The Baltic States, Ukraine, and Russia had differing views of the USSR during World War II. The Baltic States in particular can be seen to have near universal disdain for the Soviet Union, equating it with Nazi Germany. The Ukraine has similar views but it is complicated by an east-west split in which resistance was far more hostile in the western regions than in the east. Russia was the least hostile towards the USSR mainly because it ended up being the embodiment of the USSR; Russia and the Soviet Union were difficult to distinguish. Thus, Russian views were not negative of the USSR per se, but rather of the Communist Party and the leadership. All three regions also witnessed a wave of nationalism. In the Baltic States and Ukraine this was largely directed against the USSR, whilst in Russia it came to define the USSR’s identity, thus posing questions as to the imperial nature of the Soviet Union and Russia’s dominance of the country.
The Baltic States
The Western and native historiography of the Baltic States during World War II is decisively negative towards the USSR. Anatol Lieven states that ‘it is difficult to exaggerate the amount of damage done to the Baltic States by Soviet rule’ (Lieven, 1993: 82). The population losses in the Baltic region were amongst the worst during the entire war – 20 per cent. This is compared to the USSR’s 9 per cent, Germany’s 5 per cent, and Britain’s 0.8 per cent (Larousse, 1951: 232). During the Soviet mass deportations, no ethnic groups were spared, which did more to deepen hatred for the regime than to instil obedience and fear. Twenty-three categories of “enemies of the people” covered nearly every type of public figure from local government officials to clergymen (Hiden and Salmon, 1991). Rein Taagepera is just as scathing, stating that ‘to say anything positive to “balance” the account of the first year of Soviet occupation of Estonia, I would have to lie. It was an unmitigated disaster’ (Taagepera, 1993: 68). The Soviet’s seeming need to find enemies only succeeded in creating ever greater resistance thus contributing to paltry military support from the Balts (Taagepera, 1993). Thus, the Estonian view that the Soviets did not liberate Tallinn from the Germans but rather seized it from the Estonians, represents a view held by an overwhelming number of Balts that Soviet occupation was a ‘nightmare’ (Misiunas and Taagepera, 1993: 70). One British newsman who visited the region in 1945 stated:
‘I don’t think a single one of us spoke to a single person during the whole trip who had a good word to say for the Russian re-occupation – except, of course, the spokesperson produced by the Russians’ (Winterton, 1945: 85-86).
Therefore, it is unsurprising that the majority of Balts ‘welcomed the German forces when they crossed the frontiers of Lithuania’ (Hiden and Salmon, 1991: 115; Misiunas and Taagepera, 1993). In fact, many had pinned their hopes on being rescued by the Germans who received ‘mass support… during the first months of their occupation’ (Lieven, 1993: 86).
Resistance movements against the Soviets tended to be passive such as boycotts of elections and verbal ridicule of the Russians, and in Lithuania the de facto recognition of Christmas as a holiday. The influential Lithuanian underground newspaper Nepriklausoma Lietuva described the Soviets as ‘inveterate murderers of innocent people’ (Nepriklausoma Lietuva, 1943). Resistance in Latvia and Estonia was more limited but in Lithuania the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) was set up, eventually reaching a membership of 36,000, and at one point taking over the Kaunas radio station (Misiunas and Taagepera, 1993). Partisan warfare broke out after the Soviet deportations of June 1941 with groups such as the Lithuanian Forest Brothers fighting fiercely in the remote areas for over eight years. The importance of the partisan movement is expressed by Rimvydas Šilbajoris, a Lithuanian literary scholar in exile:
‘Lithuanians remember it in every agonising detail, and can no more stop talking and writing about it than can the Russians stop talking about their great struggle against the Nazis’ (Lieven, 1993: 89).
Such strong resistance discouraged Russian settlers moving to the republic after the war. All over Lithuania, and to a lesser extent Latvia and Estonia, monuments and museums such as the Memorial for Lithuanian Partisans in Minaičiai can be found honouring the fallen partisans with the third Sunday of May commemorated as Partisan’s Day.
