Soviet Military Doctrine, the Winter War, and Operation Barbarossa: A (Partial) Exercise in Counterfactual History

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Soviet Military Doctrine, the Winter War, and Operation Barbarossa: A (Partial) Exercise in Counterfactual History

“Even bees have venom—how much the more do nations. If you are unprepared, even if there are many of you, mere numbers cannot be counted on.”

—Zhuge Liang


During the 1930s, the principal goal of Soviet foreign policy was to maintain an auspicious balance of power in Europe. This stood in marked contrast to the ambitious designs which Vladimir I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky had harboured in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution. Standing on the precipice of a pivotal stage in human development, it had seemed clear to them that the world’s first workers’ state should vigorously instigate and champion proletarian insurrections across the globe, lest the forces of reaction and capital conspire to put the fire out at the source. Such an activist approach to ‘the international’ might have been out of place or risqué in an age of aristocratic governance and bourgeois mores, but history—or, to be more precise; Karl Marx’s conception of history—would do most of the heavy lifting from now on.[1] Trotsky, who became the first foreign minister of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (U.S.S.R.), was so convinced of the soundness of this supposition that he declared, “I will issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world and then shut up shop.”[2] For the early Bolsheviks, then, the balance of power was a socio-economic concept, not a geostrategic one.

However, as it became evident that communist uprisings were not as catching as first thought, Russian decision-makers were forced to adjust their conventions and methods to correspond with those of the prevailing states system. The 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which transferred thousands of square miles of former-Tsarist territory to Wilhelmine Germany in exchange for peace, was the first step in this direction. Following the Civil War, Lenin went further, speaking openly of cohabitation with the Western powers.[3] It was not until Stalin tightened his grip on the Communist Party, though, that the gospel of Marx was supplanted by the wisdom of Metternich and Bismarck. The reasons for this shift were as complicated as they were numerous, but the growing threat of a re-armed and resurgent Germany was certainly a major contributing factor.[4]

To be sure, the constitutional coup-d’état which enveloped the Weimer Republic in 1933 was viewed with unease by the men in the Kremlin, who were alarmed by the National Socialist regime’s malicious anti-communism and yearning for lebensraum in the East. The most sensible response to this new, virulent strain of Teutonic nationalism, they reasoned, would be to form a countervailing alliance with Britain and France. The People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, signalled Moscow’s willingness to cooperate with similarly concerned governments in a public speech delivered to the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets in December 1933. Aiming his comments towards London and Paris, he claimed that the dividing line on the continent was no longer between capitalist states and socialist states, but between those who wished to overturn the Versailles settlement of 1919 and those who wished to preserve the status-quo.[5]

Despite subsequent efforts to convince the sceptics of Soviet sincerity, Litvinov’s pleas for a reconstituted Triple Entente fell on deaf ears. Most British and French elites had no intention of aligning themselves with the representatives of international communism, preferring instead to acquiesce to Hitler’s more ‘reasonable’ demands.[6] The 1938 Munich agreement, which placed Czechoslovakia at the mercy of the Third Reich, was the most conspicuous demonstration of continuing Western capriciousness, and it brought about a dramatic change in the trajectory of Soviet foreign policy. In the spring of 1939, the Francophile Litvinov was replaced by the more conservative Molotov, who favoured a tactical rapprochement with Berlin. In August, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was duly signed.[7] Under the terms of the secret protocol attached to the accord, the Soviets agreed to give the Germans a free hand in western Poland in return for dominion over eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic states. By performing such an astonishing about face, Stalin thus managed to realise his main aim—the deflection of Nazi aggression—while also acquiring a strategically valuable periphery.[8]

