Marxism, The Great Patriotic War, and the Near Defeat of the Soviet Union

In the Western world few events and historical periods captivate people the way World War II does. The events of the 1930s and 1940s have a certain romanticism that entices both trained and amateur scholars with the result of innumerable analytical work. Yet to this day, Western scholars have either paid little attention to, or outright ignored, some aspects of the war. One of these areas is the war on the Eastern Front between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War. Since the Western powers did not fight on this particular front it makes sense why little attention has traditionally been paid to it. However, a more significant reason for the lack of scholarly research, when compared to the Western Front, has been the dearth of uncensored primary documentation. The little Soviet documentation available to Western academics was heavily censured and biased. We were only able to learn what the Soviet Union wanted or allowed us to know. It would not be until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 that uncensored documents became readily available to Western scholars as archives opened to the public and a more accurate picture of the Eastern Front and the Great Patriotic War could be developed. This uncensored understanding of the Eastern Front is critical as the Allied victory in World War II was a direct consequence of Germany’s failed blitzkrieg of the Soviet Union.

Since 1991 some of the best, uncensored primary documentation found detailing the Eastern Front comes from a Soviet reporter named Vasily Grossman. Prior to the publication of his war journals and correspondences Grossman was famous in Western circles, and infamous in Soviet ones, for his work The Hell of Treblinka, which described the first physical contacts of the Holocaust by the Allied Powers. The eyewitness accounts, including his own, contained in this piece would later be cited as evidence during the Nuremburg War Crimes trials. Several years later his magnum opus, entitled Life and Fate, would be confiscated by the K.G.B. and deemed subversive to the Soviet regime. If not for fellow Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich, who smuggled photographed pages abroad, no copies of the book would have survived.

The journal entries and personal correspondences Grossman wrote and preserved during his time on the front lines of World War II provide unrivaled accounts of what it was like to serve under the Soviet government against the Nazis on the Eastern Front. These documents reveal the lack of Soviet preparedness for war, utter incompetence of Soviet military leadership, how Party doctrine hindered the realities of combat, and the sheer brutality inflicted by the Soviet political machine upon its own soldiers. Collectively, Grossman demonstrates just how close the Soviet Union came to complete defeat in the first year of the war.

Before examining Grossman’s writings, however, it is important to comprehend, not only the charges this paper lays against the Soviet regime, but how a once global superpower achieved such levels of stupidity, ineptitude, and brutality that very nearly cost them World War II within months of its beginning, and thus the Allied victory. Understanding Joseph Stalin, and by extension the state of the Soviet Union and Soviet communism on the eve of World War II is the only way to grasp the full significance of Grossman’s journals and letters.

The aftermath of Vladimir Lenin’s unexpected death in 1924 saw a consolidation of power by Joseph Stalin, who had ascended to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party and was, initially, Lenin’s handpicked successor. This point in Soviet/Russian history is the beginning of a period that culminated in what is referred to as the Great Terror. During this time Stalin would essentially wage war on his own people and purge the Party and government.

Stalin firmly believed in the industrialization of the Soviet Union. Unlike Western Europe, the Industrial Revolution had never wholly hit Russia, or later the Soviet Union. The difference between industrialization under Stalin and industrialization in a country like Great Britain was, very simply, Marxism. Stalin saw industrialization as a means to rapidly speed up the processes of history and attain its inevitable end – communism. In order to achieve this, Stalin called for a Five-Year Plan that would, in practice, be crash industrialization. In a sense, this plan succeeded as the Soviet Union saw the largest industrial growth of any country in history at the time. However, this growth came at the expense of the average Soviet citizen. In order to feed the new industrial working class Stalin collectivized agriculture, which meant peasants were forced onto collective farms to produce food for the working class. Produce was forcibly taken from these farms and the peasants were left with no food of their own. Untold millions starved while the Soviet government continued to forcibly take food from them. (In this context it makes sense why Russians living in the periphery of the country initially saw the Nazis as liberators, even offering to serve alongside to fight Stalin.)

