History of the Soviet Union, 1943-1947: Battle of Kursk to Wartime Evacuation

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

900 Days

Heroic Leningrad, by The Aladzhalov Brothers (1944) / Wikimedia Commons

By 1943, Leningraders were enduring their second winter of the German army’s siege of their city. The siege began in September 1941 after the Army Group North under General Ritter von Leeb had severed the city’s vital rail line to Moscow and began bombarding seemingly random targets. The aim was to terrorize and starve the population into surrender. Within the city, grim determination struggled to overcome panic. By the beginning of the siege some 400,000 people — mostly children — had been evacuated from the city despite official assurances that food supplies were plentiful and the invaders were incurring huge losses. Even before Georgii Zhukov replaced Klement Voroshilov as commander of Leningrad’s defense, virtually all able-bodied adults who has not been called up or had volunteered for military service were mobilized as People’s Volunteers to dig trenches and otherwise fortify the city. By early September, one Leningrader was recording in her diary that “We have returned to prehistoric times: life has been reduced to one thing — the hunt for food.”


Left: Beware of a Shelling (1943) / Russian State Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk
Right: Military Patrol, by Sergei Zakharov (1944) / From The Leningrad School, 1930-1990, by S.V. Ivanov

As the weather turned cold and fuel supplies disappeared, public transportation ceased, heating and electricity were turned off, and residents dismantled wooden houses and chopped down trees for warmth. In November, the Germans advanced further to the east, cutting the last rail connection to the rest of the country. The only route for goods to reach the city was across frozen Lake Ladoga (the “road of life”) by truck or horse sledge and then another thirty-five miles by a rail spur through the isthmus north of the German-held town of Schlusselburg. Convoys frequently broke through the ice or came under strafing from German aircraft. Food rations in the city were reduced again and again, condemning tens of thousands to death by starvation. People ate anything to stay alive — rats, mice, cats, dogs, birds, bark, tooth powder, glue, and (in how many instances can never be known) human flesh. Among those who did not survive, many simply dropped from cold and exhaustion and froze to death. Bodies were dumped onto the streets to be collected or not. In March 1942, the Leningrad Funeral Trust buried 89,968 people; in April the number reached 102,497. From November 1941 to the end of 1942, 460,000 bodies had been interred. Of the approximately 2.5 million residents at the start of the blockade, one million were evacuated and about 600,000 were still alive in January 1944 when the siege was finally lifted. That meant that roughly 800,000 had died of starvation and as many as another 200,000 were killed by bombing or in defending the city.

Panorama of Blockade / Wikimedia Commons

Government authorities and party activists worked strenuously throughout the siege to keep up the morale of the population. Competitions were organized at work with extra rations as the prize; newsreel cameras filmed youthful, healthy-looking men and women engaged in athletic events; poetry recitals and concerts, many of them broadcast by radio, were plentiful. Those suspected of defeatism, thievery, or collaboration with the enemy were dealt with harshly. The two-and-a-half year siege of Leningrad and the determination of its inhabitants to survive were memorialized in stone monuments, in the poetry of Olga Berggolts and other Leningrad poets, in Dmitrii Shostakovich’s Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony, and in countless other ways.

Battle of Kursk

The Kursk Front, photo by Mark Markov-Grinberg (1943) / Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Kursk, which involved the largest tank battle of the Second World War, was fought on the steppe of Kursk oblast between July 5 and August 23, 1943. It was initiated by the Germans who, in retreat after their spectacular defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, concentrated 50 divisions, two tank brigades, three tank battalions, and eight artillery assault divisions comprising 2,700 Tiger and Panther tanks, some two thousand aircraft, and 900,000 men in all. The Soviet forces, consisting of General K. K. Rokossovskii’s Army of the Center, General N. F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Army, and the reserve army of the Steppe Front under General I. S. Konev, numbered 1.3 million troops, 3,600 tanks, and 2,800 aircraft.


Left: I Lost My Little Ring (Hitler at Kursk), by Kukrynisky (1943) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Hero of the Soviet Union, Battle of Kursk (1943) / CollecRussia

The German offensive, code named “Citadel,” involved two simultaneous thrusts against the Soviet-held northern and southern salients. Both were successfully repulsed, and by July 12, the Soviet forces had gone over to the offensive. On August 4, the city of Orel was liberated and by the 18th the German army took up defensive positions east of Bryansk. It had lost 30 of its 50 divisions and up to 500,000 men killed, wounded or missing in action. From its victory in the Battle of Kursk, the Soviet Red Army went on to liberate most of Ukraine in the autumn of 1943, marching into Kiev on November 6. Although Western historiography traditionally marks the beginning of the German downfall to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the crushing defeat of Kursk makes a more likely turning point for the war.

The Cult of Leadership

Comrade Stalin’s Speech on 7 November 1941, by Aleksandr Laktionov (1942), Art Katalog

Joseph Stalin’s penchant for strong leadership and its Russification in the multinational Soviet state served a purpose during the war. As the nation reeled in the face of deep German penetration into Soviet territory, and millions silently wondered whether the Soviet state would survive, Stalin used the language and images of traditional state nationalism to rally them and give them courage. He shared with his British counterpart Winston Churchill the ability to stir his compatriots’ hearts with the echoes of history. This caused some qualms for those concerned with the niceties of Marxist ideology; and on occasion, historical models brought with them unwanted baggage.

