In its heyday, the Soviets rarely had issues with drumming up “volunteers” for their political and social needs. By 1945, the Red Army was 11 million strong and had proved itself to be the true victors in the European front. Faced with a starving, war torn nation, it was obvious that tanks and bullets were not the solution to reconstructing ravaged cities and the countryside. The Russian population had been devastated by purges before the war, and ultimately the prolific fighting that had dramatically reduced the male population. These soldiers, who had fought blood and steel against a seemingly unstoppable foe, now would now play an instrumental part in Stalin’s plan to rebuild the Soviet Union. In a land where nearly all institutions of government and society had been blown away, every measure was taken to revive the Soviet Union and capitalize on its new plunders.
The Soviets predicted early on that it can be pretty hard to rehabilitate a nation without any money, so economic reconstruction became the top priority for the regime. To make way for this new initiative, the bloated Red Army was slashed across the board, going from a peak of 11 million troops to 3 million by late-1945. This meant that 8 million veterans were phased out over a short period of time. Agricultural centers and ,ultimately, the people were squeezed to the breaking point as quotas and extortion drove rural Russia to famine, but with the added benefit of State acquisition of resources once more. In addition, all troops were awarded portions of their wartime salaries based on how many years they served, as was shown in the Demobilization Order given out by the Supreme Soviet after the war. By this same order, many veteran’s were assigned jobs where their employer was charged with they had adequate care, a task that would have been daunting in a country with virtually no intact infrastructure. These efforts were taken to ensure the proper support of veterans; however, things were not all peaches and cream in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Taking a step from his rule in the 30s, Stalin conducted a “purge of the victors” that saw a general attack on the military’s power after the war (Freeze, pg. 394). This included the arrest and demotion of many officers and soldiers and the reorganization of High Command and the Ministry of Defense. The Red Army had become too strong and too well-celebrated by the people, and Stalin’s crackdown served to prevent a military takeover and so-called “Bonapartism” from taking place (Freeze, pg. 394). The remaining remnant of the Red Army was used to suppress newly acquired territories, the Western “allies”, and independence movements in the Soviet’s own territory. The hopes of liberalization and a loosening of Party’s control were to be unfounded in Stalin’s final years, as a strong grip was needed to ensure the proper recovery and ideological redirection of the people. The issues of loyalty to the Soviet Union were compounded by the many psychologically distraught veterans whose duty to each other and their families beat out the blind patriotism. These new challenges and realities were documented by veterans, filmmakers, and artists alike, with some providing hope for the wounded of rehabilitation and others asking how their suffering comrades could ever recover. The latter was received with a typical Soviet response.
The above video presented an optimistic view of life as a wounded veteran. In a classic tail of determination and strength, the protagonist, Aleksandr Stolper, a former member of General Konev’s staff, recovers from the loss of his leg and rejoins his people as a productive and well-adjusted member of society. Films like these were highly praised by both Stalin and the Communist Party, but it revealed a major disjunction from the reality of the post-war. The Great Patriotic War was the most devestating conflict in human history, and many veterans were left flat-footed in the massive push for reconstruction. The promises of socialism and equality were often traded for brutal repression and extortionate measures that took their toll on the war’s survivors. It can be no surprise that while Stalin did lead the Soviet Union through this crisis that his policies would eventually be overturned by his more moderate successor, Nikita Khrushchev. As we move towards “The Thaw” and de-Stalinization, we should focus on veteran’s and the Red Army’s role in the new Soviet paradigm, and how the Party treated those who saved their country from the Nazi onslaught.
Freeze, G. L Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford University Press [New York]. 2009.
Supreme Soviet. Translated by von Geldern, J. “On the Demobilization of Senior Troops in the Standing Army. June 23, 1945” Michigan State University. Received from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 2015.
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