After absorbing what remained of Poland and effortlessly co-opting the governments of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, Soviet policymakers quickly turned their attention to Finnish Karelia. This region was deemed to be of great importance to Soviet war planning, which was predicated on the belief that the Germans would renege on their word at some point in the future and use Finland as a springboard from which to seize Leningrad. In a series of meetings held in Moscow in October and November, Stalin and Molotov repeatedly made Helsinki’s chief diplomat, Juho K. Paasikivi, aware of their concerns, requesting that the southern Fenno-Russian border be moved further westwards, and that several islands in the Gulf of Finland be made available for use by the Soviet military.[9] Anthony Upton and D. W. Spring have painted Stalin’s early negotiating posture as cordial and his readiness to make territorial concessions as judicious. Given the available evidence, it does appear that Stalin was being genuine—he did not initially want to resort to armed force.[10]  Even so, the rapid German victory in Poland, the extension of Soviet influence in Eastern and Northern Europe, and the intransigence of Finnish negotiators, all combined to push him down the path of preventative war.[11]

To be on the safe side, the Minister of Defence, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, and the commander of the Leningrad Military District, General Kirill Meretskov, had begun preparing for an invasion as early as September. Their final plan, which was approved by Stalin in mid-November, predicted that Soviet forces would overpower the Finnish military and occupy the country within twelve days. General Boris Shaposhnikov did propose an alternative plan which envisaged a campaign lasting several months, but it was rejected as being too cautious.[12] Indeed, the level of self-regard in Moscow was such that Otto Kuusinen, the leader of the marginal Finnish Communist Party, was brought out of semi-retirement to head the soon-to-be Democratic Republic of Finland.[13] His exultant return home was even to be accompanied by a specially commissioned Shostakovich piece entitled ‘A Suite on Finnish Themes’.[14] Naturally, this wild optimism did not last beyond the first few days of the conflict.

Historians such as John Erickson and Albert Seaton have characterised the Winter War as an unmitigated disaster for the Soviet Union, and in a sense they are right: Stalin’s principal objective was to annex Finland and incorporate it into Greater Russia, yet the Finns retained their independence; and although the Soviet military enjoyed superiority on land, on sea, and in the air, it struggled to break through Finnish defences, suffering exorbitant losses.[15] But in their rush to condemn and apportion blame, these scholars have overlooked a significant dimension of the war. As Roger Reese and Carl Van Dyke point out, it actually had a transformative impact on the doctrine, organisation, and culture of the Red Army.[16]

I


Unlike the Kremlin’s approach to statecraft, Soviet military strategy remained stubbornly wedded to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Such a divergence is not surprising considering the potential threat the army posed to the authority of the Central Committee, not to mention the curious mix of zealous Party apparatchiks and beleaguered former-noblemen who ended up filling the ranks of the post-Civil War officer corps. Under the harsh glare of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), individual resourcefulness and professional comportment were secondary to ideological purity, which was tacitly understood to mean absolute loyalty to the state.[17]

In strategic terms, this obsession with Marxist theory and organisational conformity manifested itself as a predisposition towards dynamic, offensive operations. Though talk of pre-emptive war was taboo, influential army officers such as V.K. Triandafillov and A.I. Egorov forcefully argued that the Soviet response to unwanted aggression should be to immediately transfer the conflict to enemy territory by launching numerous penetrating counter-attacks. The thinking behind this strategy was relatively straightforward. By seizing the initiative in the early stages of a war, the Red Army could expect to (a) “disrupt the general mobilisation and deployment of enemy main forces” and (b) “incite social unrest in the aggressor’s homeland, activating class struggle as a combat multiplier.”[18] According to Triandafillov, the forward deployment of Soviet forces along a ‘wide front’ offered the best means of achieving these twin objectives.[19] Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who served as the commander in chief of the Red Army during the period 1925-1928, was an enthusiastic proponent of such offensive-mindedness, and by the time of his death in 1937, it had come to dominate official military doctrine.[20]

Due to the idiosyncratic quality of the Finnish campaign, Meretskov and his staff were forced to discard some of the more programmatic elements of the operational rulebook. Nevertheless, the invasion plan followed the basic precepts of Triandafillov and Egorov’s strategy—deep strikes, conducted simultaneously, and in several different locations. The Seventh Army was set to do most of the dirty work, driving towards Viipuri, before veering westward to rout Helsinki and capture the port of Hanko. The Eighth Army’s task was to cover the Seventh Army’s flank, while the Ninth Army had orders to sow disorder by cutting Finland in two at its narrowest point, between Suomussalmi and the Gulf of Bothnia, appropriating Oulu in the process. Further to the north, the Fourteenth Army had its sights set on the lightly defended cities of Petsamo and Rovaniemi.[21]

