History of the Soviet Union, 1939-1943: Gerasimov to Territorial Annexations

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 09.24.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University

Aleksandr Gerasimov

Stalin and Voroshilov at the Kremlin, by Aleksandr Gerasmiov (1938) / From An Illustrated History of Russia, by Joel Carmichael

Aleksandr Gerasimov (1881-1963) ended the decade with his pocket full and his nerves jangling. Once a founding member of AKhRR (1927-1932), and chairman of MOSSKh (Moscow Section of the Union of Soviet Artists) from 1937-1939, Gerasimov found himself presiding over an organization seething with the anxieties of the purges. Artist denounced artist to save their own skin. His own radical past was dredged up when AKhRR was proclaimed a Trotskyite-Bukharinite organization; and he showed enough spine to speak up for Juvenal Slavinskii when that arts organizer was tried and executed in 1936. Yet he presided over the union during years when its ranks lost many to the purges, and must have signed onto many of those sordid arrests. Perhaps his well-known hobnobbing with the Kremlin elite saved him from the same fate.

By the end of the decade Gerasimov was recipient of huge prizes and commissions for his monumental canvases. He understood that the most important member of his audience was Joseph Stalin, whom he memorialized in October 1938 in his famous Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin. In 1939 he received a commission of 55,000 rubles for a single painting at exhibition “The Industry of Socialism”, and became fabulously wealthy when he received the first Stalin Prize for the Stalin canvas. Announced the day before Stalin’s sixtieth birthday, the prizes carried a cash award of $100,000 rubles for the first class; 2nd class received 50,000 rubles. The average yearly wage at the time was 10,000 rubles. So great were the rewards given loyal artists that when the Supreme Soviet issued a 1943 ukaz ‘On the Income Tax,’ it included special table for workers of the arts and literature, in which the top bracket was for 300,001 and above rubles!

Group Portrait of Elder Artists, by Aleksandr Gerasimov (1944) / Moscow: Izobrazitel’noe iskusstvo

An indifferent administrator and enthusiastic networker, Gerasimov went on to chair the all-important Orgkomitet of the Union of Soviet Artists from 1939-1954, and to be first president of USSR Academy of Arts when it was created in 1947. He held that job until 1957, and was known in his later years for his hostility to innovation. Other artists fared less well during this period. Scores perished during the purge year, including the great graphic artist Gustav Klucis; others languished without work, as did Robert Val’k and Pavel Filonov. Similar situations reigned in all the arts, perhaps most of all literature, where the tradition of Russian accomplishment (and thus the losses) was greatest. Aleksandr Fadeev, a once talented writer frightened into conformity, presided as First Secretary over the Writers’ Union from 1939-1954. The poets Anna Akhmatova (whose son was swallowed by the prison camps) and Boris Pasternak were hounded into silence, sustaining themselves by translation work. In May 1938 Osip Mandelshtam was arrested for the final time for his biting Ode to Stalin; he died on December 27 near Vladivostok. In 1939 Marina Tsvetaeva returned from the Paris emigration, hopelessly out of tune with Soviet reality, and fated to commit suicide in 1941. In 1939 Isaac Babel, short story writer and friend of Nikolai Ezhov, was arrested and would eventually die; and the great theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold arrested in 1938. Few cultures had such treasures to sacrifice to social progress.

All-Union Agricultural Exhibition

Letter about Socialist Competition, photo by M. Ozerskii (1939) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

Some four years in the making and two years behind schedule, the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition opened on August 1, 1939 in the northern part of Moscow, not far from the village of Ostankino. This was the second such exhibition, a far more modest affair having been held in Moscow in 1923. Eventually including over 200 buildings set on 600 acres of park land, the 1939 Exhibition celebrated both the triumphs of Soviet agriculture and the unbreakable brotherhood of the peoples of the USSR. It was a kind of giant Potemkin village, an Eden of Communism, graced with a huge statue of Stalin and the emblematic statue of the male worker and the female collective farmer that Vera Mukhina designed for the 1937 Paris Exposition. Two of the most popular films of the pre-war era, The Radiant Path (1940) and The Swineherd and the Shepherd (1941), contained scenes of simple women transfigured as in a fairy tale by their visits to the Exhibition.

