Soviet WW2 propaganda and the Allies’ war effort

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)“.

Single mothers in the USSR

The concept of Real Socialism requires an ability on the part of the State to take care of single mothers. Trials and tribulations of revolutionary wars lead to huge attrition of men. The Communist cause needs new generations of strong, healthy warriors, and Soviet women had to step in, in a well-organized fashion.

During WW2, an entire generation of young men was killed or starved to death. In the wake of the Second World War,the USSR became a nation of single mothers.

Feminization of society

Even when new generations of men reached maturity, the profound trauma WW2 had caused would persist for decades to come. Men found themselves too spoiled for choice— and this was greatly amplified by the economic and political emasculation that Real Socialism dealt to Soviet males.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many men, pampered by single mothers, simply found it too troublesome to fit the role of family providers. The abortion rate soared, alcoholism went rampant, divorces became the new norm. Toward the end of the Soviet rule, weak, irresponsible men—contrasted with strong-willed but unhappy women—became the staple of Soviet storytelling in books and movies. (E.g. take a look at this Soviet movie classics: Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, or Business Romance)

Safety net

On the other side, the concept of Real Socialism required a solid semi-permanent militarization of society in order to make it able to take a shock from massive losses of men during revolutionary wars. This involved a universal safety net for women. The Soviet rule needed to take care of mothers and their children so that the nation would get new numerous and healthy generations of men for the next wave of revolutionary wars.

Cradle to grave

  • Jobs for all
  • Food rations for all in employment and/or food stations at workplaces
  • Shelter provided by the employer, even if this often meant a corner in a barrack or a room in a shared apartment
  • Universal education and healthcare
  • Maternity protection and daycare for kids
  • Organization of off-school activities for children while single mothers were at work or taking care of their daily chores

The level of all this was rather basic, often primitive. But for many formerly peasant women who experienced the devastation and poverty of several wars, famines, lawlessness and robberies by the Soviet state, this was a marked improvement in living conditions.


Below, a painting “Mommy’s helpers“, by Vladimir Khodyrev, from 1955. WW2 annihilated millions of Soviet men. Adult males are often absent from family scenes in the art of this period.

Here, the older sister is bossing around her little brother, who is tasked with washing the floor. The tired mother is relieved someone can take some burden off her shoulders at home. The post-war years marked the start of three decades of voiceless, passive, alcoholized men who proliferated during the last period of Soviet rule. (This is also reflected in porn tastes of Russian men. The specialty of modern-day Russia-produced porn are scenes where a young, passive male is aggressively courted by a decisive older female.)

Picture: “Mommy’s helpers”, by Vladimir Khodyrev (1955).

Two waves of the Soviet industrialization

Industrialization of the USSR during Stalin’s rule was one of the most astonishing chapters of the 20th century. However, it’s nature seems to be poorly understood.

Industrialization of the USSR happened at a breakneck speed, and created a world-class military-industrial complex. Thanks to the Cold War and arms race, it received a lot of hype. The scale of it made the entire world both envious and wary of the enormous potential the Communists managed to mobilize.

Yet, surprisingly few are aware of how it came about.

Official version

Soviet propaganda made it look like the history of ancient Egypt. There was a desert, and the river of Nile flowing through it—and then a lot of people came and erected the Sphinx, the pyramids, the whole Monty, and left everyone in awe and amazement. Same in the USSR: the Party mobilized workers and peasants, and together they created an industrial giant in a way that no Capitalist power was able to match. How? It was the creative energy of the entire Soviet people and an unparalleled superiority of the Communist rule.

The fact is, our industrialization came in two waves. Both of them involved a lot of imported technology.

First wave: 1929–1941

On May 8, 1929, the Soviet government contracted the “architect of Detroit” Albert Kahn to design the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, the first tractor plant in the USSR. It was the first in a series of contracts that secured delivery and launching of some 1,500 industrial and power plants. The payments were funded through sale of grain confiscated from collectivized peasants, requisition of the church property, sale of art objects and price arbitrage on jewelry and gold Soviet citizens were handing to the government in exchange for food in the Torgsin shops.

For management of the technology import, a government body
was established in Moscow with wide authority and priority in funding. It was called Gosproektstroi. It employed Albert Kahn’s younger brother, Moritz Kahn, who trained over 4,000 Soviet architects and engineers and designed 521 plants and factories under the First Five-Year Plan.

