“For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest,” wrote St Luke. Not in Russia it won’t. There nothing is manifest that shall not be made secret.
The Russian government has just decided to keep the Soviet wartime archives classified until 2040, and the NKVD archives until 2050.
That raises the question in the title above. After all, the war started in 1939, and 100 years is a long time for a victor to keep many of its heroic deeds under wraps. Moreover, the Soviet Union no longer exists. So what makes its records so sensitive 74 years after the war ended?
There’s something vital here that one has to understand. For the Allies, victory in that war is just history to be proud of. For Germany, it’s just history to be ashamed of.
But the Russians have been not just brainwashed but brain-scoured to treat the war as the basis for a unifying state ideology, or rather religion.
Practically every speech by Putin and his henchmen contains a reference to the war as the distillate of Russia’s greatness, proof of her redemptive saintliness. And they didn’t start this idolatry – the picture of the war peddled, nay preached, to the Russians has remained just as I remember it from my childhood.
The Soviet Union was the only country seeking peace. Not only the Nazis but also Britain and France actively sought war.
Peace-loving Stalin tried to assuage Hitler’s aggressiveness by signing the Non-Aggression Pact, hoping to buy some time to build up Russia’s defence capability.
However, Hitler broke the Pact and attacked the Soviet Union that was unprepared for war. Using their superiority in tanks, planes and personnel, the Nazis won a few initial victories – only to be defeated by the heroism of the Soviet people who closed ranks behind Stalin.
In the process, the Soviet people suffered great losses. The estimates of exactly how great vary from eight to forty million, depending on who’s counting, and how. Thus the Soviet Union is a collective martyr redeeming the sins of the world, and certainly its own, few as they were.
Now if the classified archives agreed with this picture, there would be no need to keep them classified for 100 years after the war started, and almost certainly beyond. Those dusty dossiers, if opened, would prove iconoclastic.
They’d paint a different picture, and it certainly wouldn’t be an icon of the state religion. Russians would be put into a position to reflect, not to genuflect.
Now thanks to the work of many brilliant historians, both Western and Russian, feeding on official records and some archival crumbs tossed their way, we can already reconstruct much of that mosaic picture, piece by piece.
We know that the Soviet Union started the Second World War not on 22 June, 1941, but on 17 September, 1939, when Soviet troops attacked Poland from the east as their Nazi allies were attacking it from the west.
Moreover, the German attack launched on 1 September was made possible by the Pact signed on 23 August. Not only did the two predators divide Europe between them, but the Soviets also provided the supplies without which Germany would be unable to attack the West.
It was Germany that was really unprepared for war, not the Soviet Union. In fact German factories started to work in a wartime mode only in 1942, after almost three years of fighting. By contrast, Soviet factories switched to a three-shift round-the-clock mode in 1929, churning out armaments and everything it took to produce them.
The whole country was turned into a giant concentration cum military camp; millions were sacrificed to keep the wheels of the Soviet war juggernaut turning over. Tens of millions were toiling away behind barbed wire, but the difference between them and those technically at liberty was slight.
Soviet mines, pits, smelters, oil wells and refineries, mostly operated by slave labour, were taking full advantage of Russia’s rich natural resources. And, while Soviet citizens, including children, starved to death, millions of tonnes of grain and other food were exported – much of it to Nazi Germany.
It was vast Soviet exports of raw materials that initially enabled the Nazis to fight. Otherwise even the Poles, once they recovered from the original shock, could have probably held on because the Germans were running out of essential ordnance, especially aircraft bombs.
The Soviets provided those even before stabbing Poland in the back, as they later did during the Battle of Britain. Thus many of the bombs raining on London were Soviet-made.
Stalin started the war as Hitler’s only important ally. Yet neither side saw their friendship as a permanent arrangement.
Both had designs on all of Europe; both saw the Pact as a breather required to prepare an attack. It’s for that purpose that the Soviets concentrated on their western border by far the largest and best-equipped army the world had ever seen.
The Nazis did the same thing on their eastern border, but their army couldn’t match the Soviet numbers in men and equipment.
For example, the Soviets had a seven-fold superiority in tanks (four-fold in those deployed close to the border), and the Germans had nothing that came even remotely close to the Soviet T-34 and KV models. They only acquired something comparable by the time of Stalingrad, when it was already too late.
Similar ratios existed in every item of materiel, and of course in numerical strength. The Soviet army facing the Nazis across the border was twice as large, with practically unlimited reserves backing it up.
Both armies were deployed in similar battle orders. The Soviet force was arranged in two long salients, one at Lviv, the other at Białystok. The German army filled the spaces between the salients, thus forming ‘balconies’ of their own – it was like interlocking knives ready to stab through.
Obviously whoever struck the first blow would enjoy a huge strategic advantage by cutting off the salients at the base and effectively surrounding the armies marooned there.