Ivan the Movie, by M.O. Dlugach (1945) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

Nothing was more problematic than the tangled legacy of Ivan the Terrible (whose Russian moniker Groznyi more accurately is translated as the Awesome), the Muscovite grand prince crowned tsar in 1547 whose life Stalin used as a paradigm for his own style of statecraft. Creator of the centralized Muscovite state, military leader who finally drove the Tatars from Russia, Ivan emerged from the long shadow of his bloody paranoia to assume new status as a symbol of Russian might. The story of his life, already the subject of several plays and historical monographs, was handed to master filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Guided by his recent triumph with Aleksandr Nevskii but moved by the tormented fate of his subject, Eisenstein began filming the first of the three-parts of the film in 1943 in Alma Ata (Almaty), capital of the Kazakh Soviet Republic. This part was devoted to Ivan’s early years when, as Eisenstein would have it, Ivan triumphed over rival claimants to the throne to emerge as determined to rid Muscovy of boyar intrigue as he was to shed the Tatar yoke. The role of Ivan was played by Nikolai Cherkasov, the same tall, handsome actor with an extremely photogenic face who had depicted Aleksandr Nevskii.

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov (1897) / Wikimedia Commons

Eisenstein’s most devoted fan was Stalin, who appreciated the historical parallels to himself. Like Ivan who had gone to war against a confederation of northern powers (the Livonian War) to obtain direct access to the Baltic, Stalin had overseen the extension of the country’s borders westward via the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And in the boyar plots depicted by Eisenstein, Stalin evidently saw an earlier manifestation of the waywardness and treason of his erstwhile comrades within the Communist Party. For his effort, Eisenstein received a Stalin Prize in 1944. Stalin proved a much harsher critic in 1946, when Eisenstein released part two of the triptych, depicting Ivan’s spiral into madness. The unflattering parallels between Ivan’s praetorian guard, the oprichnina, and the NKVD may have hit too close to home.

Deportation of Minorities

A Common Language, by Lev Brodaty (1942) / Moscow: Izd-vo Pravda

In 1943-44, approximately one million people were removed by the NKVD from their homelands in the North Caucasus and Crimea for resettlement in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. These were the Chechens, Ingushi, Karachai, Balkars, Kalmyks, Meskhetian Turks, and Crimean Tatars who were collectively charged with treason for having collaborated with German occupiers.

The forcible removal of an ethnically defined population from a given territory, known today as “ethnic cleansing” was neither unique to the Soviet Union nor new to the territories encompassed by it. During World War I, while the Ottoman Empire deported its entire Armenian population from the northeastern frontier and engaged in genocidal massacres, the Imperial Russian army removed some 800,000 Germans and Jews from the western borderlands. Soviet ethnic cleansing began in earnest in the mid-1930s with the removal of stigmatized ethnic groups from sensitive border regions. In the western borderlands, Poles, Germans, and Finns were the main victims; in the Far Eastern krai virtually all Koreans, numbering some 171,000 people, had been resettled in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan by October 1937. Within months of the Nazi invasion in 1941, at least 400,000 citizens of German descent living along the Volga were transported eastwards to Central Asia and Siberia.

The deportations of 1943-44 were carried out with devastating efficiency. On a single night in February 1944 tens of thousands of NKVD troops assembled and deported at one hour’s notice the vast majority of the Chechen and Ingush populations, killing the most recalcitrant and those too ill to be moved. Transported by cattle car and in trucks provided to the Soviet Union by the US Lend-Lease aid program, many died en route to Kazakhstan. In 1957 the government revoked the accusation of Nazi collusion and permitted all but the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks, whose homes and lands had been occupied by Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian settlers, to return.

End of the Comintern

Our Army is the Liberating Army of All the Workers of the World, by Viktor Koretskii (1939) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

On May 22, 1943, the Presidium of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern) issued a resolution dissolving the organization. Few could have been surprised. Founded in 1919 as the beacon of international proletarian revolution, the Comintern initially played an important role in rallying elements of the European left that had broken with social democracy over its betrayal of proletarian internationalism during the First World War, and in sustaining support for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. However, the Comintern’s imposition of strict rules governing the behavior of constituent Communist parties limited their maneuverability within their respective countries, and its purging of supporters of Trotsky and Bukharin further narrowed their appeal.

The decision of the Seventh Comintern Congress in July 1935 to abandon the organization’s previously intransigent anti-capitalist line in favor of a Popular Front with reformist socialist and bourgeois parties against fascism, and the Comintern’s efforts on behalf of the embattled Spanish Republic during that country’s civil war (1936-39) resonated with broad circles of the European left. For them, the anti-fascist struggles of the second half of the 1930s constituted a kind of golden age. However, for those within the Executive Committee who had opposed the new line, the price was heavy: almost to a man, they perished in the Great Purges of 1937-38. The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 stunned millions of Communists and Soviet sympathizers around the world, further weakening the Comintern’s appeal. The British and French Communist parties, which until the announcement of the pact had been in the forefront of their countries’ anti-fascist coalitions, were compelled by Moscow to perform a volte face by declaring the war against Nazi Germany to be an “imperialist” venture on the part of their respective capitalist classes.

The Soviet government responded to the Nazi invasion of June 1941 by casting the titanic struggle in the highly nationalist terms of a Great Patriotic War. Invoking heroic figures from the hoary Russian past, it also took steps to reassure the western allies that it too was part of what Stalin referred to as “the common onslaught of all freedom-loving nations against the common enemy.” The dissolution of the already moribund Comintern fit into this scheme.

Epaulettes Back in Uniforms


Left: Zhukov Triumphant, by S.N. Prisekin (1945) / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Marshal Zhukov, Red Square, photo by Evgenii Khaldei (1945) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: World War II Looms (1940) / Russian Archives Online

In the dark days leading up to the Battle of Stalingrad, British embassy staff were confounded to receive a massive order for gold braid from the Soviet government. Perhaps that would hold off the tanks? Frivolous though it seemed, the request presaged a campaign to revitalize military morale, beginning with the officer corps. Massacred in the purges of 1938-1939, battered by the German onslaught of 1941, and undermined since the Revolution by the hated political commissars, Soviet officers received not only lavish braid for their parade uniforms, they received their pride and authority back.


