The Future War in the Soviet Military-Political Leadership’s Views in 1927–1941: Ph.D. thesis

The thesis deals with the military-doctrinal concepts of the Soviet military-political leadership in the late 1920s—early 1940s and with some other ideas that had considerable influence on choosing the aims of the Soviet military policy in that period and ways to achieve them. The defense of the thesis took place on May 18, 2007 at the Russian State University for the Humanities.  The text of the thesis (PDF, 3,3 Mb, in Russian).



The significance of the problem being discussed in this work is due, most of all, to its close relationship with the history of the war on the Eastern Front in 1941–45. The USSR was preparing for years for the future battle with “world imperialism.” It was the Soviet–German conflict, which began June 22, 1941, that happened to become that future large-scale war for which the Soviet Union created the army, strengthened rear, developed new military equipment, and improved military theory. This war summed up the previous work, becoming for the Soviet armed forces a kind of test. Therefore, the study of the concepts of a future war according to which the Soviet leaders defined the content and direction of the force development, can help us better understand the history of the war on the Eastern Front. Understand the causes not only of defeats of the Red Army in summer and autumn of 1941, but also of the final Soviet victory in the war, gained despite the seemingly catastrophic failures.

The study of the topic is important also for understanding the phenomenon of war in general. The space occupied by the war in human culture (in the broadest sense of the word), it is difficult to overestimate. But the wars do not break out suddenly. In a sense, they are only an end of rather long and complicated processes. Even if the state has no plans in the foreseeable future to conduct any particular war with one of its neighbors, the development of the armed forces is still organized on the basis of assumptions about how they are to be used. The prehistory and history of the War of 1941–45 is itself an example of how these processes progress and what results they produce.

By the Soviet military-political leadership, I understand the circle of people who took part in the development of the military policy of the Soviet state, including the political and strategic decision-making on issues related to the force development and preparing for future war.

The subject of study is the content and evolution of the image of the future war, which was shared by the military-political leaders of the Soviet Union, that is, a set of assumptions about future war on the basis of which were determined the direction and content of the preparations for it. The most important part of this image is the Soviet military doctrine.

The thesis covers the period from the late 1920s to June 22, 1941, i.e. the years of a large-scale reconstruction of the Soviet armed forces, in contrast to the 1920s, when the question was in fact to keep a certain minimum desired level of combat capability at the lowest cost. As the boundaries between these periods, in the proposed thesis, the “war alert” in 1927 is adopted, though this distinction, of course, is relative. In fact, the transition was longer and smoother.

Historiography of the Problem

The development of research of the considered problem in Russian historiography can be divided into several stages. The first one of them covers the first half of the 1950s. It was the time of the primary systematization and understanding the history of the war on the Eastern Front. But rather a deep and unbiased study of such issues as the Soviet military preparations in 1940–41 was still almost impossible. The reason for that was the strong ideological diktat, along with a virtually complete lack of access to archival sources.

The second phase began in the late 1950s. The declared course of de-Stalinization contributed to mitigating the ideological diktat; as a result, the situation with access to the sources improved as well. It was in that period that the first publications of documents on the history of the war with Germany appeared. An addition to it, a wave of military memoirs became. The number of scientific publications on the history of the war and prewar period also increased dramatically, including both individual research and collective generalizing works.

However, the study of the history of the prewar period was still to a large extent constrained by the continued restrictions of access to the archives, and well as by new ideological directives. The situation certainly did not dispose to scientific analysis of such a purely ideal structures as the predictions of a future war, especially as because the short answer to the question has actually been given at the level of state ideology. Apparently, this can explain the fact that the authors of this period were largely confined to the study of event history (international relations in the eve of the war, the development of the Soviet armed forces, preparing for the coming war in 1939–41, including errors and omissions made in this period), while the ideas and perceptions of the past were obviously not regarded as a subject for a separate detailed study. There were extremely few special publications on such problems, and in the generalizing works it was usually touched on only causally. The literature of the 1970s is characterized by less emphasis on describing the mistakes and miscalculations of the prewar period.

