World War II: The Soviet Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, they turned what had been a relatively localized readjustment of the balance of power in Europe into a continent-wide total war.

Political Considerations

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, they turned what had been a relatively localized readjustment of the balance of power in Europe into a continent-wide total Total warwar. Despite the mythology that surrounds events such as the fall of France in May and June, 1940, and the landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944 (D day), the European theater in which World War II was fought and won (by the Allies) was on the eastern front. The majority of Germany’s resources–men, tanks, airplanes, and other weapons–were committed there; the great preponderance of the casualties were suffered there; and it was there that the Soviet Union first retreated, then held, and then finally pushed back the German advance. The Soviets ultimately succeeded through a combination of sheer numbers, implacable stubbornness, and a series of war-winning weapons and strategies that the Germans could match only belatedly and incompletely.World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet UnionWorld War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet UnionSoviet Union;World War II[World War 02]

The Soviet experience had, in essence, two overall phases. In the first, the Soviets desperately tried to overhaul and re-create the organization, equipment, and doctrine of their military, while at the same time attempting to prevent an utter rout by the Germans. The second came as the Soviets succeeded at that gargantuan task and created a military with the soldiers, training, and ability to defeat the Germans. That accomplishment, possibly more than any other, ensured Germany’s defeat in World War II.

The political context of the Soviet Union during World War II centered on the regime of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, JosephStalin, JosephStalin (1879-1953). Stalin had decimated the officer corps of the Red Army before the war, seeking to eliminate threats to his control. Because of Stalin’s Purges (Soviet)purges, the army that fought the Germans was led to a large extent by officers who were learning on the job. Stalin’s usually paranoid nature deserted him in 1941, when he refused to believe numerous internal and external warnings of the impending German attack. As a result, on June 22, Operation Operation Barbarossa (1941)Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union, achieved strategic surprise. The initial attacks quickly cut through and rapidly encircled Soviet forces that had been deployed on orders from Stalin, on the Soviet frontiers. The result was disastrous. Within two months, hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were captured, and the Soviet military was decimated. It would not recover the initiative until 1943.

Stalin did not deal well with the outbreak of war. The invasion itself threw him into a state of shock. He did not make a radio broadcast to the nation until July 3, 1941, and remained largely out of sight after that. As the Germans advanced steadily into the Soviet Union, he grew more and more frantic, worrying as much about his loss of power as the loss of Soviet land. When the Germans reached the outskirts of Moscow, Stalin was close to a nervous breakdown.

Stalin’s anxiety created a temporary and partial vacuum at the top of the Soviet hierarchy, but it also had two beneficial effects. First, it allowed senior army officers, such as Marshal Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko, Semyon KonstantinovichTimoshenko, Semyon KonstantinovichTimoshenko (1895-1970) and Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Georgy Konstantinovich ZhukovGeorgy Konstantinovich ZhukovZhukov (1896-1974), to put their stamp on a reorganization and revitalization of the Soviet army. Second, it forced Stalin and his commissars to turn from the Communist Party toward Russian nationalism as the center of Russian loyalty. Within weeks after the German invasion, messages from the Kremlin began to emphasize the Russian motherland rather than the Communist Party. This appeal to nationalism revitalized the Russian population in a way that an appeal to the Communist Party, stained by years of purges and violence, probably never could have.

Stalin recovered his nerve after winter brought the German offensive to a halt. For the next two years, however, he was politically pinned by the success of the Germans. He had to allow his generals their lead, in the hope that they would be able to prevent the conquest of the Soviet Union. This openness could be seen most clearly in early 1943, when Stalin reluctantly accepted the recommendation of his generals to stay on the strategic defensive until late in the summer.

The political atmosphere changed significantly in late 1943 and early 1944. When it became clear that the Soviets would be able to push the Germans out of Russia, Stalin began reasserting his authority over the Soviet system. He took direct control of the final Soviet offensive into Poland and Germany in January, 1945, effectively undercutting the power of Zhukov, his most successful general.

