Russian soldiers charge into battle with the legendary T-34 tank.
To understand why Russia wanted so much land on its western front after World War II, one must look at the results of World War II. Russia wanted and needed land as a buffer between itself and western nations to prevent what had happened during WWII from ever happening again. What had happened you might ask? 24.6 million. That was the number of lives that the Soviet Union lost during WWII. In the face of a technologically superior military the Soviet Union could be counted to do one thing quite well and that was to hurl massive amounts of people at the enemy in the hopes that it would be enough to stop them. That and having General Winter on their side to freeze out their enemies.
One of the prime examples of this was the Battle of Kursk. This was a strategic victory for the Russians and was a key turning point in the war. It was the last offensive that the Germans were able to mount in the east and gave the Red Army a dose of confidence. Yet the cost that this victory came at beggars belief. To this day it remains the largest tank battle in world history with some 6,000 mechanized vehicles in use (Freeze 382). The newly invented Russian T-34 was crucial in this victory against the extremely advanced German tanks. The Germans suffered losses of around 500,000 casualties, but this massive number was far more than they could possible shrug off. The Russians, if it is possible to believe suffered over one million casualties in this engagement from July to August of 1943. To put that in perspective the US lost around 480,000 in the entirety of the war. It is almost impossible for Americans to grasp the size of this number because we have never faced an imminent physical battle like this.
This battle represented a failure by the Germans to properly estimate the strength of their enemy and give them the respect that they deserved. Hitler had made no plans for anything other than a quick summer engagement. He could not have been more wrong. As Stalin said himself, “any other country that had lost as much as we have would have collapsed (Freeze 385.)” The Russians could conscript more soldiers than any other nation so they could suffer through losses that would cripple other countries. The Red Army maintained 11.2 million troops at its height, though how well armed or well trained they were is debatable (Freeze 386.) This mobilization for the war effort had a tremendous impact on the Russian home front as women occupied some 70% of duties that were held by men in peace time (Freeze 386.) The real tragedy is that mainstream history does not necessarily give Kursk the attention it deserves as one of the worst bloodbaths in history, even dwarfing Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a significant margin.
Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Russiapedia, “July 12.” Last modified 2011. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://russiapedia.rt.com/on-this-day/july-12/.
von Geldern, James. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “1943: Battle of Kursk.” Last modified 2013. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1943kursk&Year=1943&navi=byYear.