Military history

A Fire Through All the World


The first real test for Stalin’s Red Army came at the end of 1939. On 30 November, Soviet troops invaded Finland. The campaign was a disaster. Within a month, nearly 18,000 men, almost half of those who had crossed the border that first day, were missing, captured or dead. The slaughter was so terrible, and the panic that accompanied it so confusing, that it is difficult even now to establish just how many soldiers lost their lives in the short war that followed. The men were thrown headlong at Finnish guns. Tanks and their crews were shelled and burned, whole regiments of infantry encircled. Entire battalions of troops, the spearhead of the Red Army, were cut off from their reinforcements and supplies, while leaderless soldiers rioted in the face of starvation and cold. Tales of atrocities began to circulate. Men talked of Soviet corpses without penises or hands. Some had seen human faces with their tongues and eyes gouged out. When the war was over, the basis for many of these stories turned out to be the horror felt by inexperienced conscripts as they marched in succession, wave after helpless wave, over their own unburied dead; past corpses frozen, brittle, gnawed or torn apart by dogs.1 Red Army losses – deaths – exceeded 126,000.2 Nearly 300,000 more were evacuated through injury, burns, disease and frostbite.3 Finland’s losses in the war were 48,243 killed and 43,000 wounded.4

Sheer numbers – of men and heavy guns – told in the Soviets’ favour in the end. Fresh troops were brought to the Karelian Front. A new assault, as crushing as a battering ram, destroyed the Finnish lines. The forests to the north of the medieval city of Viipuri, today’s Vyborg, were turned into a wasteland of charred metal and dead pine. The Finns capitulated in late March. Readers of the Soviet daily newspaper Pravda would learn that justice had been done and that the war had put a stop to yet another threat to proletarian freedom. But even they might well have heard the rumours that returning soldiers spread, and outside Russia, there were none who viewed the outcome as a victory for Moscow. Military planners in Hitler’s Germany were ready that spring with fat reports about the Soviet army’s weakness.5   An American correspondent in Stockholm concluded that the Soviet–Finnish war had ‘revealed more secrets about the Red Army than the last twenty years’.6

The secrets that he had in mind were mainly about training, tactics and equipment. Surveying the events of those four months with a military eye, a good spy would have noted that the Red Army had been tried and failed on almost every count. Intelligence units had overlooked the existence of the line of fortified bunkers that blocked the infantry’s advance. Even the Finns were surprised by the carnage that followed, the ease with which a few gunners could kill or terrify entire regiments of men. It helped, they found, that the Soviets were poorly equipped for arctic combat. In spite of their own cold winters, Red Army troops had not been trained to fight in the deep snow, and many were unnerved when Finnish ski troops loomed like ghosts out of the fog. They were also surprised to meet resistance. Later, as the first Soviet tanks broke through, the Finns were gratified by the success of their home-made anti-tank device, a bottle – the usual one was an empty from the state ‘Alko’ monopoly – filled with kerosene and lit with a simple wick. They followed a prototype developed by Franco’s troops in Spain, but it would be the Finns who gave the new missiles a name. In honour of the Soviet foreign minister, who featured most nights on Finnish radio that year, they called them Molotov cocktails. ‘I never knew a tank could burn for quite that long,’ a Finnish veteran recalled.7

An outsider would also have noticed that the Soviets’ own equipment – the tanks, shells, guns and radio sets that the socialist planned economy had turned out with such fanfare in the past decade – was ill-designed for actual combat. More seriously, young officers, often fresh from the classroom, lacked the imagination, and failing that, the training, to co-ordinate its use. They also lacked supplies and spares. Whole regiments faced the Finns without food, ammunition, or boots. In January, Finnish troops reported taking prisoners who had kept themselves alive by tearing flesh from the carcasses of frozen horses or filling their mouths with snow. The wounded who were carried back to their own side often fared little better. The hospitals in nearby Leningrad were well-equipped and lovingly staffed, but young men died of wounds, cold, and disease as they waited for the transport that would take them there.8 Morale, the morale of the liberating army, the people’s Red Army, was miserably low. ‘The whole thing is lost now,’ an infantryman from a Ukrainian battalion complained that December. ‘We’re going to certain death. They’ll kill us all. If the newspapers said that for every Finn you need ten Russkies [moskalei], they’d be right. They are swatting us like flies.’9

This question of morale was one that fascinated foreign spies. To outsiders, the Red Army was an enigma. Everyone knew what Russian soldiers were supposed to be like. Tolstoy elaborated the stereotype after observing them in the Crimean War, and his masterpiece, War and Peace, was full of brave, stoical peasant sons, their hearts as great as Russia’s steppe. These soldiers were the backbone of the army that had beaten Napoleon, the men who kept on fighting through the severest months of winter, and their image among foreigners changed little after 1812. ‘They probably provide the best material in the world from which to form an army,’ the British Lieutenant-General Martel concluded after watching Soviet manoeuvres as an invited visitor in the 1930s. ‘Their bravery on the battlefield is beyond dispute, but the most outstanding feature is their astonishing strength and toughness.’10

Martel, and quite a few German observers of the same vintage, was privileged to watch the Soviets on exercise, but even he did not spend any time among the ordinary men. It was one thing to observe a piece of drill, let alone a formal parade through Red Square, and quite another to eavesdrop upon the private world within the barracks walls. If experts from abroad heard anything, it was the view of officers, and hand-picked officers at that, since contact with a foreigner was not a casual affair in Stalin’s empire. The outlook and opinions of the soldiers, the conscripts and the dour career troops, remained inscrutable however much successive observers might pry. As all outsiders found, no published sources offered any clue about the soldiers’ states of mind, and there was little to be learned from the enthusiasm of the pre-war crowds, the tens of thousands of civilians who turned out to wave lilac branches on the streets each May. Two decades after Lenin’s revolution, the inner world of the Red Army was a mystery.

The Soviet state was so secretive about its armed forces that even their social composition and age structure were unknown. Outsiders who thought of investigating for themselves would soon find that their path was blocked. A foreigner could hardly move in the Russia of the 1930s without attracting attention. Spies who attempted to blend with the crowds found that they could not even manage the new diet, let alone Soviet manners. ‘You try to drink an ounce and a half of 40–50% vodka in one gulp without practice,’ one agent complained, ‘or to smoke a cigarette with a cardboard mouthpiece.’11 The vodka made him cough, and when he tried to chase it with hot tea he burned his fingers on the thin, cheap glass in which it had been served. ‘Mistakes,’ an officer in the German intelligence service noted, ‘could cost an agent his life.’12

It was for these reasons that German officers seized on information coming out of Finland. Soviet prisoners of war seemed to offer a healthy source of facts about real army life. But once again, the reports could be treacherous. Exhausted prisoners, as Germans interrogators would find at first hand from 1941, would say almost anything if they thought that it would save their skins. Their very suffering clouded their minds. And the war against Finland was not a fair predictor of the Red Army’s likely response to invasion on a massive scale. Even the army that was fighting in the Finnish snow, the Red Army of 1939, would be flooded, in 1941, by millions of new conscripts and volunteers, the patriotic youths who longed to do great deeds. The veterans of Finland were among the tens of thousands facing capture, death and disability within weeks of Hitler’s offensive. The old Red Army, the men of 1939, did not survive for long enough to fight at Stalingrad. But what the story of this early disaster can still do is show why the collapse was so swift and also just how far that army would evolve, how fast, when there was a real crisis, an invasion that threatened to engulf and even to destroy the motherland, men’s families, the homes and landscapes that they loved.

The best clues to morale come from a source inside the army, not from outsiders. A network of political officers acted as agitators and teachers in every regiment. They also worked as the party’s spies, which meant that someone would be listening whenever groups of men gathered to talk. Police agents, of course, were on the lookout for trouble. The army was one place, after all, where former peasants gathered in sufficient numbers for the weight of their discontent to coalesce, for factions to threaten to form. Agents were under some pressure to report, or even to fabricate, evidence about the dissent that their masters expected to find. But poor morale among the men also reflected on the political officers themselves, implying that their leadership was failing to inspire, and for this reason, too, the reports that they dared to file must be treated with caution. Each document is likely to begin with pages of enthusiastic nonsense. If these writers could be believed, the men had never been cleaner, happier or more sober; their training always progressed well and they were all lice-free. These were all platitudes. In reality, it was a far cry from the Osoaviakhim and the parachute clubs to any barracks that held private soldiers, riflemen, in 1939.