In addition, Stalin began thinking about the shape of the postwar world. His primary goal was to ensure that the Soviet Union had a military buffer around it of states controlled or influenced by the Kremlin. This strategy had military effects most obviously inPoland;and Soviets[Soviets]Poland, where from August through October, 1944, Stalin halted the forward advance of the Soviet army to allow the Germans time to deal with an uprising of the Polish resistance in Warsaw. He had his own Polish government ready in Moscow and eagerly took the chance to eliminate any rivals to it.

By the end of the war, Stalin’s paranoia had again reached epidemic proportions. He saw, in everything, a threat to his rule. Perhaps the two most endangered groups at this point were returning prisoners ofPrisoners of war;Sovietwar, who were likely to be executed or shipped to Siberia because of their supposed contamination by Nazi ideals, and successful generals, whom Stalin believed posed a political threat to him. Stalin’s personal paranoia echoed a national paranoia that feared another invasion. Both of these paranoias contributed strongly to the start of the Cold Cold War (1945-1991);beginningsWar.

Military Achievement

The Soviet military achievement was simple. The Soviet army absorbed the greatest weight of the German assault and turned it back. This was more than simply a victory over a particular nation. It was also a victory over a particular kind of warfare. The German BlitzkriegBlitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” methods had seemed unbeatable, first in Poland in September and October, 1939, and then in France in May and June, 1940. In both cases, the German Panzer Panzer armiesarmies had swept past and through their opponents, destroying them within weeks at relatively minimal cost.

German invincibility had seemed to continue in the first six months of the invasion of Russia. The Russians managed, through their doctrinal reorganizations, their employment of land and space, and their studied use of the winter conditions, to shatter the spearheads of the German offensives and turn them back.

The prime example of this achievement was at Kursk in Kursk, Battle of (1943)1943, when the Germans attacked a salient, or defensive fortification, in the middle of the Russian lines. Because the Germans’ choice of target was obvious, the Soviets had time to build up an enormous set of fortified defensive lines backed by mobile armored forces. The defensive lines absorbed and bled the German armored spearheads, and the armored forces mounted a series of punishing counterassaults. The result, as it would be for the last two years of the war, was a decisive victory for the Russians and a costly loss for the Germans.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Soviet weapons tended to be simple but also reliable. They had to be easily manufactured in relatively primitive factories by workers with minimal skills. They had to function in conditions that ranged from the appalling heat of the southern summer to the bitter cold of the northern winter. The results were, for the most part, ruggedly designed and built weapons that could absorb an enormous amount of punishment, both military and environmental, and keep on going. This held true for weapons ranging from the smallest to the largest. Soviet infantry weapons, such as the crude but effective PPSh41 submachine Submachine guns;Sovietgun, were hard-wearing and reliable. The 11-2 Sturmovik airplanesSturmovik ground-attack plane could take enormous punishment and return to base.

Oddly, the Soviets nonetheless managed to produce some weapons that not only were reliable and hard-wearing, but also surpassed those of the Germans in technological and military effectiveness. The T-34 Tanks;Soviettank is the classic example. Its sloped armor shrugged off German shells; its high-velocity 76-millimeter (later 85-millimeter) gun could easily destroy any of the then-operational German tanks; and its wide treads allowed it to drive easily over most mud and snow. With its powerful but reliable diesel engine, the T-34 tanks[T 34 tank]T-34 outclassed anything the Germans put in the field in 1941 and 1942. The later German supertanks–the Panther tanksPanther and the Tiger tanksTiger–were, for the most part, desperate reactions to the T-34.

Military Organization

In the initial stages of World War II, Soviet military organization was both ineffective and confused. The largest unit in the army was the corps, consisting of nearly 40,000 men and, supposedly, nearly 1,000 tanks. Few of these corps were up to strength, and their units tended to be dispersed widely and, worse, to answer to different regional headquarters. The Soviets thus had neither the large-scale forces needed for a war of maneuver nor the central organization to use the forces they had effectively.