Each branch of agriculture as well as each union republic and major region within the RSFSR was represented by its own pavilion. Many of them were decorated with bas reliefs of scenes of bountiful harvests, fattened animals, and collective and state farmers in ethnic garb. The republics’ pavilions were designed in vernacular, “folk” styles to illustrate the Stalinist formula of “national in form, socialist in content.” Inside were displays of working machinery and techniques of agricultural production, surrounded by vast tableaux depicting landscapes transformed by scientific farming. Throughout the Soviet Union competitions were organized among state and collective farmers, the winners of which were rewarded with cash prizes and trips to the Exhibition.

During the Great Patriotic War, the pavilions were closed and the gardens were run as a working state farm. By the time the Exhibition opened again in 1954, it contained a new “Friendship of Nations” fountain consisting of sixteen (one per republic) larger-than-life maidens in national costumes of gilded bronze. There also were new pavilions in the neo-Muscovite and Russian neoclassical styles that featured prominently in late Stalinist architecture. In 1959 the Exhibition’s name was changed to the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (VDNKh) to mirror the USSR’s technological prowess. Four years later, the republics’ pavilions were transferred to various ministries. The Space Pavilion and a 350-foot titanium-covered monument of a rising rocket were installed in 1966. These and later severely modernist additions to the Exhibition gave the earlier Stalin-era structures an aura of kitschy extravagance. The end of the Soviet era found the Exhibition in a state of disrepair. In 1993, it was organized into a joint stock company, renamed the “All-Russian Exhibition Center,” and transformed into a shopping mall. Throughout its eclectic existence, the Exhibition has been a popular site for both Muscovites and tourists to rendezvous and escape momentarily from their quotidian concerns.

Cult of Personality


Left: Portrait of Stalin, by Aleksandr Laktionov (1949) / From What is Socialist Realism?, by Werner Hovarth
Right: Stalin on the Tribune on May Day, photo by Evgenii Khaldei (1938) / From Soiuz fotokhudozhnikov Rossii

The Cult of Personality, as Khrushchev would call it many years later, was in full swing by the end of the 1930s. Stalin’s control of the Communist Party and the Soviet state were incontestable, and at his behest historians rewrote party history to make him a central figure. Although this implied no distortion of the truth for recent history, it demanded gross distortion of historical fact for the years of the Bolshevik underground, the Revolution, and the Civil War. The Short Course of the History of the Communist Party, an ostensibly objective work written by a collective of historians, was published in October 1938, and was soon a basic text of Stalinism that sold forty million copies throughout the world. Others beyond the long arm of Soviet law tipped their hats to Stalin, including Time Magazine, which made him its Man of the Year for 1939.

The Civil War, 1918-1920 / Wikimedia Commons

The vitriol of the cult of personality was inspired by a pleiade of leading revolutionaries whose own careers had once eclipsed Stalin. Lev Trotsky had been long exiled from the Soviet Union; and he seemed lucky in 1936 when his former comrades and rivals Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev had been tried and shot. In March 1938 it was the turn of Nikolai Bukharin and others, who were tried and shot for participation in the so-called Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites. The often bizarre accusations, reflecting the revisionist agenda of Stalinist history, were terribly unjust; but it must be noted that none of the victims had ever spoken out when earlier trials had devoured similarly innocent people.

Revival of the Economy, 1923-1925 / Wikimedia Commons

The idealized figure of Stalin represented in mass culture also spoke to a perceived need for vigorous leadership in Soviet society. Thus Stalin often appeared in a magnetic aura of charisma that went far beyond his political role, leaving many of the Soviet citizens lucky enough to meet him mesmerized. The charisma could also be transferred to other exemplary Soviet citizens, whose accomplishments were held up to others and, with the institution of the Stalin Prizes in December 1939, richly rewarded. The passion for rewriting history so prevalent in 1939 even inspired the rehabilitation of historical figures who had once exerted decisive leadership analogous to Stalin (Peter the Great, for instance), but whose politics had once barred them from the Soviet pantheon.

