Fragile Loyalties: Soviet Russians between Hitler and Stalin
One day in early July 1941, a handwritten, anonymous letter was thrown onto the back of a truck carrying German troops into the depths of northwestern Russia. The soldiers were part of Hitler’s invasion force, which had attacked the Soviet Union a few weeks before. The letter was later translated into German and attached to a military intelligence report which ended up in Germany’s Federal Archives in Freiburg. It reads:
We salute the whole German people and their Führer. We salute the freedom that has returned to us […] We salute the heroes and inform you that we have expected you with great joy. You have freed us from destitution and Communism. We await your orders and will follow them in friendship. We women salute the whole German people, who have liberated us working peasants.
Half a year later, in December 1941, another letter reached a German field office, signed by the Anisimovs, a family from the village of Mezhnik (220 miles northwest of Moscow):
To the Leader of the Great-German People, Mr. Adolf Hitler
[…] We express great gratitude for the fact that the Great-German troops since 15 September 1941 have liberated us from the Bolshevik yoke and the accursed Comunist [sic] regime that has ruled over the Russian people for 24 years and we wish Mr. Adolf Hitler good luck in your future work.
Myths of Unity
Big wars leave big myths in their wake. The Soviet Union’s war against Nazi Germany is no exception. After the war, Soviet authorities cultivated a grand narrative around the “Great Patriotic War,” in which the Soviet people came together as one in a sacred struggle to repel the Nazi threat. While Soviet historians had to comply with official dogma, most outside historians realized the picture was more complex. In 1941, as is now well-known, many disgruntled inhabitants of Ukraine and the Baltic countries greeted the invading Wehrmacht as liberators. In these territories, annexed and brutally subdued by the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, much of the population despised the Bolshevik regime.
Today, few would uphold the myth of the united “Soviet people,” but a modified version of it has become conventional wisdom: the unity of the Russian people. If many Ukrainians and Balts (and numerous other groups) hoped to see the Bolshevik regime toppled, things were different with the Russians. When the Germans advanced into the core Russian territories that had been Soviet for two decades, so the story goes, they were met with steadfast patriotic loyalism.
In Russia, as historian Bernd Bonwetsch put it, there was “not the slightest hesitation on any part of Soviet society to serve the country.” According to Kees Boterbloem, upon reaching Russian soil the Germans “found no sympathy […] apart from that of a few renegades.” In Catherine Merridale’s words, the Wehrmacht enjoyed some local support in the western borderlands, “especially as it had yet to reach ancient Russian or even long-held Soviet soil.” British historian Richard Overy similarly claimed that in the recently incorporated territories, “there were genuine opponents of the [Bolshevik] regime.” But not, it is implied, in Soviet Russia proper.
Letter to Hitler from the Anisimov family. Source: Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts (Political Archive of the German Foreign Office), R 60721.
Yet the letters quoted above seem to tell a different story. These documents, which are among a wide range of sources I used to research my book Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation, fit into a larger pattern of evidence suggesting that the wartime loyalties of Soviet Russians were more fragile than previously thought.
My book is the first (in English) to focus on the occupation experience of a mostly rural Russian population. Given that two-thirds of Soviet Russians were peasants at the time, any attempt to understand how Soviet Russian society lived through its Great Patriotic War needs to examine life in the countryside. But the peasants, unlike policymakers, generals, and urban intellectuals, make less noise and leave fewer written sources behind.
Focusing on the region of northwest Russia (see map), inhabited by some 1.3 million people, I do not purport to tell the full story of the Soviet experience of war and Nazi rule. Rather, I have aimed to increase and deepen our knowledge of that story by illuminating an important plot line.
Occupied northwest Russia.
‘We Will Hang All Your Communists’
Why would Soviet Russians think of welcoming German troops? To understand the answer, we need to look at what the Stalinist regime did to its own population in the 1930s, especially in the countryside, where most people still lived at the time of the German incursion. For the peasantry, the 1930s was a decade of devastation. Beginning in 1929, the Bolsheviks violently forced the peasants into a collective farm system characterized by slavery-like exploitation, with the state seizing the surplus and leaving the kolkhozniks as meagerly salaried employees. Those branded “kulaks” (somewhat more affluent peasants, or simply anyone who openly opposed collectivization) were dispossessed and deported in their millions; hundreds of thousands perished in the process. The upheavals of collectivization led to the famine of 1932–1933, which killed millions. Later, in 1937–1938, Stalin’s Great Terror swept the country. Mass arrests, deportations, and executions targeted all sorts of imagined and real enemies of the state, resulting in a million more deaths. The Stalinist regime, bent on cleansing the country of opponents and enemies, made itself the worst enemy of its own people.
