Industrializing Pays Off: Tanks

It is common knowledge the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 and brought the USSR on the side of the Allies. And the world has glorified and immortalized the Battle of Stalingrad as the Soviet’s greatest victory and the turning point of the Eastern Front in World War II. However, not many seem to know of the largest tank battle in history which was also a German counterassault after Stalingrad that could have reversed the initiative of the war. I am talking about the Battle of Kursk (Курская битва).


Two Tiger I’s tanks destroyed at Kursk.

This battle, started by the Germans as a counterassault, was meant to halt the German retreat and reinstate German initiative. It mobilized two tank regiments, 80 artillery divisions, and 50 total divisions; this contributed over 2,700 tanks, 2,000 planes, and 900,000 men facing against 1.3 million Soviet troops, 3,600 tanks, and 2,800 planes (Geldern). The battle occurred throughout the summer of 1943 following the defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943. Below is a 13 minute documentary that summarizes the battle, and includes great visuals.


Soviet soldiers follow tanks into battle against the Germans.

The battle waged for over 45 days before the Soviets drained enough of the German forces to counterattack and continue the German retreat for the rest of the war. The Russians were able to gain the offensive after the first week of fighting and liberated multiple cities before the conclusion of the battle. Day and night artillery barrages continued, tanks mobilized and fired on bunkers and vehicles, the spring rains and snowmelt created lakes of mud, and close quarters combat froze the senses in this hellscape. On the German side over 30 of the 50 divisions were destroyed, with over 500,000 casualties (dead, missing, wounded) (Geldern).


One of multiple monuments across Russia to honor the Battle of Kursk.

Although not many people internationally know about Kursk, it was an extremely costly and well-known victory in Russia. After the war several monuments were raised in honor of the battle. Because the soviets lost tens-of-millions of people throughout the war. Every victory holds a special place in the hearts of Russians knowing that without these sacrifices and victories—Germany would have crushed them and their losses would have meant nothing. Pictured above is one of the many memorials to still honor those who fell in battle.

Works Cited

Geldern, James Von. “Battle of Kursk.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. August 30, 2015.

Gambar, Turgut and Ilkin. Battle of Kursk 1943 – World War II DOCUMENTARY. Online. Kings and Generals. 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKtD2kht1ZI.

Wikipedia Commons. Destroyed German tanks at Kursk. 1943. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Destroyed_German_tanks_at_Kursk.gif.

Wikipedia Commons. Monument to Battle of Kursk – Prokhorovka – Russia. 2009. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monument_to_Battle_of_Kursk_-_Prokhorovka_-_Russia.JPG.

Wikipedia Commons. Soviet troops and T-34 tanks counterattacking Kursk Voronezh Front July 1943. 1943. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soviet_troops_and_T-34_tanks_counterattacking_Kursk_Voronezh_Front_July_1943.jpg.

Why Afghanistan?

On the eve of 1980 the USSR invaded Afghanistan with invitation from the ruling body. Quickly the USSR inserted its own leader, Babrak Karmal (Geldern.) This led to a decade long war that robbed the USSR of precious public support, money and resources, and positive international attention. But why did the Soviet Union do this? Afghanistan was an underdeveloped foreign country. And what implications did this military and political move have on the Soviet people?

According to Pravda, or The Truth, the Soviet Union involved itself because of, “the imperialist interference in the internal affairs of democratic Afghanistan… that jeopardized the republic’s very existence,” (Petrov). Untold in the article, the Soviet Union was also in the midst of economic downturn, social pressure to reform, and international tension. Afghanistan looked like a solution to almost all of these problems because of its location and resources.

In the 1960’s the Soviet national income rose ~5.9% annually which fell to a low of 2.1% in 1981; gross national product fell from 6% in the 1950’s to 2% following 1979; and investment capital growth fell from 7.6% in 1966 to .6% in 1979 (Freeze, 440). The USSR faced economic issues across almost all aspects of measure. Agricultural output growth shrank from 21% increase in 1966 to 6% in 1981; specifically, crop yields were 180mil tons in 1975, 40mil tons being imported, but this was 76mil tons short of the annual goal (Freeze, 441).

Socially, citizens across the Union rioted over food because of the economic strain. These riots included Sverdlovsk in 1969, Dnepropetrovsk in 1972, and Gorky in 1980 as over ¾ of citizens fell below the established poverty line (Freeze, 443-444). Workers also went on strikes across the Soviet Union. These economic and social factors created a toxic environment of political corruption and capitalist black market. Throughout the 1980’s, some 21million people worked within the black market to supply up to 83% of the population (Freeze, 443).

The Soviet Union saw Afghanistan as a new rallypoint to regroup Soviet interests. Afghanistan held strategic value for trade, harvestable land, and resources to offset the issues the USSR was facing. The initiating event was a USSR Politburo meeting after hearing rumors the Marxist Afghanis were considering to ally with the USA (Freeze, 446). Unfortunately, the Soviet Union found itself in its own Vietnam War. Despite the idealism and rationalism behind the invasion it was ultimately unsuccessful and after a decade the Soviets finally left the country alone, but not before losing tens-of-thousands of soldiers, spend social-program funding to offset economic issues, and ruining relations with NATO and Third World countries (Geldern.)