Great Fergana Canal


Left: Construction site of the Fergana Grand Canal, photo by Max Alper (1939) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova
Right: NKVD Fergana Canal Badge (1939) / From Soviet Souvenirs and Relics, by Donald Kakretz

Beginning in late July 1939, 160,000 Uzbek kolkhozniks assisted by several thousand Tadzhik collective farmers were mobilized by the Uzbek Communist Party to construct the two-hundred and seventy kilometers long Great Fergana Canal. The main purpose of this canal was to draw waters from the Syr-Darya River to irrigate the cotton fields of the Fergana Valley, and thereby to achieve “cotton independence” for the Soviet Union. The last great construction project of the 1930s, the Great Fergana Canal amazingly took only forty-five days to build. By the time of its completion, the Second World War had begun.

Gathering Cotton in the Uzbek SSR, by Pavel Ben’kov / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik

Earlier projects, most notoriously the White Sea (Belomor) Canal of 1931-33 and the Moscow-Volga Canal of 1932-37, relied heavily on Gulag-supervised prisoner labor. The Great Fergana Canal was different. Labeled by party propagandists a “people’s construction project,” it drew mainly on local resources. Hardly any mechanized equipment was available and, with the exception of an occasional automobile or motorcycle, none appears in the extant photographs taken by some of the Soviet Union’s better-known photographers from the Stalin era. The dominant impression conveyed by both photographs and newsreel footage was pharaonic – enormous numbers of Uzbek dekhkane (peasants), called to the trenches by karnai (elongated horms), flailing away with their ketmeny(backhoes) under the broiling summer sun. Among those impressed by reports of the Uzbeks’ labor enthusiasm was Sergei Eisenstein who, together with the novelist Pavel Pavlenko, wrote a script to a film called Fergana Canal. The film was to be a “triptych.” Part one, set in the late 14th century, culminated in the sacking of Urgench by Timur (Tamerlane); part two involved a riot (bunt) by dekhkane against local notables (miraby) who controlled the water supply in the early years of the twentieth century; and part three was to demonstrate the triumph over the elemental forces of water and sand by Communist labor. Unlike the canal itself, the film was never completed, joining a long list of projects abandoned by Eisenstein.

Construction site of the Fergana Grand Canal, by Max Alpert (1939) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova

The canal project came hard on the heels of a thorough-going purge of the Uzbek Communist Party. It derived its labor force from recently collectivized Central Asian populations for whom a sense of nationality was newly minted. It as well as other canals constructed after the war supported significant agricultural and industrial development in the Fergana Valley, which became the most densely populated region in all of Central Asia. At the same time, the canal also set in motion forces that would result in the desiccation of the Aral Sea, one of the great ecological disasters of the second half of the twentieth century.

Labor Discipline

We Smite the Pseudo-Shock Workers (1931) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

Labor discipline, which meant everything from showing up to work on time and not falling asleep on the job to carrying out supervisors’ instructions and improving job performance, was a cardinal principle of Bolshevism in power. Having been proclaimed by Lenin as “the peg of the entire economic construction of socialism, the basis of our understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” labor discipline became a yardstick by which individual workers’ “consciousness” could be measured. Yet, however much labor discipline was ritualistically invoked by the party and the trade unions, Soviet workers evinced little evidence of having internalized it.

With the fate of the industrialization drive at stake, the Soviet government moved to punish what were referred to in a decree of January 18, 1931 as “malicious disorganizers of production.” Another decree of November 15, 1932 extended the strictures of the earlier law to include automatic dismissal from work, confiscation of ration cards, and eviction from enterprise housing of workers who were absent without just cause for even a single day. Restrictions on the subsequent employment of workers fired for absenteeism followed in June 1933. Data on absenteeism show a significant decline after 1932, though it is unclear whether this was because of an actual improvement or because labor-hungry managers were willing to turn a blind eye towards truancy.