Global assistance

In the early 1930s, several thousand American engineers, hundreds of thousands of workers in the US, and as many (at least) Gulag prisoners built some 1,500 plants and power stations that formed the backbone of the Soviet military-industrial complex that awesomely did work before, during and after WWII.

The German part of the industrialization effort was managed by Demag through their local branch ЦБТМ. Italian bit by Fiat/RIV.

If it were not for Albert Kahn Inc., Ford, Cooper Engineering Co, Siemens, Demag, Austin Inc. and other American and German companies, the victory of Allies and the entire Cold War afterwards would have not been possible.

Country-sized shop floor

When the Nazis struck in June 1941, after the first few months they were stunned by the military might of the USSR. In a broadcast on October 3, 1941, Hitler declared that the occupied Soviet territories appeared to be “a single armaments factory”. Remember, Stalin managed to relocate to the east 2,600 industrial plants and 10 million workers before the Nazis arrived. In other words, Hitler only spoke about what was left.

Second Wave: 1945–1953

After the end of WWII, the Soviet union confiscated and moved to the Soviet territory 5,500 plants from Germany and Japan-occupied part of China and Korea, as well as an unknown amount of single pieces of equipment and plants owned by Germans and Japan across the entire occupied area. The remaining British and Romanian oil equipment from the Ploiești oil fields found their way to our territory, too.

The East German authorities estimated the total value of war reparations paid to the USSR after WW2 at $16 billion, or about $170 billion in today’s currency, which was about half of the East German GDP at the end of the 1940s. The number doesn’t seem to include anything confiscated before the Potsdam conference in June 1945 where the matter of war reparations was settled. Neither the “grassroot reparations” by the Soviet troops, taking home with them the loot from private homes, as well as art objects confiscated during the first months of Soviet occupation, before a systematic itemizing of collections was put in place.

Khrushchev’s luck

Stalin didn’t get the entire credit for this, as most of its effect came to force first after his death in 1953, during the reign of Khrushchev. The second wave of industrialization carried the USSR until the discovery of oil in West Siberia, which kept the Soviet project floating until the mid-1980s.

The effect of both waves of Industrialization are clearly visible on the graph below. The red one shows the official Soviet statistics, gray one is stats revised by the Higher School of Economics.

Growth in industrial output in Russian Empire and the USSR in 1913-1953
Graph: Growth in industrial output in Russian Empire and the USSR in 1913-1953.

Six visuals that illustrate Russia’s history

Outstanding pictures illustrate the key points of Russia’s civilization

Origins

Trade in the land of East Slavs by Sergey Ivanov
Picture: “Trade in the land of East Slavs”, by Sergey Ivanov. 1909. The era’s main commodity, slaves, is given the center stage.

Empire

  • During the XVIII century, Russia became transformed into the largest continuous land empire through a massive infusion of Western technologies and German administrative talent. In the painting below, Russia’s coming imperial destiny is represented by the kid in European clothes to the right, the Prussia-style troops in the background and jesters challenging the natives with their Western-style entertainment. Old Slav and Turkic aristocracy to the right, along with Ivan V in the center, are not amused, while Peter the Great in his practical Russian kaftan is boisterous and excited. Peter’s German entourage are skeptically contemplating the scene.
Arrival of the Tzars Peter I and Ivan V for entertainment in Semenovo by Ilya Repin
Picture: Arrival of the Tzars Peter I and Ivan V for entertainment in Semenovo”, by Ilya Repin.

Power as a national idea

  • The supreme national idea of Russia is power, embodied in the great Russian state (derzháva). Everything in our history is pinned on it. As a Russian subject, your worth is determined by how much you contribute to the wealth, might, and glory of our state, because it is the sole organizing force on the frozen, wind-blown, endless expanses of Eurasian plains. In the picture below, the clothing is Mediterranean, but the story is essentially Russian, archetypal for our civilization, where countless bright talents have been weighed and measured by servants of our Empire—and found wanting, or worse.
Picture: What is the truth? Christ and Pilate”, by Nikolai Ge.

Revolutions and wars

  • The Black Square”, by Kazimir Malevich. The year is 1913, but the painter already senses how the Great War is going soon to crack open in Russia a fathomless wellspring of human evil, that would reverberate through the rest of the century by unimaginable atrocities across half the world.
The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich.
The Black Square”, by Kazimir Malevich.

