The Soviets Push West

On September 17th 1939 Soviet troops invaded the eastern half of Poland. The given reason for invading Poland was to come to the aid of the Byelorussians and Ukrainians after the Poles illegally seized some of their territory. (Siegelbaum) The above picture shows a Soviet and German officer meeting somewhere in the center where Poland was divided by the two countries. Several weeks prior the Nazis and Soviets signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to split Poland in half. This pact allowed the Soviets to have a free hand in the Baltics and on June 16th 1940 the Soviets invaded. (Freeze, pg. 371) Stalin likely felt like he was responsible for restoring power and respect to the Soviet Union after taking back much of the territory that was lost after WWI.

As occupiers The Soviets were quick to turn their half of Poland into just another part of the Soviet Union. They replaced Polish currency with the Soviet ruble and began issuing propaganda newspapers to the local population. (Knighton, 2018) Following the invasion of Poland Soviet troops committed mass killings against non-Russians. Tens of thousands of Polish POWs were taken and executed then buried in the woods. This was the same for political prisoners as well. Karol Karski explains how Russian propaganda pushed for local Russians and Ukrainians to kill “Polish Lords”, who were simply Polish people living in newly occupied territory. (Karski, 2013) You can read the full journal article here  

See the source image

The Soviets feared an invasion through Finland and the eventual capture of Leningrad. (Britannica)After a refusal to cede land over to the Soviets the Fins prepared for war. In November 1939 the Soviets invaded Finland and started the Winter War. If the Winter War proved anything it was that the Red Army, although numerically superior, was far from a reliable fighting force. The short war inflicted over 120,000 Soviet casualties. It also pointed out the consequences of Stalin’s purges a few years earlier. At the end of the short war the Soviets gained territory which provided a small buffer zone around Leningrad.

Soviet annexation of Western Europe in in 1939 showed that although the USSR had made progress with the economy the Red Army was far from perfect. They proved Soviet power comes in the form of quantity rather than quality, at least in 1939.

Works Cited

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Soviet Territorial Annexations.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History”, 31 Aug. 2015,

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Knighton, A. (2018, September 11). The Soviet Invasion of Poland, 1939. Retrieved from

Karol Karski,The Crime of Genocide Committed against the Poles by the USSR before and during World War II: An International Legal Study, 45Case W. Res. J. Int’l L.703 (2013)

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, November 28). Russo-Finnish   War. Retrieved from

14 Replies to “The Soviets Push West”

  1. If I may ask, would you by any chance know why the Soviet army wasn’t as well prepared as it could be? Do you think the lack of quality in their ranks was due to a lack of structure and strategy or something entirely different?

    1. Yeah that’s a really good question and a mystery to me! In my opinion the Battle of Stalingrad later on in the war I believe was a turning point not just in the war but in Soviet morale.

  2. Chris, I believe that many of the 10,000 Polish soldiers murdered by the Soviets in 1940 were officers which was the common approach of Stalin to eliminate the upper classes, intellectuals and clergy that would have been the opposition to Soviet style government.

    1. That’s a good point, it makes me wonder why he purged many of the junior officers in the Red Army. They had no specific power or say in anything compared to Stalin.

  3. The Nazi-Soviet pact is controversial for sure! You raise some important issues here about Soviet the heavy-handedness with which they established control over Eastern Poland and the lessons about war readiness (or lack thereof) gleaned from the Winter war. The handout in our Drive folder about Soviet international relations between the wars has some useful material. Check it out if you have a chance. Also think about how this post connects to the framing questions for the week.

    1. Okay I will be sure to stay more on track next time! I’m curious what kind of push back the Soviets faced when they first entered the Baltic states. I’m also curious why Hitler allowed the Soviets to create a buffer in eastern Europe if he knew he was going to invade soon thereafter?

  4. Wow, it is shocking to see the amount of bloodshed taking place in Ukraine and Poland while Moscow was experiencing such a Renaissance. I think this dichotomy shows how interesting a decade the 1930’s was for the Soviet Union.

  5. I thought the emphasis on the effects of Stalins Purges to be very poignant to consider in regards to many different dictatorships over history. High ranking military officers have a lot of influence in militaristic nations, so they are clearly a threat to a dictator, however getting rid of your officer corps can have serious repercussions in wartime.

  6. Hi Chris,
    I had no idea that the Soviet Union switched the currency of their half of Poland or that they killed thousands of PWOs. I feel like since WWII was such a horrific affair a lot of information is just kind of skipped over since there’s so much to talk about. Great post!

  7. Wow I did not know about this side of WWII especially how bad Poland really got messed up from both sides. It also shows that you can never trust your neighbors and the nations being very independent and not focusing on allies. That was a very great read.

  8. I remember learning about this in the WW2 class I took last year with Dr. E Gitre. We discussed the forest massacres. Expanding on the point you brought up about the massacre of POW’s we learned that over 21,000 Polish officers were murdered, although no where near the Germans in the sheer levels of atrocities committed in Poland, the Soviets did a lot of heinous crimes and attempted to cover it up by attempting to frame some of the atrocities they committed on them, like in the case of Katyn. In the Nuremberg Trials, the Soviets tried to pin the deaths of over 7,000 officers on the Germans, when it was in their territory, where the mass executions were committed during the time of the massacre, their part of Poland. There was suspicions of this though, and Katyn was not one of the crimes attributed to the Germans. The Western Allies did not trust the claim, the Katyn forests were deep within the Soviet occupied territories.

  9. Thank you for the post! I always find the Winter War very interesting. The Soviets were far numerically superior, and much much more highly mechanized (Wikipedia tells me 32 Finnish tanks to 2500+ Soviet ones, and an aircraft ratio of 30:1). By the theory of the day the Soviets should have carried it easily. But the Finns inflicted something like 5 times as many casualties as they took.

    Do you know how much of a wakeup call this was for the Soviets? If I were the Soviet leadership I would have read the results as a stark warning that the numbers of men and equipment I had in a roster would not reflect how effective they would be in real combat.

  10. Chris, it is interesting that you portray the Red Army as large but not necessarily competent or effective. The Winter War is an excellent example of how a large invading force such as the Red Army can be driven out by a small guerrilla force. The purging of the Soviet officer corps left the Red Army without effective leaders in the lead up to the Second World War. Great post!

  11. I think your post highlights a very interesting part of History that is very often overlooked. What many people also don’t know was that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its subsidiary treaties also included provisions where the USSR supplied Germany with war materials such as Oil and Foodstuffs that allowed them to turn their attention West to France and the Low countries. in this respect you could definitely argue that the Soviets are partially responsible for WWII as it occured.

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