Left: At the Teachers’ Council, by Lev Brodaty (1945) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Stalin’s Commanders (1943) / FUNET Image Archive

Changes came in fits and starts. Although the institution of commissar had been abolished in 1940, it was reinstated during the post-invasion panic of 1941, when military loyalty came under doubt. The armed forces were still led by Stalin’s cronies, the Civil War heroes Voroshilov and Budennyi, whose refusal to heed younger professionals left the Soviet Army unprepared for blitzkrieg. In 1942 Aleksandr Korneichuk, a journalist, playwright and mouthpiece for high government circles, had his Front, a thinly veiled attack on the old civil war horses, produced in Moscow’s Red Army Theater. The prestigious stage, and the fact that the script was printed in Pravda, were unmistakable signs of a shift. Elevation of the brilliant commander Georgii Zhukov to deputy commander of Soviet armed forces in August 1942, now outranked only by Stalin, was another sign of professional ascendancy. From his new post, Zhukov oversaw the defense of Stalingrad and the great counteroffensive that crushed the Germans, and he soon played an important role in the Battle of Kursk. Morale amongst officers soared, as well as among enlisted men, who gained confidence that their commanders were as good as those of the Germans.


Left: Portrait of the Marshal Georgii Zhukov, by Pavil Korin (1945) / Tretiakov Gallery
Right: Marshal Zhukov, by Pavil Korin (1949) / From Architecture of the Stalin Era, by Aleksei Tarakhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze

Revered ancestors included Generalissimo Aleksandr Suvorov, conqueror of Poles, Turks, and equal to Napoleon in Italy, whose title Stalin himself assumed in 1943; and Mikhail Kutuzov, who had used the mud and winter to defeat Napoleon outside Moscow, just as Stalin defeated the Germans at Stalingrad. In gratitude for the hope they offered during the dark early days of war, these military leaders were honored in plays, movies, biographies and even hagiographies. Military orders of great prestige were founded in their honor. With gold braid on their shoulders, and new military orders on their breasts, officers recovered so much prestige as to form a separate caste. Aided by the creation of the Suvorov Institutes, military academies open only to the sons of fallen officers, and of special stores stocking prized consumer items, the military ensured the well-being of its officers. The arrangement served the country well until victory in 1945 and beyond. Only after the war did Stalin, fearful that Zhukov (and by implication the military) might rival his own prestige, demote him to command of the Odessa military district.


Map of Concentration Camps in Europe / Florida Center for Instructional Technology: Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust

Triumphant on the ground for the Soviet Army, the year 1943 was gruesome for Jewish survivors in urban ghettos that still lay behind enemy lines. As the Wehrmacht retreated, the Nazi leadership hastened to hide the evidence of its extermination policies. Jews who had been confined to their ghettos, where squalor and starvation slowly diminished their numbers, were violently routed from their quarters to be shipped west, or were killed on the spot. Bullets, gas trucks, starvation, beating all proved effective. Jewish populations and cultures disappeared from a world where they had long traditions. In September 1943 the Minsk Ghetto was liquidated; in October, the Vilna Ghetto; and in November, the Riga Ghetto. Ironically, the word for mass murder- liquidation– was borrowed from the Soviets themselves.

Although singled out by the Nazis for systematic elimination, Jews were not alone in being victimized as a people. When Soviet troops entered Poland in 1944 and began liberating the vast concentration camps there, they found that millions of Jews had perished, as well as Slavs and Gypsies, all in the name of Nazi racial policies. Poles, because they had first fallen to the German armies and had a long history of enmity with Germans, and Russians, infected as they were with the Jewish-Bolshevik disease, suffered horribly under German rule. Reduced to a subhuman existence by cold and starvation, as many as three million Russian prisoners-of-war died in concentration camps, most after Stalingrad. Some were exported to Germany as workers (Ostarbeiter), where they suffered slightly less horrible fates.

The legacy of the holocaust has divided more than united its victims. Overwhelming anger and grief have moved all the victim nations to preserve the memory of the own dead, yet less so to remember the dead of other nations. “Concentration Camp for Soviet People outside Tallinn,” the title given to horrifying raw footage shot at the camp at Klooga, did not even mention the fact that the victims were Jews, this already in 1944. Jews resented that Soviet authorities did not acknowledge the Jewish focus of racial policies. Many were moved by suspicions that concentration camps were located in Slavic lands in order to capitalize on local anti-Semitism, a belief bolstered by the presence of some Slavs among camp staff, and by official anti-Semitism of the post-war years. Russians and other Slavs pointed to the fact that camps were built on occupied territories which happened to be Slavic, that Slavic populations were exterminated too; and in the spirit of Soviet internationalism, they spoke of the Soviet people having been subjected to extermination. When in September 1961 Russian poet Evgenii Evtushenko wrote a scathing poem at the unmarked site of Babii Yar, outside Kiev, on the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of 70,000 Jews, Nikita Khrushchev’s crude attack on the poem reflected this longstanding resentment against Jewish claims to unique suffering.