One thing that army and civilian worlds did share was propaganda. There was no escape from the lectures and slogans. Every soldier was taught that he was privileged to serve in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, a mouthful that the state abbreviated to its Russian initials, RKKA.13 Recruits were also told that they were the standard-bearers of the future and the heirs of an heroic past. Whatever it was called upon to do, this was an army that would muster under banners coloured red with martyrs’ blood.14Language like this found its best audience in the training schools for officers. There it was possible to view a career in the army with real revolutionary pride. Some of the schools – Kirill’s was one – were preparing a genuine professional élite, and some of the cadets could thank Stalin for their escape from poverty, their new-found skills, their hope. The Soviet Union was no longer a place where officers were drawn from distinct social élites. In terms of family background, there was not much to choose, often, between large numbers of élite trainees and the mass of the men. But everything else was different, from education and prospects to political ideas. Among the men, especially the conscripted mass, the mood in the last pre-war years was best described as sour resignation.

The resentment was muted, deadened by exhaustion, habit, and the fear of informers. But soldiers did not have to talk much anyway. The memory of the war in the villages was still quite fresh. Some men had gone hungry themselves when the state seized peasants’ grain; others were still getting letters from their families, still reading about shortages and fear. Collectivization did not need to be discussed because it was as pervasive in the men’s minds as the damp in their bones. At lecture time, no subject could provoke more questions than the fate of Soviet farms. The army recruited peasants; sheer numbers made that necessary. The Soviet Union remained, up to the summer night when German forces crossed its borders, a place where most people had started life in village huts. Such folk had once made sterling servicemen, and sons of peasants were among the stars of Stalin’s officer élite. But after 1929, it was taken for granted that the best soldiers would be drawn from families in the towns.15

Even the sons of workers, once in uniform, would soon become aware of collectivization’s legacy. Although the Red Army was never used to drive peasants into the hated farms, its troops were asked to help in the fields at harvest time, replacing men and animals after they vanished into common graves. Farm work would become a feature of the Soviet soldier’s life; digging potatoes, herding pigs, mending equipment in the rain. The political officers who had to work among troops like this would not find much good news to write about as they licked their pencils and prepared to report in 1939. ‘They tell us that collective farmers live well,’ one soldier was heard muttering. ‘In fact, they have nothing at all.’ ‘I’m not going to defend Soviet power,’ another conscript told a mate. ‘If it comes to it I will desert. My father was a fool to die in the civil war, but I’m not a fool. The Communist Party and Soviet power robbed me.’16 Another recruit told his comrades, after reading a letter from home, that he could not decide what to do. ‘I have to study,’ he said, ‘but I keep worrying about my family.’ ‘My family is starving,’ complained another. ‘Nothing else interests me.’17


In 1939, the age for conscription was nineteen. The latest crop of new recruits, born at the end of the civil war, was drafted that September. Joining up was part of life, as traditional in Russian villages as wife-beating and painted eggs. The army had always taken men. ‘The Tsar commands and God permits,’ conscripts had muttered in the First World War. In those days, military service, like famine, warts and childlessness, was seen as punishment for sin.18 A generation later the process had changed, but the men’s fatalism was much the same. Soviet recruits were meant to pass some tests; the army wanted men who could read, although it did not always get them. As late as the end of the 1920s, psychologists had found that the vocabulary of the average infantryman varied between 500 and 2,000 words.19 At that time, too, some of these men had not been able to tell their officers who Stalin was, a finding that so shook the army’s political administration that it had to be suppressed.20 Political education was hastily stepped up, and by 1939 fewer recruits were failing reading tests and none was ignorant about the leader. But the most able were creamed off for work in the NKVD.21 The army got the next-best ones.

Recruiting was a cumbrous process that usually dragged on for two or three months every year. In each district it was the duty of the local military soviet. These had the right to sift and reject sick or insane men and also to review claims for exemption. They also checked police records, for known enemies of the people were not trusted to bear arms. The lads who came before them after all these checks were not completely raw in military terms. All had been to some local school, and most would know their country needed to prepare for war. Some new recruits might even have clapped eyes on a rifle or a gas mask at a summer camp somewhere; they would certainly have listened to as many lectures on the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army as any teenager could take. This army could seem like a route to manhood, an adventure, and there were always youths who declared themselves proud to be called up. Not a few, especially in the cities, volunteered, but for the rest, the scenes at home were much as they had always been. The road still beckoned and the mothers wept. The men would gather up the few things they could carry – a couple of changes of underclothes, some sugar and tobacco – and stuff them into a canvas bag or cardboard case. And then they walked – for few had grander means of transport – to the recruitment point.

Soldiers at the banya, September 1941

‘Our military training began with a steam bath, the disinfection of our clothes, a haircut that left our scalps as smooth as our faces, and a political lecture,’ a recruit from this time remembered.22 For many in the audience, that lecture would have echoed through a hangover. Young men were very often drunk by the time they arrived in their units. It was a tradition, like many others, that dated from tsarist times.23 The drinking began before they left home and carried on for several days. The authorities may even have connived at it, since vodka stilled the men’s anxieties more rapidly than group lectures or extra drill. Recruits might pass out on the train, the argument ran, but if they were unconscious it was easier to ship them off to any kind of hell.24

Bleary-eyed, then, and not certain quite where they were, the conscripts stood in ragged lines and waited to receive their kit. Whatever their civilian selves – sons of the village or of some factory or mining town – they would fold up the things in which they had spent their former lives and pull on dull green uniforms, the clothes of new identity. They stepped into rough woollen trousers and pulled on a jacket. They were also issued with a belt, overcoat and boots. These things were theirs to wear and maintain every day. But their underclothes – an undershirt and pants – were issued on a temporary basis. They learned that they would hand these items in for regular – if not particularly frequent – laundering, and that they would receive a clean set in exchange. In fact, they seldom got the same ones, or even a complete issue, back each time. It was a small humiliation, another thing, an intimate one, that they could not control.

A senior sergeant teaches a young recruit to wrap footcloths

Unless they brought their own, which some did, recruits were never given socks. This was an army that marched in footcloths – portyanki. These strips of cloth wound around the feet and ankles, binding them like bandages. They were alleged to protect against blisters. A veteran smiled at that idea. ‘I think socks would have been more comfortable,’ he said. But it was just a whisper, not dissent. Portyanki, after all, were cheaper and less personal: one size would do for all. It took a while to learn to wrap them, and the process caused delays and chaos at reveille for ages, but the strips of cloth were universal issue, and they were used by men and women through the war. ‘They were the only things that made those boots they gave us fit,’ a woman veteran remembered. ‘And yes, we were glad to have the boots as well.’

Only the officers were given handguns, usually Nagan revolvers, a design that dated from the 1890s. It was an officer’s exclusive privilege, too, to get an army wristwatch. Private soldiers got the bags and holsters, but much of the time they had nothing to put in them. Their tally of assorted empty luggage included a field bag, a bag for clothes, a bag for carrying biscuits, a strap for fastening their overcoat, a woollen flask cover, a bag for the things they had brought from home, a rifle sling, cartridge boxes and a cartridge belt.25 The weapons themselves, and even the ammunition rounds, were so precious that most men did not handle them until they took part in a field operation. But they were issued with an army token, the proof of their new status, and a small kettle. The things that had a personal use were the most treasured. ‘Frontline soldiers would sometimes, in panicky retreats, throw away their heavy rifles,’ wrote one veteran, Gabriel Temkin. ‘But never their spoons.’26 The men would lick them clean after each meal and store them in the tops of their boots.