But the peasants would not be alone in their slow, tortuous deaths. Stalin had to consolidate his power. While Lenin had initially believed Stalin would be the most able successor he later came to regret his choice and sought to rectify the decision days before his death. Believing Stalin to be too crass and rude to be an effective leader, in short an uncultured peasant[1], Lenin attempted to win support for a new appointee to the General Secretary position via a letter to the Party Congress. The letter was entrusted to Leon Trotsky with explicit instructions to read its contents at the Congress. Upon Lenin’s death, though, Stalin was able to disparage the letter sufficiently enough to the younger generation of communists by playing upon the Soviet fear of another Napoleon. He alleged Lenin did not pen the letter but was instead authored by Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army who, for reasons unknown, initially suppressed it. Yet, the “Old Bolsheviks” (individuals who planned and participated in the 1917 seizure of power and personally knew Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin) present at the Party Congress refused to give their vote to Stalin when the time came to elect someone to the General Secretary position.[2]

What this episode demonstrates is Joseph Stalin was not as securely in power as was, and is, popularly believed. Recognizing this himself, Stalin began a purge of the Communist Party, the government, and the military. This is the direct cause for the incompetence of Soviet military leadership and the snowballing effect of this purge partially explains the brutality Soviet communism inflicted on its own soldiers.

Originally meant as a surgical strike against people who could threaten Stalin’s power at that time or in the future, the purge was a Machiavellian maneuver against those who knew Stalin beyond his “Cult of Personality”; specifically, the Old Bolsheviks. Stalin was able to justify the killings to the public by leveling charges of treason and betrayal of the Party against those he eliminated. The most famous of these charges played out in the infamous Show Trials of the 1930s. There were two problematic consequences with this, however. The first problem is best explained by examining the military.

In any government, not just the Soviet Union, the military is always the most immediate and potentially dangerous threat to a regime. Stalin understood this and literally killed off the entirety of the army’s leadership. The predicament this creates is readily apparent: the people left to fill the void of leadership and authority lack the experience and knowledge of those who have been eliminated. The implications of this during a time of war will be seen shortly.

The second problem of Stalin’s purge is how he viewed treason. He believed inaction, as well as action, constituted treason. As such, treason was conspiratorial in nature. For example, if Person X was accused (most likely a false charge to begin with) of working with foreign intelligence agencies from 1925 to 1928, then every person that ever came into contact with Person X from 1925 to 1928 is also guilty of treason since they never reported his treasonous activities to the state. In turn, everyone who came into contact with these people and never reported their inaction were themselves traitors, and everyone in contact with those people were traitors… and on and on it perpetuated.  This is how the purge snowballed into the mass terror we know it as today. This conspiratorial view of treason would play an important role in the brutal manner Soviet military leaders acted in to their own soldiers.

Yet, as has been demonstrated, despite his ruthlessness and callousness, Stalin was no fool[3]; he fully understood the dangers of having inexperienced people in positions of leadership, especially the military. This explains why he signed a non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in August 1939. It is accurate to suggest Stalin knew Hitler would renege on his pledge of non-aggression eventually, but Stalin mistakenly believed it would be, perhaps, years in the coming. He never contemplated the notion Hitler would be bold (or foolish) enough to attack the Soviet Union while enemies of Germany still existed in the West, in Great Britain specifically and possibly the United States. A two-front war would be dangerous and costly. After all, fear of encirclement and a two-front war was one of Germany’s motivations that led it toward antagonistic actions coopting a localized Balkan conflict to initiate a second, unrelated war, unequaled in its horrors to that point – the First World War. Ideally, in Stalin’s mind, Hitler and the Western Powers would mutually annihilate each other leaving the Soviet Union open to sweep in amid the ruins and bring communism to Europe. Thus, Stalin was genuinely shocked when Hitler broke the pact in June 1941 with Operation: Barbarossa and explains the reluctance of Soviet action during this German campaign against the country.

Against this backdrop of Soviet history the writings of Vasily Grossman can now be fully understood within the broader context of the times. It is possible to contemplate just how close the Soviet Union came to defeat and collapse fifty years earlier than it did, which in all likelihood would have altered history as we know it.

Any discussion about the near defeat of the Soviet Union in World War II must begin with the lack of preparation and the reluctance to accept that Hitler was indeed invading. Sitting on the frontlines of combat in Gomel, Vasily Grossman pondered this very issue. He commented in his journal:

On the outbreak of war, a lot of senior commanders and generals were on holiday in Sochi. Many armoured units were having new engines installed in their tanks, many artillery units had no shells, many aviation units had no fuel. When the telephone calls began to come in from the frontier to the higher headquarters with reports that war had begun, some of them received the following answer: “Don’t give in to provocation.” This produced surprise in the most frightful and most severe sense of the word.[4]

This is an exceedingly remarkable description. Transpose this account to the Twenty-First Century in order to get a sense of its magnitude. First, it is inconceivable that “a lot of senior commanders and generals” would all be on “holiday” at a single time in today’s armies. The thought process behind a near universal vacation for the chain of command of one’s army seems to suggest one of two possibilities, or some combination therein: either the Soviets were extraordinary naïve or plain stupid. Odds are, it was a little bit of both. As previously noted, Stalin, with good reason, did not think Hitler would attack so soon, but it is reasonable to think he would have nevertheless guarded against the possibility as mere precaution, given Russian history and the fact Stalin did believe Hitler would attack at some point if afforded the chance. As part of such guarding it would have been beneficial to have someone within the chain of command actually in command of his units and not on vacation.