Works Cited

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Geldern, James Von. “Invasion of Afghanistan.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. June 30, 2015. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1980-2/invasion-of-afghanistan/.

Petrov, A. “On Events in Afghanistan.” Pravda, December 31, 1979. https://dlib-eastview-com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/browse/doc/13629304?searchLink=%2Fsearch%2Fsimple.

Staging Staged On-Stage Heroes

As the early Bolshevik regime came to power after the Russian Civil War, the party and public underwent severe political, cultural, governmental, and economic reforms. As the rapid changes occurred the Communist Party noticed increasing resistance and rising new problems. Demand for grain, mineral, ore, and material production, political assassinations and censorship, and lack of international credibility were some of the issues that led workers and politicians to strike, withhold resources, and otherwise sabotage government efforts. These issues include incidences such as the trial of 58 mining workers in the Shakhty district for sabotage and was representative of countless other incidences like this around the country (Freeze, 355.)

One way the government sought to preserve its union was through a public-relations campaign (Geldern). This included idealizing and romanticizing socialism and production as worthy causes by projecting common workers as folk heroes in films. One film, Chapaev, remains an extremely famous example of a film produced by the soviets staring a communist hero.

Lenfilm. Chapaev. 1935. Poster Libary.

The story follows a real-life hero of the Great War and the Russian Civil War, Visilii Ivanovich Chapaev. The film begins with Chapaev’s Division on a series of victories before his death during an ambush at Lbishchensk on Sep 5, 1919. (Chapaev). Throughout the film Visilii Ivanovich, despite being politically untrained, faces adversity and difficulty with charisma and the wisdom of life-experience over education. He becomes unlikely friends with a commissar Bolshevik named Dmitrii Furmanov sent from Moscow who teaches Chapaev the true values of communism—which he proudly fights for. The two bond after Furmanov gives Chapaev advice when he learns his men are stealing grain from the peasants housing his division (Chapaev).

The film was a massive success of the film industries redirection; first in airing in 1934 it was viewed by over 30 million people across the Soviet Union. Boris Shumiatskii was the new chairman of the industry and wanted to create simple and accessible to the public while maintain political fealty to the regime (Geldern). This served Stalin as an alternate solution to the purges of the 1930’s because it was impossible to purge everyone. This served as a softer method to ensure control and loyalty from citizens in addition to methods of terror like the Show Trials of 1936-1938. Chapaev displays the benefits of being a loyalist as well as glorifying the Bolshevik’s political revolution in 1917. The figure, already larger than life, became a model for citizens to become which not only pacified the government but also the people.

Sources:

Chapaev. Film. Directed by Georgi and Sergei Vasilyev. St. Petersburg: Lenfilm, 1934.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Geldern, James Von. “Popular Film Industry.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. August 30, 2015.

Complications Industrializing

Industrializing a nation is a difficult process that requires a complete rearrangement of domestic production, transportation of resources, and rapid urbanization. As the world progresses with new technologies and nations push the capabilities of factories, trade, and federal investment it is far too easy for competing states to fall behind the global economic curve.

This is how Imperial Russia felt throughout the 19th century. Compared to the leaders in the Western world Russia was beyond substandard. By 1855 Russia had one railroad line between its winter and summer capitals, and it imported 70% of all machinery according to Gregory Freeze in his Russia: A History (216). As the 18th century progressed Russia realized it fell further from being the world power it had the potential to be. What is more interesting is how Russia’s economic solutions actually backfired and contributed more its social issues and eventual revolution. So how does Russia try to catch up to its competition?

The image above is a railway built in 1915 out of Murmansk in the far north of the Russian Empire, on the eve of its Revolution two years later. This image of a simple railroad, taken by Prokudin Gorskii, represents Russia’s attempts to industrialize: tackling the national problems of production, transportation, and urbanization. Between 1861 and 1887, the length of railroads increased between 2,238 versts to 28,240 (Freeze, 216). These railroads represent the focus of the government, trying to modernize and globalize its economy; and this differed from the needs of people.

With these statistics one would think that Russia’s railroads were a godsend, with railroads increasing the empire’s ability to move markets, resources, workers, and ideas. But railroads like the Murmansk line contributed to Russia’s revolutionary sentiment. As Russia continued to import industrial machines, it also increased its exports of grain–which the country came to rely on economically (Freeze 217). Exporting grain in order to pay for Russia’s railroads led to such a lack of food that, “anyone who looks at [Orel district] might well think that is has been ravaged by a hostile army,” according to one Russian noble (Freeze, 215).

Another issue with the railroads is the poor utilization of space within the country. Before a series of reforms beginning in the 1850’s Russia still relied of serfdom. After Emancipation peasants were given small strips of land, taken from the nobles who once lorded over them. These strips were as small as a yard wide and halted economic progress as well as production (Freeze, 214). Along with this poor distribution of the farmland Russia relied on, it also re-purposed some 28,240 versts (30,000 kilometers) of land for its railroads. The resulting famine from these economic industrial policies aided the revolutionary sentiment growing in the peasant population.

Sources: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.