The events on the eve of the war were much more actively studied in the late 1980s, in the years of Perestroika, which suggests the beginning of the third stage in the development of historiography. Its special feature was the beginning of the radical rethinking of Soviet history. This was contributed also by the declassification of many Stalin era documents. Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal [The Military-Historical Journal] at this time even assigned a special section for a discussion on the prehistory of the war. However, the conceptual approaches to the study of these issues had not undergone fundamental changes. Therefore, in particular, the authors of this period are still interested first in event history, seeking to trace the course of the Soviet military buildup, identify erroneous decisions and thus to clarify the causes of the failure of the Red Army in summer 1941.

Several works also appeared by authors who took the first cautious steps towards overcoming the official concept of the war with Germany. The first attempt was made to go beyond a purely event history and consider more carefully the ideas of future war that existed during 1920s—1930s. However, such publications continued to be rather the exception that only confirmed the general rule. The inertia of the old concepts was still quite strong, especially in the field of methodology. As a result, the reconsideration of event history was almost unaccompanied by in-depth study of its intellectual, psychological and cultural “basis,” so that the rethinking of previous ideas about the history of the war was largely incomplete.

A fundamentally different situation exists in the post-Soviet period, which allows us to designate these years as a new, fourth stage in the development of historiography that continues today. Its features are determined by two main factors. First, in the 1990s the process of declassification of archival documents continued on such a large scale that we can already say, in effect, about the formation of an entirely new source base for research of the prewar period. The second feature of the modern historiographical situation became the breaking of the previous conceptual approaches to the study of the history of the last war, which led to the appearance in the historiography of several competing directions. The beginning of this process was the so-called “unplanned discussion” among historians, which was provoked by the release in Russia of books by Viktor A. Suvorov. Behind the first publications of his works followed an impressive number of critical papers, both purely journalistic and quite academic, with a review of the many stretches and inaccuracies contained in Icebreaker and M Day. A detailed analysis of the first results of the “unplanned discussion” can be found, for example, in the works of Mikhail I. Mel’tiukhov.

The “official” historiography under new conditions remained in the traditionalist positions, trying to distance itself as far as possible from the attempts of some researchers to rethink the history of the Second World War and approaches to its study. This school is still very influential and very productive, as evidenced through the many works of its representatives, including generalizing monographs written both by one author and by a group of authors. However, as in the preceding tradition, these studies focus almost exclusively event history, above all, of the immediate eve of the war. The prewar views of the Soviet leadership are almost entirely neglected by the “traditionalist” authors, especially as the causes of the failure of the Red Army in 1941 summer–fall campaign are understood by this school practically in the same way as in the Soviet period. Another feature of the official historiography in the post-Soviet era became its controversy with alternative historical concepts, generating among other persistent efforts to explain somehow within the formal paradigm the documentary evidence newly introduced for scientific use.

Opponents of the “traditionalist” historiography for many years are the numerous researchers (such as P. N. Bobylev, V. D. Danilov, Mel’tiukhov, Vladimir A. Nevezhin) who have tried, and succeeded, to overcome the limitations of official concepts protected by it. First of all, one should note a number of papers in which the authors have tried to re-think the events of the prewar period, possibly distinguishing themselves from the traditional paradigm and at the same time trying to avoid the obvious bias inherent to Viktor Suvorov. This approach allowed them to develop a range of new and original concepts of the eve of the war, including both rather radical ones and those which represent a kind of compromise between the traditional understanding of the history of the Second World War and the new ideas in the field. As the analysis of these studies shows, abandoning, at least in part, the limitations of the traditional conception allows to develop a variety of approaches to the study of prehistory and of the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front while remaining in positions of scientific objectivity. The problem, however, is that only the events of the last two years before the war continue to attract the main interest of researchers while the intellectual, psychological and cultural background of event history still remains largely in the shadows.

Certainly innovative in this respect is the Ph.D. thesis of Valerii A. Artsybashev dedicated to the views of the Red Army officer corps on the opening stage of a future war. One should note also a number of papers on history of Russian military doctrine and strategy as well as on the influence of the experience of local wars and military conflicts in the Soviet force development.

At the same time, such a topic, as the Soviet military-political leaderships concepts of the next war, still remains almost unexplored. Meanwhile, in many respects these views should be considered as that factor which links the individual declarations and actions into an integral system. An attempt to investigate this problem is made in the proposed research.

