Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.
Some years ago, as an undergrad at FIU, I had chance meeting with one of the greatest heroes I’ve ever known, a man I hadn’t even heard of until that day. It has stayed with me to this day as an enduring reminder of the many unsung and unknown heroes around us who go about their lives without praise, notice, or popular knowledge.
Khassan Baiev is a Russian-born doctor, now living in the U.S., who risked his life to indiscriminately help those in need in the midst of a bloody warzone. As a sickly and frail Chechen youth growing up in the Soviet Union, he spent years building up his mind and body, eventually becoming both a pro athlete and a surgeon (at around fifty years old, I recall him looking more fit than some people my age). He held strongly to the ideals of humanism, altruism, and the Hippocratic oath. As a Muslim and non-Russian, he faced discrimination along the way, but ultimately made a promising career in Moscow.
In 1994, when Chechnya attempted to break from the Russian Federation, the response was horrific. The Russian Army leveled almost every building in the capital, Grozny, and was virtually indiscriminate about the places it bombed and shelled. Perhaps 200,000 were killed in the course of the conflict, and many more psychologically and physically disabled. Dr. Baiev left the safety of distant Russian capital and went where he was needed; he was perhaps the only surgeon in the entire region. At great risk to his life, he adhered to his duty as a doctor and treated everyone and anyone he could, including Chechen militants and Russian soldiers. He explained how his Hippocratic oath, as a doctor, adhered him to helping whoever needed it, regardless of their allegiances.
It was enough dealing with hundreds of patients in the middle of a war zone, but given the circumstances, Dr. Baiev was soon forced to make due with few resources. When his hospital in Grozny was destroyed by Russian shelling, he moved his operations to an abandoned clinic in his hometown of Alkan Kala, restoring it with the help of locals and his own funds. Anesthesia was handmade; running water, electricity, and gas were typically unavailable. Wounds had to be dressed with sour cream or egg yolks. Baiev relied on household tools for his procedures, including a power drill for brain surgery and a hacksaw for amputations; he did 67 amputations and eight brain procedures in the span of just three days. He and his nurses, some of whom were killed, even donated their own blood for patients. This went on for six years of almost constant warfare.
Given the overwhelming demand for his services, Baiev would go days without sleeping, taking in an average of 40 to 50 patients. He never asked questions of those in need — he simply did his job and moved on to the next patient. He and the village elders kept the peace between the soldiers on both sides, who were sometimes in the same hospital, giving them equal medical treatment. But his willingness to help anyone put him on bad terms with both sides of the war, each of whom regarded him as a traitor. Bounties and arrests were put on his head. He was kidnapped several times and almost killed several more. He remained to do his job anyway, and only after an official warrant for his arrest did he reluctantly leave to America for the sake of his family.
He has returned to Chechnya several times since the war, even organizing a group dedicated to providing affordable medical care and to raising awareness of the brutality of the conflict. He had all his procedures recorded as evidence of Russian atrocities, which the Russian government denied (allegedly going so far as to kill some of his patients as a cover up). I saw some of the horrific footage myself; I still can’t imagine how someone could take all that trauma daily for several years.
Unfortunately, there is still much for him to do, as rates of birth defects, psychological trauma, and cancer remain high from the effects of the war. As I speak he still goes to his native republic to help despite occasional threats on his life.
I subsequently purchased his book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, and had the honor of having him autograph it. When I saw him up close, I was struck by how large and strong he looked; the man was in damn good shape. Yet he had a really somber and weathered look to him, and I could feel that presence as well. He had a firm handshake and a force of personality, but at the same time maintained a quiet and humble demeanor, fitting for a man who risked certain death for simply doing his job without any want of attention or money. He is exactly the kind of man I hope to be, and exactly the sort of person who stays with you years later, inspiring you to be the best damn person you can be.
Nations, not unlike individuals, have much to gain from being in good standing with their peers. A country with a positive image, compelling ideology, or attractive culture is likelier to enjoy more influence on the global stage, whether its visa-free travel for its citizens, trade deals, or international support for its goals.