Almost as soon as the war commenced, it became apparent that Soviet intelligence had overestimated the ability of the Red Army to overcome the myriad challenges which lay across the border. The Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth armies struggled to cope with the rough, forested terrain and below-freezing temperatures which beset the north of the country. Disorientated, under-equipped, and outwitted by a well-trained, well-informed enemy, these formations failed to make any notable progress. Their feeble crusade found an exemplary mascot in the shape of the Forty-Fourth Rifle Division, which was completely destroyed in December, 1939, after being encircled by an appreciably smaller force of ski-mounted Finns.[22] The Seventh Army fared no better. Much to the chagrin of Russian defence planners, the Karelian Isthmus had been covered by a system of fortified strongholds—concealed, reinforced concrete bunkers arranged around a series of intricate trench networks—known locally as the Mannerheim Line.[23] As for the class component of Soviet strategy, Edward Gibbon’s observation that “there is nothing more contrary to nature than the attempt to hold in obedience distant provinces” turned out to be remarkably prescient.[24]

In hindsight, the spectacular failure of the initial Soviet offensive had profound and lasting consequences. To begin with, it encouraged Stalin to cut his losses and adopt a set of more modest political objectives. At the same time, it prompted him to call for a practical re-evaluation of military doctrine. In late December, the armed forces high command, colloquially referred to as the Stavka, set about removing and re-assigning key personnel. At the top, Meretskov was replaced by General Semyon K. Timoshenko, who brought together a group of flexible, forward-thinking commanders and established the North-Western Front headquarters in Leningrad. Realising that a fluid war on a ‘wide-front’ suited neither the operational environment nor the organisational disposition of the Red Army, Timoshenko concentrated his forces in the south, near Viipuri. Instead of relying on mobility and precision, Timoshenko’s strategy involved endurance and overwhelming firepower. Infantry attacks were planned and practised in advance, and when they began, they were accompanied by massed artillery and heavy armour (KV tanks).[25] As Reese observes, this “was a conscious [effort] to create a war of attrition rather than manoeuvre.” [26]

Even though the Timoshenko offensive eventually succeeded, Soviet policymakers retained grave doubts about the overall effectiveness of the armed forces. A week or so after the cessation of hostilities, a visibly flustered Voroshilov testified before the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, and was instructed to organise an engorged meeting of the Supreme Military Council to contemplate the implications of the Finnish debacle.[27] The resulting commission convened in the Kremlin on April 14th, 1940. For the first time since the purges of the late 1930s, commanders were able to speak frankly about the various shortcomings of the Red Army. Over a period of three days, the political leadership listened intently to complaints relating to everything from basic training to deployment and doctrine. As the summit drew to a close, Stalin summarised its main findings, stating that the army had gradually developed into a pastiche of its Civil War self. What was needed to correct this deficiency, he suggested, was a comprehensive overhaul of the existing military system.[28]

Most commanders agreed that such a bold project could not be competently implemented unless there was a drastic change in the way that tactical, operational, and strategic doctrine was formulated. Prior to the Finnish war, military policy had been decided behind closed doors by a select group of high-ranking officials. Not only did this leave junior cadres with a fragmented understanding of their own purpose; it privileged conceptual knowledge over practical experience. The outcome of this imbalance was predictable: defective inter-unit communication and an inability on the behalf of company, battalion and division level leaders to respond to unexpected events. With Stalin’s blessing, then, the Stavka and the Ministry of Defence set about ‘democratising’ Soviet military theory through the publication of several accessible journals and books. During 1940-1941, members of the command corps were actively encouraged to offer their opinions on equipment and “discuss the finer points of operational art and tactics.”[29] In a notable break with tradition, there was also a concerted attempt to generate interest in Western modes of warfare as well as more defence-oriented strategies.[30]