Source Base of the Study

In my work, I used documents from the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) and the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA), and various printed materials, including:

  • official documents;

  • social and political essays;

  • literature on military theory;

  • memoirs, diaries, and correspondence.

The collections of the RGVA contain considerable amount of documents of various central organs of the military, including the People’s Commissariat of Defense (NKO, Fond 4), the Political Directorate of the Red Army—the Main Directorate of Political Propaganda of the Red Army (PU RKKA—GUPPKA, Fond 9), and the Directorate of Combat Training of the Red Army (Fond 31983). Among the documents of the NKO should be noted first of all transcripts of extended meetings of the Revolutionary Military Council (RVS USSR) devoted to the results of combat training in the past year, as well as various analytical materials on the results of the play-wars and maneuvers, on the international situation, etc. Propaganda materials in the papers of the Political Directorate of the Red Army are also of some interest. The collection of the Directorate of Combat Training contains a significant body of documents, including materials on the subject area of play-wars and maneuvers being organized and their results.

In RGASPI, collections of personal papers of different representatives of the Soviet military-political leadership are of special interest. Thus, Marshal Kliment E. Voroshilov’s papers (Fond 74), in addition to his speeches and reports, also contain his correspondence with other military and political leaders on military and other matters, including correspondence with Stalin. In papers of Andrei A. Zhdanov (Fond 77), a variety of ideological materials can be found, and also documents of several conferences on matters of propaganda. A special attention should be paid at the transcript of the conference at the Central Committee on art cinema, on 14 May 1941, and of the conference on political agitation, which occurred 10–14 January 1941. In Stalin’s papers (Fond 558), his correspondence is of interest, and also draft decisions on military issues as well as a variety of materials prepared for his collected works but not included into the final edition of them. Specific interest is the documents of the Comintern. There you can find a variety of materials, not only ideological, but also analytical (up to reports of the external intelligence). In this paper, I used some documents from Fond 495.

Among the official documents, one should mention first of all materials of plenums of RVS USSR, of the Military Council under the People’s Commissar of Defense and of the Main Military Council, of the conference in the Central Committee for the collection of experience of the Winter War (April 1940) and of the conference of the generalship in December 1940, and a wide variety of analytic materials in papers of People’s Commissariat of Defense.

Among social and political essays, speeches and articles of senior party, government and military officials are of special interest.

Military-theoretical literature has a special place in the mass of sources, as research in the field of military science was a separate process that largely occurred on the lower levels of the military hierarchy than those considered in the proposed thesis (though the theoretical problems involved also very high military leaders, such as Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky). However, this literature in any case should not be ignored, because the results of the military-scientific research, of course, had their impact on the views of the high command (especially since some of its own representatives participated in that research), and thus, may be regarded as an indirect source, which also helps to understand the views of the supreme military and political leadership in general.

Among memoirs and diaries, one should mention first of all works of several persons who immediately belonged to the militarypolitical leadership of the USSR during a given period or were close to this circle (especially given the fact that its boundaries are not distinct by definition). This group of sources contains not only the memoirs of military leaders (Georgy K. Zhukov, Kirill A. Meretskov, Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky), but also the book by Anastas I. Mikoyan—a representative of the political elite. In addition, I use the works by some authors who held a lower position before the war because such texts often contain interesting observations from the outside. A lot of interesting information can be found in the diary of Viacheslav A. Malyshev, in thememoirs ofBoris L. Vannikov and of numerous generals—veterans of the Second World War. Vasilii G. Grabin being “just” an artillery designer, was more than once got involved in discussing on the highest levelof the questions about passing various artillery systems into service, and his book Weapons of Victory contains a lot of valuable information about strategic decision making in those years.

Contents and Conclusions

The first chapter of the thesis is devoted to the political aspects of the image of the future war, that is, above all, the political component of the Soviet military doctrine.

The first section of this chapter discusses the ideas about the political nature of future war and the aims of the Soviet Union in it. The analysis shows that over the period under review, future war was seen as an attack against the USSR by a coalition of leading capitalist powers or as a clash between the capitalist countries for a new division of the world. The Soviet Union’s involvement in the war was considered inevitable in any case.

