The Allied war effort in WW2 was the area where Soviet propaganda always observed factual accuracy. However, it was always framed as an auxiliary chapter, incomparable to the role of the USSR. Information about the lend-lease was patchy, and presented in such a way where only specialists could assess its significance.
The guidelines for the Soviet propaganda concerning the Allies and their contribution to the victory in WWII were rather unchanged throughout the whole post-war history:
The outcome of the war was decided by the USSR, with some help from the Allies. Their fear of Hitler made them overcome their previous anti-Sovietism. (But not for long).
The whole thing was called The Great Patriotic War 1941–1945. WWII before that was a separate war between Germany and the Capitalist France and Great Britain who unsuccessfully had tried to direct the German aggression toward the USSR. The Western front was opened in Bretagne in 1944, not in France 1939.
There was some delivery of weapons, equipment and food, on a commercial basis, called lend-lease. Many British and American men died transporting it over the Atlantic. We appreciate their sacrifice.
Below, you see a typical Soviet propaganda poster about the Allied effort in WWII at the bottom of my posting. The Soviet soldier takes the central, most prominent place, the American and British are sort of escorting him to battle, or trying to cover behind his back. No sign of anything suggesting the lend-lease deliveries.
The lend-lease itself was not a secret. But it was largely reduced to footnotes and short secondary chapters in the history books. The whole scale of it, especially the food component of the help, became known to the public first in the late 1980s, right before the USSR collapsed.
If my memory serves me right, my dad mentioned once or twice Soviet posters in English that were made in the USSR celebrating the British military transports to Arkhangelsk. They were intended for display in places visited during the war by the Allied diplomats and military. So far, I haven’t seen any of them.
Picture: “The Red Army, together with the armies of our allies will break the back of the Fascist beast (Iosif Stalin)“.
There were three basic factors that brought down the USSR:
The system exhausted sources for the economic growth. From the late 1970s onward, the economic inputs in the Soviet Union started to surpass the economic outputs. With the drop in oil prices in the 1980s, we ran out of reserves to compensate for the inefficiencies inherent to our centrally-planned model (see the graph below).
Sharp rise of ethnic nationalism, starting with the Jeltoqsan riots in 1986.
Military setbacks amid the dramatic escalation of arms race: the Afghan war, Operation Mole Cricket 19, the impossibility to match the increasing technology gap in the latest military technologies. This created an enormous pressure to close the gap, which made the top elite start casting around for new approaches. That’s how the Perestroika and Glasnost weren’t shot down right from the outset.
Hence the massive scaling-down, or shutting down the production lines altogether. Even if the industrial plant knew how to convert its military capacity into civil production, the process of finding new markets, revising the product lineup and fine-tuning the logistics took several years. Many went bankrupt in the process.
In the dramatic dip in the Russian GDP in the 1990s, what you see the is military production shutting down. It was rippling throughout all their logistical chain with all the infrastructure, management structures and maintenance collapsing along with it. Conversely, the rebound that the survivors experienced during the early Putinist era, happened when they regained their footing when extraction sector took up the slack on the back of rising commodity prices. This rippled into the service and retail sectors, as well as some investments pumped up by the state into the infrastructure and the military.
Detractors of President Putin sometimes refer to his showroom weapons, CGI-generated missile launches and blistering rhetorics as empty threats. This is misguiding. Threats from President Putin have layers of meaning beneath them.
In effect, “empty threats” as a term bunches together a lot of totally different power moves on the part of Putin, each appropriate only under a certain set of circumstances. If you mix them up, you totally misread what is happening and most likely make wrong conclusions.
To start with, President Putin is an alumnus of a highly professional special service and spy agency called KGB. This is a line of business where “threats”, if used unwisely, can easily ruin your career or get you killed. When Putin comes with threats, they are very well calculated. Therefore, they are never empty. There’s always something behind them that you can dismiss or accept, but should never ignore.