Van Dyke contends that this new found openness was both a cause and a function of the General Staff’s increasing awareness of the “strength of contemporary defensive operations.”[31] Together with the startling efficacy of the Mannerheim Line, Timoshenko’s timely intervention in Karelia convinced a number of prominent officers to recommend a move away from the “manoeuvre [warfare] legacy of the Civil War to the breakthrough legacy of the Burislov offensive.”[32] They argued that, rather than placing all of its eggs in the basket labelled ‘offensive operations’, the Red Army should learn to think and act holistically. It is worth quoting Van Dyke at length on this point:

“In a future [conflict], the Red Army would be responsible for absorbing the shock of an enemy invasion by constructing fortified regions and concentrating a screen of troops on the border in an effort to disperse the enemy along as wide a front as possible. Once the front was stabilised, then [it] would conduct a breakthrough followed by Deep Operations by means of a large concentration of formations organised in depth.”[33]

Malcolm Mackintosh has dismissed the sudden conversion of senior officers to the gospel of Deep Operations as a short-lived fad, pointing to the scattered, forward deployment of Russian forces along the Soviet-German border in June 1941.[34] This supposition is not without merit and it is something that will be explored in more detail in Section III. At this juncture, though, it is important to note that there is a wealth of evidence which suggests otherwise. The simultaneous elevation of Timoshenko to the rank of Marshal and the position of People’s Commissar for Defence in May, 1940, for instance, gives a good indication of the support which reformist ideas had in the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Timoshenko spent much of his political capital pushing for a reappraisal of Soviet doctrine, and as a result, operational manuals and academy curricula were significantly revised in 1940-1941.[35]

These administrative changes were accompanied by a series of more concrete measures. Having witnessed the poor performance of tanks in independent operations, the General Staff made sure that more emphasis was placed on combined-arms coordination. Henceforth, armour was instructed to operate in close conjunction with artillery and in support of the infantry. In line with this new diktat, Stalin issued a decree reviving the tank corps on June 6th, 1940. Later that month, Timoshenko asked Shaposhnikov and General-Colonel D.G. Pavlov to begin the construction of fortified zones in the new Soviet periphery. So, contrary to the claims of some historians, it seems clear that the Winter War did have an impact upon the Red Army’s general approach to strategy.[36]

II


Nonetheless, even the best plan will come unstuck if an organisation is not blessed with a proficient and disciplined workforce. In Finland, the Soviets found this out the hard way. Stalin’s brutal gutting of the armed services command corps in the 1930s, which resulted in the deaths of approximately twenty thousand senior officers, seriously undermined the combat effectiveness of the Red Army, especially since it came at a time when the rank-and-file was undergoing an unparalleled expansion. Compared to their Finnish counterparts, Soviet officers suffered from a distinct lack of expertise, experience, and inventiveness.[37] What is more, the army’s battlefield-level decision-making process, which dispersed power and responsibility among commanders, political commissars, and ordinary soldiers, proved to be exceptionally cumbersome, often leaving units paralysed by vacillation and in-fighting.[38] The surprisingly lithe parameters of the army’s disciplinary code—a hangover from the Civil War era—further compromised the ability of commanders to push ahead with potentially dangerous mission objectives.[39] These structural weaknesses were exacerbated by the poor quality of the Red Army’s training regime. Many of the men who fought on the Soviet side during the conflict had been given “no instruction in the tactics of positional warfare or the conduct of breakthrough assaults.”[40] In fact, as Van Dyke mentions, entire companies, battalions, regiments, and even divisions “received their basic training in the heat of battle.”[41]