The near-destruction of the military in the initial months of the war led to its drastic and fundamental reorganization, done on the fly and even as Soviet forces were being forced back to Moscow. The military was commanded from the top by the StavkaStavka, a group that encompassed both the Supreme High Command, led by Stalin, and the General Staff of officers, who advised the Command.

At first, there were three Main Commands, each of which controlled several fronts, responsible to the Stavka. Stalin and his generals made such a habit of bypassing the Main Command commanders that this tier was soon abolished, and the front commanders became the next organizational level for the rest of the war. These fronts were centered on geographic areas, such as Leningrad, the trans-Caucasus, or Moscow. Each front headquarters controlled all the military forces within that area, armored, air, or infantry. Such headquarters often found themselves barely able to control such an enormous responsibility, and as the war continued, the Soviets increased the number of fronts.

Very quickly, the Stavka abolished the corps and replaced it with a smaller field army. It did so because of both the shortage of equipment, especially tanks, and the lack of experienced midlevel officers.

Along with this reorganization came renewed power for the political commissars who controlled the army on behalf of the Communist Party. Commissars (Soviet)Commissars were present at every level of command. It was not until late 1942 that the commissars lost much of their power, as Stalin reined them in to reduce any threat to his personal power.

Below the front level, Soviet organization in the first months was chaotic, broken up by the rapid retreat. Beginning in 1942, however, the Stavka began to build up mobile mechanized units, in somewhat of a return to the prewar deep-penetration ideas.

World War II: The European Theater

The first units were tank Tanks;Sovietcorps, which had about 8,000 men and 100 to 200 tanks. Larger units were soon created, which eventually became tank armies in 1943. These were made up of several tank corps and supporting units. The purpose of these highly mobile tank armies was to exploit gaps in the German defenses created by rifle infantry units. The tank armies proved highly successful and fought their way to the gates of Berlin.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Soviet grand strategy shifted as the war went on. Prior to the war, the official Soviet doctrine, as laid out by people such as Marshal Mikhayl Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky, Mikhayl NikolayevichTukhachevsky, Mikhayl NikolayevichTukhachevsky (1893-1937) in the 1920’s and 1930’s, emphasized the idea of offensive deep penetrations led by mechanized units, aimed at breaking through the World War World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Soviet UnionI static defenses and exploiting the gaps before the enemy gathered itself. The strategy was similar to German conceptions and was driven by geography as well as technology. The immense distances and relatively flat terrain of western Russia meant that campaigns rarely remained static. Such strategy relied, however, on an experienced and able senior officer corps, the very group that had suffered calamitously in Stalin’s purges.

Thus in the early months of World War II, the prewar doctrine was essentially thrown out the window, and grand strategy centered on the defensive, as the country struggled to survive. The Soviets remade their doctrine on the fly, bowing to the dictates of necessity. In the first year of the war, the holding of critical centers such as Leningrad and Stalingrad was the key.

As the tide shifted, the Soviet leadership began to look to a series of massive counteroffensives that built upon one another to sweep them back through their lost territory and into Germany. The 1942 fall offensives, which included a pincer movement on the German forces at Stalingrad and a major assault on the German army group facing Moscow, were perceived as the foundation for a wave of attacks that would end the war.

Although the Stalingrad Offensive Stalingrad, Siege of (1942-1943)(1942-1943) was an enormous success, the German defenses tightened afterward, and the exhausted and worn-down Soviet forces needed time to rebuild. Stalin and the Stavka had to accept reluctantly that the war could not be won quickly. They thus turned to the idea of local attacks, which would both push back and bleed the German forces, interspersed with periods during which both sides rebuilt their forces.

