Defeating the Nazis became the animating force for everything in Soviet society for the next four years. The need to defend Mother Russia became everyone’s duty in the face of Hitler’s barbarism, and the building of socialism, so long trumpeted on the pages of the Soviet press, faded away. The result was the rapid development of a mosaic of moods among the Soviet peoples. Russian historians have recently argued that the events of June 1941 awoke in the Soviet people the ability to think about variants, to critically evaluate a situation, and not to take the existing order as immutable. The effort to repel the Nazis also meant that, at least at the local level of Soviet life, the democratic centralism of Lenin and Stalin’s party was no longer tenable. The key criterion for becoming a Soviet leader was no longer a person’s party loyalty, but rather his or her contributions to the work of the front. Out in the provinces, the Communist leaders were told to train their subordinates in the following fashion: the party is interested in having people think, and stop instructing the masses and learn from them.
That life in the Soviet Union would now be shaped by the real interests of ordinary people was a big change from the 1930s, when life had been shaped by their imaginary desires, and Stalin’s terror squads had made sure the elites worked to meet them. Meanwhile, Hitler’s armies were well on their way toward Leningrad, Moscow, and central Ukraine by July 1941. Leningrad was soon surrounded and would be under siege for the next three and a half years as 1.5 million Leningrad residents starved to death in the process. The main reason Moscow did not suffer the same fate was Hitler’s decision to concentrate his efforts on capturing Ukraine with its fertile fields, coal mines, ferrous metals resources, and strategic access to the oilfields of the Caucasus. Although the Red Army’s successful counterattacks were another major reason for tl1is diversion to the south, there can be little doubt that Ukraine was also the area that Hitler prized most as the perfect lebensraum for the German people. And such strategic and racial motivations also help explain why Hitler did not take advantage of his being greeted as a liberator by the peoples of western Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltic states who had suffered so much from the Nazi—Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.
Although the Nazis treated these peoples as “lesser-beings” (untermenschen) from the start and would not allow them any rights whatsoever, what really convinced the Ukrainians and others of 1·litler’s malevolent intentions toward the Soviet people was the German army’s treatment of its Red Army POWs and the occupied Jewish population. ln places such as Kiev, where 650,000 Soviet troops were surrounded in September 1941 after a spirited defense of the Ukrainian capital and the Dnieper River region, perhaps two-thirds of the Soviet POWs died of hunger in Nazi captivity. lt was amid the euphoria of such victories in fall 1941 that the Hitlerites devised their Final Solution to rid these captured areas of their “great misfortune”—the Jews. ln the end, almost half the Jews who died in the Holocaust (some 2.5 million people) were Soviet citizens. Importantly, some of these people died in ways more ghastly than the gas chambers of Poland—mass machine gunning was the most popular method used—as the Nazis, the Wehrmacht (or German army), and a still unknown number of local collaborators experimented with methods of killing to find the most efficient way to achieve genocide. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the surviving Ukrainian and Belorussian civilian populations could only hope for the return of the Stalinists and an authoritarian rule that they understood and might be able to manipulate to their advantage.
ln the face of such calamities, Stalin’s effort to maintain control over the Russian rear certainly did not show any relaxation of his coercive methods. Red Army men who surrendered, for example, were said to be traitors and were liable to court-martial. Meanwhile, Communist Party members who remained behind on occupied territory were automatically suspect, and if for some reason they crossed back into Soviet-held territory, they were subject to a rigorous check of their backgrounds. Workers who violated the 1940 labor legislation on tardiness, absenteeism, or the prohibition of movement from one job to another could be hauled before a military tribunal and the same eventually became true for those civilians who ignored compulsory labor mobilizations, responsibilities that impacted everyone but the elderly and the mothers of young children.
Stalin’s epic mistakes on the battlefield were soon overshadowed by Hitler’s own bungling, and the Soviets found themselves with a second chance. The Nazi leader’s earlier decision not to take Moscow ensured that fighting for the Russian capital would take place in the winter, only after the Soviets had had enough time to prepare their defenses. Nevertheless, it was mainly the desperate resistance and simple patriotism of rapidly enlisted men and rearguard troops that saved Moscow in winter 1941-1942 from the Wehrmacht’s ”Army Group Center” But the GKO’s incredibly centralized, command-and-administer system also allowed for the Ural and western Siberian economies to be quickly mobilized to meet the needs of the front. This was particularly important in winter 1941-1942 because the strategic Lend-Lease aid from the Soviet Union’s new American ally would not substantively help the Soviet war effort for another year. Even so, Stalin’s refusal to let his more able generals lead the efforts at the front resulted in yet more devastating defeats in spring 1942, with the Nazis now occupying all of Ukraine and moving toward their strategic goal of taking southern Russia and the Caucasus.
Here again, though, the Soviets were saved from themselves by Hitler’s hubris. The Nazi leader’s greatest strategic mistake came with his decision to try to destroy the besieged city of Stalingrad in fall 1942 in order to deal a public relations blow to the “man of steel.” Hitler could have concentrated his efforts on occupying the Caucasus and Kuban (Russia’s own breadbasket) and exploiting their petroleum and agricultural resources in order to solidify his rule over his new eastern empire. But he went after Stalingrad in an effort to inflict a decisive blow against the Kremlin leader’s omnipotent presence in Soviet society. Stalin recognized the stakes too, and after a year of terrible retreat, he finally decided to listen to his generals and make a stand at this city lying along the Volga River The crucial point here is that the Wehrmacht was spread too thin by this time; Hitler did not have the resources necessary to continue his blitzkrieg. The Wehrmacht’s supply lines, for example, were stretched to the breaking point. Thus, the Soviets were eventually able to surround the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad and destroy it after Hitler stubbornly refused to let Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus retreat. This was the beginning of the end for the Germans—the crucial turning point in the war—where the logistics of what they were doing caught up with them. Hitler’s refusal to fully mobilize his own people and l1is murderous treatment of the untermenschen now meant the fighting initiative went over to the Soviet side.
Meanwhile, Hitler’s refusal to demand sacrifice from his own population resulted in anger and embitterment among the occupied Ukrainians and Belorussians as their sons and daughters were shipped to Germany to become slave laborers (Ostarbeitery). As the Soviets loomed on the eastern horizon, the Germans liberalized their agricultural policy by dissolving Stalin’s hated collective farms; however, at the same time, they were also stripping these areas of anything of value. Not only did the Germans seize raw materials, but they also took tools and macl1ines from factories and valuables from the republics’ museums and private apartments as well. One result of all this was a huge expansion in the forest—based anti—Nazi guerilla movement during 1943. True, many of these partisan fighters were motivated by a desire to curry favor with the advancing Red Army; but in the westernmost regions of the Soviet Union’s post—1939 borders, many partisans were there to fight sincerely for their nation’s political independence as Europe’s two totalitarian empires clashed. These “forest brothers,” many of whom were as hostile to Moscow as they were to Berlin, would eventually be crushed by the NKVD after war’s end. However, their bravery and unhappy end deepened the hostility that many subject peoples felt toward Moscow.