Commoners

  • Heroes of the First Five-Year Plan”, by Alexander Deineka. Rugged workers of mixed Soviet ethnicities walk through something reminding of the Pearly Gates. Their steps are weightless, faces overwhelmed, their path floodlit by a heavenly brilliance and blessed by the pagan goddess of victory. Millions of souls were spent in the XX century for the sake of the greatest project of social re-engineering, the Communist revolution.
Heroes of the First Five-Year Plan by Alexander Deineka
Painting: Heroes of the First Five-Year Plan”, by Alexander Deineka.

War

  • The victory over Nazi Germany was the pinnacle of Russian history, an epic saga of self-sacrifice and human suffering. Like much else in our history, the fruits of the victory were appropriated by people who neither suffered or sacrificed anything.
Soviet infantryman on the march WWII
Picture: Soviet infantryman on the march, WWII.”

How did Soviet propaganda portray the Allied powers during WW2?

During WW2, Allies were mentioned by propaganda for the general populace in a very measured way. No one should think that our victory depended on anything but our own war effort. Beside, no one knew how to explain why Western Imperialists were helping the Soviet rulers.

During WW2, the Soviet propaganda inside the country almost never mentioned the aid delivered by the Western Allies. The general message was that the US, like the rest of anti-Fascist humankind was on our side. (The word natsísty, “Nazis” had at the time some Western flavor and was rarely used).

Aware of the Allies

Occasional reports told how American workers and “common people of good will” watched with fascination the struggle of the Soviet Union. These American people firmly required of the ruling classes in the West—the attribute “Capitalist” was usually omitted for the occasion—to support the USSR. Faced with such a firmness, the rulers could not help but heed. Posters showing the American support limited imagery to the Stars and Stripes, with no faces, weapons or lend-lease items.

Non-subject

For common Soviets, lend-lease as a program of war help was a non-subject. They knew it was some kind of assistance coming from abroad, but the scale and value of it had never been widely advertised.

My father told me they had perceived the American shoes, spam, tanks and trucks just like an act of nature—like the Sun that breaks through the clouds, for you to dry your soggy uniforms and boots a little bit. You don’t talk about it much, you pull off your things and hang them out in the sunshine.

Unsafe topic

Canned beans and especially spam were well known among fighting troops, as were American boots. But the food and equipment that was to be distributed among troops, were stripped from American signage right after offloading in Soviet ports as much as possible. Generally, talking about America was not a very safe topic. Someone could be listening. Before the war, a lot of people worked with Americans and Germans who built our industries and infrastructure. Those who appreciated their work and their machines publicly were arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda in the form of “groveling” before Capitalism and denigrating the Soviet equipment and management.

War machines

The perception was probably different among the troops who were using a lot of American battle equipment, e.g. in the air force and tank forces. (American Shermans played a major role in taking Berlin, for example).

America came up much more often when political commissars talked to soldiers and officers about the absence the Allied troops fighting Germans in the West. The fact of Britain fighting the Nazis from the beginning was ignored. “Where is that frigging Second Front already?” was the recurring complaint that met much understanding among soldiers and civilians. Commissars used to present the Allies as cynical players who waited for us to bleed ourselves dry fighting the Nazis, just to jump in at very end, and grab the spoils of victory.

Visuals

Toward the end of 1944, posters started to consistently show anonymized figures of Western soldiers, like on the poster below.

Lets finish the beast in its lair
Soviet poster: “Let’s finish the beast in its lair!”

From the spring ’45 until the capitulation of Japan, there were even some posters showing smiling faces of the Allies. Newspapers also printed photos with happy faces of Brits and Americans socializing with our troops.

The friendship of the three nations guarantees an unbreakable peace
Soviet poster: “The friendship of the three nations guarantees an unbreakable peace!”

Number One

At all times, the narrative consistently stressed the leading role of the USSR as a conqueror of Nazism. The US and Britain were marginal players, involved in auxiliary battles, offering some vague, undefined help. On the poster below from before the Stalingrad battle, only the Soviet soldier is facing Hitler to deal him a devastating blow. The American and the Brit seem to be too scared to look Hitler in the face and rather look to the Soviet man for guidance and leadership.

Soviet poster Concerted strike
Soviet poster: “Concerted strike!”

Cold war

During the Cold War, the references to the Allied effort became fewer and more distanced. Read more about it here.