It was officially declared that the USSR did not pursue any expansionist purposes and was only preparing to defend against external aggression. However, a more careful analysis of the sources shows that protection against aggression was understood in a very specific way and an entry of the Soviet Union into war on its own initiative, if the situation disposes to it, was considered to be quite permissible. It should be emphasized that this thesis has not been rejected in 1940–41.

Notions of the political nature of the future war were closely connected to the notions of a world revolution. The latter have undergone major changes during the period under review. If in the late 1920s—early 1930s world revolution was seen by the Soviet leadership as an inevitable reaction of the international proletariat on the very fact of the war of “imperialists” against the USSR (although the question of the extent of the labor movement in the countries—opponents of the Soviet Union in the event of war, raised doubts), then by the late 1930s—early 1940s the revolution was seen more as a result of the victorious advance of the Red Army. In addition, at the same time, Stalinist leadership made the first steps towards the inclusion of the elements of Russian nationalism into the official ideology, which allowed them in the future to carry out a major substitution of notions, identifying the “national interests” of the USSR with the interests of the world proletariat and the Soviet political and military expansion with the advancement of world revolution.

In the second section of the first chapter, I consider ideas about the list of potential enemies of the Soviet Union in the future war. In the beginning of the 1930s, these views were rather due to purely ideological reasons than to concrete historical situation, and as a consequence, virtually all capitalist countries were considered as likely opponents of the USSR, especially the great powers and the new states—the Soviet Union’s neighbors to the west (“limitrophe states”). As the main opponent, either Britain or France was considered at various times, but this did not have fundamental importance.

Throughout the 1930s, as tensions rose in the world, there was a gradual transition from the initial concepts to more specific, due to the current situation, in which the objective source of the threat of war have become the states conducting the most aggressive foreign policy—especially Japan and Nazi Germany. However, the change of ideas was too slow and eventually happened to be incomplete. According to the available sources, Germany and Japan began to be considered as the main potential enemies of the USSR only by the end of the 1930s. Moreover, the persistent distrust of Western democracies has led to the fact that even in 1940, the United Kingdom continued to be seen as a potential enemy as well.

Finally, the third section of the first chapter is devoted to ideas about the timing of the expected start of the next war. These representations throughout 1920s—1930s also underwent some changes with the growing military threat. Although the official propaganda continuously argued that the war may break out at any time, in reality, until about the middle of the 1930s, it was expected by the Soviet leadership in a rather vague term (only in the beginning of the decade, there seem to have taken place some time emergency fears of war with Japan, which launched its expansion in China). In the second half of the 1930s, war was expected in the next few years. As for the views of 1939–40, available data about this period remain highly controversial. On the one hand, there is ample evidence that the war was not expected before 1942–43. On the other hand, a number of sources point to a preparation for the fact that it could break out already in 1941.

In the second chapter of the dissertation, the strategic and military-technical components of the image of a future war are analyzed. The main interest here is in fact the military component of Soviet military doctrine. However, one also should consider the process of developing strategic and military-technical concepts of a future war in the Soviet military theory of the 1920s—1930s that constituted the background for the formation of the military doctrine.

The first section of the second chapter is devoted to the military science in the period under review. Dominant at that time was the idea of a future war as a new world war, which would surpass the scope of the war of 1914–18. It was expected that the war would be long and require economic mobilization. The entire population of the participating countries would be involved, and the development of weapons and military equipment, especially aviation, would lead to the fact that the boundary between the front and rear would be blurred. However, the controversial question remained whether a trench warfare or moving warfare would prevail in the future. Available information, including the experience of new local wars and conflicts, did not give a clear answer.

The theory of small fully mechanized armies was rejected. It was thought that a massive army would continue in the future. It was constantly emphasized nevertheless that technology in the coming war would play a crucial role, although it was of course impossible to foresee the specific capabilities and significance of such military branches as air force and armor of the next ten years. Importance attached to these combat arms in a future war, grew throughout the 1930s, as the military technology developed itself. Another important group of views that have also undergone significant changes during the 1920s—1930s, made representations about the initial period of the war. Development of military technology and the associated organizational improvement of the armed forces allowed to review the main provisions of the military art, developing a theory of “deep battle” and “deep operation.”

