The Soviet Military-Political Leadership’s Ideas about the Probable Enemies of the USSR in the Future War (Late 1920s—Early 1940s) (in Russian)

Published in Voenno-istoricheskii arkhiv, no. 8 (Moscow, 2012): 178–86.


Perceptions about the list of potential enemies in a future war form one of the most important elements of the military doctrine. Their adequacy determines largely the army’s level of preparedness in the event of an actual war. We will see how the ideas of the Soviet military-political leadership about which countries were potential enemies evolved during the period lasting from the end of the 1920s, when industrialization and rapid build-up of the Red Army started, until June 1941, when a large-scale war from a purely theoretical hypothesis became a reality.

In the period under consideration, the perceptions of the Stalinist leadership of the probable military enemies of the USSR have undergone significant changes. In the late 1920s—early 1930s, they still had a predominantly abstract-theoretical character and were the result of the dominant ideology in almost a greater extent than the real situation of those years; hence, the thesis that the potential enemies of the Soviet Union are almost all the major capitalist countries, and in particular France and the United Kingdom, although in reality, the problem of the destruction of the Soviet system in Russia, even if it really was of any interest for the governments of the great powers in those years, interested them to a much lesser degree than it seemed to the Bolshevik leaders in Moscow. During the 1930s, with growing tensions in international relations, the previously described perceptions evolved. At the end of the decade, the main supposed potential adversaries of the USSR were instead Japan and Nazi Germany as the states whose governments really pursued an aggressive foreign policy and seriously considered war with the Soviet Union.

It is curious, however, that the process of refusal from the original stereotypes proceeded rather slowly, and I would say, very reluctantly: as early as in the middle of 1930s Germany and Japan were considered not so much as an independent factor in the world politics, but as an instrument in the hands of the Western democracies, particularly England and France. Moreover, this process proved to be incomplete since even in 1940 the possibility of a war with the British was conceded in Moscow, though the General Staff had already been developing strategic plans in the event of a conflict with Germany.

Apparently, this was not just ideological trick. It reflected the actual distrust in relation to the Western democracies. It was felt in the first half of 1941 as well, fueling Stalins suspicions that the information he received about Germany’s attack preparations against the Soviet Union was the fruit of British provocations. Thus, contradictory ideas of the Soviet leadership about with whom exactly the Red Army should fight in the near future, can be considered as one of the factors contributing to an underestimation of the German threat on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, and one of the reasons that the immediate preparation of an armed conflict with the Third Reich was started with a delay.

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The Soviet Military-Political Leadership’s Evaluation of the Level of Combat Skills of the Red Army’s Personnel during the Late 1920s—Early 1940s (in Russian)

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.

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Soviet Strategic Planning, August 1940 – June 1941: the ‘Strategy of Annihilation’ in Practice (in Russian)

Theses of a report made on 21 April 2010 at the conference “The USSR, its Allies and Adversaries in World War II” at the Russian State University for the Humanities. Published in the proceedings of the conference: M. M. Mints, “Sovetskoe strategicheskoe planirovanie, avgust 1940 – iiun’ 1941 g.: ‘strategiia sokrusheniia’ v deistvii”, SSSR, ego soiuzniki i protivniki vo Vtoroi mirovoi voine: Politicheskii diskurs, istoriograficheskie diskussii, problemy prepodavaniia: Materialy Mezhdunarodnoi nauchno-prakticheskoi konferentsii, priurochennoi k 65-letiiu Pobedy v Velikoi Otechestvennoi voine 1941–1945 gg., 21–22 aprelia 2010 g. (Moscow, 2010), 242–46. The presentation for the report (Microsoft PowerPoint, 3.2 Mb). Continue reading ‘Soviet Strategic Planning, August 1940 – June 1941: the ‘Strategy of Annihilation’ in Practice (in Russian)’ »

“Strategy of annihilation”: strategic and military technical conceptions of the future war in the structure of the Soviet military doctrine in the 1930s—early 1940s (in Russian)

Published in Rossiiskaia istoriia, no. 3 (Moscow, 2010): 3–18. The full text of the article (PDF, in Russian).


The circumstances of the beginning of the war on the Eastern Front of 1941–45 are still the subject of close attention mostly by Russian researchers, but also by other researchers as well. Modern historiography, unfortunately, is still dominated by papers concerned with only a relatively short period immediately preceding the war (1939–41). Apparently, the effects of the heated debate of the 1990s remain, namely those of the “unplanned discussion” around the books of Victor A. Suvorov. From the beginning, the main subject of this discussion was his key idea that in 1941, the Soviet Union was preparing for an attack on Germany.