The regime’s war against the peasantry naturally generated hostility and resentment in the countryside. As one wartime inhabitant of northwest Russia later put it, “My forefathers were affluent peasants; the Bolsheviks turned them into beggars and slaves.” Such emotions fed rumors, recurring frequently throughout the 1930s, of a coming war in which the Bolsheviks would be crushed and the collective farms dissolved. When the actual invasion came, authorities and witnesses recorded utterances such as “Now I expect salvation only from Hitler,” “Now we will hang all your Communists, and our lives will become better,” and “The Germans will dissolve the cursed kolkhozes, and then we will have our own farms again.”
Many Russian peasants invested their hopes in the German message of liberation from Bolshevism. This is why some took to writing letters of gratitude. Others, as documented in Soviet partisan reports, offered the Germans a traditional bread-and-salt welcome. In one district, peasants even organized a collection of Christmas gifts for German soldiers, delivering thousands of pairs of socks, gloves, and felt boots in what appeared to be a display of gratitude. German intelligence reporting on the popular mood tends to be consistent with these observations. As one official stated in December 1941 (see Figure 3), “The peasants, as well as most of the urban population, generally welcomed the downfall of Bolshevism or at least passively observed the events.” Other types of sources provide corroboration. Here, for instance, is a diary entry from Aug. 20, 1941, by Mariia Germanova, a rural schoolteacher: “Most of our populace are glad the Germans have arrived.”
Internal report by a local Wirtschaftskommando (Economic Command), Opochka district, December 5, 1941. “As revealing of the attitude of the rural civilian population, one could mention the fact that in almost all localities, voluntary contributions to the German Wehrmacht were made. For instance, in Krasnoi, more than 6000 pieces of furs, felt boots, gloves, stockings, etc., were donated and explained as a sign of gratitude for the liberation from Bolshevism.” Source: Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RW 31/900.
Internal report by the Wehrmacht’s 281st Security Division, December 1941. “The peasants, as well as most urban inhabitants, welcomed the downfall of Bolshevism […]” Source: Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RH 26-281/25a.
Over the course of some 30 months of occupation, many inhabitants of northwest Russia learned that Hitler was not about to offer a decent alternative to Stalinism. Here as elsewhere in the occupied territories, the Germans brought death and destruction on a massive scale. Thousands of Jews, Roma, mentally and physically disabled people, and tens of thousands of prisoners of war perished in northwest Russia as a result of Nazi policies. German forces and local auxiliaries murdered thousands of Russian civilians in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign. Moreover, in 1941–1942, twenty to thirty thousand people succumbed to a famine that struck areas close to the front.
Despite the suffering caused by the occupiers, substantial parts of the local population continued to engage in cooperative relations with the German authorities throughout 1942 and most of 1943. By early 1943, an estimated 32,500 locals (some 15 percent of the male working population) were serving in the local self-government apparatus or in auxiliary police and anti-partisan formations, contributing substantially to maintaining the German order.
Wehrmacht territorial control as well as the Germans’ propensity to strike hard against resistance surely explains much of the Russians’ cooperative behavior. Local inhabitants acted out of a pragmatic realism, displaying loyalty to whichever seemed the strongest power. But, as I explain at length in my book, primary sources indicate that there was also a significant element of genuine and voluntary support. Many in northwest Russia despised the Bolshevik regime for reasons grounded in their own personal experience, as even Soviet authorities had to admit.
Another reason many Russians were ready to support or tolerate the German occupation regime has to do with German agricultural policy. When war came, most Soviet officials fled before the advancing Germans. Taking advantage of this power vacuum, peasants in northwest Russia began spontaneously dissolving collective farms. They formed village councils to redistribute land, seed grain, and animals according to traditional pre-revolutionary customs. Unlike in Ukraine (with its much richer soil), German authorities in northwest Russia allowed de-collectivization to go ahead, later institutionalizing it by decreeing a “New Agrarian Order” in spring 1942.
Peasants naturally welcomed de-collectivization. In some places, tears of joy and “spontaneous cheers for the Führer” were observed. People worked hard on their new plots, knowing the surplus would be theirs to dispose of after the Germans had collected a set quota (perceived by many peasants as less burdensome than pre-war Soviet quotas). Many sources testify to tangible improvements in the lives of peasants. As one Russian-born intelligence officer with the German 18th Army put it, people in the countryside “began to live a life both freer and more affluent than under Soviet power.” According to another witness who lived in the countryside, “in 1942 so much grain was threshed that I can’t even begin to tell you. […] Life was good.” The peasants lived in the hope that the kolkhozes had forever ceased to exist.