The strong national identities of the Baltic States appear strikingly enhanced by the war albeit with inevitable fractures. The interwar period had ‘entrenched among the Baltic peoples a strong sense of national identity’ that to be expressed required an independent state entity (Misiunas and Taagepera, 1993: 43). One Dutch Nazi visitor reported that ‘national consciousness’ dominated in all layers of Latvia and Estonia, whilst he encountered no genuinely Germanophile groups (Seppo, 1973: 156). It had even succeeded in bringing into the fold the once ‘historical enemy’, the Baltic Germans (Taagapera, 1993: 67). Such national consciousness was vital for the resistance movements but also for maintaining political formations that could represent each country. In Lithuania, the Catholic-oriented Lietuviu Frontas and the more secular Laisves Kovotoju Sajunga published underground newspapers and eventually united into the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania. However, national unity was not always so cohesive. The German occupation led to extensive collaboration in the killing of Jews who were often accused of collaborating with the Soviets, with local auxiliary police and militia units set up to aid the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units leading to the Jewish population of Lithuania falling from 250,000 to 25,000 (Hilberg, 1961; Hiden and Salmon, 1991; Kirby, 1995). Furthermore, the partisan fighting sometimes became splintered as ‘the Home Army fought the Germans, the Lithuanians, and the Soviet partisans simultaneously’, with the partisans also carrying out atrocities against local communities leading to much of the northern population of Lithuania to regard them as just as much of a plague as the Soviets (Lieven, 1993: 87). The Soviets even managed, at least temporarily, to engage some support from those such as Lithuanian Foreign Minister Urbšys who were initially thankful for the return of Vilnius, which had been under Polish rule until 1939. The most engaged pro-Soviet groups were those in the eastern Lithuanian woods ‘where contact with the genuinely widespread Belorussian partisan activity was easiest’ but even these links were ‘extremely limited’ (Misiunas and Taagepera, 1993: 69).
Large sections of Ukraine were hostile towards the USSR. Even in the areas of Ukraine that had long been under Russian or Soviet rule, ‘many turned away from the Soviet Union’ towards Germany and Poland following restrictive measures brought in by Stalin after 1927. Elements in the western Ukraine were ‘bitterly hostile’ although remnants of the Polish Communist parties remained, which were ‘warmly sympathetic’ (Sullivant, 1962: 237). The hostility in the west was largely due to the strength of the Greek Catholic Church and an already strong nationalist sentiment with organised parties (Armstrong, 1959). This hostility increased when Sovietisation was pressed such as the collectivisation of agriculture and nationalisation of industry, with the Soviets only succeeding in antagonising the population without doing anything to dent nationalist thinking. Furthermore, the scorched earth policy of the Soviets, as they retreated from the Germans, ‘helped infuriate the population against the Soviet regime’ as they felt as though they were being abandoned to face the Germans alone (Harvard University Refugee Interview Project, Number 33, B6, 1). Just as in the Baltic States, a partisan movement emerged, namely The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which was a force of 40,000 that fought various German and Polish groups, as well as Soviet groups such as the Kovpak based in the north around Kiev. Primarily based in the west, they armed themselves with German weapons after the Soviets returned refusing to accept Soviet rule by establishing themselves in remote regions leading to an inflexible stand from the central command that ultimately quashed the rebels (Mirchuk, 1953).
In the Baltic States, such hostility towards the USSR led to initial collaboration or support with the Germans. However, in Ukraine attitudes were ‘considerably more complex’ according to an Einsatsgruppen report (Dallin, 1957: 65). Whilst the vast majority were glad to see the Soviets leave they were sceptical of the Germans because common sense dictated ‘that they have not come to Ukraine to do good’, particularly given their views of Ukrainians as untermenschen – inferior people (Zovenko, 1946: 60). In fact, there was often determined resistance to the Germans who sent two million Ukrainians to Germany as slave labour, known as Ostarbeiter (Kubicek, 2008). As a result, one might expect more support for the Soviets than in the Baltic States, however groups such as the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) hoped that the German invasion would enable them to assert Ukrainian nationhood, eventually splitting into two groups with the more radical militant group (OUN-B) working with the Germans against ‘Muscovite occupation’ (Kubicek, 2008: 108). Here, as in the Baltic, both the Germans and the Soviets were indistinguishable for many. The OUN managed to engage many eastern sympathisers despite fundamental disputes over the relative importance of socio-economic and nationalist issues, with their ‘purpose and dynamism’ impressing the Soviet Ukrainian population (Krawchenko, 1985: 158). Together they managed to strengthen the national consciousness leading to an increased use of the Ukrainian language, newspaper articles on independence, exposés of events during the 1930s, popular accounts of Ukrainian history and the recirculation of previously banned books (HURIP, 440, B6, 1). The strength of Ukrainian nationalism was so great that Stalin was forced to concede to it in order to galvanise support for the war effort such as by promoting Ukrainian themes in the arts and appealing to Ukrainian heroes such as Daniel Galitskii and Mikola Schors (Pravda, 1941). The resulting Ukrainian ethnography, archaeology, Ukrainian Ministry of Affairs, and UN membership all had an ‘enormous symbolic influence for they legitimised the expression of Ukrainian self-awareness’ thus providing a basis for the Ukrainian nationalism that would eventually led to independence (Krawchenko, 1985: 169).