For most professional soldiers, it was evident that the Red Army’s dismal performance could be traced back to the purges. Executive impotency, pervasive disorder, substandard education—these all stemmed in some way from a dearth of capable officers. In Soviet Russia, however, there was a very necessary distinction between what one thought in private and what one was willing to share in public. Stalin might have been keen to learn from the Finnish fiasco, but his pragmatic forbearance did not extend to an examination of his own mistakes. As a consequence, during the April summit, the military elite focussed much of their ire on Voroshilov’s beloved career advancement system, which favoured upstanding Party members and those from ‘good class backgrounds’. Their criticisms led to the introduction of a performance-based review process.[42] Timoshenko was a particularly fervent devotee of the new system, spending what time he could touring the different military districts, replacing intransigent and negligent commanders with eager, more attentive ones.[43]

Heartened by their modest gains, the top brass also pressed for the abolition of collegiate decision-making. Up until 1939, the diffusion of military authority had been a sacred cow for Lenin’s disciples, not just because it diluted the influence of prospective reactionaries, but because it evoked romantic images of workers control and socialist democracy.[44] By the time of the Moscow Peace Treaty, though, this perspective appeared to be wholly anachronistic. On August 12th, 1940, the Central Committee, acting on the advice of Shaposhnikov and others, instituted a unified command structure. The office of political commissar was downgraded, while junior commanders were given the final word on all military-related matters.[45] To aid the commander in the execution of his expanded duties, an updated disciplinary code was issued in October, 1940. Essentially formalising the “firm measures” which had successfully been put to the test in the last few weeks of the Finnish campaign, the new regulations mandated that soldiers obey all orders. If, for whatever reason, an individual or a group of individuals refused to carry out a designated task, commanders were authorised to use full force to ensure compliance.[46] In Van Dyke’s estimation, these two reforms effectively ended the clash between commander and commissar which had proved to be so debilitating in Finland, completing “the Red Army’s [conversion] from a socialist-type army to a...bureaucratic-type army”.[47]

In tandem with the ongoing restructuring of the command corps, a concerted effort was made to tackle the gap between the academic development of doctrine and the application of doctrine to the battlefield. Using Timoshenko’s transformation of the Karelian front as a model, basic training was broadened to include personal combat, the storming of fortified obstacles, and the rudiments of active defence and manoeuvre warfare. Officers were also required to increase their workload, with military academies making their courses longer and more rigorous. To keep track of their progress (or lack thereof), units were expected to conduct regular drills, making sure to concentrate on combined arms operations. This fixation on recurrent feedback was most pronounced during the winter of 1940, when Timoshenko oversaw a number of army-wide exercises intended to give the Stavka an opportunity to evaluate the impact of its post-Finland reforms. Although it was obvious to those in attendance that much work still had to be done, it appeared as if the army had adapted well to the recent changes, and that this, in turn, had enhanced its effectiveness as a fighting force.[48]

III


But if the Winter War brought about such a constructive reorientation of Soviet military policy, then, one might ask: why did the Red Army perform so poorly when the German invasion eventually came in June 1941? As of yet, there is no definitive answer to that question. Some scholars insist that the story of the first few months of Operation Barbarossa is one of overwhelming German dynamism.[49] Others maintain that the origins of the catastrophe are to be found in the yellowing pages of Soviet planning documents.[50] Still more point the finger at Stalin, who is accused of wilfully ignoring the threat posed by Hitlerism and mishandling the initial response to the invasion.[51] At the risk of sounding evasive, it seems fair to suggest that the evidence can be fashioned to support any of these perspectives: in 1941, the Wehrmacht was the most formidable armed force on the planet; in spite of its recent makeover, the Red Army did underestimate the revolutionary potential of decisive, mechanised warfare; and Stalin’s desire to avoid a premature confrontation with the Third Reich, which necessarily precluded the early mobilisation and concentration of martial assets, did leave the Soviet Union dangerously exposed to a surprise attack.[52]

