather accurate information about Nazi plans. Crucially, however, Stalin was inclined to disbelieve unwelcome information he received from Soviet agents, which was to have tragic consequences.

Downplaying the Comintern’s existence also meant that Stalin began to rely more and more on old-fashioned diplomacy. His ideas about the conduct of Soviet foreign policy took on a rather traditional shape. Perhaps, since he was now in his sixties and a child of the nineteenth century, he unwittingly reverted to the principles and goals of the tsarist diplomatic and imperialist game before 1914; perhaps he was fully aware of using this blueprint. Regardless of his aims and motivations, he did have to deflect any involvement of his country in a major war in 1939. First, the USSR had undergone a decade of epochal change from which the dust had not yet settled. Second, Stalin had himself undermined his country’s defense by liquidating the majority of the senior army officers during the Great Terror. Their successors were young and unproven, even if a few gained some experience fighting the Japanese in 1938 and 1939.

It is thus no great surprise that Stalin in the summer of 1939 rejected Western overtures to join their guarantee to Poland and instead struck a deal with Hitler. France and Britain had little to offer the Soviet dictator and, possibly, preferred to have the USSR fight their war against Hitler. After all, the Soviet Union bordered Poland and could therefore much more readily than the Western powers offer concrete military support to the Poles. In contrast to the Western powers’ ostensibly self-serving attitude, the Führer was willing to make the far-reaching territorial concessions that Stalin sought, once Hitler realized that the Soviets were willing to deal. Although the territorial barter remained secret, in August 1939 the formal announcement of a Non-Aggression Pact astounded a world that believed Nazis and Communists were each other’s archenemies.1

One puzzle remains in this otherwise logical lead-up (from the Soviet viewpoint) to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (which was named after the foreign ministers of both countries). The dissolution of Poland to which Hitler and Stalin agreed created a very long common border between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that did not exist before. This allowed a Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union along a very lengthy front, as did indeed materialize in June 1941. Perhaps Stalin would have been better off after all in joining the tepid French and British instead in 1939. Having read Mein Kampf, Stalin knew of Hitler’s desire to destroy the Soviet Union: why did Stalin in 1939 make it easier for the Germans to invade the Soviet Union by acquiring a lengthy border with the Reich that had not existed before?


The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allowed Hitler to move his forces into Poland on 1 September 1939 without any fear of having to face the Soviet army as well on the battlefield. On 17 September, Soviet troops advanced into eastern Poland without encountering resistance. Polish army units were interned. Soon Nazi and Soviet troops shook hands. The occupation was celebrated in the Soviet papers, in film, and on radio as the reunification of the Ukrainian and Belarusyn nations and a liberation of their workers and peasants from Polish aristocratic oppression. In this newly annexed territory, the NKVD immediately began to arrest those whose support for the Soviet cause might be dubious. By mid-October, once western Poland was under firm German control, Stalin began to contemplate the execution of further territorial moves that Hitler had allowed him under the terms of the Non-Aggression Pact.

Pressure was applied on Finland to surrender border territory near Leningrad. But the Finns refused to budge. In late November 1939, Soviet forces crossed into Finnish territory, allegedly provoked by Finns, in a cheap Soviet imitation of the Nazi excuse to invade Poland. Perhaps Stalin should have studied the rather messy advance of his own troops into Poland instead of copying Nazi stunts, since his army proved unprepared for the stubborn Finnish resistance and the merciless climate in which it had to operate. Finland, with a population that amounted to 1.5 percent of the Soviet population, checked the Soviet military progress until February 1940. Red Army losses were so great that Stalin called off pursuing the Finns after a breakthrough of Finnish defensive lines was finally accomplished. Stalin had to settle for a minor territorial gain at Finnish expense in the peace treaty that ended this Winter War in March 1940.

For reasons that have never been quite explained, somewhere in the weeks following the peace with Finland in March 1940, Stalin ordered Lavrentii Beria to have all Polish officers executed who after the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland had been interned. Some fifteen thousand were shot at Katyn, Starobel'sk, and Mednoe in April 1940. Most of these officers were reservists who had occupied positions of middle-level leadership in Polish society (lawyers, doctors, teachers, and so on) and might become leaders of a Polish nationalist resistance against the Soviet occupiers.

