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
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
‘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.