A second important aspect of this description is the fact so much of the infrastructure of the Soviet army was unavailable for use. Again, imagine a Twenty-First Century army unable to use its tanks, artillery, or planes; such an army would be fully obliterated in combat, provided the opposing army was a modern, mechanized one. And, in point of fact, the Soviet army was indeed routed in those early months of Barbarossa, because, indeed, the German army was fully mechanized. We can see the effects of the purge in this: if experienced leaders still ran the Soviet army, it is reasonable to expect such unavailability of army infrastructure would have been addressed long before all hell broke loose.

The final significance of Grossman’s account is the reaction of army leaders when they were contacted by troops along the border. It is impossible to fathom world leaders today telling their troops to stand down and allow a foreign army to invade their country unopposed. Imagine, for example, Israel commanding its units to allow an Iranian army to blitz them. It is difficult to discern what the thought process was behind the decision to not “give in to provocation.” Yet, whatever the thought process was, it would prove an egregious decision.

As is apparent, Grossman’s description of the lack of Soviet preparedness for a possible German invasion also demonstrates gross negligence and incompetence as well. Unfortunately for Stalin and the Soviet Union, lack of preparation was not the sole example of idiocy:

It was remarkably interesting when Nemtsevich told us about the first night of the war, about the terrible, swift retreat. He drove around day and night in a truck picking up officers’ wives and children. In one house he found officers who had been stabbed to death. Apparently, they had been killed in their sleep by saboteurs. This was close to the frontier. He said that on that night of the German invasion he had to make a telephone call on some unimportant business and it turned out communications weren’t working… He was annoyed, but didn’t pay much attention to this.[5]

This commander of an aviation regiment, Nemtsevich, is perhaps one of the best, specific examples of someone in a position of authority as a result of Stalin’s purge and the resulting inexperience and incompetence:

Nemtsevich said to me that German aircraft haven’t appeared over his airfield for ten days. He was categorical about his conclusions: the Germans have no fuel, the Germans have no aircraft, they have all been shot down.[6]

The same day Nemtsevich declared the demise of the Luftwaffe a squadron of German bombers flying overhead awakened the base; it should be obvious that Nemtsevich was not the most proficient military commander. But, Nemtsevich is a typical example of the sort of leadership that existed within the Soviet military as a result of the purges.

However, lack of preparation and an incompetent military were not alone in nearly bringing defeat to the Soviet Union. Unlike the other combatants of World War II, with the possible exception of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union was a partocracy. This meant the Soviet government was an instrument of the Communist Party. Thus, Communist ideology and beliefs pervaded all aspects of Soviet life, including the military. This was particularly damaging during the war because communism proclaims itself to be both omnipotent and infallible. Since communism is the ultimate end of history (utopia) according to Marxism, those who are learned in the teachings of Karl Marx, namely, Lenin, Stalin, and the main cogs of the Communist Party, are never wrong and everything they do or make is perfect. As such, to claim Soviet airplanes, for example, were not as technologically advanced as German planes, was heresy. The penalty of such a claim was death. Grossman chronicles this infallibility of the Communist Party: “We have faith in our equipment. Neither an engine nor an aircraft would let one down.”[7]

The implications of this infallibility were disastrous to the Soviet army and did not reflect the realities of what was occurring. Improvements and innovations, in essence, were forbidden because the Party built the planes, tanks, artillery, and other material that were being used in the war. Ergo, no finer tools of war could be found. The fact Russian pilots, among themselves, would complain about the superiority of German aircraft over the ones they flew, never amounted to more than mere grumblings in the ranks. Constructive criticism was a sure way to end up with the label of Enemy of the State.