There was, however, no chance in the spring of 1940 that anything of an anti-Soviet movement would emerge in the former eastern Poland. And besides, the officers were in Soviet confinement. Did Stalin already then believe that Poland would eventually fall within the Soviet orbit and want to preempt any opposition arising against a Communist regime in Poland? The mass murder can then be seen as another preventative measure: Stalin had now gotten used to the habit of killing anyone who might at some point in the future oppose him.

From early April to mid-June 1940, meanwhile, Hitler’s soldiers conquered with ease Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and most of France. Far from engaging in any exhaustive internecine capitalist conflict, the Germans effected their campaigns without encountering much resistance. Stalin took fright at the apparent ease with which Hitler had rolled westward and now decided to press his luck. He first forced the Baltic countries to surrender. Without a shot having been fired, the countries’ new Soviet bosses saluted Red Army victory parades in the Baltic capitals in June 1940. Romania, a reluctant ally of Germany, was forced to give up most of Moldavia (Bessarabia) in August, while the Luftwaffe was pounding England in the Battle of Britain. The German air war against Britain was somewhat of a desultory affair, a fact that has caused some historians to argue that Hitler only tried to soften up the British. He had reserved a place in his new World Order for these Anglo-Saxons, whom he admired as rulers of a vast overseas empire. No such place was set aside for the Soviet Union in the long term.

In November 1940, Molotov visited Berlin to appease the growing German complaints about the somewhat overbearing Soviet behavior in East-Central Europe. The Germans refused any further concessions to the Soviets in Europe, suggesting flippantly that the USSR should move toward British India. Soon after this visit, Hitler gave the green light to develop a comprehensive plan for the invasion of the Soviet Union, which came to be known as Operation Barbarossa.


Military historians suggest that Hitler lost several crucial weeks in the spring of 1941. The German dictator had to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union in order to subjugate Yugoslavia (which had left the Nazi camp) and Greece (where an Italian invasion had gone awry). Rather than in early May 1941, as was the original plan, the Nazis attacked on 22 June, the very same day on which in 1812 the emperor Napoleon had invaded tsarist Russia. Even with the aid of the mechanized equipment that the French emperor had lacked, the German advance was not to proceed fast enough over the course of the next months. The Germans failed to encircle and capture Moscow before first the muddy fall (rasputitsa) and then the bone-chilling winter descended on the Eastern European plains. But less cautious than Mikhail Kutuzov and Aleksandr I, Stalin traded blunders with Hitler in the immediate lead-up to the war and in the first year of its unfolding. The Soviet Union then went on to win the war because Stalin was eventually prepared to listen to the advice of his military brass, whereas the longer the war lasted, Hitler listened less and less to his generals.

One could argue, however, that the postponement of Operation Barbarossa until 22 June 1941 may have been to Hitler’s advantage. There is evidence that Stalin did not discount the chances of a German invasion until the middle of spring in 1941. Once an invasion did not occur at the expected moment (mid-May at the latest), he seems to have become increasingly confident that nothing was to happen during that year. An invasion that began at the start of summer, he concluded, would not have sufficient time to penetrate deeply enough into Soviet territory. Stalin somehow expected the Germans to draw the same conclusion and postpone their invasion to 1942. Unfortunately, an impatient Hitler thought otherwise.

Stalin thus ordered in the spring of 1941 to continue to move the primary Soviet defensive line of fortifications westward, closer to the new border. It might have been better instead to shore up the previous line located along the pre-September 1939 border. In case of a German invasion, the former eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic region could then first be ceded to the Nazis, who would have subsequently slammed into this defensive line, at a time when they had traversed considerable territory. But Stalin was clearly unconcerned: another sign of his careless attitude was the Soviet airplanes, waiting to be painted, sitting out on the airfields on 22 June. They were only in the process of being camouflaged. And on the day before the German-led forces crossed the Soviet border, he granted his ailing favorite Andrei Zhdanov, the party’s propaganda chief and boss of the crucial strategic region of Leningrad, leave to recover at a spa in the Caucasus.

The Soviet surprise at the German attack of 22 June was almost total. At first, Stalin refused to believe the news that an invasion had begun, and for some hours commanders of border units lacked orders to fire back. Most Soviet airplanes were destroyed while parked outside on their airfields. Whole divisions and armies were encircled by German pincher movements when, in subsequent weeks, Stalin refused to accept that the Nazi forces advanced at lightning speed. By early September, the Germans (and Finns and Romanians, who had joined them) reached the outskirts of Kyiv and Leningrad. The commander of the central front, Dmitrii Pavlov (1897–1941), committed suicide in August, while some of his staff was arrested for criminal incompetence. Kyiv fell soon after the Germans reached it.