However, as the Red Army came closer and closer to victory, so the Communist Party’s charm offensive ended. The Greek Catholic Church was banned and ‘nationalist demands were almost forgotten’ (Sullivant, 1962: 241). On the contrary, the post-1944 period saw ‘an increase in the glorification of the Russian people and their achievements’ with an emphasis on the brotherhood of the Soviet peoples. The Communists ‘now identified Soviet rule with Russian rule’, with Russians viewed as the ‘bulwark of Soviet defence’ in contrast to the supposedly divisive and dangerous national movements. Ukrainians were told of the role played by Russians who had liberated them from German rule and of the importance of Soviet unity with special attention given to the western regions (Sullivant, 1962: 241-244). Whilst this was tolerated or supported by some in the east with its many ethnic Russian groups, it led to renewed and increased hostilities with the UPA and OUN, with the western regions and those who had basked in the nationalist outpouring particularly aggressive towards the USSR.
Common Western perceptions have it that all Russian citizens ‘were for the regime and for comrade Stalin’. However, this is a ‘myth; the reality was vastly different’ (Bordiugov, 2000: 54). Whilst patriotism was significant it was very rarely aimed at Stalin and the Communist Party, but instead had a nationalist focus in order to save the “Motherland”. One worker from the Kaluga region stated that he would ‘defend the Soviet Union but not those sitting in the Kremlin’. For him, the USSR was nash, a Russian term connoting deep loyalty, but he made a clear distinction between the Soviet system as a whole and its leaders (Bordiugov, 2000: 60; Rossiiskii tsentr khraneniia I izucheniia dokumentov noveishei istorii, a). The slogan of the mass media, “Workers of the world, unite!” was replaced by the slogan “Death to German occupiers!”, showing a collapse not of the people ‘but of the official ideology’ and the bureaucratic Soviet command system (Bordiugov, 2000: 61). This was not communism’s war; it was the people’s war. The director of Moscow’s important Stalin Auto Factory, I.A. Likhachev criticised the centralised planned economy by stating that the time had come to ‘deal directly with the producer’ (Krasilnikov, 1971: 68). The relaxed ideological climate of this period is shown in that Likhachev never suffered for his views and in fact his ashes are buried in the Kremlin Wall, the highest honour for the USSR’s dead. The autonomous republics of Russia were also galvanised by Russian nationalism in spite of their ethnic distinctiveness. Despite some working with the Germans, such as groups of Kalmyk joining the Kalmücken-Legion, the vast majority fought alongside the Russians including the usually hostile Chechens, with many recognised as a “Hero of the Soviet Union”. However, relations with the USSR were destroyed in some republics as Stalin sought retribution with Kalmykia and Chechnya being dissolved due to apparent widespread collaboration (Bugai, 1996; Government of the Republic of Kalmykia, 2001). An interesting facet of this move away from loyalty to the Party, to loyalty to the nation, is that Stalin began to present the war more and more as a challenge to the ‘Russian nation’. There was a focus upon Russian national heroes such as Aleksandr Nevsky and Mikhail Kutuzov with the task ahead being a struggle for survival ‘of the Russian people, of Russian culture’. He was thus ‘ceasing to be a Soviet socialist leader and becoming a Russian imperialist vozhd’ (McCauley, 1993: 158). This was crucial as it helped the government regain control of the chaotic situation that had arisen and engendered support for the fight against the Germans. It also provides an interesting insight into the imperialist nature of the USSR as from this angle it appears that the Soviet Union was really a Russian Empire legitimised as being a harmonious union of republics. Above all, it highlights how the Party’s control had cracks, thus creating the ‘preconditions for later liberalisation’ (Bordiugov, 2000: 64).
