The Beginning of the Great Fatherland War. Modern Historiography (in Russian)

Nachalo Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny: Sovremennaia istoriografiia: Sbornik obzorov i referatov, ed. M. M. Mints (Moscow, 2011).

The collection contains analyses of works by Russian and Western historians on problems such as Soviet foreign policy in 1939–1941, the USSR’s preparation for a forthcoming war against Germany, operations on the Eastern Front in summer–autumn 1941, everyday life in the years of the war. These works were published between 2000–2010 by various presses in Moscow and abroad. Full text (PDF, 1,5 Mb, in Russian).



Michael M. Mints, The Beginning of the Great Fatherland War in Modern Historiography: (Review article).

Abstract: Vladimir A. Nevezhin, “If Tomorrow a Campaign…”: Preparation for War and the Ideological Propaganda in 1930s–1940s [Nevezhin V., “Esli zavtra v pokhod…”: Podgotovka k voine i ideologicheskaia propaganda v 30-kh—40-kh godakh (Moscow: Iauza: Eksmo, 2007)].

Abstract: Aleksandr O. Chubar’ian, The Eve of a Tragedy: Stalin and the International Crisis, September 1939—June 1941 [Chubar’ian A. O., Kanun tragedii: Stalin i mezhdunarodnyi krizis: Sentiabr’ 1939—iiun’ 1941 g. (Moscow: Nauka, 2008)].

Abstract: Mikhail I. Meltiukhov, Stalin’s Missed Chance: Struggle for Europe, 1939–1941: (Documents, Facts, Opinions) [Meltiukhov M. I., Upushchennyi shans Stalina: Skhvatka za Evropu: (Dokumenty, fakty, suzhdeniia), 3d ed. (Moscow: Veche, 2008)].

Abstract: David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005).

Abstract: John A. Lukacs, June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (New Haven; London: Gale University, 2006).

Abstract: David M. Glantz, Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941 (Stroud, Gloucestershire; Charleston, South Carolina: Tempus Publishing, 2001).

Abstract: V. V. Abaturov, 1941: The West Direction [Abaturov V. V., 1941: Na Zapadnom napravlenii (Moscow: Iauza: Eksmo, 2007)].

Abstract: D. B. Khazanov, The Struggle for Supremacy in the Air [Khazanov D. B., Bor’ba za gospodstvo v vozdukhe (Moscow: Iauza: Eksmo, 2008)].

Abstract: Geoffrey P. Megargee, War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 (Lanham, Maryland etc.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

Abstract: Christian Hartmann, The Wehrmacht in the War in the East: The Front and Rear, 1941–1942 [Christian Hartmann, Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg: Front und militärisches Hinterland 1941/42 (München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2009)].

Abstract: Rodric Braithwaite, Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War (London: Profile Books, 2007).



The tragic start of the war on the Eastern Front (1941–1945), surely will long remain one of the most painful issues for the Russian historiography. This is due not only to the enormous losses the country suffered through four years of war, but also because of the agonizing process of rethinking the Soviet past, a process which began a quarter-century ago and continues to this day. In the divided Russian society, any dispute about the past almost inevitably turns into a dispute of values: this is not surprising, since the historical memory is one of the key elements of national identity.

The memory of war is no exception. In the scientific community, discussions about the events of 1941 differ somewhat from the exterior dialogues, but are no less acute.

A radical rethinking of the history of the first months of the Patriotic war began in the Perestroika years after the removal of the prior censorship restrictions. In this period, the most heated debate first of all was concerned with the secret protocols to the Soviet–German agreements of August 23 and September 28, 1939.

Among the events of 1941 most actively discussed were such issues as the main causes of the catastrophic defeat of the Red Army in the first months of the war, Stalin’s errors in preparing to repel the aggression and in the organization of the resistance against the enemy in the first weeks after the Germans attacked, the problem of his personal responsibility for the failure of the Soviet Union in the beginning of hostilities.

In the 1990s, the situation in Soviet studies changed significantly due to the “archival revolution” (in fact, in this period researchers found a qualitatively new source base for the study of World War II history), the emergence of new methodological approaches (military-historical anthropology, the history of everyday life), and also due to the “unplanned discussion” about the purpose of Soviet foreign and military policy in the prewar years, triggered by the publication in Russia of Viktor A. Suvorov’s books, which highlighted a number of previously unexplored issues. These circumstances made possible the emergence of numerous works on the history of Soviet foreign policy, force development, strategic planning and propaganda.

At the same time, difficulties appeared, on the one hand, with a significant amount of newly declassified materials requiring interpretation, and, on the other, with the apparent incompleteness of the “archival revolution,” since many important archival collections have remained secret.

These processes continue. New challenges have also appeared. Half-hearted political and economic reforms of the 1990s were the reason why, at the turn of the millennia, Russian ruling circles manifested authoritarian tendencies once again, including, in particular, the promotion of nationalist ideas. This resulted in the fact that the memory of the war has once again become a pawn of the official propaganda, and the “archival revolution” has been replaced by re-classification of several documents, some of which at that time had already been published.