Thus, it is not surprising that the world’s leading powers — namely China, Russia, and the U.S. — care very much about how favorably they are viewed by the international community. (Indeed, even smaller and less globally ambitious nations like Denmark, Sweden, and Singapore benefit considerably from their image and status as a role model for things like political governance and economic development.)
According to the most recent global polling data from Pew, the United States — technically the world’s sole superpower (or hyperpower) — has maintained is long-standing lead in the international popularity contest.
Nevertheless, China in recent years has risen not only economically but in terms of global standing, even managing to unseat the U.S. in some traditionally pro-American places.
Meanwhile, Russia, a rising force in the globe once more, is also making gains in soft power, although it still lags far behind its larger peers. Continue reading
Despite helping the world avert a nuclear holocaust over forty years ago, Stanislav Petrov is still little known even in his native Russia, let alone in the United States, which he saved from mistaken nuclear retaliation.
In fact, he died this past May at age 77 in his home near Moscow with little fanfare or media attention; only through the efforts of an intrepid German activist, who sought to contact him this month to wish him a happy birthday, did this fact make it to major media outlets.
USA Today recounts the fateful night that the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of a Soviet lieutenant colonel:
Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on Sept. 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.
“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic,” Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. “I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”
The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker’s main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.
“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp,” he told RT. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up. That’s how nervous I was.”
Even on a good day in U.S.-Soviet relations, such an incident would have been believable. But to top it off, this was a period of increased tensions, as less than a month before, the Russians had shot down a Korean civilian airline that had accidentally drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers, including a U.S. congressman. Both sides had subsequently exchanged warnings and threats, so what Petrov and his troops saw on the radar was perfectly believable.
It would also need to be addressed quickly, as the presumed missiles would strike the country in just twenty minutes. NPR recounts how Petrov somehow managed to keep a cool head and get a handle on the situation:
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”
Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.
He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.
After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn’t send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.
He had guessed correctly.
“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said in 2013. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”
Imagine being tasked with defending your country and having only a split second to make the call. Strategically, he would have been within his right to alert his superiors so they could retaliate accordingly, as per both Soviet and U.S. protocols. Instead, he relied on his cool reasoning and training to make the right call, despite the obvious risks.
It was later revealed that the false positive was due to Russian satellites mistaking sunlight reflecting off of clouds for nuclear missiles; the simplicity of such an error makes one wonder how more such near-misses haven’t happened — provided they do not remained classified or went unreported.
Indeed, the incident remained under wraps for fifteen years, until a Russian official mentioned the incident well after the fall of the USSR, and a German magazine picked up the story, making Petrov a minor celebrity.
In all the time before the story emerged, Petrov’s heroism was officially neither rewarded nor even acknowledged; in fact, he was formally reprimanded for “failing to provide property paperwork”, which was no doubt due to his superior’s embarrassment of such a potentially catastrophic error.
In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize, and 2014 saw the release of The Man Who Saved the World, a Danish documentary about the incident. Otherwise, Petrov remained little known until his belatedly-reported death attracted some attention from Western and Russian media — a seemingly surprising fate for a man who saved the world, but perhaps an indication of how much we take nuclear security for granted, given how many other potentially-disastrous incidents, errors, and accidents have occurred or been narrowly averted (and those are just the ones we know about).
While it is sad that a man who saved the world should die largely-forgotten, perhaps it is a fitting death for someone as evidently humble and magnanimous as Petrov was. He once told RT in 2010:
At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job.
Something tells me he was more than happy to have simply saved the world and live into old age, with or without any credit or fanfare. It is a good thing there was someone like Petrov around that night, and hopefully there are more people like him in these delicate and potentially earth-shattering positions.
(As it happens, Stanislav Petrov is not the only Russian soldier to have helped the world avert nuclear disaster during a tense time — look up the story of Vasili Arkhipov, another soft-spoken and humble officer who made the correct call not to launch a nuclear strike that could very well have initiated all-out war.)
One has to appreciate, with a degree of gallows humor, how amusing our rivalry with the Russians can be.
The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast — a.k.a. the “Mother of All Bombs” — was developed in 2003 and remains the most powerful non nuclear bomb in the U.S. military; it has a blast radius of 1,000 feet and a yield of nearly 44 tons of TNT.