The disorganization of production resulting from the Terror of 1936-38 and the likely prospect of war precipitated a second crackdown on labor indiscipline towards the end of the decade. On 20 December 1938, the government introduced labor books which workers were required to present to new employers upon being hired. Eight days later, on 28 December, another decree reasserted the penalties of the November 1932 law on absenteeism and placed new restrictions on workers who wanted to leave their jobs voluntarily. Lateness to work by more than 20 minutes was to be punished by immediate dismissal and eviction from enterprise housing. Pregnancy leave was reduced from 16 to nine weeks, and the mandatory notice period for those wishing to leave their jobs was extended from seven days to one month. The final and most draconian act came on 26 June 1940. This decree essentially criminalized quitting and absenteeism.

Although severely limiting workers’ and managers’ options, even these decrees were circumvented. Nor could it be otherwise given that the conditions militating against labor discipline — a shortage of labor, unreliable and overcrowded transportation, significant downtime due to breakdowns of machinery and shortage of spare parts — were an endemic part of Soviet life.

The Lost Census

All-Union Census Day (1937) / Wikimedia Commons

Normally a safe occupation, census taker was a dangerous profession in the Soviet Union. Directors of the 1937 Soviet census suffered a shocking casualty rate. Counted in January, the census claimed its first victim in Ivan Adamovich Kraval, chief of the Central Statistics Department (CSD). His assistants followed shortly thereafter. The problem was that calculations of natural population growth had projected a population of 186.4 million, an increase of 37.6 million since the 1926 census; the actual increase turned out to be only 7.2 million. The population gap spoke so graphically of unnatural death, and so belied the image of a healthy happy society, that the census was squelched. On September 26, Pravda published a communiqué of the Sovnarkom claiming “crude violations of the principles of statistical science.”

January 17, 1939 (1939) / Wikimedia Commons

The 1939 census produced the more agreeable, though still far from encouraging result of 170 million Soviet citizens. Close attention would still have suggested profound traumas to the Soviet population, but the numbers were published in such a way as to obscure that reading. Historians have claimed that the probability of fudged numbers completely discredits the 1939 Census, and while there is much to say for this opinion, there is still much to learn from the census. Soviet officials certainly did. In the aborted 1937 census they had queried adults as to their beliefs and religious affiliation; the shocking tally of believers in 1937 was confirmed by the hostility shown to census-takers in 1939 by rural folk. Many believers treated census takers as representatives of a malevolent state.

All-Union Census, 1939 (1939) / Wikimedia Commons

Although questions about religious belief were absent from the 1939 form, questions about nationality mirrored an ongoing debate on the composition of Soviet society. National self-determination was fundamental to Soviet being, yet by 1939 state ethnographers and anthropologists had compiled lists that categorized groups as major nationalities, ethnic groups or national minorities. Although meant to acknowledge and solidify nationalities within the Soviet state, the lists often marginalized them. Many groups had disappeared from the lists by 1939, “consolidated” into larger groups. Crimean Tatars, Mishars, Nagaibaks and others were united under the rubric “Tatar”; Turks of the Fergana, Samarkand and other regions were unified as “Uzbeks.” Consolidations could have profound effect these groups in later years, depriving them of a voice and presence in Soviet society.

The New Patriotism

Better an Honourable Death than a Shameful Life (1943), by Dmitrii Donskoi / Wikimedia Commons

Though most historians associate the notion of posthumous rehabilitation to the post-Stalin era, the practice was in fact launched in the late 1930s. The positive reevaluation of national heroes from the tsarist era had reached full swing by 1939. The most robust applause was reserved for long-deceased military heroes of the likes of Generalissimo Aleksandr Suvorov (1729-1800), who had defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1789 and revolutionary French in 1799. Early Soviet historians had labeled Suvorov a reactionary whose political crimes included capturing peasant rebel Emelian Pugachev in 1774, and crushing the Polish Uprising of Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1793. His reputation was burnished by Vsevolod Pudovkin’s biographical film of 1940, and by the fact that Stalin chose Suvorov’s rank of generalissimo when he assumed supreme command of the army during Second World War.

