Historical Notes: Victory for the Soviet people, not for Stalin

FOR YEARS after the end of the Second World War Victory Day was honoured every 9 May in the Soviet Union. The Soviet victory was slowly transformed into one of the two chief founding myths of the Communist regime, Lenin's historic triumph in 1917, Stalin's in 1945. Even when Stalin was dead and then denounced the myth survived. The victory of 1945 became the victory of the progressive Communist peoples over fascism and imperialism. Schoolchildren were for years taught that "the Soviet nation saved man-kind from annihilation and enslavement". Thanks to Soviet efforts, ran the textbook, the USSR "preserved world civilisation".

Glasnost effectively destroyed the myth. The Soviet public became hungry for a new version of the war, one that matched the fading recollections of veterans. In 1988 and 1989 two commissions began work on Soviet war losses to set the record before the public. Since that date revelations have flooded out of the Soviet archives. Soviet armed forces suffered unbelievable levels of loss - 8.6 million dead, over 18 million casualties. Hundreds of thousands were condemned to death, sent to penal units and labour camps. Millions of Soviet POWs in German hands were imprisoned and humiliated when they returned to the country they had tried to save. The hideous reality of the Stalinist wartime terror has exposed more vividly than anything else the shallowness of the Soviet claim to have saved civilisation.

And yet, if the Stalinist system was so corrupt and vindictive, and so prodigal with the lives of its own people, how could it possibly have won the war against Hitler's Germany, which possessed in 1941 the most effective battlefield forces in the world and which had seized the economic resources of almost an entire continent. The obvious answer is that the USSR during the war was not so corrupt and vicious it could not mobilise popular enthusiasm for a crusade against Hitlerism. This is an uncomfortable answer, giving Stalin and the Party too much credit in an age of anguished recrimination against Russia's former masters.

There are explanations which give victory back to the former Soviet people without giving it to Stalin. There is the emphasis on the reform of the Soviet armed forces in the face of German attack, an exhaustive overhaul of operational art and tactical performance that few armed forces could have contemplated in the midst of conflict, and in such short order. The military triumphs over German forces would have been impossible without these reforms, and they owed little to Stalin or the Party save that they permitted them to take place.

There is another account that takes as its starting point the Soviet people themselves, without whose willingness to accept terrible privation and endless suffering victory would have eluded Stalin. No one takes seriously the claim that all Soviet citizens worked and fought with a gun to their head, but is popular enthusiasm a sufficient explanation for changing fortunes on the Eastern Front?

Stalin and the Communist system refuse to be entirely dislodged from post-Soviet accounts of Soviet victory. Stalin gave the military their head but he remained Commander-in-Chief; the Communist Party relaxed the taut leash which held the population before 1941, but it still dominated the Soviet state. Soviet victory owed something to all the elements of the Soviet system, dictator and people, Party and army.

It is surely unthinkable that anyone else could have made Russia fight the way she did, and at such a terrible price. Even now, there are few Russians who think the defeat of Hitler's Germany was a cause not worth fighting. What they resent is the shallow exploitation of that military triumph for years afterwards to perpetuate a system whose very faults made the price of victory so high in the first place.

Richard Overy is the author of `Russia's War' (Penguin, pounds 20)

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