The second section of the chapter describes the implementation of the conclusions of the Soviet military thought in the military doctrine of the period studied. The analysis shows that the Soviet leadership accepted the main conclusions of military theory of the protracted nature of future war, further development of large armies and the high role of technology in the upcoming battles. The theory of “deep battle” and “deep operation” also gained its official acceptance (particularly, the provisions of the new “deep” tactics were assumed as a basis of the new field service manual of the Red Army of 1936). Since military theory failed to find a confident answer to the question whether the future warfare would be positional or moving, it was decided to prepare the army both for fixed-position operations and for a war of maneuver.

Of fundamental importance is the fact that, at least since the early 1930s, when the debate between the supporters of the “strategy of annihilation” and “strategy of attrition” was over, it was the conception of the “annihilation” that was assumed as a basis of the Soviet military doctrine. Moreover, this choice seems to have been due not so much to military as to ideological considerations. As a consequence, only one scenario was actually permitted for the war of the future: after the deployment of the main forces in the theater of operation, a crushing offensive begins until the complete destruction of the enemy on his territory. It is symptomatic that aggression against another state and repelling against aggression should thus be almost identical.

The emergence in the early 1930s of a new concept of the initial period of the war—the theory of “creeping into the war”—has not changed this basic view. On the contrary, the same active offensive missions were now assigned to the defensive side even in the initial period of the war as to the aggressor. In addition, an idea of an exclusive importance of offensive operations became dominant. Defense, apparently, since the 1920s, was considered only a temporary forced measure on the individual parts of the front and was often practiced on leftovers. This approach made military training and strategic planning one-sided and unbalanced with no alternative. However, this fact was not realized until the breakout of the war with Germany.

The picture of representations of the Soviet leadership about the future war will remain incomplete if we do not consider a number of more specific concepts of practical character, which played the role of a bridge between the general representation about future war and the practical activities of the Soviet leadership in the interwar period. What is the issue is assessing the level of training of the Red Army during the 1920s—1930s, and the Soviet strategic planning: military plans are actually located at the junction of the theoretical and practical aspects of military policy, they can be seen not only as a practical solution, but also as an attempt to build a concrete image of a future war, based on the current situation. These issues are discussed in the third chapter of the dissertation (the study of the practical activities of the Soviet military-political leadership, as such, was not a task of this research).

The first section of the chapter is devoted to the Soviet strategic planning in 1940–41. The task of the analysis was to trace how the basic provisions of the Soviet military doctrine were implemented in the war plans that were created in the immediate eve of the war on the Eastern Front, when the threat of a military confrontation with Germany increased virtually every month. All the draft strategic plans of this period are based on the doctrine of “annihilation” and call for an all-out assault immediately after the strategic deployment is finished. In all versions, except the last one (May 1941), the so-called “theory of a response strike” is implemented. The analysis shows that this concept should be regarded as relative because in fact, it was a synthesis of the doctrine of “annihilation” and of the theory of “creeping into war” in relation to repelling aggression, while above mentioned that the concepts of “annihilation” and “creeping into the war” in the aggregate included virtually the same actions both for the aggressor and for the defender. Since in these versions of the strategic plan it is assumed that the Red Army should forestall the enemy in the deployment of the main forces, the conclusion is that the outbreak of war on the initiative of the USSR was regarded as not only acceptable, but desirable. Otherwise it is difficult to imagine that the Soviets could manage to forestall the German deployment because Germany had a more developed rail network in a more compact area.

The draft strategic plan, drawn up in May 1941 and, apparently, still acted upon, was built on a new theory of the initial period of the war. This theory was based on the experience of the war in Europe and suggested that the fighting would begin not with operations, if only offensive, of covering armies with limited strength, but with an encroachment of the enemy territory by the main forces of the invading army covertly mobilized and deployed in peacetime. It is symptomatic that in these new circumstances, the Soviet leadership came to an only decision leaving no option: “…Not to give the initiative to German command in any case, to forestall the enemy in deployment and to attack the German army at the moment when it is in the stage of deployment and has not yet organized its front and the arms coordination.” The theory of “annihilation” clearly left no choice.