The new recruits would soon be looking for their beds. In this, as in so many other ways, the generation that would join from 1938 was out of luck. The army had been expanding rapidly. In 1934, it numbered about 885,000 officers and men. By the end of 1939, as the reservists were called up in preparation for war, that figure had grown to 1,300,000.27 Among the many problems caused by the expansion was a housing crisis. Army regulations stated that each man should have a living space of 14.6 cubic metres, 4.6 square metres of which – think of six feet by eight – were to comprise the floor.28 But this was optimistic talk. Even officers could not expect adequate quarters. ‘Collective farmers have a better deal than our officer corps,’ a communist official in the Leningrad military district wrote in January 1939. The new arrivals described their conditions as ‘torture’.29 ‘It would be better for me to kill myself than to go on living in this hole,’ an officer recruit remarked. Complaining landed one cadet who demanded ‘the quarters to which officers are entitled’ in the guardhouse for three days. Tuberculosis rates among all ranks tended to rise in the year after they joined up, as did the incidence of stomach infections. In one case 157 cadets in a single barracks were taken to hospital in their first ten days.30

Private soldiers were also crowded into smaller than the regulation space.31 In fact, only the lucky ones would find they had a billet and a roof. The mobilization plan of 1939 was so ambitious that many turned up at their bases to discover that there was no barracks at all. In that case they could look around the town for accommodation of their own or sleep on the bare ground. Either way, they might have nothing under them but straw. The army provided blankets, but mattresses were always scarce and there were never enough plank beds for the swelling number of recruits. The straw, though warm, was an ideal refuge for lice.32

A stroll around the camp would not have cured a young man’s hangover or his homesickness. Communal facilities of any kind were neglected in the Soviet Union. The culture of material goods had spawned a thriving black market. If something could be stolen, skimped or watered down, a huckster with the right contacts was always near at hand. Meanwhile, the shortages and management problems that dogged the centrally planned economy bore dismal fruit. A Communist Party inspector visiting the Kiev military district in May 1939 found kitchens heaped with rubbish, meat stores stinking in the heat, and soldiers’ dining rooms that still lacked roofs or solid floors. Moving across the yard towards the bathrooms, he noted that ‘the unclean contents of latrines is not removed, the surveyed lavatories have no covers. The urinals are broken … The unit, effectively, has no latrine.’33

The case was not unusual, as other reports showed. ‘Rubbish is not collected, dirt is not cleaned,’ another note records. ‘The urinals are broken. The plumbing in the officers’ mess does not work.’34 Hygienic measures were neglected everywhere. The slaughterhouse that provided soldiers in Kursk province with meat had no running water, no soap, no meat hooks and no special isolator for sick animals. The staff who worked there had received no proper training and they had not been screened for infectious diseases of their own. Their filthy toilet was a few yards from the meat store, and like many others at the time, it had no doors. ‘Even the meat is dirty,’ the inspector wrote.35

Food was a standing grievance everywhere. This is true of all armies, as budget catering and hungry men are on a fixed collision course, but the Soviet case belongs in a special class. However cold it was outside, the barracks kitchen would be rank and fogged with grease. Lunch – a soup containing sinister lumps of meat, due to be served with black bread, sugar and tea – steamed on wood stoves in giant metal pots. ‘At home,’ one conscript complained, ‘I used to eat as much as I needed, but in the army I have become thin, even yellow.’ ‘The grub is awful,’ reported another. ‘We always get vile cabbage soup for lunch, and the bread is the worst: it’s as black as earth and it grinds against your teeth.’ In January 1939 alone there were at least five cases where groups of soldiers refused to eat, striking in the face of another inedible meal. In the first three weeks of the same month, army surgeons reported seven major instances of food poisoning, the worst of which, involving rotten fish, left 350 men in need of hospital treatment.36 Dead mice turned up in the soup in the Kiev military district; sand in the flour, fragments of glass in the tea and a live worm featured on menus elsewhere at the same time.37 Two hundred and fifty-six men suffered disabling diarrhoea in March when the tea they were served turned out to have been brewed with brackish, lukewarm water.38 A young conscript from the Caucasus republic of Georgia – a region famous even then for its good food – deserted after a few weeks in Ukraine, leaving behind a note that singled out the Soviet army diet. ‘I am going back to the mountains,’ he concluded, ‘to eat good Georgian food and drink our wine.’

One answer was to grow food on the army’s land. Here was one thing that former peasants could really be asked to do. As Roger Reese records in his account of pre-war army life, ‘By the late summer of 1932, one regiment already had more than two hundred hogs, sixty cows, more than one hundred rabbits and forty beehives.’39 Nothing had changed by 1939. The soldiers dug potatoes and cut hay, they milked cows and they slaughtered pigs.40 The work could be heavy, dirty and cold, so field duties were sometimes used as punishments. In all cases, farming took the men away from their military training and distracted them from the real purpose of their army service. But everyone’s priority was filling empty stomachs, and successful regimental farms made a real difference to the men’s diet. They also helped to lift morale. This was a time when almost everyone – not only soldiers, but collectivized peasants and even some communities of workers – was going hungry. While brightly painted new kiosks sold ice cream to the masses, most people were still forced to scrape and queue to buy staples like butter and meat. The soldiers had a guaranteed allocation, even if the quality was poor. It is a bleak commentary on Soviet life, but Reese himself concludes that ‘despite their poor accommodations, officers and soldiers generally had a slightly higher standard of living in the 1930s than the rest of Soviet society’.41

The point was that the soldiers did not have to forage. They did not have to walk for miles, as their parents might, or exchange their own wedding rings for food. Instead, they could expect to be issued with most of what they needed. They also had access to a network of closed military stores, the ZVK. At a time when goods at any price were scarce on the open market, Red Army men could buy, if their local store were reasonably run, a range of luxuries that included matches and tobacco, thread, razors, toothbrushes and pens. Like everything else in the Soviet Union, however, experience varied from place to place. Sometimes the stores were badly managed or the storekeepers corrupt. Sometimes the stores themselves were little more than barns. And everyone complained about the shortages. There never was enough tobacco, and the butter seemed to vanish within hours.

Soap, too, was a scarce item, and many soldiers mention that they never had the means to clean their teeth. Running water, after all, was only to be had on the occasions when the barracks’ bathroom worked. For a real wash, the soldiers knew they had to visit the steam baths, the famous Russian banya. This ritual was not purely for comfort. A hot bath (and a change of clothes) every ten days was the minimum needed to keep typhus-bearing lice at bay. But banyas were usually in town, perhaps a half-hour’s march away. One man remembered bathing every fortnight; others that they bathed no more than once a month.42 When war broke out in 1941, new conscripts would complain about the dirt that made them itch and stink and brought them out in boils. But the old hands were used to it. In peacetime, the life of Red Army soldiers was mostly about getting used to things. Whatever understanding a young conscript may have had of Soviet life – and some had nurtured schoolboy dreams, however garbled, about opportunity and social justice – the army narrowed them and rubbed them coarse.

Another source of inconvenience was crime. The army’s warehouses and stores always attracted local spivs. Pilfering was common in soldiers’ kitchens despite the unappealing quality of the food. Cooks were often accused of selling the meat and fats that should have gone to thicken army soup, but kitchens were the last link in a chain that stretched back to the warehouses and transport trains. Small thefts – a typical case involved 50 metres of footcloth material – were daily events,43 but if there was a chance, perhaps because of troop movements, to evade the police, there were livings to be made on a much grander scale. ‘Our checks in the units have shown that the supply workers connive in theft if they are not directly involved in it themselves,’ a 1941 report declared. In one district, ‘583 greatcoats, 509 pairs of boots and 1,513 belts have disappeared.’ Among the other stolen goods was food.44

The army, then, was certainly a training ground, but some of what it taught would find no place in any decent service manual. As the men dug their potatoes or joined teams working on the barracks roof, they may have wondered when their formal army work might start. They would, in fact, find little time to be real soldiers, not least because their ideological training was never supposed to slip. In any working day, men would attend at least one class about politics; a lecture on Stalin’s analysis of capitalism, perhaps, or a question-and-answer session about the moral qualities of the ideal officer. Ideology was not regarded as an adventitious growth on army life, or even as a mere morale-booster, equivalent to religion. In these last years before the war, the Soviet state cast soldiers in the role of propaganda ambassadors. As the people’s vanguard, its sword and defender, they were supposed to represent right thinking for society as a whole. Part of the idea was that conscripts would return to their civilian lives and act as models, examples in word and deed. But to achieve this they had first to be transformed. To be a decent soldier, let alone, for the minority, a communist, a person was supposed to be sober, thoughtful, chaste and ideologically literate.