The Party’s decision to back the patriotic theme of defending the Motherland instead of communism was prompted by the widespread dissatisfaction for the lack of preparation and organisation and even towards Stalin personally for the obvious failures of foreign and domestic policy (Dzeniskevich, 2000). Repressions had, like in the Baltic States and Ukraine, only alienated those who could think for themselves and the lack of control of the Party, particularly at the outbreak of the war, meant that people were able to speak freer than they had before. In the town of Privolzhsk, over two hundred workers went on strike as the Germans approached dissatisfied with the method of mobilisation and claiming that ‘every boss has run away from the town while we are left alone’ (Bordiugov, 2000: 59). Party members, as well as the rank-and-file peasants and workers, blamed the party for being ‘incapable of organising and raising the masses’, with one woman writing to the regional newspaper Rabochii Krai, ‘I have never thought that I could hate our leaders so much’ (RTsKhIDNI, b; RTsKhIDNI, c). Yet, the state’s ability to manipulate the patriotic euphoria of the war enabled it to regain its legitimacy, particularly as the Germans were driven back, leading to the number of negative remarks dropping considerably and a remarkable change in the social psychology of the population (Gorinov, 2000; Barber, 2003). Some workers spoke of the need to defend the ‘fatherland of the proletariat’ leading to over 8 million new members being admitted to the Party (Barber, 2003: 267; McCauley, 1993). More than half a million people were freed from labour camps and churches were reopened in order to galvanise as much of the population as possible.
It is extremely difficult, as Lieven and Taagepera indicate, to find people in the Baltic who have kind words to say about the USSR during World War II. Pro-Soviet groups that did exist were extremely limited and operated in a confined space around the Lithuanian-Belorussian border. For the Balts, the Soviets were no worse than the Nazis, the latter of whom actually received an initial positive welcome such was the anti-Soviet feeling. Šilbajoris’s quote in fact shows how the Balts did not feel a part of the Soviet war victory. Soviet repression and and a lack of a national voice led to resistance that was particularly marked in Lithuania and it inspired a strong national identity across the region albeit with some fractures, although ones that were not insurmountable. One may posit whether it is because of this strong and relatively unanimous identity that the Baltic States made such a success of themselves after the fall of the Soviet Union compared to other post-Soviet states.
One can contrast this coherence with the east-west divide of Ukraine that characterised the Ukrainian response to the USSR. Whilst, hostility towards the Soviets did spread across the entire country due to restrictive measures, the scorched earth policy, and skilful political manoeuvring by nationalist groups, there was still a clear division within the country. The western regions of Eastern Galicia and Bukovina shown in Figure 1, which had never been part of the USSR, were particularly hostile and fighting would continue here after the war. On the other hand, the large Russian influence in eastern Ukraine meant that the USSR was not so negatively perceived here, although the brief nationalist revival during the war did augment anti-Soviet feelings above pre-war levels. Through this lack of clarity in Ukraine, we can arguably see the foundations of the contemporary Ukraine-Russia conflict, which is profoundly affected by regional differences such as those discussed.
Russian views of the state apparatus of the USSR were extremely negative at the beginning of the war as the state’s lack of organisation, preparation, and often courage became stark. The failure of the state in this regard led to the people taking matters into their own hands and from this a strong sense of nationalism emerged. As in the Baltic States and Ukraine, nationalism was of vital importance for the Russians. However, the widely criticised Communist Party and its leadership were initially excluded from this. Communist ideals were largely forgotten with the protection of the “Motherland” taking its place. Therefore, Russians were not negative towards the USSR per se, but rather towards its leadership and implicitly its raison d’être. The USSR could exist as a country but with nationalism having predominance over communism. This meant that in order to stabilise its position, the Communist Party had to reframe itself as the leader of Russian/Soviet nationalism rather than Communism, which it was successful in doing largely due to successes against the German army. Ultimately, this became increasingly framed as Russian nationalism, which seems to suggest that the USSR was more a Russian Empire than a collection of republics.
Therefore, the views of the USSR strongly differed across the Eastern front of World War II. In the Baltic States, there was near universal disdain for the Soviet Union. In Ukraine there was a regional split in which one detested the USSR whilst the other was negatively disposed towards it but on a weaker scale. In Russia there was strong support for the USSR but this was framed in nationalistic terms rather than in support for Communist ideals and the Communist Party itself, although this began to reverse as the war became more favourable to the USSR with the Party promoting itself as the defender of Russian nationalism. Arguably, Russian favourability towards the USSR was because Russia essentially was the USSR, whilst the unfavourable sentiments of the Baltic States and Ukraine come from them being part of what was effectively a Russian Empire.
Figure 1. Soviet Annexations 1939-1940.
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