A report made at the Third Conference in Honor of Tamara V. Bataeva at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (Moscow) on November 27, 2010. Published in Multikul’turnaia i mnogonatsional’naia Rossia: Materialy III Mezhdunarodnoi mezhdistsiplinarnoi konferentsii, posviashchennoi pamiati zasluzhennogo deiatelia nauki, pochetnogo professora RUDN, akademika MAN VSh Tamary Vasil’evny Bataevoi. Moskva, 27 noiabria 2010 g., part 1, Aktual’nye problemy otechestvennoi istorii i istoricheskoi nauki: II polovina XIX—nachalo XX veka (Moscow, 2010), 227–39.
In the modern history of our country, “the problem of 1941,” that is the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front and the events preceding it, remains one of the most painful issues. What are the causes of catastrophic defeats of the Red Army in the summer/fall of 1941? Who bears personal responsibility? Were these defeats unavoidable or might there be other scenarios? Was the Soviet Union planning to attack Germany? Finally, what factors contributed to the failure of the Operation Barbarossa at the end of 1941? All of these issues continue to attract the unrelenting attention of researchers. It must, however, be noted that even the latest publication on the subject for the most part is devoted to the event history, particularly the events of 1939–1941 (Soviet and German force development and operational and strategic planning, preparation of Germany’s invasion of the USSR, the Soviet Union preparing for the impending war with the Third Reich, foreign policy, intelligence activities, and so on). Much less studied is the history of Soviet military policy during the inter-war decades and almost unexplored remains the intellectual and mental background of the processes listed above, first of all—such an important problem as the ideas of the Soviet military-political leadership of the next war that determined the direction and content of the preparations for it. Their component parts are the ideas about the strategic and military-technical nature of the future war, which, in turn, make the basis for the assessments of the army’s preparedness for war, including the assessment of the level of training of its personnel.
The question of whether the Red Army was ready for war with Germany remains the subject of heated debate, the participants of which, unfortunately, often overlooked two facts. First, the definition and criteria of readiness for war, at least if we talk about history and not current force development, have not been methodologically researched. Secondly, our current estimates of the Red Army’s readiness for war are due to our knowledge of the course and results of the fighting in 1941–1945 and do not necessarily coincide with the estimates of the state of the armed forces that existed in the Kremlin and the Soviet military during the prewar years.
This article focuses on how the level of combat skills of soldiers and officers of the Red Army was assessed by the Soviet military-political leadership in the age of the first five-year plans, that is, in the late 1920s—early 1940s.
At least since the early 1930s, the Soviet leadership’s concepts of the strategic nature of future war contained two key provisions: unconditional preference for the “strategy of annihilation” (that is of permanent active operations in order to defeat the enemy as soon as possible) before the “strategy of attrition” (prolonging the war in order to exhaust the enemy) and the underestimation of the role of defense in modern warfare—regardless of whether it was an attack on another country or simply repelling aggression. The consequence of such a position was not only a military planning living no alternative (not coincidentally the first response to the Nazi invasion became suicidal Main Military Council Directive No. 3 dated June 22, 1941 for an immediate transition to the offensive on all fronts), but one-sided, unbalanced combat training troops. One cannot say that the Soviet military leaders overestimated the level of military skill in their units and formations. On the contrary, they always payed attention to a number of serious and, even worse, chronic gaps in combat and operational training. The main “weak points” of the Red Army throughout the 1930s remained control of the troops in combat, staff work, the organization of intelligence and logistics services. Symptomatically, however, the future military leaders of World War II have not seen the main problem: the army was not prepared for defensive forms of combat, which it had to conduct in the summer of 1941 in conditions of Germany’s surprise attack. This stems directly from the Soviet leadership’s military-doctrinal concepts in 1930s and therefore was realized only with the beginning of the war, which was quite different from what it had been expected to look like during the previous years.