The party built an empire of its own within the army’s ranks to work upon men’s minds. Its interests were represented by an organization called PURKKA, the Political Administration of the Red Army. Among the most powerful operators at the top of this unmilitary structure was Lev Mekhlis, a sinister figure more identified with covert arrests than soldiering. His influence on the Red Army would be a baleful one, and his removal, after 1942, signalled a turning point in the culture of the General Staff. But in 1939, the army still laboured with the burden of political interference. As far as the men were concerned, this aspect of their lives was ruled by political commissars, who operated at regimental and battalion level, and political officers – the Soviet term ispolitruk – who worked within the companies and lower units. A second tier included young communists, komsomols, whose agents among the men were known as komsorgs.

An individual politruk was likely to combine the functions of a propagandist with those of an army chaplain, military psychiatrist, school prefect and spy. ‘The politruk,’ the army’s orders state, ‘is the central figure for all educational work among soldiers.’45The range of topics that they taught was wide indeed. Politruks were present at classes in target shooting, drill practice and rifle disassembly. They were the individuals who typed up individual scores, noting how many men were ‘excellent’ in any field and inventing excuses for the many who were not. They wrote monthly reports on their units’ discipline, on morale and on ‘extraordinary events’, including desertion, drunkenness, insubordination and absence without leave. They were also the men behind the party’s festivals, including the anniversary of the October Revolution (which, since the calendar itself had been reformed, now fell on 7 November each year), Red Army Day (23 February), and the workers’ carnival on 1 May. Enlisted men looked forward to these holidays. The lecture that they had to sit through from the politruk was just a prelude, after all, to a bit of free time and some serious drinking.

A political officer reads to the troops, 1944

A politruk who really thumped the propaganda drum was bound to meet resistance. It is impressive that some – earnest, ambitious or just plain devout – tried everything to mould their men according to the rules. They kept up a barrage of discussions, meetings and poster campaigns. They read aloud to the troops in their spare time, usually from newspapers like the army’s own Red Star. Some managed small libraries, and almost all ran propaganda huts where posters were designed and banners hung. Political officers in all units taught basic literacy, too, as well as investigating complaints and answering the men’s questions about daily life. It was never easy work. Like every other type of officer, the politruks battled with shortages. ‘We do not have a single volume of the works of Lenin,’ one man informed his commissar in 1939. Worse, units that were bound for Finland discovered that they had no portraits of the leader, Stalin. ‘Send urgently,’ a telegram commands.46 Although they seem absurd in retrospect, some of thesepolitruks, and their younger comrades, the komsorgs, believed in their mission and made real sacrifices in its name. Maybe some of the soldiers appreciated it in 1939; they would do, some of them, in the confusion of the Second World War. But more looked at the politruks’clean boots, smooth hands, and unused cartridge belts and sensed hypocrisy.

The politruks were hated, too, because they had an overall responsibility for discipline. Denunciations often originated with them, and it was usually their reports that brought the military police, the Special Section, into a mess room or barracks. This function was in direct conflict with another of the politruks’ roles, which was to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust. ‘Revolutionary discipline is the discipline of the people, bound solidly with a revolutionary conscience …,’ their regulations said. ‘It is based not on class subordination but on a conscious understanding of … the goals and purpose of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.’47 Some people may have found that shared values like this built networks of political comradeship, but the culture of double standards, of secret denunciations and hypocritical demands was hardly conducive to the kind of group spirit that an army requires. Soldiers and officers who needed to rely on comrades absolutely in the event of an attack – whose lives depended on sentries, on gunners, and above all, on their mates – soon found that fluency in Marxism– Leninism was no guarantee of steadfastness under fire. For the next three years, however, the politruks talked on. Communists were reliable, the argument went. Shared ideology ought to be quite enough to reassure a man that the soldier beside him would cover his flank when the shooting started. Known enemies would be removed. The party would take care of everything.

Even in peacetime the system floated on a morass of false piety. The politruks – like party members everywhere – included plenty of poor role models, including little empire-builders who controlled the vodka and the girls. ‘Junior politruk Semenov must be turned over to a military tribunal,’ ran a telegram of 1940. ‘He is morally corrupt … He continues to drink, bringing the name of an officer into disrepute.’ He had been discovered that week with a prostitute, helpless, in the bottom of a rubbish bin.48 But more evaded censure than were ever caught. It fell to the men to express their views. ‘If I end up in combat,’ an infantryman told his communist neighbour, ‘I’ll stick my revolver in your throat first.’ ‘The first person I’ll shoot will be politruk Zaitsev,’ threatened another conscript as he packed for Finland. Two young deserters whose unit was also bound for the north were locked up when they were returned to base. ‘As soon as we get to the front,’ one of them said, ‘I’ll kill the deputy politruk.’49 It may have been to spite the party that soldiers daubed swastikas over their barracks walls. The fact that many politruks, as men whose education tended to be better than the average, were Jews was probably a factor, too. Reports from early 1939 noted the ‘anti-Semitic remarks and pro-Hitler leaflets’ that some politruks had found among the men.50

Tensions and resentments of this kind were a large part of the reason for the Red Army’s unpreparedness for war, but the nature of the soldiers’ combat training also had a part to play. With ideology so prominent in the men’s timetable each day, extra hours had to be found to accommodate conventional forms of training. In 1939, the ‘study day’ was ten hours long; from March 1940, following the Finnish disaster, it was increased to twelve. ‘I don’t have time to prepare for all this studying,’ a recruit muttered. ‘I don’t even have time to wash.’51 In fact, the only skills that most recruits had time to learn were very basic ones. The men were taught to march, to lie down or jump up on a command, and most exhaustingly, to dig. They learned to get up and to dress in minutes, winding the long cat’s cradle of their footcloths as they chewed on their first hand-rolled cigarette. The drill might appear pointless, but at least it was the first step to real soldiering, to reflex-like obedience and greater physical strength. If there had been the time – to say nothing of the clarity of command – to build on it, things might have worked out better for the men. But political meddling constantly undermined their confidence, and lack of time restricted the skills that they were able to learn.

All infantry must learn to shoot. The Russian word for footsoldier translates as rifleman. The rifle in question, at this stage, was a magazine-fed, bolt-action model with a bayonet. Its design dated from the 1890s, but it was reliable and trusted by the men. The problem was that even when the factories in Tula and Izhevsk stepped up production after 1937, there were not enough guns available for every recruit to handle. Spare parts were another problem everywhere.52 The men who faced the Finns in 1939 had often trained for weeks with wooden replicas; enough, perhaps, to learn some drill, to try the handling when lying down or kneeling in a trench, but hopeless when it came to taking aim, to testing weight or balance in your hand. It was the same with tanks, where cardboard training replicas were sometimes used. And though Soviet factories had produced a sub-machine gun of world class, Vasily Degtyarev’s PPD, it took the Finnish war to persuade Stalin of its value in the field. Suspicion prevented wider deployment. Until the end of 1939, the smart new guns were reserved for military police and all the army’s stock was locked away in stores.53

Not surprisingly, reports from military camps painted a dismal picture of  training and its effects. Large numbers of recruits, both officers and men, regularly failed to meet expected standards of rifle competence.54 Accidents, too, were alarmingly frequent. Even during daytime training there were instances of soldiers firing randomly when they were drunk. There was no reason, after all, to be on top form all the time, for this was an army where men who turned up for parade were often left to sit around and wait.55 As any faith in their officers that they still nurtured ebbed away, bright soldiers learned to put their time to better use. ‘You’ll never teach me anything,’ observed a Ukrainian conscript. ‘I slept at my post and I’ll go on sleeping.’56 In March 1939, an enterprising group of men sent a detachment out on horseback every morning to work in the local woodyard. The pay that each received was then divided up, although a part was reserved, tactfully enough, for the political officers.57