In addition, the analysis of the first three directives of the Main Military Council, issued on June 21–22, 1941, shows that, faced with the imminent threat of attack by the Germans in the next days, the Soviets turned to improvisation, rejecting earlier plans, including the plans of securing national frontiers. Thus, the latter were obviously not seen as operational plans to repel aggression. Apparently, there simply existed no plans for the war on Germany’s initiative.

The second section of the third chapter analyzes evaluation of the level of combat skills of the Red Army’s personnel from the late 1920s to May 1941. The studied sources show that throughout the period under review the skills of the troops received a low appraisal. Despite some improvements, disadvantages such as low firing proficiency, problems with exercise of command and with coordination, and lack of effective staff work were present until the beginning of the war with Germany. The low level of training of the troops also affected the Finnish campaign. The issue was discussed at the December meeting of the Red Army’s generalship in 1940. But even at the Main Military Council meeting May 8, 1941 the overall troop training level was considered unsatisfactory (the biggest complaints were over the situation in the Leningrad Military District and the Western Special Military District), and the objectives set by Order No. 30 of NKO January 21, 1941 on the military and political training for 1941 academic year—outstanding.

But the most interesting results are obtained by comparing the information in the official documents of the period studied with the data from memoirs of Soviet military leaders—participants in the war. In their writings, they also give a low score to the prewar level of training of the Red Army, but place emphasis quite differently. Almost without discussing the shortcomings listed above, memoirists focus on the most important gap in the prewar training of the troops—an inability to conduct defensive and retrograde operations, lack of skills of a mobile defense, and even of the action under the conditions of encirclement, although the latter, according to the documents of the prewar period, was worked on rather actively in those years. These disadvantages of combat and operational training, directly caused by features of Soviet military doctrine, were realized only after the war began, the problems discussed in the prewar years proved then to be less significant.

The conclusion to the thesis summarizes the overall results of the work done and the main findings of the study.

Throughout the period under review the Soviet leadership made repeated attempts to predict, at least in general terms, the nature of the impending war. As a consequence, we can talk about the existence of a complete image of a future war, characterizing it with the sociopolitical, strategic and military-technical point of view. Its central part was the Soviet military doctrine. Soviet force development and military planning during the 1920s—1930s were directly due to not only the specific historical conditions, but also to existing ideas of the future war, some of which (such as a clear choice in favor of the “strategy of annihilation” and disregard for defensive action) seem to have resulted from the settings of consciousness that existed a priori.

How adequate were all these representations? On the one hand, the reality of 1941–45 largely confirmed prewar predictions. The Soviet Union had to fight an all-out war against a coalition of European countries led by Nazi Germany. The war became clearly of maneuver, which was largely due to the massive use of new technology. The entire population of the country has been involved into the whirl of the war in one way or another. The active use of aircraft allowed for the delivery of powerful blows to the enemy deep within its territory, which led to a blurring of the boundaries between the front and rear. In accordance with the vision of a future confrontation as a long drawn out war of attrition, the Soviet leadership built its military and economic policy during the interwar period, which included activities such as the creation of a strong industrial base, including the eastern part of the country, the accumulation of strategic stocks, etc. Through these activities the Soviet Union was able to survive in the war against Germany, even in spite of the disastrous defeat of the Red Army in 1941–42.

However, the initial projections contained huge number of inaccuracies. Instead of a crushing offensive, the country had to defend against aggression, which in Moscow, had been until recently believed to be impossible, in spite of the numerous intelligence reports. Former adherence to the “strategy of annihilation” and to offensive warfare led to disastrous results, including not only the defeat of Soviet troops in 1941 summer–fall campaign, but also the failure of spring 1942, when the Soviet command again tried to switch, finally, from a strategy of attrition to a strategy of annihilation. The staff of the Red Army was not trained enough to handle the defensive and retrograde operations, which also had its consequences. Thus, the set of ideas about the future war, which was formed by June 1941, did not correspond to the full to reality of the war which began on June 22 with Germany. It should be recognized as one of the main reasons for the failure of the Red Army in 1941–42.