There is No Power that Can Enslave Us! (1943), by Kuz’ma Minin / Wikimedia Commons

Other figures undergoing reappraisal in film included Prince Dmitrii Pozharskii and the merchant Kuz’ma Minin, who led popular resistance against Polish incursions during the Time of Troubles, 1611-1612; Dmitrii Donskoi, the Muscovite prince who defeated the Mongol Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo (1380); and Prince Alexander Nevskii (1220-1263), who defended Novgorod against Swedes, Mongols and, in the great battle on the ice of Lake Peipus in 1242, the Teutonic Knights. Nevskii, who achieved sainthood in Russian Orthodoxy, was subject of a film by Sergei Eisenstein, which premiered on the eve of the twenty-first anniversary of the Revolution (November 6, 1938). His example for the Soviet present was manifest in the explicit identification of the thirteenth-century Teutonic knights that he defeated with twentieth-century German fascists (aka Nazis), highlighted by the similarity of their helmets.


Left: Children of Chapaev (1943) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Forward for the Sake of the Motherland! (1943) / Wikimedia Commons

History served blunt political purposes in 1939. When Eastern Poland (or Western Ukraine, depending on one’s allegiance) was annexed, the grab was motivated by reference to the 1654 oath of fealty sworn to Moscow by Cossack rebel Bogdan Khmelnitskii in defiance of his Polish overlords. Yet history was a fickle master, as Eisenstein discovered. Awarded the Order of Lenin for his movie on February 1, 1939, and perhaps saved from the bloody purges because of it, Eisenstein found his creation shelved when the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact made anti-fascism inconvenient. He soon received a commission from the Bolshoi Theater to direct Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, which he dutifully did, only to find it banned in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

Soviet Territorial Annexations

Give a Hand to the Western Ukraine, by V.S. Ivanov (1939) / Russian Political Posters

When the Red Army crossed the Soviet frontier into eastern Poland on September 17, 1939 it was to unify historically Ukrainian and Belorussian lands. Such, at least, was the Soviet explanation for its participation in the partitioning of Poland which had been agreed upon in a secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 23, 1939. Made up largely of ethnic Ukrainians and commanded by a Ukrainian, Semen Timoshenko, the Red Army units were told by their political commissars that they were entering Poland not as conquerors but as liberators. To the local peasants the Red Army distributed leaflets explaining that it had come to rid them of their oppressive Polish rulers. Easily overwhelming Polish military forces, who were already fighting the Germans in the west, the Red Army proceeded to set up militia units and local revolutionary councils. On October 24 a People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine requested to become part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and a Belorussian equivalent soon followed suit. Decrees nationalizing industry and collectivizing the land were issued, although by the time the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union a year and a half later only some 13 percent of peasants had been enrolled in collective farms. In the meantime, these regions were cleansed of thousands of Poles, particularly landowners, officers and officials, as many as twenty thousand of whom were eventually executed by the NKVD under orders from Lavrentii Beria.


Left: New territories of the USSR (1948) / From Soviet Russia: The Land and Its People, by Nicholas Mikhailov
Right: Molotov signs the Non-Aggression Treaty (1939) / Katyn

The Non-Aggression Pact gave the Soviet Union a free hand in the Baltic and it was not long before Stalin put pressure on Finland to grant a Soviet base on Finnish soil and move the Finnish-Soviet border westward to protect Leningrad. The Finnish government’s refusal to cede any territory, inspired in part by its hope of receiving allied support, precipitated a Soviet invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939. Finnish resistance was stiff, and Red Army casualties were embarrassingly high, but the so-called Winter War ended in March 1940 with a treaty ceding to the USSR the territories it originally had demanded plus Finnish Karelia. Nearly half a million Finns fled to what remained of independent Finland. The price that the USSR paid, aside from troop losses numbering in excess of 100,000, was international respectability. On December 14, 1939 the League of Nations voted to expel the Soviet Union.