Four years later, the Russians developed the Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power, which is reportedly four times stronger than the MOAB (though this is disputed by some outside analysts) and of course they decide to name it the “Father of All Bombs”.
Something similar happened during the Cold War, in which the Russians developed and tested what remains the most powerful human-made explosion in history: the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb, code name Ivan and known in the West as the Tsar Bomba.
The three stage bomb had a yield of 50 megatons, which is equal to about 1,570 times the combined energy of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, ten times the combined energy of all the conventional explosives used in World War II, and 10 percent of the combined yield of all nuclear tests to date. And to think that theoretically, it could have had almost double this power, were it not for its builders deciding to put a tamper to limit nuclear fallout.
The kicker? The bomb was named “Kuzma’s mother” by its builders, which is a Russian idiom equivalent to “We’ll show you!”, and a possible reference to Nikita Khrushchev’s statement of same to the U.S. just one year before. Moreover, since it lacked any strategic application by virtue of its weight and size, some believe the whole point of the test was just to show up the U.S., which had earlier announced without warning that it was going to resume testing.
Despite my love for all things space and history, it almost eluded me that last Saturday, February 20, was the 30th anniversary of the launching of Mir, humanity’s first continuously inhabited space station, and until recently the longest-lasting. In its heyday — which remarkably persisted for far longer than originally intended — Mir was the epitome of human ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. As Vice’s Motherboard column recounts, the venerable Russian space station was the unlikely watershed for humanity’s exploration of the stars.
This station outlived the Soviet regime that conceived and bore it, and died in the shadow of its successor and beneficiary, the International Space Station. It was home to 104 astronauts during its 15 year lifespan, and completed its projected mission duration three times over. It was a pivotal stepping stone in human spaceflight, a technological and geopolitical bridge between millennia, and an enduring symbol of peace on Earth and off it.
It was also a notorious dump that reeked of mould, mites, and astronaut BO. British astronaut Helen Sharman, who visited the station in 1991, recalled that “the lights kept going out because it had developed so many electrical problems”. British-American astronaut Michael Foale, who lived on Mir during for four months in 1997, said it was “a bit like a frat house, but more organized and better looked after.”
Like some of the most beloved fictional spaceships—the Millennium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, or Serenity, for instance—Mir was simultaneously regarded as a resilient survivor and a derelict piece of junk.
Among the numerous incidents mentioned in the article (and well worth reading for yourself) were three collisions, one of which led to the permanent, functional loss of an entire block; a massive fire hot enough to burn through metal, which persisted for fifteen minutes and blanketing the station in smoky debris; and basketball-sized globs of dirty water laden with microbes, which were floating freely around the station.
All this plus a host of other smaller threats, such as computer glitches, power outages, coolant leaks, corrosive mold, and still more.
Needless to say, Mir would hardly have seemed to be such a promising benchmark for human progress in space. Yet the station’s ability to endure all these never-before-faced challenges — due in no small part to the resourcefulness, courage, and tenacity of its cosmonauts — is precisely what makes it such an incredible step for our species.
Indeed, the scruffy nature of Mir has become one of its most defining—and endearing—qualities in retrospect. It is legitimately astonishing that nobody was killed or seriously injured on this accident-prone ragamuffin of a station, when you consider the all the wild cards that were in play. If astronauts had died, of course, we would construct a very different legacy around its tenure in space, tempered by that grim reality.
But because Mir managed to lackadaisically extricate itself out of every scrape it got into like some spacefaring Bugs Bunny, it’s now remembered as a plucky trailblazer that always beat the odds rather than the “death trap” some considered it to be at the time. We love lucky heroes, and Mir hit that archetype out of the park.
To add to that, Mir was a phenomenal success for the global spaceflight community despite all of its problems. Thousands of experiments were conducted during its stint in orbit, revealing valuable insights about the biomedical, technological, and political challenges of operating a long-term base in space.
Unsurprisingly, Mir would prove to be the ultimate testing ground for generations of spacefarers, subsequently producing some of the most experienced and accomplished cosmonauts in the world.
Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov still maintains the record for the longest single spaceflight, having spent 437 consecutive days and 18 hours at the station from 1994 to 1995. While Polyakov did report mood fluctuations when he arrived at Mir and when he returned to Earth, he has not suffered any long term health effects as a consequence of his time in space.