If the prevention of legitimate, constructive criticism was bad enough, Party doctrine also served as the impetus and justification for Soviet brutality on its own soldiers. From the individual soldier’s perspective the worst contribution to a near defeat was the very real fear of being shot and killed by their own army, let alone the Nazis. It is difficult to find another country that so willingly mowed down its own soldiers, if indeed any such country exists apart from the Soviet Union. Stalin’s view of the nature of treason, in part, helps to explain this phenomena and accounts similar to the following: “Red Army soldier shot in the 8th Company for collaborating in a desertion to the enemy.”[8] Grossman does not go into any more detail regarding this specific execution, but within the context of Stalinist Russia the implication is clear: the executed soldier was just as guilty of treason as the soldier who actually deserted because he failed to denounce or shoot the deserter. Remember, if a Soviet citizen failed to denounce a traitor to the State they were also guilty of treason. Unfortunately, such occurrences were more or less the norm in the Soviet army, and in many cases it was a “shoot first, ask questions later” situation:

Manzhulya, even though he had returned voluntarily, and may simply have been a straggler, rather than a deserter, probably faced a firing squad or service in a shtrafbat, or punishment battalion, which virtually guaranteed death, since they were forced to undertake the most hazardous tasks, including, on some occasions, marching across minefields ahead of attacking troops.[9]

Perhaps what is most remarkable is the Party apparatchiks serving in the army actually believed such executions were good for morale: “The political-moral state of the troops is good. Deserter Toropov was shot in front of his company.”[10] One can see in such accounts the delusions associated with Soviet communism and how it hindered the war. The reality of such executions, contrary to what “loyal communists” would like to believe, was a poor quality of soldiery, especially when compared to the other combatants of World War II. Such poor quality is understandable, though; how can the average Soviet soldier successfully fight an invading Nazi army when the Soviet army was just as likely to kill them?

The explanation for such killing only partially stems from Stalin’s view of treason. More significantly, it reflects a flaw of Marxism itself – the absence of individual worth and dignity. In communism individual rights are sacrificed for the greater good, which is why there is no private property, only communal property. While many societies seek to protect the greater good, the communist system does it at the expense of the individual (think back to the collective farms). In practice, people under communism are reverted to mere numbers and lose their humanity, similar to the 1960s television show The Prisoner, which examined this concept quite literally (“I am not a number; I am a free man!”).[11] With such little value placed upon the individual, executing your own soldiers is actually seen as beneficial, since those killed are subversive to the Soviet, utopian society.

The question can now be asked: how did the Soviet Union survive Operation: Barbarossa? Or, put another way, how could the Nazis have possibly failed in their objective with such rampant dysfunction and delusion in the Soviet army and the country itself? The truth is the Nazis did nearly succeed. In fact, Panzer divisions were so close to Moscow they had only to open the hatches in their Tiger tanks to look out and see the city on the horizon. Soviet tanks on parade in Moscow to celebrate the anniversary of the 1917 seizure of power drove straight from the celebration to the front lines to meet these advancing Panzers. The lack of preparation, the inexperience and incompetence of military leaders, the delusions of Party doctrine, and the self-inflicted brutality on soldiers caused the Soviet army to do nothing but run and hide from the advancing Germans in these first months. At no point were the Soviets able to either make a stand or mount an offensive of their own. The reason the Soviet Union survived lies in history and would prove to be Hitler’s greatest error during the war, eventually costing him his Third Reich and his life.

Russia has always been a country facing the possibility of invasion. Its geography is such that it is open on all sides, with no oceans, mountains, and other physical features acting as barriers. Thus, marauding armies have always beset the region. Prior to Hitler, the most significant threat in recent history had been the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Like Hitler, Napoleon dominated the mainland of the European continent. The last remaining territory outside Napoleon’s grasp was Russia, which he sought to bring under his control. Like Hitler’s army, Napoleon routed the tsar’s forces and even captured a burned down Moscow from the rapidly retreating Russians. However, Napoleon failed to account in his plans for the extremes characteristic of Russian weather. With Moscow in utter ruin, no shelter, and an extended supply line, Napoleon and his forces were forced to withdraw and retreat the country as the Russian winter threatened to starve and freeze them to death.