When I went to school, the lend-lease was usually mentioned in one sentence, or two as an example of the role of our Western allies in WW2. No statistics that could give an idea of the volume of help were given, apart from the number of shipments and sometimes the total value of help in US dollars. The bravery of British sailors dispatching the help was given more place. The demise of Convoy PQ17, along with the D-Day, became one of the most known episodes among our public.

Soviet Union’s recovery after WW2

Economy of the USSR quickly recovered from WW2, thanks to the war reparations from Europe and Japan. Demography, however, was damaged irreparably.

The Soviet economy recovered from WW2 amazingly quickly. The 1940 level of GDP has surpassed already by 1950, thanks to the addition of at least 5,500 industrial and power plants disassembled in Germany and the Chinese Manchuria and moved to the USSR.

However, the Russian nation has not recovered from WW2 as yet.

  • The demographic pyramid in our country still shows three pronounced dents, each from the catastrophic loss of at least 20 million people during the war. It takes at least two more generations for us to completely smooth over this gap.
  • Ideologically, the victory over the Nazis remains, as per today, the pinnacle of Russian civilization. Along with the Soviet successes in the space race in the 1960s, our WWII triumph determines the continuity from the Czarist empire through the Communist rule toward the modern Capitalist Russia.

How well-documented was WW2 in the Soviet Union?

Documentation of WW2 in the Soviet Union was subject to strict requirement of the official narrative. Private documents were scarce and keeping them often risky

Documentation of WW2 in the Soviet Union was heavily tilted by the official narrative.

Secrecy

The USSR was a security-obssessed power. Especially during Stalin’s era, it strived to be a hell for spies, saboteurs and turncoats. And it was indeed.

  • It was forbidden to the troops to keep diaries (proof link in Russian). Some did it surreptitiously, at their peril. If you were in the Red Army, and hated your officer, and knew where he keeps his diary book, all you needed was a short talk to a Smersh operative, and you wouldn’t see the sucker anymore.
  • Only authorized propaganda personnel carrying special permits were allowed to have photo cameras. If you happened to snatch a camera off a dead German, you were required to hand it over to the special trophy storage. Were you caught with a camera in your possession, good luck proving to the Smersh guys you are not a spy.
  • All correspondence to and from the army was vetted.
  • You come home alive from the war, or you are in transit entertaining fellow officers with true stories from the battlefront, and start sharing shocking details that show the Red Army in an unflattering light—you always have the harsh Stalin’s sentences for anti-Soviet activity hanging over you.

All this explains, why on the WWII forums, even the most patriotic Russians often operate with quotes from German war memoirs, Nazi archives and German photos. We often have too few own data, and those available were heavily sanitized during the war and after it.

Which leads us to the following point.

Strict narrative

The Soviet Communists were the most consummate ideologists of all times, probably beating to that title even the Catholic church. Bolsheviks knew not only how to lie in the most majestic, inspiring ways. They also knew that ideology should never stand in the way of expediency. That required the sublime art of covering their actions in plain sight. Stalin and his people simply excelled at this.

Disguise

Contrary to Nazis, Bolsheviks, starting with Stalin, made a good job of disguising their true intentions, when they knew enemies could use it against them. No advertising for lebensraum, or unsubstantiated hate speech. No Trotskyists “permanent revolutions” and suchlike. The same went for documentation.

Suffice to say, in my time in the Soviet propaganda, we denied the existence of the secret protocols to the ’39 Soviet-German pact to the very end. The Soviet archives preceding WWII show great holes for the details of how the Red Army and the Soviet leadership were preparing for the oncoming war. Everything that’s left points in the direction of “stupid Stalin having too much faith in Hitler’s honesty”.

Why?

Cornerstone of identity

The victory in WWII has been the cornerstone of our national identitly ever since 1945. No Russian ruler, and very few Russian opinion leaders, or historians—with a short exception before and after the collapse of Communism—have shown any desire to dig deep into history, for the fear of disrupting the narrative of our greatness. We don’t even know the exact number of our dead during the war.

We are going to live with some huge white spots, and a myriad of tiny ones over the history of Soviet WW2 for some time, maybe forever. And you know what—the nation is perfectly fine with it.

Picture: Anyone with a camera in their possession in the Red Army needed such an ID. Their owners were stars among the troops: they could fix you a mugshot to send home—maybe, the last one, before you die in the next attack, or from an incoming mortar shell.

id cameraman USSR ww2
Photo: a wartime ID of a cameraman Ibragimov issued by the Political Administration of South-Western Front

What were the main inadequacies of the early-war Red Army during Barbarossa?