Mir cosmonauts also hold down the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth places on the single spaceflight leaderboard (fun fact: Polyakov comes in at both first and sixth place). To put that into perspective, the ISS One Year Crew, comprised of American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, is expected to arrive home next month after 342 days in orbit. But that achievement will only nudge them into fourth place behind the insane spaceflight records left by Mir cosmonauts.
Given all this, it is little wonder that Mir laid the technological groundwork for its spiritual successor, the International Space Station, for which the Russians have continued to play a leading role, from its construction to the supply of materials and staff.
But in addition to its technical legacy, Mir pioneered the idealism that has always, to some degree, imbued space exploration. It was the crucible in which international collaboration could be achieved, even in the midst of the Cold War.
This intent on behalf of the Soviets—then later, the Russians—to use the space station as a symbol of humanity’s noblest qualities was embedded right into the mission’s name. The Russian space program has always had a particular knack for coming up with concise yet semantically potent names for its programs from Sputnik, meaning “fellow traveler”, to Soyuz, meaning “union”.
Likewise, the word “mir” in Russian can be translated as “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and it apparently has many subtler historical shades as well. NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, who managed the Shuttle-Mir program, laid out some of them in his 1996 essay on Mir, entitled “What’s in a Name?”
This was more than just propaganda: Mir would come to live up to its namesake by hosting several joint missions with the United States and various other nations. Thus the plucky, ramshackle marvel of human ingenuity (if not stubbornness) would prove that the divided nations of the world — for practical reasons as much as idealistic ones — can and would come together to achieve great things in space.
As Mir’s thirtieth birthday passes, here is hoping that its legacy can continue to spur the human race into pooling its resources, technology, and know-how into the next great endeavor of our species’ history. Given recent geopolitical events, it seems like an unlikely prospect; but if it could pulled off during the tense decades of the Cold War, whose to say we cannot transcend current Earthly squabbles once more?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
It looks like American anxiety about a rising Russia might be warranted; according to the 2016 Power Index conducted by Global Firepower (GFP), the Russians command the world’s second most powerful military, after the United States — and that is without factoring in nuclear capabilities, which includes over 8,500 warheads, of which 1,800 were operational. (The U.S. has 7,500 nukes, with close to 2,000 ready to deploy.)
Moreover, the gap between the two countries is surprisingly narrow: the Power Index judges 126 countries against a perfect score of 0.0000, drawing data from a variety of public sources ranging from the C.I.A. to news outlets. The U.S. enjoys the top rating of 0.1663, with Russia just two hundred points lower at 0.1865.
In third place was China — widely regarded as a rising superpower and America’s main rival — which scored 0.2318. India, another contender for future superpower, came in fourth place at 0.2698, following by a former superpower, the United Kingdom (0.2747). Continue reading
If you are both a Russophile and lover of literature, you will appreciate James Stavridis’ piece for Foreign Policy, which recommends several Russian books across the last 150 years that offer a look into the nation’s soul, psyche, and condition. Whether or not you care to learn more about this enigmatic — and still highly consequential culture — the following literary works are well worth considering for their value alone.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners). It is an absurdist construct, and the novel functions as a satiric portrait of the dysfunctional Russian landowner society that eventually fell in the 1917 revolution. It tells us that Russians see the world as somewhat absurd and contradictory, and hardly a place where overarching humanist value systems triumph. For a nation whose leader struts around the world stage without a shirt on, plays with a pet Siberian tiger, and flies in a motorized mini-plane chasing white storks, there is a certain appeal to the absurd. It is a novel that evokes the most skeptical and cynical in the human condition and appropriately ends abruptly in mid-sentence — a signal of the inability to predict a coherent future.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
…shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up. Tolstoy also debunks the 19th-century theory of world events once-called “the great man” approach, arguing instead that events are driven by the collision of thousands of small events coming together. And when it comes to leaders, Russians throw the cosmic dice: One time they get an Ivan the Terrible, the next a Peter the Great. They know that eventually the dice will roll again, and a new leader will emerge. The bad news is that what comes after Putin may be even worse, given the growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As we look at Putin’s dominance, we should remember that the dice will roll again. The Russians do.