By the time of the conquest of the Ukrainian capital and the beginning of the German siege of Leningrad, Hitler had decided to execute his plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews. Behind the advancing armies, special detachments of SS (Schützstaffel, the paramilitary Nazi elite force), aided by local guides, formed so-called Einsatzgruppen, which began to round up Jews and execute them to the last person. At Kyiv, all Jews who had failed to escape with the retreating Red Army were rounded up and machine-gunned at the edge of the ravine of Babi Yar. Thirty thousand bodies piled up there in a matter of days in September 1941. Eventually, at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, the SS decided on a more clinical method to accomplish the so-called Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe. Gas chambers were constructed in extermination camps, which were equipped with ovens to dispatch the bodies of the victims. Oddly, the first victims on whom the gas chambers were tried out at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oswieçim, near Krakow), the largest death camp, were several thousand Soviet prisoners of war (POWs).

Hitler could proceed so brutally against the Soviets because their government had not joined the International Red Cross. It had therefore forfeited any authority to monitor German compliance with the Geneva Conventions regarding the humane treatment of POWs. Indeed, Stalin considered the five or six million POWs who surrendered to the Nazi-led forces as cowardly traitors. He did not care about their fate and remained unmoved when he received word that his eldest son had been shot trying to escape from a German POW camp.


Despite the magnitude of the Soviet defeats, the Red Army somehow managed to wage a spirited fight (echoing its tsarist counterpart in the First World War). In the early days of the war, even Stalin himself despaired and retreated briefly to one of his dachas near Moscow. According to one of his cronies, when Stalin’s comrades in arms came to visit him to persuade him to return to his desk in the Kremlin, the dictator was relieved to find out that they had not come to arrest him. His first radio speech after the war’s outbreak (not delivered until 3 July 1941!) betrayed some of this temporary insecurity as he modestly addressed his listeners as his “brothers and sisters.”

The Germans and Finns failed to capture Leningrad in early September, even when they encircled the city except for a corridor linking it to Lake Ladoga. They ended offensive operations at the second-largest Soviet city because they were convinced that the city’s surrender would follow its isolation from the rest of Russia. Bereft of food reserves because of German bombardments and poor preparation, Leningrad could for a long while be supplied only across the water of Lake Ladoga. Even that route became impassable for many weeks in the fall of 1941, before the ice on the lake had frozen solidly enough to send trucks across it. From early December 1941 onward, famine laid waste to the city, and during the next half year at least one million inhabitants died of hunger. Leningrad, however, did not surrender.

Apart from being checked at Leningrad, the Nazi forces also met determined Soviet resistance elsewhere. This resolve had not been anticipated by Hitler, who believed the Soviet Union to be a house of cards. Competent commanders began to replace the bumbling types who had often led the Soviet army in the first days of the war. While it took some time for the Soviet air force to recover from the devastation at the very outset of the war, in quantity and quality Soviet tanks and artillery proved a match for their German counterparts. Above all, the Soviet population proved capable of a superhuman effort in what now began to be called the Great Patriotic War. Apart from desperate fighting at the front, the Soviet industrial plant was with considerable success evacuated eastward to the Urals and Siberia and rebuilt there. Women “manned” the posts left open in the defense factories by those who departed for the front, and thousands of women saw active duty in the armed forces. In German-occupied territory, a growing partisan movement sabotaged German supply lines.

These efforts proved stubborn enough to slow down the German advance in the fall of 1941, even if on occasion some luck aided the Soviets as well. Then the autumn rains turned much of the terrain into deep mud, which further hindered German progress. By late November 1941, the temperature along the front fell to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. German equipment began to malfunction when exposed to such extreme cold, and German soldiers lacked proper winter dress. German planes flew over Moscow, and artillery exchanges could be heard in the center of the city, but the German forces never came closer than some twenty miles from the capital. Suddenly, in early December, they were faced with several fresh Soviet divisions, which Stalin had transferred by rail from the Far East.

This reinforcement had been made possible because of the Japanese refusal to come to the aid of their German allies. In April 1941, Japanese foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka (1880–1946) had visited Moscow in an effort to normalize the relations between the two countries. The negotiations were concluded to the satisfaction of both sides, and Stalin was so delighted that he made the unusual move to say good-bye personally to Matsuoka at the railway station. In the course of the fall of 1941, it became clear that Japan was indeed not going to launch another attack on the USSR. Thus, even before Pearl Harbor, Stalin ordered some of his Siberian divisions to redeploy in Europe.