The Germans beat the Soviets to the punch, and historians disagree by how much. Estimates vary from one day to a couple of weeks – so much for Stalin’s peaceful intentions.
Having struck, the Germans quickly proved yet again that tanks and planes don’t fight wars. People do, and it was in that department that the Germans were much better equipped.
Their soldiers, from privates and NCOs to officers and generals, were infinitely better trained and educated. Their logistic support guaranteed smooth supplies of war needs, something the Soviets couldn’t do.
Above all, German soldiers wanted to fight for Hitler, while their Soviet counterparts didn’t want to fight for Stalin. That’s why they eagerly surrendered – by December, 1941, 4.5 million were in German captivity.
Soviet tanks and planes suffered their greatest losses not to the Luftwaffe, as is erroneously believed, but to desertion – they were simply abandoned as the Soviet army ran away like so much stampeding cattle.
Many machines were left behind simply because in their feverish rush to produce millions of tanks and planes the Soviets had never bothered to make enough mobile fuellers to keep them going.
After the horrors of the collectivisation, the predominantly peasant Soviet army didn’t want to defend those who had murdered and starved their families. And, though many historians have managed to glean such facts, the Russians don’t want them widely known to those who don’t habitually read history books.
Yet eventually the Soviets were made to fight, partly by the Nazis’ brutalities in the occupied territories and partly by their own regime’s savagery – and this is another page of history that the Russians want to leave unread.
The Bolsheviks had systematically waged war against their own people, eventually running up the score of their victims to 60 million. That cull reached its fever pitch during the war, especially at its beginning.
As the Soviets retreated, they systematically murdered hundreds of thousands of inmates in the prisons they left behind. Even the Nazis were appalled at the sight of the piles of mangled corpses they found in the wake of fleeing Soviet troops.
At least 22,000 of those corpses were of Polish officers murdered at Katyn and elsewhere. The Nazis invited an international commission to validate that Soviet crime, which the Russians denied until 1992.
At the same time, the retreating Soviets were shot or hanged by their own people. More than 157,000 were thus executed by kangaroo court martials – with easily twice as many either machine-gunned as they ran or shot out of hand afterwards. The Soviets probably inflicted more losses on their own troops than Britain suffered altogether.
Stalin delivered his infamous speech, explaining to the soldiers that their families were hostages. Not only would reluctant soldiers be executed, but their families would either be shot or starved to death, by depriving them of ration cards.
The nameless graves of the victims are scattered all over Russia, while their numbers are also buried – in those same archives Putin’s men keep secret. (Joachim Hoffmann’s book Stalin’s War of Extermination is particularly good on this. This is essential reading for those interested in the subject, along with books by Solonin, Mel’gunov, Suvorov and a few others.)
Then there’s another shameful story buried in the same collective grave, that of the Soviets’ savagery when they began to win the war. For, facing the choice of dying to an NKVD bullet or noose, as opposed to in battle, Soviet soldiers began to fight – and die in their millions.
Stalin’s ill-educated and cruel generals, made in the image of their supreme leader, were burying German armies under an avalanche of Soviet corpses. Soviet casualties ended up outnumbering the enemy’s by a factor of four at least, and probably more.
(Dwight Eisenhower recalls in his memoirs the horror he felt when told by Zhukov, Stalin’s second-in-command, that his chosen way of clearing a minefield was to march some penalty battalions over it.)
If the Soviets treated their own people like that, you can imagine what they did to others. As Stalin’s hordes were swamping Germany, his propagandists, Ilya Ehrenburg particularly bloodthirsty among them, were issuing a blank licence to rape, pillage and murder (Hoffmann cites pages upon pages of such articles).
Millions of women were raped by Soviet soldiers – and not only in Germany but in all the Eastern European countries lying in the path of the Russians’ advance. All those countries, and certainly Germany, were also looted on an unprecedented scale.
The capacity for plunder increased with rank. Privates and NCOs were limited to a suitcase or two, staff officers to perhaps a railway carriage, and generals to whole trainloads. Zhukov took this trend to its logical conclusion by turning his dacha into a grandiose display of venality.
The marshal was partial to egg-sized gems, so the forty-odd Old Masters he had also looted were by no means the most valuable part of his collection. At the other end, the collection even included 2,000 pairs of women’s stockings, and one hopes they weren’t for the marshal’s own use.
Obviously I’m mentioning only the facts that have made it into the public domain. There have to be many others, those jealously guarded by today’s heirs to Stalin and his NKVD.
These days they’re devoted to amassing personal wealth, rather than mass murder. But they have to put something on their banners both to rally the populace and to establish their own historical legitimacy.
That’s why they derive their genealogy not only from the Russian Empire, but also from the Soviet Union. And that’s why they try to defy St Luke by keeping their dirty secrets for ever – the icon of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ will not be besmirched.