A People at War: The Soviet Soldier in World War II
June 08, 2012
One of the World War Two Memorial's bas reliefs shows American troops meeting male and female Soviet soldiers in the middle of a defeated Nazi Germany. While the memorial's primary focus is on the role of the United States in the Second World War, it also honors our allies who helped us defeat the Axis nations (the alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan). Of all of the countries involved in World War II, the Soviet Union suffered the greatest number of dead - over 25,000,000. Their war began on the 22nd of June, 1941.
The early morning darkness of that day was shattered as well-equipped German forces attacked the Soviet Union along its entire western border. Within a month, the invaders were halfway to the capital of Moscow. They left in their wake either vast crowds of Soviet prisoners or surrounded units. How did this happen? A few years before the war, Josef Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, falsely believed that many of his senior officers plotted to overthrow him, so he either imprisoned or executed them. Many of their replacements were too inexperienced to effectively fight seasoned German commanders. Despite their inexperience, Russians (along with the other nationalities that comprised the Soviet state) fought bravely in defense of their homeland and bought enough time for the military to mobilize the population. In December 1941, Soviet troops saved the capital of Moscow and began to push the German troops back.
Soon after the invading Nazis conquered the western USSR, the civilian population faced a reign of terror. Hitler's objective was to create an empire where anyone he deemed a threat or unable to contribute to it would be enslaved, imprisoned or murdered. The Nazi state encouraged Germans to hate Jews, Communists, and Eastern Europeans, or to be indifferent to their suffering. This part of the Soviet Union contained Europe's largest concentration of Jews, who often lived in separate communities that traded with the surrounding area. This isolation made them vulnerable to the execution teams, which filled mass graves with their victims. Germans murdered entire communities of men, women, and children. A volatile mixture of anger at German crimes and patriotism led to the creation of partisan bands from the local population whose attacks started to disrupt the flow of German troops to the front in 1942.
From September 1941 through January 1944, the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) endured a terrible siege. As the birthplace of the Soviet state, it had great political value for both sides. With Finnish troops to the north and Germans to the south, the only supply route into the city crossed Lake Ladoga to the east of the city. Starvation, German bombs, and artillery fire claimed the lives of one million people during this ordeal. One of the soldiers that held the line before Leningrad was Joseph Pilyushin. At the start of the war, he was thirty eight years old with a wife and child in the besieged city. After many harrowing escapes from German attacks, he became a sniper skilled at using his rifle and telescopic sight to kill German officers. Then bombs claimed the life of his wife, which forced him to place his child in an orphanage. The child was later killed by artillery fire. After losing his right eye to a bullet, he recovered and taught himself how to use his other eye to continue killing Germans, as well as training others. Then one of his closest friends, a female sniper, was killed in action. She was one of over 400,000 women that served in the Red Army as snipers, tank drivers, and medical personnel. Just after the siege ended with a Soviet offensive that reached the city, Pilyushin was wounded so seriously that he was discharged from the military with 136 kills.
In 1942, the tide of the war began to turn in the Soviet Union's favor. In the summer, the Germans launched an attack in southern Russia in order to capture oil supplies in the Caucasus Mountains. As they attacked eastward, their front expanded, their forces were spread thin, and their combat power diminished. Unlike the disasters of 1941, more Russian units escaped encirclement to fight another day. In order to protect the left flank of German forces in the Caucasus, the invaders attacked the city of Stalingrad along the west bank of the Volga River. One of Russia's toughest officers, Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov prepared the city for defense. Few generals have faced such a challenge: defending a three to five kilometer wide and twenty kilometer long city with a river behind it. Chuikov inspired all levels of his command with his order "Every soldier must become a fortress." His soldiers always tried to maintain positions so close to the Germans that this made it difficult for the attackers to use their artillery and aircraft effectively. Chuikov's wellplaced strong points and counterattacks wore down the German units. By mid- November, the Soviets only held ten percent of the city. That same month, however, Soviet troops and tanks crashed through on either side of the city, surrounded over 330,000 Germans and forced them to surrender in February 1943.
After losing so many troops at Stalingrad in February, the Germans lacked the manpower to defend their empire in the east. After the Soviets defeated the last major German offensive at Kursk in July 1943, the Germans began their long retreat to Berlin. British and American supplies of aircraft, trucks, clothing and other supplies helped fuel the Soviet offensive that gradually pushed the invaders out of Russia. Soviet troops were so resourceful, that when boats were unavailable, they often used logs to help them float across rivers. One such crossing occurred on the night of March 22, 1944. Captain Peter Mikhin, an artillery commander, crossed the Lower Bug River with his artillery chained to large rafts, while fifty-five riflemen wrapped one arm around a log and paddled with the other across the river. Flares lit up the river and German machineguns and artillery killed some of the swimmers. Wet but determined Soviet troops overwhelmed the Germans before they could strengthen the riverbank. Mikhin was blown off his raft along with one of his artillery pieces but the other one made it ashore. The small Russian beachhead held and merged with other Russian units that crossed the river along an eighty kilometer front. Because the Germans tried to destroy everything of value, soldiers like Mikhin often liberated a wasteland of destroyed villages, mass graves, and grieving families.
By the summer of 1944, Soviet troops had reached several other Eastern European nations, which proved to be a mixed blessing to these people. Soviet troops were the first to discover the Nazi death camps in Poland and free the emaciated survivors. Eastern Europeans, after suffering through years of German occupation, were relieved to see their oppressors defeated. Soon after, however, they fell under the rule of Communist officials who set up their own dictatorships. Sometimes the Soviets did not even have to do the dirty work. For example, in August 1944 while Soviet troops watched across the river, German troops crushed a non-Communist Polish uprising in the capital of Warsaw and leveled the entire city. Without having to worry about competition, Stalin then installed a series of Communist dictatorships throughout Poland and rest of Eastern Europe.
The Soviet troops that shook hands with their western allies in the middle of Germany in 1945 had great reason to be proud of their accomplishments. They had saved their nation from destruction and halted the grisly work of the Nazi extermination camps. The vast size and scale of the war in the Soviet Union diverted most of Hitler's soldiers from Western Europe which greatly helped the western allies make successful landings in the Mediterranean and at Normandy in June 1944. A frontline poet by the name of Nikolai Maiorov paid tribute to this generation and their place in the hearts of their families:
We knew all the regulations by heart.
What's death to us? We are above even death.
We have been laid out in ranks in our graves
And we are waiting for a new order.
Let them not think that the dead cannot hear
When their descendants speak of them.