The Battle of Moscow raged until February 1942 and was the first real setback for the Germans in the Second World War. Soviet success was modest, but the Germans were pushed back several tens of miles along a fairly broad front. The year 1942 saw renewed German advances, predominantly along the southern front, with German troops reaching the mountains of the Caucasus. In August, German forces reached the city of Stalingrad on the Volga. Its fall might enable the Germans to execute a pincer movement that would meet behind Moscow. Stalingrad, however, was stubbornly defended by the Soviets. Gradually, Soviet units gained the upper hand in this battle, supported by an industrial juggernaut that turned out ever more tanks and airplanes, to which the Germans had no answer. The Soviets, too, were aided by the many convoys that reached Murmansk and Arkhangel'sk with supplies (especially of American-made half-tracks and trucks) under the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement (which was concluded with the United States even before Pearl Harbor). Stalin, who hosted British prime minister Winston Churchill for the first time in Moscow in 1942, was, however, displeased by the Anglo-American inability to open a second front in Western Europe. He had to wait until June 1944 before the Western Allies landed in Normandy and thus penetrated German-occupied Europe. True to form, Stalin suspected deliberate capitalist malingering.


In January 1943, it became apparent that Soviet forces had encircled the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Hitler had refused to allow its commander Friedrich von Paulus to withdraw his forces in time. By early February, German and Romanian forces surrendered, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers became Soviet POWs. The Soviet armies now began to drive the Germans back to their homeland. During 1943, the Germans slowly retreated. The massive tank battle at Kursk in July was a signal Soviet victory. By January 1944, Soviet forces reestablished a corridor connecting the rest of the country by land with Leningrad. Ukraine was liberated by the early fall. Stalin ordered a pause to regroup before the final assault on the Reich. This halting of the advance coincided with an uprising by Polish nationalists in Warsaw. Soviet troops stood idly by. They saw through their binoculars how SS detachments reduced the Polish capital to ruins and exterminated the Polish resistance. This Soviet inaction has been interpreted as another sign of Stalin’s strategy to sabotage the formation of a strong and independent, “bourgeois,” government leading a resurrected postwar Poland. He preferred to deal with the government of Soviet straw men he had organized in the summer of 1944, the so-called Lublin Committee. These Polish “fellow travelers” did not raise awkward questions about the mass graves discovered at Katyn in 1943. There, on invitation of the Nazis, a neutral Red Cross investigative commission had used forensic evidence to determine that the bodies dressed in Polish uniforms were of people killed in 1940, long before Barbarossa unfolded.

Apart from trouble brewing in Poland, Stalin also faced opposition to the reimposition of Soviet power in the USSR. He interpreted information about the collaboration with the Nazi cause by certain members of ethnic groups as if their entire community had been pro-Nazi. Stalin therefore had already in 1943 ordered the deportation of ethnocultural groups thus identified. These deportations assumed massive forms: for example, a whole NKVD division (some sixty thousand troops) deported the several hundreds of thousands of Chechens from the Caucasus to special settlements in Central Asia. The Crimean Tatars were sent eastward in 1944. In western Ukraine and the Baltic states, meanwhile, guerrilla warfare against the Soviets persisted until 1948, three years after the Nazi collapse. The Soviets fought the Ukrainian and Baltic partisans with massive NKVD-led military operations. Many of the captured “bandits” were executed, but thousands were arrested and sent to labor camps. There they were to form an unruly lot, who on several occasions staged revolts in the Gulag.

Meanwhile, Stalin tried to maneuver on the diplomatic front to gain maximum geopolitical advantage out of a war that had been so extraordinarily costly to his subjects. After the preliminary talks with Churchill, the Big Three (including U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt) met at Teheran (Iran) in 1943 to discuss the pursuit of the war (including that against Japan) and the postwar settlement that was to follow the conclusion of hostilities. At Teheran and the later conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, Stalin’s secret police seems to have rigged the premises of the Western Allies with ample listening devices. It is not clear if Churchill and Roosevelt realized this. But even if they did, it did not change the substance of their arguments very much. Anglo-Americans and Soviets treated each other with suspicion.

