Not one step back

Just reading Stalingrad (again) by Anthony Beevor and was struck by the brutality of the regime in the context of the invasion of The Ukraine. I am quoting direct from the book and hope that does not infringe anything…. With this sort of historical baggage I truly wonder about the mental state of the Russian people. I have done a couple of trips in that country but am at a loss to really make sense of the situation other than to comment that the people in Moscow, the only city I have visited, are in most Russian’s opinion very different from those that live in the countryside. Whilst total USSR war dead in WW2 is an unmitigated tragedy it should be remembered that the then states being part of the union bore a great part of the losses. Hmmm formatting seems adrift!

‘Not One Step Backwards’

On 28 July 1942, while Hitler was still celebrating the capture of

Rostov, Stalin sensed that the moment of crisis was at hand. Soviet

forces retreating from Paulus’s Sixth Army faced annihilation west

of the Don. If the Germans then advanced across the Volga, forty

miles further on, the country would be cut in two. Convoy PQ-17 had

just been destroyed in the Barents Sea and the new Anglo-American

supply line across Persia would soon be threatened. The Soviet Union

faced strangulation.

That day, Stalin suddenly stopped pacing up and down his office

in the Kremlin while listening to a report from General Vasilevsky.

“They’ve forgotten my Stavka Order!’ he burst out. This order, issued

the previous August, stated that ‘anyone who removes his insignia

during battle and surrenders should be regarded as a malicious

deserter, whose family is to be arrested as the family of a breaker of

the oath and betrayer of the Motherland. Such deserters are to be

shot on the spot. Those falling into encirclement… and who prefer

to surrender are to be destroyed by any means, while their families

are to be deprived of all state allowance and assistance.’

“They’ve forgotten it!’ Stalin said again. ‘Write a new one on the

same lines.’

‘When do you want me to report with the new order?’ Vasilevsky


“Today. Come back as soon as it is ready.”

Vasilevsky returned that evening with the draft of Order No. 227,

more commonly known as ‘Not One Step Backwards’. Stalin made

many changes, then signed it. The order was to be read to all troops

in the Red Army. ‘Panic-mongers and cowards must be destroyed on

the spot. The retreat mentality must be decisively eliminated. Army

commanders who have allowed the voluntary abandonment of posi

tions must be removed and sent for immediate trial by military

tribunal.’ Anyone who surrendered was ‘a traitor to the Motherland’.

Each army had to organize ‘three to five well-armed detachments (up

to 200 men each)’ to form a second line to shoot down any soldier

who tried to run away. Zhukov implemented this order on the Western

Front within ten days, using tanks manned by specially selected

officers. They followed the first wave of an attack, ready ‘to combat

cowardice’, by opening fire on any soldiers who wavered.

Three camps were set up for the interrogation of anyone who

had escaped from German custody or encirclement. Commanders

permitting retreat were to be stripped of their rank and sent to penal

companies or battalions. 

The first on the Stalingrad Front came into being three weeks later on 22 August, the day before the Germans reached the Volga.

Penal companies-shtrafroty – were to perform semi-suicidal tasks

such as mine clearance during an attack. Altogether some 422,700

Red Army men would ‘atone with their blood for the crimes they

have committed before the Motherland’. The idea so appealed to the

Soviet authorities that civilian prisoners were transferred from the

Gulag to shtraf units, some say almost a million, but this may well

be an exaggeration. Promises of redemption through bravery usually

proved to be false, mainly because of bureaucratic indifference. Men

were left to die in their ranks. On the Stalingrad Front, the 51st Army

was told to round up officers who had escaped from encirclement.

The first group of fifty-eight officers heard that they would be sent

in front of a commission to allocate them to new units, but nobody

bothered to interrogate them. Instead, they found themselves, without

trial or warning, in penal companies. By the time the mistake came

to light nearly two months later, they were ‘already wounded or


The system of NKVD Special Departments, re-established the year

before to deal with ‘traitors, deserters and cowards’, was strengthened.

The Special Department or OO (Osobyi Otdel) dated back to 1919,

when Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka, wanted

complete control over the armed forces. In April 1943, less than two

months after the battle of Stalingrad finished, the Special Departments,

under their chief, Viktor Abakumov, became SMERSH, the

acronym for Smert Shpionam – Death to Spies.

Rifle divisions had an NKVD Special Department staff of up to

twenty officers, with one ‘operational representative’ per battalion,

and a headquarters guard unit of twenty to thirty men, who held

prisoners and executed ‘cowards and traitors’. The Special Depart

ment officer recruited his own agents and informers. According to a

former SMERSH informer, he tended to be ‘pale because they

usually worked during the night’, and, on parade, he ‘looked closely

in our faces as if he knew something bad about each one of us’.

NKVD Special Departments took their work of rooting out spies

and traitors with great seriousness. An officer, using the name Brunny,

wrote to the author and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg complaining that

the newspapers did not publish enough in praise of the Special

Departments. ‘It is very difficult to discover an experienced fascist

spy. This requires great intelligence and a good eye. An NKVD

soldier should be very keen and know the special rules of this game.

The press publishes much about the terrible deeds of the Germans,

which is necessary. But it is also important to make our soldiers hate


The Wehrmacht tried to exploit the Stalinist approach to loyalty.

One German instruction strongly recommended that Soviet prisoners

should be warned ‘of the treatment which awaits them at the hands

of the NKVD’ should they manage to escape ‘from German captivity

and return to the Red Army’.

Another department of the NKVD, set up by Beria in the autumn

1939, dealt with enemy prisoners of war. Its first major task had

been the liquidation of over 4,000 Polish officers in the forest at Katyn.

In the summer of 1942.