In his latest monograph, Roger Reese offers an analysis of “Why Stalin’s Soldiers fought.” In attempting to locate an answer, he engages in dialogue with historians from both the Cold War and post-Soviet eras. At the center of Reese’s analysis are the Winter War and the year 1941. While some might question on what grounds the greater comparison of the Great Patriotic War to the Winter War can be made, Reese provides enough evidence and context to show that the performance of Red Army soldiers were very much interconnected between the two. The focus on 1941 stems from the millions of prisoners of war the Germans captured, which stands in stark contrast to the few prisoners taken during the Winter War.
After a brief discussion of what constitutes military effectiveness, Reese begins his analysis with the Winter War. Here the reader is presented with an initial failure on the part of Red Army effectiveness in battle. Yet the losses sustained by Soviet units, which by the end of the war numbered 131,000 combat dead and permanently missing in action, as well as 264,908 wounded, included a meager 5,486 captured (p. 32). Reese showcases that while there were numerous Red Army retreats, soldiers’ morale remained stoic in the face of Finnish tactical and operational victories, including negligible Soviet progress that often cost many lives for insignificant gains. Even though some soldiers exhibited opposition to the war, and went against the party endorsed line for why the Soviet Union declared war on Finland, the numbers who sought asylum or deserted were minute. As for what kept Red Army soldiers fighting, Reese does acknowledge the creation of blocking detachments and penal battalions, both implemented during the Winter War, but insists that they were just as important as Soviet appeals to patriotism and duty, based on the idea that the war being waged was just and necessary (p. 52).
The most innovative and original research can be found in the third chapter, where Reese posits a new perspective on the encirclements of 1941. Here he engages the historical debate over whether the millions of prisoners captured by the Germans during the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa were due to German military prowess or whether “anti-Stalinist political motivations” were behind mass surrenders, leading to the question of whether it was Soviet military inefficiency or ineffectiveness that was to blame (p. 57). In addressing the question of why so many surrendered, Reese aligns himself against those that have set up a binary between the Soviet state and its citizens. He argues that if soldiers surrendered, it was not solely or even mainly because they did not agree or were against the government. But simultaneously we cannot claim that soldiers who continued to fight were doing so because they were supporters of the regime they found themselves fighting for.
The reasons Reese offers for mass surrenders of Red Army soldiers continually vary on the situation they found themselves in, and they include “antiregime sentiment, German tactical doctrine and its skillful implementation, flawed soviet doctrine, poor Soviet military leadership, civilian political interference, and chaotic battlefield conditions that often left soldiers leaderless, disorganized, and inadequately armed” (p. 58). In analyzing the encirclement battles of 1941, Reese reaches the conclusion that Soviet military doctrine and command failures were at fault. The Red Army was never trained to fight in encirclements, and when troops found themselves threatened with encirclement they were forbidden by STAVKA from maneuvering to avoid such a fate and almost always attempted to escape after being surrounded.
In making a parallel with the Winter War, Reese shows that when small units were surrounded they were allowed to take up an all-around defense and, while often annihilated, few if any surrendered. While when facing the Wehrmacht, more often than not due to the circumstances they found themselves in, including constant communication problems, units were disorganized and their escape attempts were uncoordinated. Furthermore, a contrast with the encirclements of the war against Finland was that tens of thousands of soldiers caught in the encirclements of 1941 were rear area troops, while those caught in Finnish encirclements were frontline soldiers (p. 97-98).
Thus, the outcome was predictable: massive air, artillery and mortar strikes against any known troop concentrations, giving more reason for soldiers to try their luck in smaller groups. Additionally, many troops in the Red Army in 1941 were raw conscripts recently called up for service. The end result was an army that was more prone to heavy losses, defeat, and capture when confronted by a force that had yet to meet defeat on the field of battle. The only success Red Army soldiers enjoyed was when they were led by a determined commander who kept up unit cohesion and discipline, or in small groups that drew little attention from German soldiers who were busy hauling in tens of thousands of prisoners or attempting to catch up to their tank troops who were busy creating the next encirclement. Additionally, Reese highlights that there is no evidence for large Red Army units surrendering en masse. On the contrary, the majority of evidence points to soldiers “captured in small batches in a multitude of separate instances across a vast landscape as combat ebbed and flowed” (p. 90).
Although some might baulk at Reese’s analysis of the Winter War and the events of 1941, he is aware of the inherent problems of this comparison. But, as he explains, the real question has to do with an analysis of “the behavior of Soviet soldiers faced with the prospect of capture in encirclements” (p. 58). In this case, both wars feature parallels that are ripe for evaluation. Consequently, it is evident that even while Red Army troops were consistently outfought in the initial period of the Winter War, those caught in encirclements never surrendered to the degree that those fighting in 1941 did.
Mobilization of Soviet society, motivation, morale, and the role of female soldiers make up the rest of the monograph. The reasons Soviet soldiers fought varied throughout the war. According to Reese, as much as the state tried to generate patriotism within its citizens, the government was only able to take “advantage of inherent or latent patriotic feelings” (p. 307). Thus, many did join for patriotic reasons but that patriotism was most evident in Russians, and at times wholly absent from non-Russian nationalities. Others strove for vengeance against an invading force bent on genocide as hatred kindled a fire only the baptism of war could extinguish. The latter was evident in the motivations of women as well as men. More important to note is that at all levels of Soviet society men and women expected some kind of change when the war was over; Peasants hoped for an end to collectivization, workers relied on an end to strict discipline, while intellectuals hoped for more freedom, and lower level state functionaries were eager for “greater latitude in decision making” (p. 307). Those who joined the Red Army in the war against Nazi Germany did so in part hoping for a better tomorrow, showcasing their understanding that the Soviet Union at its present state was not yet the answer they were promised.