In the discussions between the Big Three, Stalin behaved as if he was negotiating at a stand on a Russian bazar (open-air market). He quasi-generously suggested that he was perfectly willing to join the proposed United Nations if he would receive territory in exchange and was allowed to expand the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe and Asia. In another cheap token of his supposed good faith, Stalin disbanded the Comintern in 1943. The organization had outlasted its utility a long time before. President Roosevelt was nonetheless impressed.

A side deal struck in 1944 between Stalin and Churchill in Moscow combined with the military situation on the ground to determine the postwar settlement in East-Central Europe. The British prime minister was willing to forego any say in the fate of Romania and Bulgaria, and to some extent of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, if the Soviets allowed the British to control Greece. The Baltic countries were not even mentioned by Churchill: it was a foregone conclusion that the USSR was allowed to reincorporate them. Poland, however, remained a delicate matter, for the British had gone to war in defense of its independence. Stalin continued for a while to communicate with the official Polish government-in-exile, which resided in London. He maintained the mien of an accommodating fellow until the end of the war in Europe. Probably because it had in effect little strategic significance, the Soviets treated defeated Finland mildly after it surrendered in the summer of 1944. In another gesture to the Western allies of Soviet goodwill, Finland was not strong-armed into becoming a Soviet satellite.

Stalin also had some vague designs on a variety of western Asian countries, but developments soon after the war appear to indicate that he considered them mere bargaining chips, like Finland. Thus, cautious Soviet moves to perpetuate a presence in Iran or take over part of Turkey were halted by about 1947. No attempt was made to increase Soviet influence in Afghanistan, although, after the British retreat from India and Pakistan in 1947, it began to slowly gravitate toward the Soviet orbit. In China, a sort of Soviet protectorate over Xinjiang province and Inner Mongolia was established in 1945, while the Red Army occupied Manchuria during a successful campaign against the Japanese in a mere few weeks in August 1945 (on the day the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, the Soviets invaded Japanese-held Manchuria). The Soviets, too, were given the supervision over northern Korea after the Japanese withdrawal there.

It was the Soviet army rather than the Anglo-American military that occupied Berlin in early May 1945, to the dismay of Winston Churchill, a lifelong foe of Communism. At Potsdam in the summer, the Big Three decided that Germany and Austria were each to be divided into four occupation zones (as were their two capitals, Berlin and Vienna). Churchill insisted on giving France, led by General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), a place at the victors’ table. France, too, together with China, became a permanent member of the UN Security Council, enjoying veto power. Stalin was not unduly disturbed by all of this: he appears to have thought that the occupation of Germany would not last very long and that the country was to become once more a great industrial power in the near future. At first, he did not plan for a divided country, as he hoped that the German Communists might come to power in a united Germany. And he had no particular faith in international organizations such as the UN, as he probably remembered the failure of the League of Nations, the Second Socialist International, or the Comintern. Thus, he too did not object when the UN was given its headquarters in the United States.2

In Potsdam in July 1945, Stalin was unpleasantly surprised by news of a successful test of the atomic bomb in the United States, especially when secretary of state James Byrnes began to use the American monopoly on the bomb as a means to gain advantage in the negotiations. Once the devastating consequences of the bomb’s detonation became apparent at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, Stalin ordered his security chief Lavrentii Beria to oversee a Soviet atomic bomb project, using whichever means available to develop a nuclear weapon. Even if Beria used hundreds of thousands of people (many of whom were camp inmates) in this enterprise, he showed his administrative adroitness (and how much espionage, threats, force, and fear may accomplish). In August 1949, a Soviet bomb was successfully detonated, sending shivers throughout the Western world. In hindsight, then, the Potsdam Conference might be seen as the moment when the Cold War began, even if the causes of the Cold War can be traced all the way back to 1917. It is significant that the Big Three would never meet again after they had decamped from the Berlin suburb.


At the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam conferences, it became abundantly clear that the Soviet wartime alliance with the British and Americans had been no more than temporarily expedient to both sides. Stalin ruled a country that had been bled white and needed as much support as he could get in rebuilding his country. But after the United States canceled Lend-Lease immediately upon the victory in Europe and the Soviet leadership was confronted with the existence of a deliverable atomic bomb, Stalin probably realized that no Western aid was further forthcoming.