Katyn Forest Massacre

May 1943 / From Katyn, by Iu Krasil’nikov

On April 13, 1943, German radio announced the discovery of a mass grave in Katyn forest near Smolensk, where, it was alleged, Soviet security forces had carried out executions of thousands of Polish officers. The claim was denounced by Stalin as a “monstrous invention by the German-fascist scoundrels” designed to sow discord among the war-time allies. The Polish government-in-exile, then in London, appealed to the International Red Cross to conduct an investigation, which provoked the Soviet government to sever relations with the London Poles. The Soviet government continued to deny any responsibility until, under Gorbachev, it admitted that the executions had been ordered by Stalin and carried out by the NKVD. Official documents turned over to the Polish government in 1992 revealed that 4,443 Polish officers had been executed at Katyn and another 16,000 at other sites.

The massacre of Polish officers occurred in 1940 following the partitioning of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939. To legitimize its invasion of eastern Poland, the Soviet Union claimed it was liberating Ukrainian and Belorussian toilers from their oppressive Polish rulers. In the process of absorbing these regions into the Ukrainian and Belorussian Soviet Republics, the “liberators” arrested tens of thousands of Polish landlords, officials, intellectuals, and officers and sent them to prison camps. Considering it inconvenient to guard, feed, and otherwise keep alive such a large number of Polish prisoners, Lavrentii Beria, People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, organized the execution of some 20,000.

ID of a Murdered Polish Officer (1943) / From Katyn, by Iu Krasil’nikov

To many Poles, this horrible crime was compounded by the refusal of the Red Army, camped just outside Warsaw in the summer of 1944, to support the uprising of the Polish Home Army against the city’s Nazi occupiers. Only after the Nazis crushed the Home Army, which was loyal to the Polish government in London, did the Red Army advance into Warsaw. The Katyn massacre and Soviet perfidy towards the Home Army undoubtedly made it even more difficult than would otherwise have been the case for the pro-Soviet government installed in Poland after the war to achieve popular legitimacy.

Love and Romance in War

Frontline Girlfriends, by Ia.T. Rulevskii (1941) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

Romance, the high-flown, sentimental, overwhelming passion between a man and a woman, pulled people into its orbit during the war as it had not for many years. The heightened atmosphere of wartime, when couples met with the very real knowledge that they might never see each other again, threw people into each other’s arms with a sweetness and sadness rare in less dangerous times. Although such feelings had been dismissed as bourgeois nonsense by the revolutionary generation, the retrenchment of traditional gender roles during the 1930s had accustomed young men and women to the forgotten rituals of courting and mating. The war simply raised the stakes.

We’ll Take Your Place!, by A.O. Serov (1941) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

Several voices spoke most deeply to yearning hearts during the war. Konstantin Simonov, a young party journalist who worked his way up during the purge campaigns of the late 1930s, developed a voice of direct emotion that touched millions. Covering the disastrous retreat of summer 1941 from the frontlines, he wrote beautiful poems of sadness and love, most importantly “Wait for Me.” Klavdiia Shulzhenko, who had vaulted to stardom in a song contest in 1939, sang such popular hits as “Blue Scarf” or “Let’s Have a Smoke”. Her voice, pleasant but not overwhelming, held a conversational intimacy that won the hearts of radio listeners across the country. A magical intimacy rang in the voice of Mark Bernes as well. In the movie “Two Soldiers”, he sang the lovers’ anthem “Dark is the Night” on the eve of battle in a dugout, accompanied by a raw guitar.

We Shall Have Our Revenge!, by Isaak Rabichev (1941) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution in the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

The romantic mood of the war played upon the traditional gender roles that socialism was to have made obsolete. Men defended their motherland in the abstract, their mothers, wives and lovers in the concrete. Women relied passively on the martial valor of their men. The traditional roles that evoked such deep sentiment in songs, films and poems was strikingly at odds with the real life roles that women assumed during the war. The full-scale mobilization of men to the front placed women in leading roles in kolkhozes and factories, in families and communities. The Soviet Union was unique in placing women in harm’s way in combat roles, as pilots, transport drivers, and anti-aircraft gunners. Women would not easily forget their leadership roles in the immediate post-war years, when the few families that did not lose a spouse or parent needed to reconsolidate themselves.


Left: Our Hope is in You, Red Warrior!, by Viktor Ivanov (1943) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution in the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin
Right: Klavdiia Shulzenko appearing in film Concert for the Front Lines (1942) / Wikimedia Commons

Romance has consequences, as state and society recognized fairly soon. Illegitimate births skyrocketed, and although the state had tried to reinforce family life in the 1930s, the need to bear future soldiers for the army and workers for industry, and to recover the precipitous population drop of the previous decade, forced the state to acknowledge and support unwed mothers. In fact, a tax was imposed on childless families. No laws could ease the grief of widowed women, and women who had reached marriageable age during postwar years, when healthy men were in great deficit.

Orthodox Patriarch Appointed

Metropolitan Sergii, by Pavel Korin (1937) / Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow

The enmity between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet state came to an official end in September 1943 with the election of Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergii Stragorodskii, de facto leader of the church for seventeen years, as Patriarch. The election had been preceded by a momentous September 4 meeting in the Kremlin between Joseph Stalin and three leading Metropolitans: Sergei, Aleksei Simanskii of Leningrad and Nikolai Iarushevich of Kiev. Stalin granted them the right to open a limited number of churches and religious schools, and to convene a national synod on September 8, which duly elected Sergei patriarch. Upon his elevation, Sergei immediately declared Stalin the divinely anointed ruler, initiating an uneasy collaboration between church and state that survived the Soviet system. Upon his death in 1945, he was succeeded by Aleksei.