“He who offends us, won’t live three days”
This was one of Putin’s memes during his early presidency. At the time, most of what happened in the country was outside his control. Oligarchs ran their game over his head, the state functionaries paid little attention to his orders, and the local elites badmouthed the Kremlin at every occasion. This was a concise political declaration from the President: “A challenge to my power may be lethal for you, even if you are not a Chechen.”
The Russian military might, apart from the nuclear capability, is only a shade of what it was during the Soviet era. Even the newly-acquired oil wealth invested in Putin’s re-organization of the army, could not rectify much. Recently, it caused much hilarity in Russia when someone calculated that the combined tonnage of the oligarchs’ yachts has surpassed the one of Russia’s ocean-going Navy. This mixes poorly with the self-assured stance President Putin is taking as the world champion of anti-liberal resistance. Hence, the need for a few power moves.
Doomsday weapon. The chances that we really have the weapon are impossible to assess. But the certain fact that we possess a nuclear capability to cause the US unacceptable damage gives this ghost weapon much more credibility than if it came from, say, Zimbabwe.
Future weapon. Announcements that in a few years’ time, Russia will deploy a certain system, unmatched by anyone else.
Showroom weapon. Kind of weapons that exist as a proof of concept. Also, the ones that we technologically can manufacture, but which will bankrupt us if we launch their serial production.
Soft-spoken messages of strength rarely make an impact in Russian politics. Stalin, who was famously soft-voiced, slow and slurred in his speech, in order to be recognized as a great orator and man of outstanding wisdom, had first to destroy both the “left” and “right” opposition in the Party. The most impactful communicators in our history, like Lenin, Khrushchev and Yeltsin, talked with their fists and palms as much as their mouths. Putin’s stature and voice are nor made for a show of physical might, so he needs to compensate for it by tough talk.
Ukraine is a good example of what once was considered by the West as empty threats and goofy talk on the part of Vladimir Putin. He repeatedly shot warning shots to the US and Germans that he is willing to go pretty far in order to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western fold. The West ignored it every time—until it was too late.
If you are a man of power and don’t throw tantrums from time to time—preferably with torrents of obscenities—this is seen by many as a sign of weakness. The life of a Russian luminary is full of constant stress. Not venting from time to time the ton of frustrations you’re carrying around day after day on those weaker than you is unnatural and suspicious. People start asking themselves: maybe deep down inside, you’re weaker than them.
Below, a photo of the famous Tzar Cannon in the Kremlin. It’s a 5.3 m long barrel with 0.89m caliber . When I worked as a guide at the 1980 Olympics, I described it not much unlike President Putin presents nowadays new items of in Russia’s weapon arsenals: “a piece of art”, “a gem of metalworking”, “nothing comparable anywhere in the world”. However, the cannon was never used in battle—and experts say, for a good reason: the first shot would have exploded the barrel and killed the crew. Was this an “empty threat”? Definitely not. This was an excellent tool in the hands of skilled diplomats, politicians and propagandists.
There are three major reasons for the demise of the USSR.
The demise of the USSR was provoked by a confluence of several factors. The major ones were:
Exhausted sources for the economic growth. From the late 1970s onwards, the economic inputs in the Soviet Union started to surpass the economic outputs. With the drop in oil prices in the 1980s, we ran out of reserves to compensate for the inefficiencies inherent to our centrally-planned model (see the graph below).
After the war, despite all the efforts, the USSR never managed to regain this level of strategic advantage over the West.
As a result of WW2, the Soviet Union lost the military supremacy we had built up on the eve of the war against Germany:
After the war, despite all the efforts, we have never since managed to regain this level of strategic advantage over the West.
As a result of WW2, the traditional American isolationism ended. The US took global leadership in preserving the new world order. The old Leninist strategy of “let them fight each other for us to pick the spoils” would no longer work. The USSR faced NATO, a global coalition of democratic countries possessing an economic and military muscle that we, in the long run, could not match. It was now the turn for our new Chinese friends to push for a nuclear US vs. USSR showdown in the hope of picking up the spoils in the after-war rubble.
History gave the USSR no new chance of running over Western Europe. Eventually, the Cold War bankrupted us.