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  • Emotions and Psychological Survival in the Red Army, 1941–42
  • Matthew E. Lenoe (bio)

In the predawn hours of 22 June 1941, the border zone separating the Red Army from Axis forces to the west flared to life. German artillery pounded Soviet bivouacs, entrenchments, and fortifications, while Luftwaffe bombers swooped down on Soviet airfields. North of the Pripet Marshes, the Wehrmacht took only one week to encircle the Soviet Western Front (army group), ultimately killing or capturing more than half of the front's initial complement of 625,000 troops. By 10 July, German mechanized spearheads were 600 kilometers into Soviet territory, approaching the strategic Dnieper and Dvina river barriers. This was not the end of disasters for the Red Army. Between June and December 1941, Axis invaders inflicted one of the greatest military defeats in history on the Soviet Union. Total Soviet dead, captured, and missing in action that year numbered about four million, more than ten times those of the invaders.1

Soldiers in the Red Army were borne down by the defeat and the near certainty of their own deaths. In a 15 August 1941 letter that passed (or eluded) the military censor, Private Aleksandr Tykin wrote to his wife, "there is no hope of my return, so you must rearrange your life and build it independently."2 Other letters reported by the censor (and probably confiscated) expressed even greater pessimism. A soldier with a communications [End Page 313] company described an October 1941 German attack in stark terms: "on the second of the month the enemy attacked in our sector … he bombed us for two days and then surprised us with his tanks, smashed up all of our vehicles, and surrounded us on three sides. We fled for three days, hungry and sleepless. I am living through severe hardships … and I do not know whether I will remain alive." North of Moscow in December 1941, another Red Army man wrote, "The German routed us like a flock of sheep, and we ran in panic."3

At the Battle of Moscow (December 1941–January 1942), the Red Army counterattacked, inflicting on the Wehrmacht its first operational defeat of the war. The Soviet capital was saved, and morale, as indicated by letters and diaries, rebounded. However, the following summer saw further disasters, and millions more Soviet casualties, as Axis forces drove east to the Volga River and south into the Caucasus. During this period, deep discouragement and even despair about the war's outcome resurfaced. On 13 August 1942, the diarist Boris Suris, a translator of German stationed near the front, wrote simply: "The Germans have broken through to the oil; they're cutting off the North Caucasus. It's the end [Eto grob]."4

Yet the Red Army ultimately prevailed. Much of the Western scholarship on the Soviet war effort has attributed this to material factors and the Soviet state's ability to coerce its soldiers. In this story, the vast spaces and human reserves of the Soviet Union, the infamous Russian winter, and the commissars' pistols ultimately defeated Hitler. Alternatively, Soviet and Russian historians, as well as some contemporary Western scholars, have insisted that it was the courage, patriotism, and selflessness of the troops that won the war. Some of these scholars, such as Jochen Hellbeck, emphasize the troops' commitment to communism. Others focus on Russian nationalism. Overall, this line of argument emphasizes Soviet voluntarism over coercion and impersonal material factors.5 [End Page 314]

Other authors are harder to place on a "coercion vs. voluntarism" axis, arguing in different ways for a mix of motivations within the Red Army. Roger Reese sees thirst for vengeance, social pressure, and even desire for rations as key; Catherine Merridale portrays "Ivan" as complex—sometimes loyal to the regime, sometimes disillusioned by war, sometimes driven by desire for revenge to rape and murder civilians; Mark Edele argues that Soviet victory depended heavily on a minority of committed Communists who "bullied, cajoled, threatened, inspired or talked around" the majority of soldiers who sought above all to survive. Stephen Jug limns the ways in which male Soviet soldiers constructed their own masculinity, based on contempt for women and "the rats in...


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