One cannot help but wonder, though, whether the tendency of historians to focus on ‘spectacular’ events obscures the existence of other, perhaps more salient phenomena. We all know that the protracted Russian retreat of 1941 was a tragedy. But it was not an existential disaster. By December, the German onslaught had stuttered to a halt on the outskirts of a snow covered Moscow, while the Stavka had managed to assemble enough forces to launch a blunting counter-offensive.[53] The question thus arises: what was it that saved the Soviet Union from impending oblivion? There is no doubt that the peculiar geophysical features of European Russia and the failure of German decision-makers to define a set of clear political objectives played an important role.[54] However, it would be wrong to attribute the survival of the communist regime solely to propitious topography and Germanic hesitancy. In the end, it was the Red Army that turned the tide on the Eastern Front, and its ability to do so was arguably down to the reforms which had been introduced during and after the Finnish war.[55]

Although it is true that the Red Army’s strategic planning was still haunted by the ghosts of Triandafillov and Tuchachevsky at the time of the German attack, the move towards a more elastic, defensive mind-set in 1940-1941 most likely prevented the Soviets from embarking upon a potentially ruinous counter-offensive in June. Moreover, Timoshenko’s efforts to strengthen the chain-of-command and modernise military training paid dividends during the stubborn positional defence of cities such as Brest and Tula.[56] Much has been made of the dogged determination of Soviet soldiers, and rightly so, but it was their capability to improvise—something which was practically unheard of in Finland—which really “astounded the Germans.”[57]

Of course, it would not be difficult to find historians who object to all this. How, they might enquire, in a case as tortuous as this one, is it possible to distinguish between ‘dependent’ and ‘independent’ variables? One way of approaching this conundrum is to posit a counterfactual scenario in which the Russo-Finnish conflagration never took place. We can say with some certainty that the failure of the Red Army to break through the Finnish lines in December 1939 was the principal source of the subsequent military reform programme. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if the war had not occurred, or if the outcome had been different, then the Red Army would have been in a much weaker—even critical—condition come June 1941.[58]

---


References and Bibliography

[1] Light, Margot. The Soviet Theory of International Relations (Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books, 1988) pp.27-29, pp.146-149.

[2] Quoted in Carr, Edward H. The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1961) p.16.

[3] Light op.cit. p.25.

[4] See, for instance: Roberts, Geoffrey. The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933-1941 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995) pp.1-3.

[5] Kennedy-Pipe op.cit. pp.38-39. Also see: Sheinis, Zinovy. Maxim Litvinov (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988) pp.255-260.

[6] Jackson, Julian. ‘1940 and the Crisis of Interwar Democracy’ p.226 in Martin Alexander (eds) French History Since Napoleon pp.224-236 (London: Arnold, 1999). Also refer to, Thomas, Martin. Britain, France, and Appeasement: Anglo-French Relations in the Popular Front Era (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1997) pp.92-97.

[7] According to AJP Taylor, the Soviets had no choice but to make a deal with Hitler, having been repeatedly rebuffed by Britain and France. Taylor, AJP. The Origins of the Second World War (London: Harmondsworth, 1961).

[8] Another factor informing the Soviet decision to seek a settlement with Germany was the rising tension with Japan on the Mongolia-Manchurian frontier. Like Hitler, Stalin was eager to avoid having to fight a war on two fronts. Kennedy-Pipe op.cit. pp.44-46.

[9] Ibid. p.47.

[10] Upton, Anthony F. Finland, 1939-1940 (London: Davis-Poynter, 1974) pp.29-41; Spring, DW. ‘The Soviet Decision for War Against Finland, 30th November 1939’ pp.208-210 in Soviet Studies Vol.38, No.2, April 1986, pp.207-226.

[11] Van Dyke op.cit. p.221-222.

[12] Reese, Roger. ‘Lessons of the Winter War: A Study in Military Effectiveness of the Red Army, 1939-1940’ pp.827-828 in The Journal of Military History Vol.72, No.3, 2008, pp.825-852.

[13] For a good overview of the Finnish Communist Party’s role in the Winter War, see: Rentola, Kimma. ‘The Finnish Communists in the Winter War’; Hodgson, John. ‘The Finnish Communist Party’ p.76 in Slavic Review Vol.29, No.1, 1970, pp.70-85.

[14] Anderson, Martin. ‘Party Piece Uncovered’ in The Daily Telegraph 6th September, 2001, available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4725450/Party-piece-uncovered.html (accessed 4th August 2013).