Figure 8.2. Celebrating forty years of Soviet power, 1947 (Slavic and Baltic Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

The Soviet populace’s effort during the postwar reconstruction period thus almost equaled the Soviet population’s selfless heroism during the war itself or the First Five Year Plan. The Fourth Five Year Plan that was announced in early 1946 once again targeted the development of heavy industry (machinery, defense, mining, and, indeed, the construction of an atomic bomb) rather than the production of consumer goods or the increase of agricultural production through greater investment. A misharvest in 1946 led to another famine in Russia and Ukraine, which may have cost some two million people their lives in 1946 and 1947.

Some Soviet intellectuals hoped at the end of the war that a new era of greater freedom had dawned. During the war, certain writers who had been gagged before 1941 were once more allowed to publish because of more relaxed censorship rules. Churches had been allowed to open, and the Orthodox Church had even been permitted to elect a patriarch in 1943, the first since the death of Patriarch Tikhon (1865–1925). In the countryside, collective farms, faced with severe labor shortages because of wartime mobilization, had been given leeway to allow for a greater share of state deliveries to be produced by individual, rather than socialized or collective, effort.

But from the spring of 1946 onward, the liberties that had been allowed were quickly reduced. Private plots on collective farms were standardized and the kolkhoznik was once again forced to work primarily in the socialized sector on pain of being evicted from the farm as a shirker. After the early months of 1947, no further houses of worship were given the right to open their doors. And artists, musicians, writers, and scientists were berated for straying from the party’s line in a series of campaigns that were often associated with Andrei Zhdanov, who spearheaded them publicly.

Zhdanov, too, called the Eastern European (as well as the French and Italian) Communist Parties to order in the context of a smaller version of the defunct Comintern, called the Cominform. And Zhdanov and Mikhail Suslov (1902–1982), who succeeded him as chief of the party’s propaganda apparatus after Zhdanov’s death in August 1948, created a comprehensive system of ideological schools in which party officials went to study the Holy Writ of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. This indoctrination was all the more necessary because the party had seen a wholesale renewal of its membership during the war, when entry requirements had been relaxed and many front soldiers had joined, even those who were virtually clueless about Marx.

Of course, for people who defied the regime from a political point of view or as common criminals, the labor camp system continued to operate. In addition, POWs were put to work to help rebuild the country. Nothing like the Great Terror recurred, but regularly plots within the party or Communist Youth (Komsomol) organizations were detected, with its plotters condemned as enemies of the people or counterrevolutionaries. In the very leadership of the party after Zhdanov’s death, most of those who had been associated with the deceased ideologue at some point in their career were arrested. Some two hundred people may have perished in this Leningrad Affair.

Despite all these efforts at rooting out political opposition, subversive acts continued and sometimes remained undetected. One of them was Boris Pasternak’s (1890–1960) writing of Doctor Zhivago, a novel that expressed grave doubts about the blessings of the 1917 Bolshevik takeover and Civil War victory. Rather than submitting his novel to the editors of one of the state publishing houses, a sensibly cautious Pasternak placed his manuscript in a drawer, awaiting freer times.


Foreign Communists also proved to be less pliable than Stalin liked. In 1948, Stalin berated the Yugoslav Communist leader Josip Tito (1892–1980), who had engaged in unauthorized discussion with the Bulgarian party boss Georgi Dimitrov (1882–1949) about the formation of a federalized southern Slavic state. Stalin was not keen on this plan, as it might create in southeastern Europe a rather powerful Communist state (Albania was also to be added) that might challenge Moscow’s dominance over the Communist world.

Rather than apologizing to Stalin (as Dimitrov did), Tito defied Stalin and demanded that the Soviets stay out of Yugoslav affairs. By the summer of 1948, the rift became public. Yugoslavia was the first country that defected from the fledgling Soviet Bloc. Despite threats, Stalin refrained from an invasion. The Yugoslav Communists had largely on their own strength defeated the Nazis and Italian Fascists (and their Yugoslav allies) during the Second World War. Any Soviet armed engagement in Yugoslavia might prove to be risky.

At about the same time as the Yugoslav defiance, the Soviet Union virtually ruptured relations with the West. In 1947, the wartime allies had still found enough common ground to sign peace treaties with Germany’s former allies, Hungary, Romania, Finland, and Bulgaria. In the summer of that year, however, the Soviets marched out of negotiations in Paris about a vast economic stimulus package offered to Europe by the United States, known after one of its architects as the Marshall Plan.3 Soviet negotiators, headed by Molotov, claimed that U.S. terms for eligibility for aid under the plan amounted to an infringement on sovereignty, for it would allow U.S. monitors, ostensibly assigned to check on the distribution of the funds, to spy on the Soviet Union and its allies.