Russians race to take up a new position near Stalingrad.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This was the pattern the Soviets followed after their victory at Kursk. Thus, from December, 1943, through April, 1944, Soviet armies in the south pushed back the German forces in the Ukraine, while attacks in the north finally freed Leningrad after three years of encirclement. Once those offensives had met with success, the Soviets paused and built their forces up in the center, eventually attacking the Germans in front of Minsk, Battle of (1944)Minsk in June, 1944. The near-continuous assaults and the shifting of theaters wrong-footed and wore down the German defenders. It allowed the Soviets to pick their targets and build up forces as required.

Soviet operational strategy was based on gathering overwhelming numbers and firepower at the point of decision, whether in attack or defense, and using it to overcome the Germans. Once the infantry and artillery had created a break, mobile mechanized forces came up to exploit the gap, surge far into the German rear, and cut off the Wehrmacht forces. That was the theory, anyway. In execution, Soviet commanders often committed their mobile reserves too early and allowed them to be destroyed by the German defenders. This occurred as late as April and May, 1945, when Zhukov put in his armored forces too early during the Battle of Berlin, causing them to be entangled not only by the German defenders but also by the logistical tails of their own infantry. For the greater part, however, the Soviets found immense success with this strategy, successfully cutting off the German army led by Friedrich Paulus, FriedrichPaulus, FriedrichPaulus (1890-1957) outside Stalingrad, Siege of (1942-1943)Stalingrad in the winter of 1943, and then, in June through August, 1944, sending the German Army Group Center on a retreat from the Ukraine and killing or capturing more than 400,000 Wehrmacht (Nazi German forces)Wehrmacht soldiers in the process.

Two external factors aided the Russian strategy. The first was Adolf Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfHitler’s obsessive refusal to allow his commanders to retreat to more defensible positions. His “stand-fast” orders, as at Stalingrad, played right into the Soviet strategy by setting Wehrmacht units up to be encircled. Second, Dodge trucks provided through the U.S. Lend-Lease program formed the Soviet logistical spine and kept the armored spearheads resupplied and refueled.

Soviet tactics relied on infantry-armor combinations, backed up by overwhelming fire support from both artillery and ground attack aircraft. A typical assault in 1944 or 1945 began with reconnaissance battalions infiltrating the German defensive lines to seize key points. As this was occurring, artillery and air units would pound the Germans to soften them up for the assault. After the initial phase, the bombardment would shift to targets in the rear, allowing an assault on the German lines by infantry, heavy armor, and combat engineers. Finally, combined-arms groups would follow up and take advantage of newly made gaps to begin encircling the German forces.

The cost of this strategy was enormous. Estimates of Soviet military casualties ranged from twenty to forty million soldiers. Civilian casualties may have been higher. Overall it was estimated that the Soviet Union lost up to twenty eight million dead. In addition to the human cost, the western half of the Soviet Union was dealt an enormous economic and social blow. Millions of people were made refugees, and the industrial infrastructure was either destroyed, captured, or uprooted. For the second time in the century, European Russia had borne the brunt of total war. It was an experience the Russians wished never to repeat, and, more than anything, this desire would inform their postwar World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];impact on Russia[Russia]behavior.

When the Soviet army rolled into Berlin in May, 1945, it was perhaps the most powerful army the world had ever seen. It had successfully learned from the disasters of 1941 and 1942 and applied the harsh lessons of total war to its doctrine, organization, and technology. It had rebuilt itself, even while fending off the Wehrmacht deep in the Russian steppes. It had done so at immense cost in the lives of both soldiers and civilians, but it had done so victoriously. Perhaps the only military to undergo a similarly triumphant transformation was the United States Navy during the Pacific war against Japan from 1941 to 1945. In essence, the Soviet military, supported by the iron will of the Russian people, had ended the Nazi threat. Rightly, their performance in the “Great Patriotic War” was viewed with pride.