The raw recruits of 1938 and 1939 would also learn from older generations. In 1939, the reserves were called up as a preparation for campaigns in Poland, the Baltic and Finland. These mature men, sometimes in their late thirties or early forties, arrived already smouldering with wrath. They had been forced to leave their jobs and families behind to go back to an army most had worked hard to forget. Their resentment was seldom far below the surface. ‘It’s worse in the army than doing forced labour on the Baikal–Amur railway,’ one grumbled to his mates. Some harked back to the Red Army in its democratic years, the early 1920s, when they talked to officers through clouds of cheap tobacco smoke and treated orders as the signal for a general debate. The memory rankled like a broken promise. ‘Red Army discipline is worse than under the old tsarist regime,’ the veterans complained. The young heard all of this and learned. ‘We’ll only get leave when we’re dead.’58


Potential officers, the future élite of the Red Army, could hope for a better deal than this. A select group began their training while they were still at school. Others started as private soldiers and made their way up by impressing superiors with their political convictions and practical skill. As the army grew in the 1930s, the demand for new cadets increased as well. ‘No calling is higher than the calling of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army,’ ran the communist slogan. ‘No profession is more honoured than the profession of commander in this army.’59 In fact, it was only after 1934 that infantry platoon commanders began to make more money than blue-collar workers in Soviet factories.60 Only the élite could expect the trappings of power and wealth enjoyed by senior managers and politicians in the civilian world. But poor pay was no deterrent to enthusiasts. The army offered the romance of adventure, travel, and good comradeship. It did not matter if cadets came from poor peasant huts or city-centre apartments. As they pored over their lessons in languages, mathematics, field tactics and history, officer trainees were embarking on solid careers.

At least, that was the hope until a few years before 1939. True, the shortages and physical misery that beset their men could affect junior officers as well; it was hard enough to get things done in an army that went short of greatcoats, boots and guns. But those were irritations, and good communists ignored them unless they were working to relieve the hardships of their troops. Far more oppressive, from 1937, was the constant fear of political error. Stalin’s purge of the political and military élite, which began that spring and continued through the months to come, would change officer culture for the worse. One of the highest profile victims, after all, was Tukhachevsky, the Chief of the General Staff himself.61 The charges that he and his colleagues faced included treason, so a sentence of death was inescapable. Where formerly the victims of political repression had been civilians, this time a trial had sent a shudder through the military establishment.

Tukhachevsky’s arrest was the first act in a process of state-directed terror that would subordinate the army, and the defence sector in general, to new forms of political control. The upheaval would lead to changes in strategy, for Tukhachevsky’s plans for defence in depth were discredited by his personal downfall, leaving the General Staff to plan for an offensive war in 1941. At the time, however, the question of strategy in a hypothetical conflict seemed trivial beside the fear that blew like a whirlwind through the officer corps. In the three years from 1937 to 1939, a little over 35,000 army officers were removed from their jobs. By 1940, 48,773 people had been purged from the Red Army and Fleet. In the last three years of peace, 90 per cent of military district commanders lost their jobs to subordinates, a turnover of men that left recruitment, training, supply and the co-ordination of troop movements in turmoil on the very eve of war.62 Morale, too, lay in ruins as professional soldiers struggled to save their careers.

An officer who lost his job was not necessarily imprisoned, still less shot. Even those who were arrested by the NKVD – about a third of those discharged – were sometimes reinstated, and Reese has calculated that even in the hardest year no more than 7.7 per cent of the Red Army’s leadership was discharged for political reasons.63 By 1940, too, 11,000 men had returned to army posts. But the purge made every officer’s work more difficult. In the first place, it was clear that no one’s job – or life – was guaranteed. Among the military stars of the Great Patriotic War were several men, including Konstantin Rokossovsky, the victor of Kursk and Koenigsberg, who had done time in prison cells and camps. From 1937 on, there was no doubt that every aspect of the army’s work, including purely military matters like training and the deployment of hardware, could be a subject for party debate. On the eve of the German invasion, the party’s representatives dogged every step that officers would take. Meanwhile, the entire culture of leadership had been undermined. Instead of taking pride in responsibility, an officer was well advised to dodge the limelight and to pass the buck. Cadets learned very little about inspiring their men in field conditions. The party hacks, the politruks, were supposed to take care of that.

It was a classic recipe for stress. Young officers, their minds already racing with the party’s teachings on responsibility and sacred trust, were given tasks that they had not been trained to execute and then, as if in mockery of their efforts, they were obstructed all the way by pettifogging from the commissars. The pitfalls of bureaucracy were just as terrifying for these trainees as the threat of a visit from the secret police. In 1939, well after the worst years of the military purge, the suicide rate among cadets and junior officers was scandalous. ‘Fear of responsibility’ was one of the most frequent reasons distilled from their farewell notes. For those who were prone to despair, poor diet and miserable living conditions might well destroy the last reserves of their morale. One junior lieutenant had been living in an earth dugout for months by the time his nerve gave way. As a young communist, a komsomol, he could not condemn the political system. Instead, as he put it in his final note, ‘I am not able to go on living this hard life … I love my country and I would never betray it. I believe in an even better future, when a bright sun will shine on the whole world. But here there are enemies who sit and threaten every step an honest commander tries to take. I have decided to take my own life, even though I am but twenty-one years old.’64

Political involvement, and purging in particular, made it harder to recruit, train, and retain new officers. The shortage of skilled specialists of every kind had reached crisis proportions by 1940. As the army expanded, reaching a total strength of over 5 million by the summer of 1941, its need for officers grew desperate. On its own estimate, the officer corps was short by at least 36,000 on the eve of the German invasion, and when the wartime mobilization began, this figure leapt to 55,000.65 Translated into real lives, this meant that men and women had to fight under the leadership of youths who had no battlefield experience. But even in the 1930s, before the army had to fight, cadets were being forced out of staff colleges before they had finished their training. In 1938, Defence Commissar Voroshilov ordered 10,000 of them to take their commissions in advance of graduation.66 These were young men whose relations with their seniors – fathers and teachers – had been confined to following, not leading. When they had to deal with a regiment of thirty-year-olds, they risked becoming objects not of reverence but of contempt.

Men in the ranks were quick to spot incompetence. While the culture of purging and denunciation did a lot to damage officers’ prestige, their own ineptitude was fatal. The Soviet army was supposed to be comradely and open. It did not use the barking non-commissioned officers so central to the British and American systems. Instead, junior officers, backed up (or undermined) by political representatives, were charged with drill and training. The results could have been predicted. ‘If they send me to the front,’ remarked a young recruit as he contemplated mobilization for Finland, ‘I’ll sneak off into the bushes. I won’t fight, but I will shoot people like our unit commander Gordienko.’67 Among the most common breaches of discipline in the army before 1941 was rudeness or insubordination by men in respect of junior officers.68

Politics affected everything an officer might do. The politruks and commissars shadowed regular officers, insisting that their own concerns – class-consciousness, the inculcation of communist values – be given priority over military issues. Resistance, or even discourtesy, might cost an officer his job. The arrangement was absurd. In 1939, even Mekhlis was inspired to denounce it.69 New regulations were introduced the following year, in the wake of the Finnish disaster, to enhance purely military authority and entice officers to stay. The condition of their quarters was one of the issues that was detailed for reform. Status, the thinking went, needed the emphasis of privilege. ‘The company commander,’ as reformers put it, ‘should be given the tallest horse.’70 It was a step – and one of many – that would help young officers to do their jobs. But no one suggested the most radical change, which would have been to start afresh without the tangling web of politics. Each time the issue of parallel authority was raised, the answer was a compromise, a shift of emphasis that left the party’s influence intact.