Meanwhile, a better understanding of the history and the prehistory of the war on the Eastern Front is only possible if we consider these issues in a broader context that includes not only the events themselves, but also their intellectual, cultural and psychological background. The USSR began to prepare for future confrontation with “world imperialism” well before the Second World War. The scale of the war with Germany, a war which broke out in June 1941, was in keeping with the expectations of those years; thus the war happened to be a kind of test for the Soviet state and its armed forces after the work done during the interwar period. Therefore, the study of measures to improve the armed forces and to prepare for the next war, measures in effect in our country in the 1920s—1930s, is no less important than the study of the events of 1939–41. Of equal importance is the study of ideas and concepts that underlie the most important political and strategic decisions made during this period.

Active research of such a problem as the Soviet leadership’s and their military elite’s ideas of the next war in 1929–41, that is, during the first Five-Year plans, is relatively recent and is, to a certain extent, still in the initial stage. Meanwhile, the value of the issue cannot be underestimated, because it is the perceptions of future war, combined with the current situation, that determine the direction and content of the preparations for the upcoming battle. Man’s actions depend not so much on the objective conditions as such, but on his understanding of these conditions, and, as the experience (including the experience of the Second World War) demonstrates, the perception of the circumstances may diverge from reality.

It is therefore important to find out how the Soviet leaders saw the future war in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s during a large-scale reconstruction of the armed forces. This would allow us to create a really coherent picture of many discrete events, to clarify the logic of decisions being made, and ultimately to understand in greater depth the origins of the Red Army’s defeats during summer and autumn 1941.

In fact, what is at issue is the military doctrine of the Soviet leadership, a doctrine which formed during the interwar period, but was never issued in an official document. Of additional interest are other, more practical, ideas based on the military doctrine such as assessing the level of training of the armed forces’ personnel as well as estimates of the army’s technical equipment as compared with that of the armies of potential enemies, and with the anticipated requirements of the future large-scale war. Especially interesting subjects for study are the materials of strategic planning in peacetime; in a sense, they are an attempt to draw a more concrete and detailed image of the coming war.

Within the structure of military doctrine, it has traditionally been assumed that this would specify the political component and the actual military component (in the former Soviet terminology—military-technical). This article deals just with the last one that contains ideas about how to wage future war and about the use of various types of weapons and military equipment, as well as with practical conclusions made on the basis of these ideas.


Throughout the interwar period the dominant view remained, that the impending war would be a protracted war, which would require general mobilization and complete reconstruction of the whole of the country on a war rhythm. The experience of the First World War played its role, together with the continued rapid development of military technology. The same fixed idea concerned the extremely important role of technical arms in a future war. The concept of small, super-mechanized armies was not widespread, and the predominant belief was that during the forthcoming technological era, a massive army would remain.

All of these ideas were worked out by military theoreticians, and were accepted by military and political leaders as part of the military doctrine. A consensus on the question of whether the future warfare would be positional or moving was not developed. Observations on the further improvement of weapons and analysis of the experiences of new wars and conflicts happened not to be enough to determine with reasonable certainty which of these trends was predominant. As a result, a compromise solution was chosen that the Army must be prepared both for a war of maneuver, and to act in conditions of trench warfare.

Major changes during the interwar period occurred in fact only within those representations, the content of which was mostly determined by empirical experience. Thus, with the development of military technology, greater importance was attached to armored troops and air forces in a future war. If at the end of the 1920s, tanks were considered only as a powerful new tool to support the infantry, in 1930s, there appeared self-contained armored units, which in turn helped to modernize radically the tactics and operational art, developing a theory of “deep battle” and “deep operations.”

However, in understanding the role of technology in modern warfare the Soviet leadership was still rather conservative. Despite the constant talk about the fact that the Cavalry, given modern conditions, was steadily losing its value, the Soviet Union continued to maintain numerous Cavalry units, even in the European part of the country.

Another example of ideas arising from concrete experiences were the concepts of the opening stage of war, ideas which underwent a radical change for the first time in the early 1930s, and then, belatedly, in 1939–41.

