Courage in Suffering: Russia’s Great Patriotic War

One of the must-see sites for visitors to Moscow is Victory Park (Park Podedy), the massive memorial complex built to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War Two. This impressive site is located on Poklonnaya gora (Hill of Greetings), where generations of travelers would climb, weary from their journeys, to see the city of Moscow spread out before them, with its impenetrable fortress walls and the golden, onion-shaped domes of its many churches.

The park is laid out around a grand fountain-lined axis that culminates in the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War. The concave-shaped museum, raised on stilts and surmounted by a spiked bronze dome, is filled with maps, weapons and photos that graphically tell the story of the Nazi invasion in June 1941 and the brave defense of the homeland by Soviet troops.

It is interesting to note that it was on this Hill of Greetings that Napoleon waited in vain for Russian nobility to present him with the keys of the city as his French troops moved on Moscow in 1812. On August 26, 70 miles west of Moscow, the French and Russian troops fought to a standstill with over 100,000 casualties. One week later Napoleon entered Moscow, only to find the city burnt to the ground by its residents, thereby denying Napoleon the “trophy” he desired and the supplies and shelter his troops needed. Within a month, Napoleon began his retreat from Russia, leaving with only 20,000 of the 600,000 French troops who entered the country with him four months earlier. For Russians, this is the “Patriotic War of 1812.”

The initiative to build Victory Park on this historic plot of land began during the “Period of Stagnation” under Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership, when Soviet leaders decided to create a series of war memorials to overcome the ideological apathy they sensed among the people. Architectural plans were subsequently scaled down following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but then revived on a more modest scale by the Yeltsin government. The memorial was completed in time for the 49th anniversary of Victory Day on May 9, 1994.

A number of recent studies have been published about Russia’s experience in the “Great Patriotic War,” the name Russians use to describe World War Two. The release of many formerly closed files has provided new insights into the wartime decision making and battlefield heroics of the Russian people, and we now know even more about their devastating four-year struggle for survival.

When Hitler’s troops entered Russia at 3 a.m. on June 22, 1941, his invasion forces were the largest ever gathered in history. Over 3 million soldiers, organized into 146 army divisions, combined with Romanian forces to the south and Finnish forces to the north, crossed the border with lightning speed, supported by 2,000 aircraft and 3,350 tanks. In Hitler’s mind, this was not just a war to gain more property, but a “war of annihilation.” Communists and Jews were to be killed on the spot and SS troops were told to be “ruthless and energetic” in their efforts. One month after Hitler ordered the invasion of Russia, he gave his army and officers the following orders: “Occupy it, administer it, exploit it.”

In the wake of the initial success of the German invasion of Russia, the Russian people were somehow able to regroup and defend themselves, despite suffering incredible losses. It is an amazing story of durability, of fighting against what appears to be insurmountable odds, and yet enduring. The 900-day siege of Leningrad is a story of unbelievable courage and fortitude. By September 1941, Leningrad was completely surrounded. Throughout the winter of 1941-42, German shells fell on the city every day: for an hour from eight to nine in the morning, for an hour before noon, from five until six in the afternoon, and for two hours at night, from eight until ten. Because of the bombings and eventual starvation, 4-5,000 deaths were recorded per day. More than one million of the city’s three million people perished in the winter of 1941-42.

Similar stories of astounding loss can be told about the defense of Moscow, Kiev, and Stalingrad. It was at Stalingrad, where the Red Army lost 500,000 men, that the tide of the war changed: the German Army was defeated by the heroic efforts of the Russians and the reputation of Nazi invincibility was lost. German losses were also catastrophic and they were forced to begin their retreat. In two months of fighting at Stalingrad, the Red Army lost almost as many men as the United States or the British Empire lost in the entire war. Between 1941 and 1943, more than 4.7 million Soviets were killed and millions more were maimed or scarred.

As the Russians mounted their counter-offensive against the Germans, slowly driving them out of their Russian homeland, the loss of life continued on a massive scale. While the Allied forces faced 58 divisions of German troops in the West, and only 15 divisions in the area of the Normandy battle, the Red Army faced 228 divisions of Germans and her allies in the east in 1944.

Between 1941 and 1943, of the 34.5 million Russian men and women mobilized for the war, 84% were killed, wounded or captured. The total Soviet war dead may have been as high as 25 million, 8 million military deaths and 17 million civilian deaths – a number close to Gorbachev’s estimate in 1991.

As Professor Richard Overy noted in his new book, Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945: “There is no dispute that the Soviet population suffered out of all proportion to the sufferings of Soviet allies, and suffered in many cases not a quick end from bomb or bullet but an agonizing end from starvation, or torture, or enslavement, or from countless atrocities whose mere recital still, after the accumulation of almost sixty years of further miseries world-wide, humbles and defeats the imagination” (p. 289).