Hitler did not learn from Napoleon’s mistake and would in fact replicate it. Grossman makes mention of this when he was recalled to Moscow:

I don’t think anyone has ever seen such terrible mud. There’s rain, snow, hailstones, a liquid, bottomless swamp, black pastry mixed by thousands and thousands of boots, wheels, caterpillars. And everyone is happy once again. The Germans must get stuck in our hellish autumn, both in the sky and on the ground. At any rate, we have managed to escape from the sack.[12]

This was, in actuality, what stopped the Nazis from taking Moscow, and thus, the Soviet Union. Whatever their other inefficiencies the Soviets were at least adapted to harsh weather.[13] Their soldiers did not freeze to death; the Germans did. The gasoline in their tanks did not freeze; the German’s did. Their battalions and men and armor were able to move; the German’s became hopelessly bogged down and immobile. The weather completely neutralized the Nazi army and gave Stalin and the Soviets enough time to catch their collective breath, regroup, and recover.[14] The Germans would be unable to advance any further into the country as the Soviets were finally offered time to get their legs under them. It is conceivable that had Hitler commenced Operation: Barbarossa a few months earlier the Soviet Union would have fallen with as little difficulty as Poland or France as the harshness of winter would have been circumvented. The ultimate result of this, quite possibly, would have been Nazi victory over the Allies, even with America’s entry, with Allied victory only assured through the newly developed nuclear technology. But, because the Russian winter stopped the Nazis in their tracks, literally, the Soviets would recover sufficiently enough to begin pushing back, eventually culminating with their assault on Berlin itself.

The roots of the Soviet Union’s near defeat originated in their professed ideology of Marxism, which in turn, helped precipitate the Great Terror and the purges conducted under Joseph Stalin. Subsequently, the combination of Marxist ideology and the Terror left the Soviet Union with inexperienced, incompetent leaders in vital areas of national security, such as the military, that forced Stalin into a non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Sensing a weakened, dysfunctional country, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact with Operation: Barbarossa in the hope of quickly eliminating the Soviet Union from World War II before it could get involved. Resulting from this lack of preparation, incompetent leadership, and the inherit flaws within Marxism, the Nazis routed Soviet forces and got within a stone’s throw of Moscow, the seat of Soviet power. However, Hitler failed to account for the extremes of the Russian weather, as Napoleon failed to do over a century earlier, and the Nazi army was rendered utterly immobile. This allowed Stalin and the Soviet Union just enough time to recover from the German blitz and mount a defensive perimeter through which Germany was unable to penetrate. As time wore on a two-front war would prove too much for Germany and the Soviet Union was eventually able to mount the first real Allied offensive against Hitler, resulting in the taking of Berlin, Hitler’s suicide, and the end of the European theater of World War II.


[1] This is the first of several examples in this monograph that demonstrate the flawed and contradictory nature of Marxism. Marxism proclaims an end to class with the advent of communism, yet here is an avowed Marxist who, at the practical level, still views people through distinctions of class and culture. As one professor aptly stated, Lenin “rewrote” Marxism through his actions in an attempt to work around the failures of Marxist ideology. For instance, Lenin, unlike Marx and Engels, realized the proletariat would never unite as one and revolt without a professional revolutionary to lead them and serve as the catalyst for such action. For Lenin, this was his self-avowed purpose in history.

[2] The irony cannot be missed: democratic elements being used under the auspices of, and in the advance of, Marxism.

[3] Due to the atrocities committed under Stalin and the sheer volume of victims it is fashionable to explain such behavior as the acts of a madman. The reality is Stalin knew precisely what he was doing. A devout adherer of Machiavellian thought (The Prince was the only book Stalin kept by his bedside), his regime was not one of lunacy, but rather, perhaps the epitome of Machiavellian ideology into practice.

[4] Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 (New York: Vintage books, 2005), 12.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 81.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Ibid., 73.

[10] Ibid., 73.

[11] As Karl Marx himself stated in Das Kapital, “I speak of individuals insofar as they are personifications of special classes and interests.”

[12] Beevor and Vinogradova., 52.

[13] Russian soldiers rather adroitly used the weather and setting to their advantage. Grossman relays a fascinating example in which one soldier donned the garb of a peasant farmer and roamed the countryside via a sleigh, seeking out German infantry. Upon encountering Germans, who contemptuously gave the Russian no more than a cursory glance due to his disguise, the soldier would produce a machine gun hidden under the sleigh and fire upon the Germans from the rear, catching them unawares. Yet, this and similar examples were the genius of individual soldiers and not the army itself.

[14] This recovery resulted from Stalin’s appeal to the populace to rise up and defend their homes against the Teutonic invaders. He reached out to the people not as fellow “Soviets” or “comrades,” but instead, as Slavs. It is a poignant illustration of both Stalin’s intelligence and political savvy (further disproving the myth of insanity) and the inherent evils and flaws of Marxist ideology that Stalin omitted any ideological jargon and instead tapped into ethnic and national pride.


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