Unpolished reality about petty baton passed by red army to Putin’s army. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



If plausible responses to these questions are not found, no post-Soviet society can be considered cured of the disease of nostalgia for the totalitarian past that can repeat in a new formula...


Anatol Țăranu

The state ideologeme of Putin’s Russia centers on the red army’s victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. In his public speeches, Putin permanently tries to put the equality sign between the red army’s mission in the war against German fascism and the red army’s role in the ongoing war against Ukraine as the Kremlin’s propaganda during many decades cultivated distorted narrative about the victory in the so-called patriotic war, obsessively hiding the truth about the price paid by the red army for the victory in that war. The Moscow regime’s fear of the red army’s real motivation to fight is so great that Russia’s parliament adopted a punitive law with regard to any attempt to reveal in realistic terms the cost of the victory of Stalin’s army in the last world war.

Catastrophic debut and terror tactic

The Soviet-German war that started on June 22, 1941 had a catastrophic debut for the red army. Until the end of the first year of war, the glorious in Stalinist propaganda red army decreased by over 3 million soldiers and officers who were taken hostage by the Germans. Most of them, with many having been recruited from peasant families that were collectivized by force by the regime of Stalin, surrendered voluntarily to the Germans as they didn’t want to fight for the Communist regime. Separate cases of combative resistance by some of the Soviet military units in the first phase of the war were overshadowed by the mass surrender of the red army’s personnel to the Germans. During only three months of military hostilities, the Wehrmacht reached Moscow, seriously threatening the regime of Stalin.

With a military disaster being imminent, the Soviet administration resorted to the method that it learned the best during two decades of Socialist construct in the USSR. There was applied the limitless terror practice in order to save the situation on the front. The punitive bodies of the Soviet regime were entrusted with the extraordinary task of securing a victory in the war, for an army that didn’t want and could not defend the Soviet Homeland, by using terrorist practices that were unique in the world military history. In response to the reports about the dismemberment of units in battle and mass desertions in the red army in the summer of 1941, the People’s Commissariat of Defense of the Soviet Unit issued a directive on the constitution of mobile barrier troops consisting of detachments of the dreadful political police of the NKVD whose personnel were to operate on roads, on railways, in forests etc. in order to capture “deserters and suspect persons”. Together with the continuous worsening of the military situation amid the German offensive of 1941, the NKVD detachments were entrusted with a new task – to prevent the unauthorized abandonment by red army units of the frontline and to shoot at the retreating Soviet soldiers.

Barrier troops and penal units everywhere

In September 1941 already, Stalin signed a new Directive, No. 001919, by which a “barrier detachment with reliable fighters” was set up in each division of the red army, controlled by the division’s commander and outfitted, besides conventional weapons, with trucks, tanks or armored vehicles. Among the tasks of the barrier troops were to provide direct assistance to the command personnel in maintaining and establishing strict discipline in divisions, counteracting panic by shooting from behind the military personnel that left the battlefield without being allowed to. The necessity of resorting to barrier detachments was explained in the text of the aforementioned directive as it follows: “The experience of fighting against German fascism showed that in our divisions of soldiers, there are many panicked and directly hostile elements that abandon weapons on the first pressure of the enemy and start to shout: “We are being surrounded!” and pull after them the other fighters. As a result of such actions, the division leaves the fighting position and abandons the military equipment. Similar phenomena take place on all the fronts. If the commanders and the commissars of such divisions appropriately fulfilled their tasks, the alarmist and hostile elements were unable to influence the situation in the division. But the trouble is we do not have so many firm and stable commanders and commissars.” So, Stalin himself admitted that the red army was in low spirits and was unable to cope with the war against the Wehrmacht. 

Besides the institution of military barrier troops, the Stalinist regime broadly used the practice of so-called penal units (companies and battalions) in which the soldiers and officers accused of different violations, often minors ones, were included. As a rule, these penal units were used in battle on the most dangerous segments of the front, the personnel losses in these units being three-four times larger than in the ordinary units. For example, the penal units formed the body of Soviet troops on the Șerpeni bridgehead during the Iasi-Chisinau operations and their personnel losses in the battles on the bridgehead represented 80%. As the great Socialist building sites included mainly GULAG prisoners, many of the military successes were possible owing to the efforts paid with the own lives by Soviet soldiers from the penal units. It was estimated that almost half a million Soviet citizens went through penal companies and battalions during the war and most of these were killed.

1 million Soviet soldiers convicted

The military tribunals occupied a separate place in the terror measures taken broadly by the Soviet regime against the own army. The dimensions of the terror exercised through the agency of the so-called military jurisdiction are confirmed by the fact that 2 530 683 persons were convicted by Soviet military tribunals during three years of war. Of these, only 993 300 were soldiers, while over 1.5 million were civilians (who were primarily convicted based on Article 58 “counter-revolutionary activity”). In accordance with court decisions, 217 080 persons were shot dead! This figure didn’t include those who were killed during interrogations within the NKVD, by commanders on the battlefield, by barrier troops.

As it was noted, the military tribunals during the war convicted a total of 994 270 soldiers, out of who 376 300 were convicted for deserting. Of the military convicts, 157 593 were shot dead in accordance with the verdicts of the army’s military tribunals. This way, 701 soldiers on average were convicted for each day of war, 92 of whom were convicted to death, excluding the 70,000 extra-judiciary executions by officers of SMERSH – military counterespionage. This way, 141 people were shot dead during each day of war. If we add 157 593 and 70 000 and if we admit that a division included 10,000 people, it turns out that the SMERSH personnel, which  executed the sentences on the front, shot dead the members of over 20 Soviet divisions. 

In this connection, the punitive judiciary practice of the Soviet army appears to be monstrous and unparalleled in the new history. For comparison, 7 810 soldiers were shot dead in the Wehrmacht during the five years of war, from September 1, 1939 until September 1, 1944, which is 25 times less than the number of capital verdicts given by the military tribunals of the red army. The practice of the armies of democratic states shows that only 186 capital punishments were given during World War II in the U.S. army, 40 in the British army, 146 in the French army. This is a striking difference against the red army, which shows what the real motivation of the soldiers of the anti-Hitler coalition in the war against fascism was.

Past chases us and tests us

If we return to the soldiers and officers of the 20 divisions of the red army who were shot dead by the punitive Soviet bodies after being accused of being deserters, traitors, robbers, saboteurs, counter-revolutionists, alarmists, cowards..., don’t the accusations look offensive and discrediting with respect to the red army that emerged vicious in the war? How much remains of the heroism of the Soviet soldier who was intimidated to such an extent by the coercive bodies of the Stalinist regime as a decisive factor in the victory in the Great Patriotic War? Why aren’t the portraits of the soldiers of these 20 divisions who were shot dead by the NKVD executioners carried nowadays in the propaganda parades of the so-called undying regiment, while many of those who shot dead in the nape the martyrs of the Stalinist repression are publicly acclaimed by the mass of nostalgic people who were indoctrinated by the theses of the imperialist propaganda of Moscow? If plausible responses to these questions are not found, no post-Soviet society can be considered cured of the disease of nostalgia for the totalitarian past that can repeat in a new formula.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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