The Orthodox Church suddenly found itself a welcome companion in the highest reaches of power, offering prayers for victory on occasions of state ceremony, and even praying for the health of the leader, Joseph Stalin. This new role rendered the schismatic Living Church redundant, and soon led to its demise. Sergei had long been associated with efforts to find accommodation with the state. He temporarily supported the Living Church in 1922-23, which he repudiated upon Tikhon’s release from prison. He marked his return from a two-year exile after Tikhon’s death in 1925 with successful efforts to have the church declare its loyalty to the Soviet state. In the difficult early days of the war, Sergei directed fundraising drives to outfit Russian tank units, and assisted with field hospitals and homeless refugees. Aleksei of Leningrad distinguished himself as well by staying in the city during the blockade.

Acknowledgement of the church gave Stalin access to a new public discourse. Religion offered symbols of unity that had been absent and afforded an iconography of state and people united in a common cause. One effective piece of propaganda was a song written in the very first week of the war by two of the most effective musical propagandists of the 1930s, which labeled it a “holy war.” The wartime alliance preempted fears aroused by the German use of religion to co-opt the peasantry in conquered territories, particularly in the republics of Ukraine and Belorussia where religion had been a point of resistance in the 1930s. But the alliance did not signal an acceptance of religion as a whole. Non-Christian religions such as Islam and Judaism were still suspect. Muslims were suspected of mixed loyalties, and some of their populations, such as the Crimean Tatars, were deported from their homelands. Orthodox sects that did not contribute to the spirit of state-centered community and loyalty, were suppressed as well.

The Nazi Tide Stops

Grief (The Dead Won’t Let Us Forget) (1942) / From Faces of a Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991, by Dmitrii Baltermants

The Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 – February 1943) was the decisive military encounter of World War II that stopped the German southern advance and turned the tide of the war. From its victory at Stalingrad, the Red Army began a series of offensives that relentlessly took it all the way to Berlin by April 1945.

There’s a Cliff on the Volga (folk song), by Kukrynisky (1942) / Moscow: Pravda

The main object of the Nazi offensive in the summer of 1942 were the oil fields of Baku, the seizure of which would have deprived the Red Army — and the rest of the Soviet Union — of its principal fuel supply. As part of this offensive, the German Sixth Army under General Friedrich von Paulus was supposed to take Stalingrad, strung out along the west bank of the Volga. Aside from the strategic significance of occupying contiguous territory from the Don to the Volga, the symbolism of capturing the city that bore the Soviet leader’s name evidently weighed in Hitler’s decision to divert forces en route to Baku to the siege of Stalingrad. The German Sixth Army commenced its advance on August 21 and, after over two months of withering bombardment gained control of nine-tenths of the nearly totally destroyed city. But with their backs to the Volga and mindful of Stalin’s Order No. 227 (“Not One Step Back!”), the Soviet defenders held on, engaging the besiegers in house by house combat.

The City in Ruins (1942) / Volgograd: Izdatel’

On November 19, Soviet forces commanded by General Georgii Zhukov and numbering approximately a million soldiers attacked both German flanks in a massive pincer movement. After five days, the Red Army had trapped approximately 250,000 of the enemy. The Luftwaffe’s attempts to provide food and fuel supplies by air were thwarted by Soviet artillery. Rations dwindled, soldiers froze to death, and ammunition ran out. Compared to an original contingent of 400,000 troops, the Sixth Army contained only 110,000 including two thousand officers by the time Paulus surrendered on February 2, 1943. Soviet casualties were estimated at 750,000 killed, wounded or missing in action. Although the war would last for another two years, its outcome after the Battle of Stalingrad was no longer in doubt.

New National Anthem

Victory, photo by Evgenii Khaldei (1945) / Valenia: Edicions Alfons el magnanim

On January 1, 1944, Radio Moscow broadcast a new Soviet national anthem, written in the spring of 1943, and adopted officially on March 15, 1944. The music, by General Aleksandr Vasilievich Aleksandrov, conductor of the famous Red Army Chorus, had been originally composed for the Bolshevik Anthem (1937), and new words were supplied by the famous children’s writer Sergei Mikhalkov, and the Soviet Uzbek poet Garold El-Registan. Although the songwriting team reflected the multi-national composition of Soviet society, the lyrics conveyed a message of Russian primacy. The first stanza sang the glory of the

Unbreakable union of freeborn republics
Great Russia has welded forever to stand!
Created in struggle by the will of the people,
United and mighty, our Soviet land.

The odd exchange in the which the old Soviet anthem, The Internationale, became the party theme, and the new anthem, bursting with Russian national pride, became the Soviet theme, reflected the shift towards Russian-centered national pride that characterized the wartime years. Although contrary to the internationalist spirit of Marxism-Leninism, the new official line bolstered public morale, at least in the Russian areas of the Union.

The long history of Soviet national anthems reflects the Communist Party struggle for a Soviet identity acceptable to most of the population. Adopted in 1917 to replace the official tsarist anthem, “God Save the Tsar,” the Internationale, had been written in 1888 by the Frenchman Felix Degeyter as the anthem of the Second Internationale. The elevation of Russian national pride as an official value in the mid-1930s rendered the song a bit old-fashioned, and the unofficial national anthem, played at the start of Radio Moscow broadcasts, became Song of the Motherland, composed by Isaak Dunaevskii and Vastly Lebedev-Kumach for the movie Circus (1935). Although the theme remained the official Soviet anthem until the country broke apart in 1991, the unfortunate references to Stalin in the original lyrics made them unacceptable after Khrushchev’s denunciation of the Cult of Personality. The song was played without lyrics until new words were approved in 1977. Post-Soviet years saw several provisional solutions. Gold-medal winners at the 1992 Olympics, who still represented an amalgamated post-Soviet team, listened in confusion as the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was played. Later the Russian Duma adopted Glinka’s tsarist-era Russian anthem. In the year 2000, president Vladimir Putin and the Duma successfully pushed for the adoption the old Soviet anthem as the anthem for the Russian Federation. Although many were dismayed by the symbolism, others were gladdened, including the by now very old Sergei Mikhalkov, who was commissioned to write new lyrics.