Left: Line of Demarcation between Soviet and German Armies (1939) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: German and Soviet soldiers (1939) / Katyn

Soviet pressure on Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the three Baltic republics that had achieved their independence during the Russian civil war of 1918-20, was a graduated process. In the fall of 1939 Estonia conceded bases to the Soviets and both Latvia and Lithuania were compelled to admit and house Red Army troops. Claiming that Lithuania had violated its treaty, Stalin eventually dropped any pretense of respecting its sovereignty. On June 15, 1940 Soviet troops entered the country ostensibly in response to appeals from Lithuanian workers to assist them in their “revolution.” Similar “revolutions” occurred in Estonia and Latvia, and on August 3 all three Baltic states were officially proclaimed Soviet Socialist Republics. Sovietization was a brutal affair, involving the rounding up, deportation and/or execution of thousands of former officials, landowners, clergy, and intellectuals. Further to the south, Soviet troops invaded the Romanian provinces of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina and incorporated them into the Soviet republic of Moldavia. Thus, by September 1940, the Soviet Union had extended its western borders to include many of the territories and peoples formerly under tsarist rule. This westward thrust was reversed by the Nazi invasion of June 1941, but repeated again as the Red Army drove the Wehrmacht out of Soviet territory and proceeded on the road to Berlin.

Tractor Drivers


Left: If Tomorrow Brings War (1938) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: War Games, photo by Mikhail Grachev (1939) / Artkhronika

The three merry fellows in Ivan Pyriev’s 1939 film Tractor Drivers returning home from service against the Japanese in Manchuria served their generation as emblems of many things. By nationality – a Georgian, a Ukrainian, and a Russian – they embodied the amicable union of peoples in the healthy Soviet organism. The crewmen of a tank, they represented the modern corps of the Red Army. And returning from their victory over the “samurai” of their song, their health and vigor boded a future of strong defense against the aliens to the East. Unfortunate events were to undermine all these rosy pictures, and some in fact already had.

Tractors, by Dmitrii Moor (1934) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

The year previous to the premiere of Tractor Drivers had seen the military leadership subjected to a brutal purge that left few of the higher command alive. Among the many victims were younger commanders such as Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii, the brilliant leader responsible for modernizing the Red Army during the 1930s. Son of a noble family, tsarist officer during the First World War who commanded Red troops during the Civil War, he participated in many campaigns, including the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion. He was made Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1935 for his efforts in educating and rearming the army. In June 1937 he found himself on trial with seven other top commanders for conspiracy with Fascist Germany. All were convicted and shot, taking with them the strategic brilliance that made for successful tank warfare. In the purges that followed others fell, including Marshal Vasilii Bliukher, who had commanded the successful 1929 invasion of northern Manchuria. Left in control of the army were old Civil War horses Klim Voroshilov and Semen Budennyi, whose resentment of new technologies would spell disaster in the early months of World War II.

A Tractor in the Field, by Viktor Ivanov (1942) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

The movie stars Nikolai Kriuchkov (seated to the right in the clip) as Klim Iarko, driver of the tank who is returning home to his collective farm to resume his duties as tractor driver. His role in the film underlined an important theme in Soviet propaganda on military preparedness, the close connection between introducing tractor technology on the farm and tank technology in the army. He returns home to find his job ready, and through his record-breaking performance manages to win the heart of Mariana Bazhan, played by Marina Ladynina, a Stakhanovite driver who bore a striking resemblance to Pasha Angelina. Kriuchkov and Ladynina would star in many more of the films of director Ivan Pyriev, reviver of the musical comedy genre whose future hits would include The Swineherd and the Shepherd (1941), At Six o’clock in the Evening after the War (1944), and Kuban’ Cossacks (1948).