…a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption. The central character, Raskolnikov, is a largely sympathetic figure, full of tragic contradictions, who strays into a brutal crime but is redeemed through punishment and faith. While it is hard to see Putin as a Raskolnikov, perhaps there is a touch of that pattern of redemption in the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political opposition leader, who was jailed and then finally released. The next chapter of his journey will be an interesting one. Russians have a deep belief in their own goodness and justness, recognizing mistakes will be made along the road to righteousness. They believe in both crime and punishment in a very literal sense.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? [The] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.
One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.
It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each. The book is a good view into the mind of any conscripted force sent to Ukraine — which explains why it is the Spetsnaz special forces, not regular troops, who are operating across the border. There is much to learn here about the Russian military’s operational approach: The Russians have learned from their mistakes in Chechnya and in Afghanistan, and the new so-called hybrid war is full of lessons they took away. In Ukraine, the use of social media, strategic communications, humanitarian convoys, insurgent techniques, and cyber dominance all come from the Chechnya experience.
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
…To understand the view of the Russian émigré, the brilliant Russian-American novelist … captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of nonfiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.
While these represent a mere fraction of the vast body of Russian literature out there (indeed, the country is the fourth-largest publisher of books in the world), they are a great way to understand what shapes one of history’s most significant civilizations. The literature, art, and creative expression of any culture can go a long way in helping us bridge the gap between different languages, perspectives, and conditions.
England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.
Today is Victory Day (also known as the Ninth of May), which commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent end of the Second World War in Europe. The holiday is still celebrated in most former Soviet republics, especially Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, which bore the brunt of the conflict. Among Russians in particular, the Eastern Front of the conflict remains known as the Great Patriotic War.
Given the currently frigid relations between Russia and the West, it is sadly likely that this immense contribution to ending history’s biggest war will remain largely downplayed, if at all acknowledged. Granted, it would not be the first time that geopolitical factors and mutual suspicion interfered with the historical narrative: the Cold War that followed almost immediately after made crediting our then-rival untenable, while the vast global influence of U.S. media, from comics to film, allowed it to have the prevailing word on of how the war transpired (e.g. with Americans taking center-stage).
Setting aside the intrinsic value of knowing the historical facts, this lack of acknowledgement is all the more jarring given the horrifically high cost of victory. As The Washington Post highlights:
The Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction,” writes British historian and journalist Max Hastings in “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.” The Soviet Union paid the harshest price: though the numbers are not exact, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died during World War II, including as many as 11 million soldiers. At the same time, the Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses fighting the Red Army.
“It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance,” writes Hastings. [By one calculation, for every single American soldier killed fighting the Germans, 80 Soviet soldiers died doing the same.]
The epic battles that eventually rolled back the Nazi advance — the brutal winter siege of Stalingrad, the clash of thousands of armored vehicles at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history) — had no parallel on the western front, where the Nazis committed fewer military assets. The savagery on display was also of a different degree than that experienced further west.
Indeed, the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of WWII, and in fact was the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people — at least half of whom were civilians. The USSR lost at least 9 million soldiers — a third of them in Axis captivity — and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives.
By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another one to two million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.
This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.
And while the Soviet Union came out of the war victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The siege of a single city, Leningrad, claimed 1.2 million lives, while the fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives, and was by some accounts the single largest battle in history — not to mention a turning point in the entire war.
In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).
There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85 percent of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would have had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would have been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.
But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.
And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:
By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.
The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.
All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans would remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded (for the most part). We didn’t need to even consider, much less implement, wanton and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).
I am in no way denigrating the U.S. contribution to the war effort (nor that of other Allied members), especially considering that America helped prop up the USSR during the earlier stages of the way until it could recover its own industrial output. Moreover, the U.S. did much of the heavy lifting in the Asian theatre — although the Russians, not to mention the Chinese, played a much underrated role in that effort as well (indeed, the latter’s costly resistance to the Japanese, as outlined here, was instrumental to the Pacific Theater).
I am simply noting the obvious fact that World War II could not have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself was not horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.
So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there is a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They will keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.