Partisans in the Forest


Left: Leningrad Partisans, photo by Mikhail Trakhman (1942) / Russian State Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk
Center: On the Joyous Day of Liberation, by Viktor Koretskii (1943) / From Russian Posters, 1914-1953, by Victoria Bonnell
Right: Glory to the Liberators of the Ukraine!, by D. Shmarinov (1943) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

On July 14, 1943, the Supreme Military Command in Moscow issued an order to all partisan units behind enemy lines to begin a coordinated assault against rail lines, focusing on the region around Orel and Bryansk, where a Soviet offensive was soon to begin. Although a year earlier this would have been impossible, the Soviet partisan movement had become a great factor in the war by summer 1943. Morale surged after Stalingrad, since fighters knew they would soon be liberated, and the central command began airlifting supplies. Partisans had food, medical aid, and heavy weapons such as mortars and even artillery. Partisan ranks swelled to over a half million people by late 1943, concentrated in the Belorussian forests near the Polish border, but strong as well in Ukraine and in enemy-held Russian territory. Entire districts behind enemy lines were partisan controlled, enemy communications were severely disrupted, and German garrisons lived in constant fear of attack. Claims have been made that the partisans killed over a half million Germans, including many high officers and High Commissioner Wilhelm Kube, betrayed by his beautiful Belorussian mistress.


Left: Ukraine is Free!, by V. Litvinenko (1944) / Posters from the Former Soviet Union
Center: The Enemy Shall Not Escape the People’s Revenge, by Isaak Rabichev (1941) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin
Right: On the Joyous Day of Liberation, by Viktor Koretskii (1943) / From Russian Posters, by Victoria Bonnell

Reality had not always matched propaganda for the Soviet partisans. Although official descriptions liked to emphasize how the movement had been planned and was led by the Party, it began chaotically in the early days of the war, when the surprise attack caught many behind enemy lines. Army officers more often than party representatives led the uncoordinated bands, and there was little communication with Moscow. Supplies were pitiful, and many partisans died of the cold and hunger, or when attacks they mounted with mere rifles left them with untreatable wounded. Relations with local populations were uncertain, since partisans dealt with peasants who still remembered collectivization, or non-Russian Slavs with uncertain loyalty to the Soviet order. Although tales of heroism, such as that of Zoya Kosmodemianskaia, a Komsomol girl dropped behind enemy lines during the Battle of Moscow, and executed with words on loyalty on her lips, were common in the popular press, the reality was much grimmer. Only German brutality and contempt for Slavs made for common cause.


Left: In the Woods, photo by Anatolii Morozov / Russkoe Polye
Center: Last minutes before execution (1941) / Minsk: Narodnaia asveta
Right: Meeting in a Village Liberated from the Enemey, photo by Arkadii Shaikhet (1943) / Moscow: Iskusstvo

Reintegrating the older partisan survivors, who were accustomed to autonomy and had a tremendous sense of their own worth, back into the Soviet system was not easy. Scarred physically and emotionally, their vengeance against traitors and German collaborators could be fierce. Newer recruits merged easily into the Soviet Army as their territory was liberated, but the older partisans, who remembered a period when they seemed abandoned by the Soviet state, did not always. In Ukraine, partisan bands dedicated to an independent homeland turned their guns against Soviet troops when they arrived, and a new partisan war against Soviet power ensued for several years after German surrender in 1945.

The Strange Alliance

The evil enemy won’t get out of the knot we’ve got him in!, by Kukrynisky (1942) / Brown University Digital Repository

The war-time alliance between the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States, dubbed “Grand” by Winston Churchill, was beginning to wear thin by 1943. To be sure, the western allies remained committed to assisting the Soviet Union in its resistance to the Nazi onslaught. In October 1941, even before the United States entered the war, the US Congress had approved the Lend-Lease bill that provided the Soviet Union with one billion dollars worth of supplies to be repaid, without interest, over a ten-year period after the war. Soon thereafter, American and British convoys of merchant ships began delivering Studebaker trucks, foodstuffs and other supplies to the White Sea port of Murmansk. But for Stalin, this was inadequate. Again and again, he emphasized that the most effective way of assisting the Soviet war effort was for the western allies to open a “second front,” an invasion of Nazi-occupied France. He also sought, but did not receive, allied recognition of the territorial gains made by the Soviet Union in 1939.

Thunderbolt, by Kukrinsky (1943) / Wikimedia Commons

Instead of a land invasion in France, the western allies opted in 1942 for the North African campaign as part of a Mediterranean strategy that would take them up the spine of Italy. This was bad enough from the Soviet standpoint, but more disappointment was to come. In May 1942, Roosevelt informed the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, that Lend-Lease shipments would have to be reduced from 4.1 to 2.5 million tons in the coming year. As the Red Army advanced westwards in the course of 1943, western concerns about Soviet intentions with respect to the post-war configuration of Europe came to the fore. Both Washington and London interpreted the dissolution of the Comintern in May as a good-will gesture on the part of Stalin, but the Soviet decision to break off relations with the London-based Polish government-in-exile suggested that the USSR already had designs on its neighbor to the west.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta (1945) / FUNET Image Archive

Still, at least on the level of popular culture, the Soviet Union had never enjoyed such a positive image. Mission to Moscow, a film commissioned by the White House and starring Walter Huston and Cyd Charisse, typified Hollywood’s efforts to portray “Uncle Joe” and the good-natured Russians as worthy allies. So did huge rallies organized by the Soviet-American Friendship Society in New York and other cities. Leonid Utesov’s big band performances of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Bombadiers” (an adaptation of the American hit, “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer”) represented the Soviet equivalent of these efforts to inculcate friendship among the war-time allies.