Turning of the Tide
Despite de-collectivization and other policy measures that benefited the local population (such as allowing the revival of church life), the cumulative effect of German atrocities and oppressive policies was taking an increasing toll. The murderous treatment of prisoners of war, in particular, became a matter of widespread knowledge and a potent generator of anti-German attitudes. The deportation of 50,000 inhabitants to slave labor in Germany in 1942 had a heavy impact as well. At the same time, people began to suspect, rightly, that the Germans lacked a viable plan for the national future of Russia.
A sense of national humiliation gradually arose from daily interactions with the occupiers. The German decision to limit schooling to a four-class system only confirmed the impression that the Germans intended to subjugate the Russians, to keep them as a servant people. As Olimpiada Poliakova, a wartime resident of the town of Pushkin, noted in her diary in November 1942, “It has now become completely clear that the Germans are not here to help us fight our war against the Bolsheviks. We can trust no one but ourselves.” Peasants in the Luga district, German observers noted, “feel disenfranchised despite the New Agrarian Order; they fear that they will never again have their own Russian government.” In March 1943, a German intelligence officer despondently reported: “The Russian people, who expected liberation, have become disappointed.”
Disappointment combined with rising popular uncertainty as the Germans suffered major setbacks at the front (Stalingrad, Velikie Luki, Demiansk). Meanwhile, partisan activity increased significantly in the rear. Uncertainty gave way to crisis in September and October 1943 as German forces began preparing their retreat from northwest Russia. When a general evacuation order was announced, inhabitants took to the woods, joined the partisans, and generally severed their ties to the occupiers on a massive scale. The tide had turned; resistance became a viable and rational choice.
The German retreat was brutal: hundreds of villages burned to the ground, untold numbers of civilians resisting evacuation or suspected of supporting the partisans shot or burned to death inside their barns. Many inhabitants wept with joy upon sight of the first Red Army soldiers. But others feared the wrath of the returning Bolsheviks. One witness recalled the mood of the final days of the occupation:
All around villages were burning. Maybe one could go hide in the woods, but people were afraid. They were afraid that the Germans would find them, but people were even more afraid of their own. We had already heard from the prisoners of war how Soviet authorities had no mercy on those who remained under the Germans and especially so on persons who had worked for the Germans.
Peasants who had experienced material improvement during the occupation had little to gain by rejoining the collective farms, which were quickly re-established. Conditions deteriorated as a new famine struck in 1946–1947. In these post-war years, people began to talk about how they had lived better under the Germans, a development that worried the Soviet authorities. As one Communist party report noted, warning of anti-kolkhoz attitudes in the Novgorod district, it was necessary to counteract “anti-Soviet conversations and provocative rumors intended to praise the life of individual farmers under the Germans.”
Transcript of a conversation with a Soviet partisan commander, October 1942. The interviewee speaks of the presence of collaborators in the villages. The final sentence, with a question mark scribbled in the margins, hints at the Great Terror of the 1930s: “The Germans adroitly exploit the mistakes of the judicial organs, [which they made] when a number of people were sentenced for no reason at all.” Source: TsGAIPD SPb (St. Petersburg Central State Archive for Historico-Political Records), 0-116/12/162, 5.
The evidence from northwest Russia tells us something about the failure of the Stalinist political order to produce robust bonds of loyalty between the regime and the “workers and peasants” it claimed to represent. As soon as an apparently viable alternative presented itself in the guise of an invading power promising to defeat the Bolshevik regime, many were willing to play along. If a Sovietized form of Russian patriotism really prevailed to the extent suggested by earlier historians, we would have seen more hostility, more resistance, and less acquiescence and open support.
At the same time, we should not ascribe too much political meaning to the patterns of wartime behavior. People faced with rivaling claims to power tend to be pragmatic, heeding the orders of the stronger power, working the given system to their least disadvantage. Calculated pragmatism as well as fiery anti-Bolshevism led to the partial welcoming of the German invaders in 1941. Likewise, the about-face of late 1943 reflected this survival instinct as well as an increasing disillusionment with German power.
The wartime attitudes and behavior of northwest Russian peasants highlight the ambiguous patriotism of the Great Patriotic War and the fragile nature of Soviet loyalty and identity among the Russians at this crucial moment. More broadly, this examination illuminates the relationship between grand, unifying narratives and the dissonant chorus of voices “from below” when looking at major events such as wars. The big myths tend to drown out the small stories. Of course, getting bogged down in a variety of individual experiences doesn’t get us very far. Yet systematic attempts to order and make sense of the local chaos may help us see important features of the larger story that would otherwise escape us.
Johannes Due Enstad is a Norwegian historian and Russianist. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo, he is the author of Soviet Russians under Nazi Occupation (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He currently researches far-right militancy in post-Soviet Russia and blogs intermittently at The Restless Russianist. Twitter: @johannes_d_e