Nothing stretched the creative powers of a politruk more than the job of explaining the news. Looking at Soviet foreign policy in the last few months of peace, you can feel almost sorry for them. Most troops were not sophisticated men, and many could not read a paper for themselves, but even a semi-literate drunk would have noticed a curious change of policy in 1939. On 23 August, the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Red Army men had been forced to sit through sermons on the threat of fascism for a decade; now, suddenly, they were told that the Germans had become their allies. On Stalin’s sixtieth birthday in December 1939, the telegrams of congratulation included one from Adolf Hitler. The Führer included his best wishes ‘for the happy future of the friendly people of the Soviet Union’.71

Neither civilians nor troops knew what to think about this news. When their turn came to explain it, political staff were forced to draw upon the revolutionary rhetoric of historic progress. It was always possible to talk of international proletarian solidarity, and the German working class held a special place in Soviet imaginations, not least because its industry was so admired. But the idea of a treaty with Hitler could only be a shock. Cadets in one staff college thought the story was a spoof.72 When someone asked him if the next war would be an imperialist one, a politruk elsewhere simply gave up. ‘There’s no point,’ he answered, ‘in counting imperialist wars … When the war’s over, a [party] congress will convene, and they’ll tell us what type of war it was.’73 Left to themselves, the soldiers started cracking jokes based on the rhyme between German foreign minister Ribbentrop’s surname and the Russian word for arse.74

The Red Army was also about to engage in some unusual operations. A secret clause in the Nazi–Soviet pact of August 1939 provided for the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union and also for the future division of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The ink was hardly dry before the Germans invaded Poland from the west, and just over two weeks later, on 17 September, the first Soviet troops crossed into the country’s eastern provinces. Germany’s act of aggression prompted Britain and France to declare war on 3 September, but Poland was doomed. Warsaw fell to the Germans on 28 September, by which time the two armies, German and Soviet, had overrun the rest of the country from opposite directions. The Red Army drew up along its new boundary, confronting its ally for a prolonged interlude of uneasy co-operation. Its soldiers became an occupation force, assuming the part of liberators while daily confronting the hatred of the population among which they were stationed. The experience would be repeated the following June, when the Soviets continued their advance northwards to the Baltic, adding several million more unwilling citizens to Stalin’s western empire.

In 1939, Stalin’s priority was to establish a secure new border before the Wehrmacht managed to alter the map a second time. Red Army troops along the new front line engaged in a token show of comradeship with equally sceptical German counterparts. Prisoners were exchanged. Behind the new border, soldiers were detailed to go from house to house in search of hidden weapons. ‘Diversionary bands’ of Polish nationalists, the remains of the Polish army, were rounded up, as were any outspoken or respected members of local communities.75 Tens of thousands of Polish soldiers, including reservists who had been called up only weeks before, were interned in prison camps. On Stalin’s orders, more than 20,000 of these would be murdered between March and May 1940. The execution of 4,000 Polish officers in the forests near Katyn, to the west of Smolensk, was carried out by secret police, as were the parallel shootings near Kharkov and Tver. The murders were also covert, though local people heard volleys of gunfire for hours, night after night. But while they were kept ignorant of specific events, regular soldiers knew that the state they represented, and whose policy they were enforcing every day, was not offering deliverance to fraternal peoples.

Stalin’s military advisers had considered the most likely problems in advance. The troops detailed for Poland and the Baltic were given special lectures. They were told that their efforts would bring security and happiness to the people of the new territories. But they were also left in no doubt that the new border would protect their own homelands and safety. The troops who went into the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were hand-picked, ‘politically reliable … provided with the best food, weapons and ammunition’. 76 ‘I am proud,’ one of these heroes said, ‘that I have been granted the honour of standing in the front line of the defence of our motherland.’ Meanwhile, the propagandists wove stories with happy endings for readers to celebrate. ‘The working people of western Ukraine and western Belorussia have greeted the Red Army with great joy and love,’ a report to the troops related. ‘The progress of units of the Red Army unfolds like a people’s festival. The inhabitants of the towns and villages, as a rule, come out to greet them in an organized way and dressed in their best clothes. They throw flowers in front of the advancing soldiers… Thank you, dear comrades,’ they were alleged to have said. ‘Thank you, Stalin. We have been waiting for you and now you have come.’77

The liberation was not entirely charade. Some people, and especially the region’s Jews, had good reason to prefer Soviet to Nazi rule. But even they would soon find that the Red Army was not the selfless sword of revolution that it pretended to be. To soldiers from the Soviet Union, these European towns and villages were a consumerist paradise. Life was suddenly pleasant again, even if few soldiers could afford to join the locals for a beer or a long night of jazz. ‘They sit for hours,’ one envious Soviet officer wrote home, ‘nursing a beer and smoking cigarettes.’78 To prevent breaches of the law, the army had issued the soldiers involved in the occupation with a small allowance in cash. But there was just too much to spend it on. If the locals would not sell their goods for kopecks, the troops used threats to get the things they saw. They plundered simple cottages in search of loot. Favourite items included watches and pens, but even wooden doorknobs were briefly in vogue.79 Some veterans remember to this day how men from the Baltic occupying force sent clothes and money to their wives at home; for them, the borderlands were full of treasure. When an infantryman was arrested for buying a collection of anti-Soviet jokes in a Latvian bookshop, he was overheard remarking that the capitalists knew how to live.80

Nonetheless, regular Red Army men were relatively benign as an occupation force. Worse was to come in the new provinces. To harmonize the new regions with the rest of Soviet territory, the NKVD was sent in to collectivize all private farms. Protesters, the latest crop of kulaks, were arrested and deported on goods trains heading east. At the same time, amid the turmoil of a social revolution and a coming war, the military soviets arrived to start recruiting men. The army’s need for soldiers had become insatiable, and the new populations – above all, those in frontier states – were obliged to contribute their quota like everyone else. Some politicians also hoped that military service would turn the sons of capitalist families into upstanding Soviet citizens. Either way, recruitment was an urgent matter, demanding quick and decisive work. The fact that the new soldiers would disrupt the culture and morale of serving troops was considered far too late.

From 1940, thousands of nineteen-year-olds from the former Polish territories of Ukraine and Belorussia joined units in the Kiev, Leningrad and Bryansk military districts. In recognition of their likely impact, they were deployed in small groups of fifteen or so per company.81 Their command of the Russian language was a problem, for many spoke and wrote only Ukrainian or Polish. But it was not comprehension that made them difficult to teach. Unlike the lads whose minds had been formed under Soviet power, these people came with recent memories of a different world. Even the ones who felt grateful for Soviet protection against Germany – for few believed that Stalin’s pact would last – brought with them doubts about the newly formed collective farms. They all had questions about politics. Some had witnessed the mass arrests of supposed ‘enemies’ that followed Soviet occupation, for NKVD troops were never far from the front line.82 And some, joining the army of a state that propagated atheism, nurtured a deeply held religious faith.

The commissars were overwhelmed. ‘A significant number of them are religious,’ they reported. ‘Some wear crosses which they refuse to remove even in the banya.’83 One officer discovered that some of his newest men began ‘their letters home with the words: Long live Jesus Christ. One soldier received an icon in the post from his mother in front of which, before going to sleep, he prays.’84 Youths like these came from villages where the faithful held vigils in the church at Easter. Some had neighbours whose religious beliefs forbade them even to bear arms.85 It was a mistake, the politruks’ bosses advised, to forget that these new men were politically untested and possibly even hostile to the Soviet regime. They might even harbour nationalist dreams. In the clumsy, eerily Orwellian language of its time one note warned that new conscripts ‘not rarely not only show unhealthy states of mind, complaining about the severity of discipline and the hardship of serving in the Red Army, but in some places are trying to form separatist groups’.86

Such men may well have been behind the daubs that turned up on the walls in barracks at this time. Humour, not religion, was probably the most serious challenge to the politruks’ authority. Graffiti of all kinds – ‘uncensored words’, as the informers put it – was getting bolder everywhere. Busts of Lenin and Stalin – one of which was given goggling, froggy eyes by an anonymous hand – were sitting targets, as were political posters. Some politruks were tempted to give up. ‘There is no political work in this unit,’ a report scolded, and it turned out that the men had stopped even expecting it. As a recruit – a Russian this time – in a communications unit put it in March 1939, ‘The fascists have not done a thing to me; I see no point in fighting them. From my point of view, it makes no odds if we have fascist or Soviet power. It would be better to die or run away than to fight for the motherland.’87


This was the army that mustered to fight the Finnish war. It was not the monolith of later Soviet myth. Instead, it was a piece of work in progress, an assemblage whose military readiness was still under construction. The lines of men who stood before theirpolitruksto hear their marching orders in November 1939 included fathers as well as sons. The older men had memories of tsarism and its last war; the young, heads full of cant, had little but their energy. They knew, in theory, why they were being asked to fight. The story was that Finnish fascists had been threatening the border of the Soviet motherland. Like soldiers in the propaganda films, Red Army troops had to repel them fast. It would be a quick and easy task, or that, at least, was the story they were told. Those who believed it may have hoped that someone else would do the fighting for them. If victory were truly guaranteed, no individual would need to run much risk, after all, and history alone would make sure that justice prevailed. Meanwhile, there was a chance of travel and of duty done, or failing those, a Finnish wristwatch and some decent booze. Whatever the men’s hopes, however, the weather was turning colder. The boots and greatcoats they had brought would not stand up to a long war.