[15] Erickson, John. The Soviet High Command: A Military-Political History, 1918-1941 (London: Frank Cass, 2001) pp.540-48; Seaton, Albert. The Russo-German War, 1941-1945 (New York: Praeger, 1972)  p.47.

[16] Van Dyke op.cit. p.222; Reese op.cit. p.826.

[17] Joravsky, David. ‘The Construction of the Stalinist Psyche’ pp.111-112 and pp.120-121 in Sheila Fitzpatrick (eds) Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928-1931 pp.105-125 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).

[18] Roberts, Cynthia A. ‘Planning for War: The Red Army and the Catastrophe of 1941’ p.1300 in Europe-Asia Studies Vol.47, No.8, 1995, pp.1293-1326.

[19] Ibid. p.1301.

[20] Tukhachevsky was executed in 1937, supposedly for being a Trotskyite spy. Ibid. pp.1302-1307.

[21] There was a conscious effort on the part of the Soviet High Command to replicate the Wehrmacht’s astonishing successes in the Polish campaign. Reese ‘Lessons of the Winter War’ p.828.

[22] For a detailed exposition of the experience of these units, with particular reference to the tribulations of the Forty-Fourth Rifle Division, see Trotter op.cit. pp.161-174.

[23] The Mannerheim Line was named for the popular Finnish soldier, Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. During the Winter War, he served as Commander in Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces. Clements, Jonathan. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy (London: Haus Publishing, 2009) pp.249-254. In addition, refer to Reese ‘Lessons of the Winter War’ p.828.

[24] Quoted in Kennan, George F. Memoirs, 1925-1950 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967) pp.129-130. Far from inspiring a communist uprising, the Soviet invasion had a unifying impact on Finnish society. Together with the Red Air Force’s bombing raid on Helsinki at the outset of the war, the proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Finland convinced most Finns, including members of the communist left, that the aim of the Red Army was imperial conquest, not proletarian ‘liberation’. Even today, the ‘Spirit of the Winter War’ constitutes an important dimension of Finnish identity. Vehvilӓilen op.cit. p.55.

[25] The increasing threat of an Anglo-French intervention in Finland also played an important role in Stalin’s decision to scale-back Soviet war aims. Van Dyke op.cit. pp.103-110.

[26] Reese ‘Lessons of the Winter War’ p.829.

[27] For the Voroshilov meeting, see Mackintosh, Malcolm. Juggernaut: A History of the Soviet Armed Forces (London: Secker and Warburg, 1967) p.124.

[28] Ibid. p.125; Van Dyke op.cit. p.191.

[29] Ibid. p.202.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid. p.196.

[32] Ibid. p.195. The Burislov Offensive is widely considered to have been the Russian Empire’s most successful operation during the First World War. General Aleksei Burislov and his staff utilised artillery and shock troops to break through the Austro-Hungarian lines at their weakest point. The resulting gaps were then exploited by the bulk of the Russian army. Tunstall, Graydon A. ‘Austria-Hungary and the Burislov Offensive of 1916’ p.30 in The Historian Vol.70, No.1, 2008, pp.30-53.

[33] Ibid. pp.195-196.

[34] Mackintosh op.cit. pp.125-126.

[35] Van Dyke op.cit. pp.212-13.

[36] The success of German Panzers during the Battle of France also influenced the decision to reinstate the Soviet tank corp. ibid. p.211.

[37] Evan Mawdsley provides a good overview of the consequences of the Red Army purges, which began in June 1937. Mawdsley, Evan. Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941-1945 (London: Hodder Arnold, 2007) pp.20-21. In his memoirs, Molotov claims that the purges were a necessary evil because the military elite formed a latent ‘fifth-column’ which might overthrow Stalin during a war. Chuev, Felix. Molotov Remembers (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1993) p.254.

[38] Reese, Roger. ‘Red Army Professionalism and the Communist Party, 1918-1941’ p.77 in The Journal of Military History Vol.66, No.1, 2002, pp.71-102. For an examination of the impact that this had during the Winter War, refer to Van Dyke op.cit. p.198.

