Goose-stepping soldiers. Hammers and sickles. That was some spectacle in Red Square to commemorate the 60th anniversary of V-E Day. Like his communist predecessors, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin isn’t shy about claiming for his country an outsized share of the credit for defeating Nazi Germany.
No one can gainsay the sacrifices of the Soviet people. I should know. Both of my grandfathers served in the Soviet armed forces and survived the war. They were lucky. At least 25 million Soviet citizens perished, while the United States and the British empire together lost “just” 700,000.
What rankles me is that successive rulers in the Kremlin, from Josef Stalin to Putin, have exploited their people’s suffering to justify their own misrule. This is reminiscent of a teenager killing his parents and then throwing himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. Many Soviets died, after all, because of the criminality and stupidity of their own government.
The history airbrushed out of this week’s celebrations includes the Soviet role in the rise of Germany. In the 1920s, the Soviets aided Germany’s illegal rearmament, helping to develop the tanks and warplanes later used against them. In 1939, Stalin concluded a nonaggression pact that allowed Adolf Hitler to launch his blitzkrieg against Poland, France and the Low Countries. Stalin’s share in the spoils was the Baltic states, Finland and parts of Poland and Romania.
For the next two years, the Soviet Union’s raw materials helped fuel the Nazi war machine despite a Western blockade. Stalin was so enamored of his comrade in crime that he refused to credit overwhelming evidence of a looming German attack on the Soviet Union. When it began on June 22, 1941, the Soviets were caught with their britches down.
The best Red Army units were foolishly positioned on the unfortified frontier, where they were overrun. Though the Soviets had a numerical advantage, the quality of their forces had been compromised by a purge of the officer corps. Partly as a result, the Red Army folded like an accordion early in the invasion. Resistance did not stiffen until winter, when the Wehrmacht was on the doorsteps of Leningrad and Moscow.
Stalin was ruthless in rallying support for the war effort. Surrender was declared to be treasonous. Anyone suspected of defeatist or counterrevolutionary sentiments was shot or sentenced to hard labor. During the siege of Stalingrad alone, 13,000 were executed. Though a million inmates were released from prison camps for military service, many more were consigned to the gulag during the war. Millions died at the hands of NKVD secret police.
The Red Army eventually showed considerable skill in mechanized warfare, but right up until the end its commanders were profligate with their men’s lives. The Soviets suffered 350,000 casualties in the battle of Berlin in 1945. The butcher’s bill could have been lessened by going slower but that would have risked letting the German capital fall into Western hands.
After V-E Day, Stalin was true to his dictum, “We do not have prisoners of war, we only have traitors.” Most Russian soldiers liberated from German captivity were sent to the gulag; some were shot outright.
Sixty years later, by all means let us remember the fortitude and heroism of the Soviet people. But let us not forget that they suffered from Nazis and communists alike. Few people in Russia care to discuss that these days. Instead, Putin calls the Soviet Union’s breakup the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” The true story of the Great Patriotic War -- supposedly communism’s finest hour -- belies such historical myth-making.