By autumn of 1943, the allies appeared to have overcome at least some of their mutual suspicions. In October, the three foreign ministers (Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden, and Molotov) met in Moscow where they agreed to pursue Germany’s “unconditional surrender” and thereafter to cooperate in the creation of a new international organization, the United Nations. At this meeting, the Soviets were informed that the cross-channel invasion, that is, the opening of the second front, would begin in May 1944. In late November and early December, the Big Three (Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill) met for the first time at Teheran. Here, they agreed on the outlines of a postwar Europe which included a jointly occupied Germany, the Soviet Union’s control of the Baltic states and altered boundaries for Poland. Other issues, including respective “spheres of influence” in the rest of eastern and central Europe, the date of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war in the Pacific, and the sharing of information about the US atomic bomb project, were still in the future. Although the Grand Alliance survived the stresses and strains associated with these and other military and political questions, the Cold War that was to replace it not long after victory in Europe and Asia already was in the offing in 1943.

The Vlasov Movement

General Vlasov Reviews His Troops (1944) / Wikimedia Commons

From a German prisoner-of-war camp near Smolensk in the early winter months of 1943, General Andrei Vlasov issued a summons to Russian soldiers to join him in his battle against the Communist defilers of Russia. Vlasov, a hero of the Battle of Moscow, son of a peasant who had risen rapidly through the Red Army ranks during the Civil War, a party member since 1930, represented the first generation of Soviet military leaders. He joined the army from the university, showed great courage during the war, showed great talent after the war as the Red Army resumed peacetime functions, and reached command status when the purges of 1938 wiped out the highest ranks of the army. He was lucky enough then to be in China, serving as Soviet Military Advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek, and on his return he was given command of a division. Always he showed himself a brilliant organizer, brave in battle. He stood the test of Moscow in 1941, and was dispatched north to the Volkhov Front to hold off the German armies attempting to surround Leningrad. And like so many of his comrades, he was captured when the confused leadership abandoned his army without food, supplies or relief.

The millions of Russians who fell prisoner in the first year of the war were in a horrible situation. German contempt for Slavs, above all for Russians, was so vicious that they were allowed to starve and die in filthy prison camps. Stalin, who had declared retreat a crime, branded them as traitors. People as well-informed as the upper ranks of the army knew that the party leadership had failed miserably in the first months of the war, and the bloody purge of 1938 could not have failed to alarm them. Thus calls to join the forces of the Russian National Committee headed by Vlasov appealed to many, not only prisoners who saw relief from their ruinous condition, but Soviet troops who deserted across enemy lines. At one point, Vlasov had recruited ninety generals and over 900,000 soldiers.

Hitler’s fear of armed Slavic forces behind his own lines prevented Vlasov from creating an effective army. Although isolated detachments of Russian and other Soviet deserters were formed under the title Ostbataillone, Vlasov’s troops were not armed or given a unified command. It was not until the summer of 1944, when the outcome of the war was foregone, that the KONR – Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia was formed, and under it an army (sometimes called the Russian Liberation Army). Its inaugural meeting took place in Prague in November 1944, where it issued a manifesto identical to the Smolensk manifesto of 1942, allowing as well for full rights for all Soviet peoples. As before it preserved the gains of the October Revolution, rejecting only the perversions of Stalinism. It was not until spring 1945 that the KONR Army became an effective fighting force. Ironically, the fiercest action seen by the Vlasov forces took place in Prague on May 6, two days before the German surrender, when they turned against their captors and helped the Czechs clear Prague of the Germans. By agreement, the Americans to whom Vlasov troops surrendered turned them over to the Soviet Army, who quickly executed many, and imprisoned the rest. Vlasov himself was taken prisoner, executed finally in August 1946. Bitter though their fate was, it was little worse than other Russian prisoners-of-war, who themselves were shipped straight to prison camps upon repatriation.

Wartime Evacuation


Left: Ukrainians flee to the East (1941) / Moscow: Sobrainie
Right: Over and above the plan – to the front! (1942-1945) / Moscow: Sobrainie

The swift German advance of 1941 forced millions of Soviet citizens to evacuate from the western borders of the country to regions in the east and south, with the Urals, Western Siberia and Central Asia serving as the country’s three primary receiving areas. The first wave of the evacuation began in late June 1941 and lasted through the end of December, and the second wave took place during the summer and fall of 1942. Historians have debated the size of the wartime civilian evacuation for decades due to the paucity of demographic records, and current estimates range from 17 to 25 million evacuees. Thousands of organizations were also evacuated to safer regions during 1941 and 1942, including 1,523 large enterprises involved in defense production. A major goal of the evacuation effort was to defend and develop the Soviet military capability, so defense workers and factories were evacuated with the highest priority. The Soviet wartime evacuation of civilians and industry was hampered by a lack of pre-war planning, however, because Stalin feared that this type of planning might encourage defeatism.


Left: Evacuees at work in Kazakhstan (1942-1945) / Moscow: Sobrainie
Right: Evacuated children of School #475 (1941) / Moscow: Izdatel

After the war started, Stalin’s State Defense Committee created a series of ad hoc committees to direct the evacuation process, such as the Evacuation Council, the Civilian Evacuation, and the Evacuation Commission. These ad hoc committees worked with all-Union ministries and the State Defense Committee to oversee the evacuation effort on the national level, and they sent plenipotentiaries to evacuating and receiving areas to support local government and industry leaders. In spite of these measures, panic and confusion marred the evacuation of civilians and institutions along the front, with orders to leave arriving too late and officials fleeing instead of managing the evacuation effort. Millions of frightened civilians, both those with evacuation orders and those too scared to stay home, overwhelmed train stations and receiving areas throughout 1941 and 1942.