With such a change in the “state order,” those authors who tried to justify the policy of Stalin’s leadership, including during the pre-war period, became active. In addition, a shortage of qualified specialists and of qualitative research on the history of World War II was evident, so that the resultant gap in the literature began to be filled up with amateur research and numerous works of a journalistic nature.

The Western historiography of World War II has undergone major changes in the last 25 years. The opening of access to Soviet archives, as well as the publication of a large number of previously unavailable documents, significantly upgraded its source base. (In previous years, in studying the war on the Eastern Front, Western researchers had mostly to limit themselves to German sources, which inevitably made their conclusions somewhat one-sided.) The end of the Cold War has allowed certain stereotypes to be overcome. At the same time, in recent years there has been a definite decline in interest about the Soviet era amongst Western historians.

Yet the literature on the history of the USSR, including the history of World War II and the preceding period, has been supplemented by a number of fundamental papers that need attention.

The purpose of this collection was to give readers a concise, but relatively integral picture of modern historiography of the eve of the war on the Eastern Front and of the summer–autumn campaign 1941. Several Russian and Western monographs are analysed that were published in the recent decade and deal with such problems as Moscow’s foreign policy in 1939–1941, the development of Soviet armed forces in the same period, the Stalinist leadership’s response to the deterioration of the Soviet–German relations and to the incoming information about imminent aggression against the USSR, operations on the Eastern Front in June–December 1941, and the causes of the Red Army’s defeats.

The specified chronological framework was chosen deliberately. The first six months of the war on the Eastern Front were perhaps the most dramatic period of the Soviet–German rivalry. The Battle of Moscow not only marked the collapse of the Operation Barbarossa and the strategy of Blitzkrieg, but, according to some researchers, has become, along with the U.S. entry into the war and certain other events, the beginning of a turn in the Second World War as a whole. On the other hand, the origins of the Red Army’s defeats in the initial period of the war should be sought in the pre-war years, not last of all in those of the Soviet–German partnership based on the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and on the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation of September 28, 1939. That led to our interest in the events of 1939 through the first half of 1941. The collection opens with a general review of contemporary literature on the problems listed above.

This is followed by abstracts of eleven the most interesting Russian and Western works. The book by Vladimir A. Nevezhin “If Tomorrow a Campaign…”: Preparation for War and the Ideological Propaganda in 1930s–1940s deals with the history of Soviet military propaganda in the prewar period; the author analyzes its organization, and also the evolution of conceptions it promoted.

Aleksandr O. Chubar’ian in his monograph The Eve of a Tragedy: Stalin and the International Crisis, September 1939—June 1941 examines Soviet foreign policy in the period of the Soviet–German “friendship,” revealing its motives and results.

Mikhail I. Meltiukhov’s Stalin’s Missed Chance: Struggle for Europe, 1939–1941: (Documents, Facts, Opinions) is an attempt, rather a rare one in Russian historiography, at a comprehensive analysis of foreign and military policy of the USSR during the period under consideration, in the overall context of the Second World War.

The work of Soviet intelligence before the Nazi aggression is described in the monograph by the American researcher David E. Murphy, What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa.

The book by John A. Lukacs (USA), June 1941: Hitler and Stalin, deals with the personal relations between the two dictators.

The fighting on the Eastern Front in June–December 1941, is particularly detailed in David M. Glantz’s “Barbarossa”: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941.

V. V. Abaturov’s book 1941: The West Direction analyzes the battles in the central sector of the Eastern Front in 1941 and, to a lesser degree, in 1942.

D. B. Khazanov’s The Struggle for Supremacy in the Air deals with the air force during the summer and autumn of 1941. The author describes the air battles in the first weeks of the war, during the Kiev Defense Operation and the repulsion of the German offensive on Leningrad, the Luftwaffe raids on Moscow; shows the causes for the failure of the Soviet pilots.

Geoffrey P. Megargee’s (USA) book War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 deals with the crimes of the invaders on Soviet territory, showing the influence of attitudes that prevailed in the Nazi leadership, and of the situation prevailing at the front on the attitude of the Germans to the Soviet POWs and the local population.

Similar problems were discussed by a German historian Christian Hartmann in his book The Wehrmacht in the War in the East: The Front and Rear, 1941–1942. In this case study of five German divisions, he shows how the everyday life of German soldiers and officers, as well as the institutional features of the German army and the situation at the front and in the occupied areas, influenced the content, nature and extent of the war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht soldiers in the Soviet Union. The book addressed also the problem of German soldiers’ responsibility for these crimes.

Finally, the work of British researcher Rodric Braithwaite Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War deals with the daily lives of Muscovites in the first months of the Soviet–German confrontation.