[39] Ibid. p.205. Also, Mackintosh op.cit. p.127. Reese highlights “one of the more extreme cases of indiscipline” which occurred in the 62nd Rifle Division. Two hundred and ninety two men deserted over a period of two days while the unit was preparing to move to the front. Two hundred and forty more men were listed as Absent Without Leave (AWOL). One soldier was heard to remark to his colleagues: “If they send me to the front I’ll sneak off into the bushes. I won’t fight, but I will shoot people like our unit commander Gordienko.” Reese ‘Lessons of the Winter War’ p.843.

[40] Van Dyke op.cit. p.200.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid. pp.198-199.

[43] Mackintosh op.cit. p.129.

[44] Benvenuti, Francesco. The Bolsheviks and the Red Army, 1918-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) pp.153-157; Reese, Roger. The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917-1991 (London: Routledge, 2000) pp.80-85.

[45] Van Dyke op.cit. p.210.

[46] For “firm measures”, see Reese ‘Lessons of the Winter War’ pp.846-848.  Also consult, Merridale, Catherine. Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 (New York: Metropolitan, 2006) p.80. With regards to the October, 1940, disciplinary code, refer to: Van Dyke op.cit. p.210; and Mackintosh op.cit. p.129.

[47] Van Dyke op.cit. pp.210-211.

[48] Ibid. pp.200-212. Also, Mackintosh op.cit. pp.127-130.

[49] See, for instance, Hobson, Rolf. ‘Blitzkrieg, the Revolution in Military Affairs and Defense Intellectuals’ in Journal of Strategic Studies Vol.33, No.4, 2010, pp.625-643.

[50] The best example of this school of thought remains Cynthia Roberts’ 1995 article on the flawed assumptions underpinning Soviet war plans. Roberts op.cit. pp.1294-297.

[51] Good examples of this argument include: Glantz, David M. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998); Glantz, David M and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995) pp.50-53; Luckacs, John. June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Gorodetsky, Gabriel. Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

[52] Evan Mawdsley’s book, Thunder in the East, provides a good synthesis of the traditional interpretations. Mawdsley op.cit. pp.18-54.

[53] Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs provide an enlightening overview of the Soviet experience during late 1941. Khrushchev, Nikita. Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, Volume I: Commissar, 1918-1945 (University Park PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004) pp.297-323. For a scholarly analysis of the evolution of the conflict on the Eastern Front during 1941-1942, see Reinhardt, K. Moscow: The Turning Point (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1992).

[54] Blau, George. The German Campaign in Russia: Planning and Operations, 1940-1942 (Uckfield: The Naval and Military Press, 2003) pp.86-90.

[55] As the eminent Prussian theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz observed, war is a form of socio-political intercourse. Clausewitz, Carl. On War edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993) pp.99-101. For a succinct analysis of the Red Army’s role in halting the German advance, refer to: Weinberg, Gerhard L. Germany, Hitler, and World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) pp.164-165.

[56] Van Dyke contends that the impact of the post-Finland reforms went much further than is often appreciated. As he puts it, “far from being a fiasco... the Soviet-Finnish war appears to have stimulated a profound reform of military Soviet military doctrine and institutions: reforms which came to fruition only by the second half of the Great Patriotic War.” Van Dyke op.cit. pp.221-222. For Brest consult: Mawdsley op.cit. pp.60-63. For Tula: Glantz, David M and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed pp.85-91.

[57] Blau Op.Cit. p87-89. Quote at p.88.

[58] In What is History?, Carr famously dismissed counterfactual theorising as a “parlour game” enjoyed by the “losers” of the past (p.97).  Even so, a number of scholars have used the historical counterfactual to good effect. See: Harrison, Mark. Accounting for War: Soviet Production, Employment, and the Defence Burden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Craig, Campbell and Sergey Radchenko. The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2008).


Authored by James Chisem

James Chisem

James Chisem is an editor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live.


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