Evacuation plan for the institutes of the Academy of Sciences in Russian / Moscow: Izdatel

With huge numbers of evacuees suddenly arriving in the receiving areas, local leaders tried to increase the availability of housing, cafeterias, medical clinics, and day-care centers, but they were not given enough resources to serve the entire evacuated population. There was a significant difference in the administration of non-industrial evacuees and of industrial evacuees. Resources to support non-industrial evacuees (mostly women, children and the elderly) were inadequate throughout the duration of the war. After traveling in crowded cars with little food or water, these evacuees often had to remain in railroad stations for days or even weeks, waiting for a housing assignment or further travel instructions. In contrast, industrial evacuees received larger food rations, higher quality housing, and better medical care.


Left: Evacuation of the Scientific Elite (1941) / Moscow: Izdatel
Right: Evacuation of the Academy of Sciences (1941) / Moscow: Izdatel

From 1941 to 1943, the Soviet economy was completely mobilized for military production, leaving the evacuation and resettlement effort without enough personnel or funding to provide adequate services to the evacuees. Many evacuees became ill and died due to malnutrition and exposure. Sickness among the evacuees contributed to widespread epidemics that lasted for years. And yet, while the toll in human lives was extremely high, the massive relocation of industries and workers in 1941 and 1942 resulted in substantial defense production, crucial to the Soviet victory of 1945. As stated by G.A. Kumanev, a leading Russian military historian, the evacuation’s “main goal – to save millions of Soviet citizens, a major amount of industrial and agricultural resources, and other material riches – was achieved.”

Women in War Films

The Motherland Calls You!, by Iraklii Toidze (1941) / Wikimedia Commons

In September 1941, with the German army rapidly closing in, the Moscow and Leningrad feature film studios were relocated to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, although facilities for newsreel production remained in Moscow. Censorship was dramatically streamlined; under these emergency conditions, the country could not afford the time-consuming process of endless script revisions. Nevertheless until summer 1942, production consisted mainly of newsreels, documentary compilations, and short fiction films very much like the agitki of the Civil War.

The Partisan’s Mother, by Sergei Gerasimov (1943) / Arts in Russia and the USSR

By mid-1942, the newly relocated studios began releasing films, and by the end of the war Soviet filmmakers had completed 102 fiction films, seventy of them full-length features. Forty-eight of these were directly related to the war. War films enjoyed great prestige during the war and dominated the Stalin prizes for 1943 and 1944. Of the nine Stalin prizes awarded to films, six went to war pictures.

After the Fascists Were Cast Out, by Taras Gaponenko (1946) / Arts in Russia and the USSR

In the first two years of the war in particular, Soviet combat films ignored the regular army to focus on the partisans, especially on the role of women in the partisan movement. The canonical movie of the war years came in 1943: Fridrikh Ermler’s She Defends the Motherland (Ona zashchishchaet rodinu, released in the U.S. as No Greater Love). The film represents the prototypical narrative for the heroine films: halcyon days on the eve of the war turn to terrible tragedy as the bestial Germans kills husband/children/parents while the mother/wife/lover survives to be transformed into an avenging angel. The “she” of the title is Praskovia (Pasha) Lukianova, a lovely young wife, mother, and champion tractor driver. Characteristically confident, calm, and self-sacrificing, she organizes the evacuation of her village. Her self-possession evaporates when she discovers her husband’s body on a truck carting dead and wounded soldiers, then her baby son is killed by a demonic German. She is dragged away and raped. After these horrors, the pretty, vibrant young woman has been transformed overnight into the stone-faced icon of the popular “The Motherland Calls You” recruiting poster. Pasha quickly emerges from her nearly catatonic state to reassume her leadership role with the surviving villagers, forming a partisan band. As Comrade P., Pasha picks up an ax to lead her followers into hand-to-hand combat with the Germans. Under her leadership, the partisans become the scourge of the occupying army, attacking convoys, burning buildings, even kidnapping a German general. She exacts poetic justice by running down the German who killed her child with his own tank.

For the Motherland, by Iraklii Toidze (1943) / Natalia: Live Journal

As stereotyped as this film sounds, signs of Ermler’s considerable talent are obvious throughout. Pasha is far from a wholesome cheerleader for Soviet power. Religious symbols and references abound, in keeping with the wartime relaxation of the constraints against religion. Ordinary citizens are presented as defeatists, demoralized by the shortcomings in Soviet society. In the end, however, despite the heavy losses the little partisan group sustains, positive and activist thinking dominates. Comrade P.’s loyal followers rescue her just as the hangman’s noose is tightening around her neck. Pasha lives to fight another day. The message was clear and inspirational: ordinary people, especially women, had an essential role to play in their country’s defense. Years later, Vera Maretskaia, who played Pasha, recalled her role, noting: “I would say that in this picture, she won the war.”

Comrade P. was followed by other partisan heroines, like Olena Kostiukh in Mark Donskoi’s The Rainbow (Raduga, 1943, released 1944) and Zoia Kosmodemianskaia in Leo Arnshtam’s Zoia (1944). By mid-1944, however, women warriors were gradually being displaced by male soldiers, sailors, and pilots. Light hearted or hackneyed films began to predominate, like Ivan Pyrev’s Six o’Clock in the Evening after the War (V shest chasov vechera posle voiny, 1944) and Igor Savchenko’s Ivan Nikulin: Russian Sailor (Ivan Nikulin, russkii matros, 1944). The traces of artistic freedom that were visible in Soviet wartime cinema were about to disappear.