Contemporary Sources

A vast array of material has been published in Russia on World War II, but little of it has been translated into English, the major exceptions being End of the Third Reich, The (Chuikov) Chuikov, Vasili I.Vasili I. Chuikov’s The End of the Third Reich (1967) and Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, The (Zhukov) The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov (1971). As a result, most of the available sources for the eastern front in World War II have tended to lean heavily toward the German point of view. During the Cold War, access to Soviet documents was limited, but that changed in the 1990’s. The collapse of the Soviet Union made thousands of pages of documents and other contemporary sources available. Although this access has remained restricted and the Russian Federation’s “processing” has often affected the content of available material, the change in attitude has been remarkable. The new sources have allowed a flowering in studies of the Soviet experience during World War II, led by such scholars as Glantz, DavidGlantz, David David Glantz. Orenstein, HaroldOrenstein, Harold Evolution of Soviet Operational Art, 1927-1991 (Orenstein) Harold Orenstein’s The Evolution of Soviet Operational Art, 1927-1991: The Documentary Basis (1995) is probably the best English-language account of the important Soviet documents. Sebag-Montefiore, SimonSebag-Montefiore, Simon[Sebag Montefiore, Simon] Stalin (Sebag-Montefiore) Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), was based on hitherto unprecedented access to Stalin’s own records. There have also been many accounts, previously available only in Russian, that have been translated into English or German, such as Loza, D. F.Loza, D. F. Commanding the Red Army’s Sherman Tanks (Loza) D. F. Loza’s Commanding the Red Army’s Sherman Tanks (1996) and his Fighting for the Soviet Motherland (Loza) Fighting for the Soviet Motherland (1998) as well as Temking,GabrielTemking, Gabriel My Just War (Temkin) Gabriel Temkin’s My Just War: The Memoir of a Jewish Red Army Soldier in World War II (1998).World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Soviet UnionSoviet Union;World War II[World War 02]

Books and Articles
  • Dunn, Walter S. Hitler’s Nemesis: The Red Army, 1930-1945. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.
  • Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin: Continuing the History of Stalin’s War with Germany. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983.
  • _______. The Road to Stalingrad. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
  • Forczyk, Robert. Leningrad, 1941-44. New York: Osprey, 2009.
  • Glantz, David M. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
  • Glantz, David M., and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
  • Jukes, Geoffrey, The Second World War (5): The Eastern Front, 1941-1945. New York: Osprey, 2002.
  • Morgan, Hugh. Soviet Aces of World War 2. New York: Osprey, 1997.
  • Rottman, Gordon L. Soviet Field Fortifications, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 2007.
  • _______. Soviet Rifleman, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 2007.
  • Sakaida, Henry. Heroes of the Soviet Union, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 2004.
  • Shukman, Harold, ed. Stalin’s Generals. New York: Grove Press, 1993.
  • Smith, Myron J. The Soviet Army, 1939-1980: A Guide to Sources in English. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1982.
  • Stolfi, R. H. S. Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reconsidered. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
  • Zaloga, Steven J. The Red Army of the Great Patriotic War, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 1989.
Films and Other Media
  • Army Group North: The Werhmacht in Russia. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 1999.
  • Ballad of a Solider. Film. Mosfilm, 1959.
  • The Battle of Russia. Documentary. Hughes Leisure Group, 1991.
  • Defiance. Film. Paramount Vantage, 2008.
  • Enemy at the Gates. Film. Paramount Pictures, 2001.
  • The World at War. Documentary. Thames Television, 1973.

World War II: United States, Britain, and France

World War II: Germany and Italy

World War II: Japan

Small Arms and Machine Guns


Tanks and Armored Vehicles

Aircraft, Bombs, and Guidance Systems

Rockets, Missiles, and Nuclear Weapons

Chemical and Biological Weapons

Modern Fortifications

Sieges and Siege Techniques: Modern

Armies and Infantry: Modern

Cavalry: Modern

Naval Development: The Age of Propulsion

The Age of Bismarck

The “Great” War: World War I

The Spanish Civil War

Categories: History