‘The political–moral condition of the troops is generally good,’ the politruks wrote for their masters’ benefit. It was their job to take care of morale in wartime, but what that meant, in the Soviet army, was very different from British or American notions of military psychology from the same period. The politruks were not concerned with individual minds. It was the soldier’s task, and not that of his officers, to prove himself worthy of military life. If he showed cowardice or doubt, he was a betrayer of the motherland, a disappointment to its revolution. His individual rights and interests were unimportant. All that a politruk needed to do, on this model, was to make sure the men knew that theirs was a just cause. Soldiers who understood and truly believed in their task would need no further help because they would know that they were doing what their own society – and the future of the proletarian revolution – required them to do.88 There was no place in this regime for ego. The indicators of a healthy political–moral situation were not cheerfulness or individual mental health but the number of applicants for party membership, the willingness of men to volunteer for dangerous work, and the overall level of conformity with collective norms.

These ideas were neither strange nor alien to the young men whose job it was to fight in Finland. Soviet troops were children of their time and culture, and to varying extents – even if they joked about them – the ideas of the party had become their own. There were a few who had no dearer wish than to defend the Soviet motherland. Their heroes were the airmen and explorers of the 1930s, their dream to be as skilful and as brave themselves. There were others, too, caught up in the enthusiasm of the times, who saw themselves as vanguard communists, the heirs, perhaps, of the civil-war fighters they had heard about at school. Such men might ‘beg’ to serve on the front line. ‘I want to go into battle for the Motherland and Stalin,’ one soldier wrote, perhaps taking dictation from a politruk. And he added, as many did, a formal request to join the party. ‘I will fight in the party spirit, as a Bolshevik.’89

It was as if the cinema had come to life. Twenty years after the Red Army’s first campaigns, its troops had little idea of battle beyond the stock pictures of manliness, heroism and self-sacrifice. The real demands of modern war, including calculated tactics, self-restraint, and a facility with sophisticated weapons, would have looked almost tawdry to this generation. It was reported with pride, for instance, that ‘the deputy political officer of the 5th battalion of the 147th rifles led his men into an attack shouting, “For the Motherland and Stalin!”’ He was among the first to catch a Finnish bullet.90 Komsomols in another regiment mounted a spate of pointless raids in celebration of Stalin’s birthday on 21 December. Still others pledged themselves always to complete training classes with full marks, as if any other outcome were desirable.

Good comradeship, the formation of what the sociologists who study other armies have described as ‘primary groups’ among the soldiers, would have been a better way to improve both discipline and co-ordination.91 A stronger sense of loyalty between the men would have built stronger trust. But close relationships between soldiers were not encouraged. They might be a sign of deviance, the spies worried, conspiracies in embryo. Thirteen of the forty-six rifle divisions that the Red Army fielded in Finland had been formed for less than a year by the winter of 1939–40.92 The others tended, as was the policy at this time, to have been brought up to strength – peopled with strangers – in the last weeks before their mobilization for the front.93 In place of long-established trust the politruksnurtured these people’s party spirit, or worse, a fabricated ‘friendliness’. ‘The soldiers, commanders and political workers in our regiment show courage, heroism and a willingness to give each other friendly help during battle,’ ran one of their reports.94‘Friendliness’ of this kind was no substitute for absent professionalism, let alone mutual trust. These men had failed to train together. ‘Friendly’, perhaps, described the spirit of an artillery division that fired without orders near the Finnish village of Makela ‘to help the infantry keep its spirits up’.95 The next stage in that battle was a mass and uncoordinated panic.

Party spirit was no help when the men were afraid, either. Soviet soldiers in Finland were unprepared for the battlefields that their own weapons would create. Even their officers had no idea of the co-ordination that would be necessary to make use of infantry, big guns and tanks.96 Without a basic understanding of their role, soldiers found battles incomprehensible and terrifying. Some were afraid of their own shadows. An infantryman in the 7th Army caused havoc one morning when he shrieked so loudly that his whole battalion took fright. He explained later that he had glimpsed his own face in a mirror and taken it to be a Finnish sniper. His terrified scream disturbed the nearby signals unit. The men there started firing wildly, without orders, wasting precious bullets in the air. Not far away, members of the railway guard corps also heard the noise and joined in with more shooting of their own.97 Tardily, even desperately, political officers tried to instil some sense of fighting spirit in the men. Their priority, it was agreed, should henceforth be field training. The memoranda that they wrote along these lines make pathetic reading. ‘It is too late and almost impossible to organize party-political work during battle itself,’ a senior commissar explained. Among the things that it was ‘too late’ to tell soldiers who were in the field, he said, was how to lie down when the Finnish gunners opened fire.98

‘They told us that the Red Army would smash the White Finns with a lightning strike,’ men started to complain by the new year, ‘but the end of the war is not in sight.’ They had come up against the Mannerheim Line, the Finnish bunkers that Soviet reconnaissance had overlooked. If they had been afraid before, their mood was closer now to sheer despair. The party’s tale of easy victory had turned out to be false. ‘We’re going to find these bunkers everywhere. We cannot even collect our injured and dead. The infantry cannot overcome emplacements like these.’99 A new brochure, ‘Three Weeks of Fighting the White Finns’, was hastily assembled, along with a more practical ‘Specific Problems of This War and How to Improve Our Effort’. 100 But the basic Soviet tactic did not change. Red Army troops were supposed only to attack. It was an approach that suited the Finns, whose machine-gunners slaughtered Soviet soldiers almost at their leisure. It helped them that some senior Soviet officers regarded the use of camouflage as a sign of cowardice.101

The poor conditions played on everybody’s nerves. Even in the first week of the war, the infantry suffered dozens of cases of frostbite. By the end of December 1939, the reported figure, which included only the men whose ability to fight was seriously impaired, had increased to 5,725.102 At the same time, officers were reporting shortages of valenki (the traditional Russian felt boots), fur hats, footcloths and winter jackets. To make matters worse, sometimes there was no hot food, not even tea, for days.103 The temperature had plunged to an exceptional low for early winter, well below –30°C, and many soldiers had come straight from the milder climate of Ukraine. But the cold should have been easy to predict, for Karelia had been a province of the Russian empire for decades; conditions there were part of recent, living, memory.

The men began deserting in their hundreds. Sometimes they simply walked away, taking advantage of what looked like mere confusion to find a fire and warm themselves, steal the supplies, or simply disappear.104 One infantryman ‘surrendered’ to the Finns on behalf of two entire battalions.105 Not merely individuals, and not only private soldiers, but whole regiments abandoned their posts in this way. Sometimes they left their heavier weapons, too, allowing the Finns to help themselves to field guns, ammunition and rifles. Deserters could escape unnoticed because no one knew who was responsible for whom. At the same time, the chaos all along the line gave men a chance to get their hands on any loot they found. One man stole bicycles to sell when he got home. Others preferred to stock up with thick winter gear. A politruk, Malkov, was caught with two leather coats, four suits, shoes and a suitcase full of stolen children’s clothes.106

Stalin’s generals, as was their custom, adopted savage measures to bring their ragtag army into line. That winter, orders were given to shoot stragglers and deserters. According to its own figures, eleven deserters from the 8th Army had been shot by early January,107 but meanwhile other soldiers had begun to shoot themselves. Cases of samostrel, self-inflicted wounds, increased alarmingly in the new year. There was not much else that desperate men could do. Zagradotryady – another new word for the Soviet lexicon – were the troops whose job it was to stand behind the lines and pick off any man who tried to run away. Unlike the regulars, they had machine guns for the job. Meanwhile, officers faced NKVD firing squads. In January 1940, a string of tribunals sentenced scores of them to death for cowardice and failure. Even the Soviet high command began to wonder if there might not be a better way to organize a war. Perhaps, one of their memoranda carefully suggested, ‘the highest form of punishment is being overused’.108

A survivor of the Winter War recalled the ‘dull apathy and indifference towards impending doom’ that pushed men ahead when there was no alternative but death.109 It was a far cry from quick victory and party spirit. Back in Moscow, reformers read of the ‘negative effect’ that the men experienced when they found the frozen bodies of earlier waves of soldiers pushing out of shallow graves along the ice roads heading north. Tales of catastrophe pervaded the barracks where fresh soldiers were waiting for their battle orders. ‘I’m not going to Finland,’ a conscript in Kharkov told his politruk. ‘Two of my brothers are there and that’s enough.’110 Shocked by the gulf between their expectations and the real war, Stalin’s generals gathered in Moscow to consider a programme of reforms. There was almost no time for thought. As they pored over plans, the Germans were preparing an attack on France whose devastating swiftness would put paid to any hope of peace along the Eastern Front.