It is important, however, to note that the basis for the Soviet military doctrine in the interwar period was the theory of “annihilation:” that is, of permanent active operations in order to defeat the enemy as soon as possible. The strategy of “attrition,” which aimed to prolong the war and exhaust the enemy without inflicting crushing blows at the front, was rejected. Moreover, chronic underestimation of the role of defense in modern warfare was typical of the official strategic vision of future war. It is significant that, in the Soviet sense of the war in those years, aggression and repulsion should have been developed almost equally (the concept of a “response strike”—mobilization and deployment of the main body under the protection of active and, if possible, offensive operations by covering forces, then transition to a crushing offensive).

In spring 1941 the idea of a sudden invasion of the main forces as the most likely way to start the war finally prevailed over the old theory of “creeping into the war,” which led to the rejection of the doctrine of “response strike,” but not of the concept of “annihilation” as such. Apparently, this explains the fact that the last known at the moment draft strategic plan for war with Germany (developed in May 1941), suggests, again, not a strategic defense, but a surprise attack on the Wehrmacht by the Red Army’s main forces. Adopted military doctrine simply did not allow for other options.

Apparently, the theory of “annihilation” was adopted in the USSR, a priori, and no specific realities of the existing situation could persuade the Soviets to abandon the theory. This approach made military training and strategic planning one-sided and unbalanced with no alternative. However, this fact was never realized. As a consequence, in a surprise German attack, Soviet leaders, forced to improvise, still operated under the doctrine of the prewar period, giving the troops the order to counterattack (Main Military Council Directive No. 3, 22 June 1941). In this new situation, the decision led to a disaster.

“If the war is tomorrow”: Soviet military-political leadership’s ideas about the political character of the future war (late 1920s—1941) (in Russian)

Published in Klio, no. 1 (St. Petersburg, 2008): 99–105.


The study of themes such as the views of the military-political leadership of the USSR about the future war in the 1920s to the 1930s, is only now beginning. Until recently researchers have given almost no special attention to an intellectual and mental background of the events of the specified period. Meanwhile, for the understanding of our past, including the history and prehistory of the war on the Eastern Front in 1941–1945, studying the prewar views is essential.

Wars do not break out suddenly. Throughout human history, wars have often been the conclusion of long and complex processes including force development, the content and direction of which is determined by the views of how and to what end these forces would be used. It is important to note that a complex of such ideas, which can be regarded as a prognostic image of the future war, exists in any country that has its own army, even if it has no plans in the foreseeable future to conduct any particular war with any of its neighbors (otherwise an army is simply not needed). These ideas make a foundation for concrete decisions on different questions of force development and of preparation for future wars. Accordingly, the outcome of a war largely depends on how its realities relate to the prewar predictions.

The war between the USSR and Germany is no exception. The Soviet Union began to prepare for the coming battle with “world imperialism” well before the outbreak of World War II. Therefore, the study of views of the future war that existed in the prewar years in the Soviet military and political leadership, would help scholars to link the individual assessments, projects and solutions into a coherent picture, to understand more deeply the logic of the Soviet leadership’s actions on the eve of the Second World War and after it began, which, in its turn, is a prerequisite for a more objective assessment of the causes of the Red Army’s defeats in 1941–1942.

The present article is devoted to one of the key components of the image of a future war: the nature of its political character, including the Soviet Union’s aims therein, as well as the list of potential enemies. Virtually, it is these ideas that determine the political aims of the future war, and this is of great importance in development of the military doctrine and strategy.

At the beginning of the period being studied, the views of the military and political leadership of the USSR on the political nature of future war and the list of potential opponents were rather general and abstract, and were due to purely ideological reasons, perhaps even to a greater extent than the real situation. However, by early 1941 there was a gradual shift from general to more specific concepts. Thus, the older idea of a future war as a repulsion of aggression from a coalition of capitalist states (alternatively—as an involvement or even a voluntary intervention of the Soviet Union into the war between the capitalist countries) was replaced by the idea that a drastic battle with Nazi Germany was inevitable, despite the non-aggression pact.

In addition, there was a change in perceptions about world revolution: if earlier it seemed to be an inevitable reaction of the international proletariat to the outbreak of a large-scale war, especially against the Soviet Union, its implementation was now thought likely to be a result of a smashing offensive of the Red Army. It should also be noted that the possibility of the USSR’s entry into the war on its own initiative was not excluded throughout the period. This idea continued to exist in the first half of 1941 as well. At the same time the question of whether a political decision to attack Germany was actually made, should appear as incorrect a priori because such a decision could be, by definition, only if the troops were ordered to assume the offensive. Until the completion of the strategic deployment, such an order could not be given.

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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.