In February 1948, the Czechoslovak Communist Party ousted all parties from the government in Prague that did not wholly agree with its program. After Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, as well as the somewhat special case of Eastern Germany, this made Czechoslovakia the final East-Central European country to become a “people’s democracy.” This was a euphemistic term for countries ruled by Soviet-style dictatorships. In the spring of that year, around the time when Yugoslavia broke off relations with the Cominform and Moscow, the Soviets decided to close all entryways that led through Soviet-occupied Eastern Germany to the Western-occupied sectors of Berlin. Stalin’s motives behind this move are not fully clear. Indeed, the decision to “blockade” Berlin appears to have been made somewhat whimsically. Stalin seems to have hoped for the imminent restoration of a united Germany (and Berlin) that would eventually fall into Communist hands. But the Western Allies supplied the inhabitants of their sectors of Berlin with food and other basic necessities through an airlift. In the spring of 1949, Stalin allowed the railroad and highway that normally supplied West Berlin to reopen, just as rashly as he had decided to close them a year previously. In a further response to the Berlin Blockade, meanwhile, the British and Americans had sponsored the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance in which all member countries were to defend any of their number if attacked by a third party.

Perhaps Stalin decided that he could afford to give way somewhat on the German issue because of his acquisition of the atomic bomb and the triumph of the Chinese Communists over their adversaries in a civil war in 1949. The Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) visited Stalin in late 1949. The Soviet boss made clear who was the leader of world Communism by having Mao cool his heels in Moscow for two weeks before receiving him. But he did return Xinjiang province as well as Inner Mongolia and Manchuria to the Chinese. Otherwise, he had little aid to offer, partially because the USSR still was a patient on the mend from its own war wounds, while it had strained itself to test its first nuclear device a few months earlier. But Stalin also recalled how his own country had pulled itself up by its bootstraps in the Great Turn around 1930. Surely China could accomplish the same feat, for there were no fortresses, as the saying went, that the Bolsheviks could not storm.4

Stalin’s last significant foreign policy move concerned Korea, where the Cold War turned hot in the first of a series of proxy wars between Soviet and U.S. clients. Here the Soviets had sponsored the Communist dictatorship of Kim Il-Sung (1912–1994) in their zone of occupation (the north of the peninsula) after 1945. Kim was an ambitious man who managed to persuade both Stalin and Mao in early 1950 that he could easily conquer South Korea (which was ruled by a right-wing dictator). This seemed all the more feasible, when in January 1950 U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson (1893–1971) implied in a public speech that South Korea was not considered a vital ally by the United States. Stalin gave Kim the green light to invade the south, but at the same time he told Kim that no open Soviet support would be rendered (Soviet pilots did fly North Korean planes). After a rapid initial advance, the North Koreans were surprised by a counteroffensive led by the U.S. military. It almost caused Kim to flee his country, but at the eleventh hour the Korean dictator was bailed out by Chinese “volunteers” dispatched on Mao’s command. They pushed back the U.S.-led force to the thirty-eighth parallel, where the front stabilized until a shaky truce was concluded in 1953. Several million Koreans and foreign troops died in the fracas.


1. The Soviet regime continued to deny the clause’s existence until the very last months of the Soviet Union’s existence. The clause divided up East-Central Europe.

2. The renaming in early 1946 of the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) into Council of Ministers (Sovmin), adopting the traditionally Western name of the government’s executive branch, seems to have been another whimsical move on Stalin’s part to propitiate the Western Allies.

3. General George C. Marshall (1880–1959) was U.S. secretary of state from 1947 to 1949.

4. And surely the East-Central European countries, which received precious little Soviet economic aid as well, could turn themselves around, too.


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Kopelev, Lev. To Be Preserved Forever. Edited and translated by Anthony Austin. New York: Lippincott, 1977.

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Edele, Mark. Soviet Veterans of World War Two: A Popular Movement in an Authoritarian Society, 1941–1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin: Stalin’s War with Germany. Vol. 2. London: Cassell, 2004.

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Glantz, David. The Battle for Leningrad, 1941–1944. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

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Ballad of a Soldier. DVD. Directed by Grigorii Chukhrai. New York: Criterion, 2002.

The Cranes Are Flying. DVD. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. New York: Criterion, 2002.

Katyn. DVD. Directed by Andrzej Wajda. New York: Koch Lorber, 2009.

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