Notes – 2 A Fire Through All the World

1 Reports of atrocities are frequent through the war. See Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi voennyi arkhiv (RGVA), 9/31/292, 315 (December 1939). On the unburied dead, see RGVA 9/36/3821, 56. As the reporter comments, the sight ‘influenced the political-moral condition of soldiers on their way into attack’.

2 Krivosheev, p. 78. The figure he gives is 126,875 for ‘irrecoverable losses’, a category which includes those who died in action or of wounds and disease as well as those who were reported missing in action.

3 Ibid., p. 79.

4 Ibid., p. 78.

5 Ibid., p. 64.

6 Carl van Dyke, ‘The Timoshenko Reforms: March–July 1940’, in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies (hereafter JSMS), 9:1, March 1996, p. 71.

7 The interview was for a documentary shown on Russian television in 2002.

8 RGVA 9/31/292, 257 (December 1939); 9/36/3821, 7 (December 1939).

9 RGVA 9/31/292, 318.

10 Ibid.

11 Donald S. Detwiler et al. (Eds), World War II German Military Studies (London and New York, 1979), vol. 19, p. 5.

12 Ibid.

13 See Roger R. Reese, Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers: A Social History of the Red Army, 1925–1941 (Lawrence, KA, 1996), pp. 2–3.

14 See Mark von Hagen, Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship: The Red Army and the Soviet State, 1917–1930 (Ithaca, NY, 1990), pp. 21–50.

15 Erickson, ‘The System and the Soldier’, in Paul Addison and Angus Calder (Eds), Time to Kill (London, 1997), p. 234.

16 RGVA 9/31/292, 137.

17 RGVA 9/36/3818 (information from the training camp at Chita), 292–3, 309.

18 O. S. Porshneva, Mentalitet i sotsial’noe povedenie rabochikh, krest’yan i soldat v period pervoi mirovoi voiny (Ekaterinburg, 2000), p. 221.

19 Von Hagen, p. 273.

20 The research was collected for I. N. Shpil’rein, Yazyk krasnoarmeitsa (Moscow and Leningrad, 1928). I am grateful to Dr V. A. Kol’tsova of the Moscow Psychological Institute for introducing me to this material.

21 See Mark von Hagen, ‘Soviet soldiers and officers on the eve of the German invasion: Towards a description of social psychology and political attitudes’, Soviet Union/Union Sovietique, 18, 1–3 (1991), pp. 79–101.

22 Victor Kravchenko, cited in Reese, p. 13.

23 Porshneva, p. 110.

24 Anna Politkovskaya, A Dirty War, trans. John Crowfoot (London, 2001), p. 44.

25 Reese, p. 51.

26 Gabriel Temkin, My Just War (Novato, CA, 1998), p. 104.

27 Reese, p. 4.

28 Ibid., p. 42.

29 RGVA 9/31/292, 2.

30 Ibid., 9.

31 The Belgorod military district housing crisis, which was typical, is described in KPA 1/1/2114, 13.

32 For examples of all these problems, see GAOPIKO, 1/1/2772, 16–17.

33 RGVA 35077/1/6, 16.

34 Ibid., 18.

35 GAOPIKO 1/1/2776, 85.

36 RGVA 9/31/292, 14–21.

37 RGVA 9/36/3818, 142, RGVA 9⁄36⁄4263, 29.

38 RGVA 9/31/292, 69.

39 Reese, p. 50.

40 RGVA 35077⁄1⁄6, 53.

41 Reese, p. 47.

42 Ibid., p. 44. See also Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Smolenskoi oblasti (GASO), 2482⁄1⁄12, 8.

43 RGVA, 35077/1/6, 403.

44 TsAMO, 308/82766/66, 25.

45 PURKKA order no 282, cited in RGVA 9/362/3818, 48.

46 RGVA 9/36/4229, 77–92.

47 Reese, p. 55, citing regulations.

48 RGVA 9/36/4229, 150.

49 These examples are from RGVA 9/36/4282, 147–9.

50 RGVA, 9/31/292, 43.

51 RGVA 9/36/3818, 292.

52 P. N. Knyshevskii (Ed.), Skrytaya pravda voiny: 1941 god. Neizvestnye dokumenty (Moscow, 1992), pp. 14–21.

53 See Zaloga and Ness, pp. 189–91; RGVA, 9/36/4262, 40–2.

54 RGVA 9/36/3818, 206.

55 RGVA 9/36/4262, 40.

56 RGVA 350077/1/6, 403.

57 RGVA 9/31/292, 91.

58 RGVA 9/36/3818, 249, 292–3.

59 Cited in Reese, p. 63.

60 Ibid., p. 124.

61 Stalin’s Generals, p. 255.

62 Knyshevskii, p. 218.

63 Roger R. Reese, ‘The Red Army and the Great Purges,’ in J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (Cambridge, 1993), p. 213.

64 RGVA 9/31/292, 46–7. Monthly suicide statistics for 1939 appear in the same file.

65 Knyshevskii, p. 219.

66 Reese, Reluctant Soldiers, pp. 163–4.

67 RGVA 9/36/4282, 148 (January 1940).

68 RGVA 7/36/3818, 123–4.

69 Reese, Reluctant Soldiers, p. 93.

70 van Dyke, p. 79.

71 Werth, p. 71.

72 Interview, Kiev, April 2003.

73 Cited in von Hagen, Soviet Soldiers, p. 99.

74 L. N. Pushkarev, Po dorogam voiny (Moscow, 1995), p. 11.

75 The Red Army’s participation here is described in RGVA 9/31/292, 160–1.

76 Ibid., 209.

77 Ibid., 181–2.

78 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1406, 4.

79 M. Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941‒1944 (Houndmills, 2000), p. 9.

80 RGVA 9/31/292, 279.

81 TsAMO, 308/82766/66, 16, refers to directive of GlavPURKA of 14 January 1941.

82 Vestnik arkhivista, 2001: 3, 56–9.

83 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2772, 16 (22 April 1941).

84 TsAMO, 308/82766/66, 17.

85 RGASPI, 17/125/44, 23.

86 TsAMO, 308/82766/66, 17 (15 January 1941).

87 RGVA 9/31/292, 75.

88 For a discussion of this issue, see Garthoff, p. 231.

89 RGVA 9/31/292, 288 (15 December 1939).

90 Ibid., 250–1.

91 On primary groups, see the article by Shils and Janowitz cited above (p. 343).

92 Reese, p. 171.

93 On the lack of team spirit, see RGVA, 9/36/3821, 54.

94 RGVA 9/31/292, 245.

95 Ibid., 288 (15 December 1939).

96 RGVA 9/36/3821, 44.

97 RGVA 9/31/292, 255 (2 December 1939).

98 RGVA 9/36/3821, 2.

99 RGVA 9/31/292, 361.

100 Ibid., 351.

101 RGVA 9/36/3821, 8.

102 Krivosheev, p. 63.

103 RGVA 9/31/292, 290.

104 Ibid., 288 (15 December 1939).

105 Ibid., 253 (2 December 1939).

106 Ibid., 363.

107 Ibid., 360.

108 Ibid., 374.

109 Garthoff, p.236.

110 RGVA 9/36/4282, 47.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!