What were the main inadequacies of Red Army during Barbarossa?

The list of blunders, shortcomings and stupidities on the part of the Red Army commanders in 1941 is endless. An overarching one, however, thrones on top it.

The USSR was awfully unprepared for a defensive war.

Stalin, like Hitler, was preparing for a short war, and an offensive one. There was no concept of the operation in depth. Soviet generals were indoctrinated in rigid insistence on frontier defense. An invader would be met on the border and repulsed by an immediate counter-offensive, then the war must be carried onto enemy territory.

This was reinforced by deeply ingrained thinking in terms of revolutionary waves that persisted from the end of the Civil war until Stalin’s death. Stalin himself was the political commissar for the first of these, in 1919–1920. With this in recent memory, he designed the Soviet armament pattern, long before Hitler came to power.

The Soviet military might before WWII aimed at an indefinite mass of external Capitalist enemies, without deeper situational awareness. This proliferated itself throughout the whole military-industrial complex. This lack of focus was exacerbated by Stalin’s unending maneuvering between Germany, Poland and France/England before 1939.

As a result, in 1941, the giant machine built for future revolutionary wars showed itself not ready for war in the present.

Was WW2 the last time when US, UK, and USSR all worked together?

Was WW2 the last time when US, UK, and USSR all worked together?

No. The last time they worked together was in 1991, up to the final hours of the USSR, on moving the Soviet atomic weapon to the Russian territory. There were many Soviet warheads stationed during the Cold war in the Central and Eastern Europe, including the non-Russian Soviet republics. The new national and ethnic elites could get an idea of retaining some of these weapons—just in case, or to settle some territorial issues.

The NATO countries wanted to prevent that, and established an early cooperation arrangement with the Soviet government. This also included joint planning between the militaries, which was unprecedented since WWII.

When the USSR was dissolved in December 1991, the new Russian government of President Yeltsin immediately took over that cooperation.

What are all the historical incidents that the victors didn’t want the world to know?

What are all the historical incidents that the victors didn’t want the world to know?

The role of Stalin in the start of WW2.

The decisive contribution of the USSR in the victory over Nazism, and the strategic need to keep Germany down in the post-war Europe on the part of the Western allies, dictated the version of 1939–1941 that most people are used to know: Hitler caused it all, helped along with major blunders from France and Great Britain, as well as the attempts of Stalin to recover the pre-WWI territories of Russian empire and direct Hitler’s aggression to the west.

The Nuremberg trial, and the global recognition of Holocaust crimes cemented this narrative. No one saw any reason to dig up anything that could diminish the undivided responsibility of Germany for the catastrophe.

What is overlooked/ignored/sanitized, is the strategic course of Stalin on provoking a major continental war in Europe, starting from the Soviet interference in the Spanish civil war. Such a war was conceived as one where the USSR would remain neutral, until “the Imperialist vultures” would exhaust themselves enough for the Soviet to launch a new wave of revolutionary wars. Basically, a replay of WWI with Russia staying out of the fray and picking the spoils at a “Versailles 2.0” settlement.

Hence:

  • Build-up of the military-industrial complex in the USSR with an army that dwarfed anything else in the world.
  • Adoption of a military strategy that mirrored the offensive blitzkrieg thinking of Germany.
  • Adoption in peace time of the German model of war economy from WWI by Walther Rathenau and Erich Ludendorff, with mass mobilization for war preparation, the ideology of mass sacrifice, and commodities rationed at fixed prices.

I’m not implying that Stalin, when he went for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, intended to start a new continental, or worldwide war. The French and English ultimatums and mobilizations in September 1939 were just an added bonus for him. What Stalin wanted, was a German “go-ahead” for the second wave of revolutionary wars around the Baltic Sea, and along the western border.

However, the scale of it turned out a nasty surprise for Hitler, which ultimately led to the Barbarossa plan and the attack of 1941).

The logic of Stalin’s actions in 1939–1941 also points toward practical preparations for a pre-emptive attack on Germany, along the lines of “thwarting the Finnish provocation” at Mainila, even though no unequivocal proof of this in Soviet archives so far has been uncovered. Much remains closed to researchers, while the open sections may have been profoundly sanitized during the Soviet time.

As to the Western powers who may have got access to German documents or to some witness accounts from high-ranking Nazis proving it, they saw no reason for corroborating it. It would complicate their strategy for permanent dismantling of German ability to become a major power again.