Reflecting On June 22 Seventy Years After

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 136

For several generations of Americans, December 7 was a day on which to pause and think about the destiny of the nation. For one generation the remarks of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the aftermath of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor, “Yesterday, Sunday, December 7, a date that will live in infamy . . .” marked the beginning of a great challenge, which they met in battlefields across the world. Historical debate about the events surrounding Pearl Harbor, which once invoked some passion are tame in comparison with the passions still aroused over Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. In the successor states to the former Soviet Union the situation is different. They too have a terrible Sunday in their past. But like all events associated with the Soviet past this one divides, even as it is shared. The member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States still honor the struggle of 1941-1945 and their heads can unite in a common statement commemorating the attack. Others, like the Baltic Republics and Georgia, have their own reasons not to join in such joint declarations (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 25). And outside of official declarations, the populations of the successor states which were part of the Soviet Union have their own day of remembrance, not May 9, the official holiday celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany, but June 22, the day the Wehrmacht crossed the Soviet border and unleashed Operation Barbarossa. June 22 is not a day of celebration but reflection on a war that cost the peoples of the Soviet Union tens of millions of dead and many more wounded, scarred, and simply lost.
And so over the last several weeks the Russian press contained a series of articles reflecting on that day and the events that preceded and followed it. The generation that fought the Great Patriotic War, like the “greatest generation in America,” is dying off. Few are left on the reviewing stands at the parades that celebrate victory on May 9. Many are gone from this earth and others cannot get out. But their name is often invoked by those who seek to preserve the Soviet/Communist interpretation of those events. Any commenting on June 22 and its significance was warned not to offend the sensibilities of veterans (Pravda, June 17). Indeed, this was not just a warning to anybody but to NTV and its chief news commentator Aleksei Pivovarov, which the article accused of defending Hitler and slandering every Soviet veteran.
This year the focus of the ideological struggle in the mass media would be on one television company, one producer and one program.  The 70th anniversary of June 22 would be an intense battle ground over the meaning of the past. NTV spent much of the month advertising a special devoted to the events leading up to June 22, Aleksei Pivovarov’s docudrama “June 22: Fatal Decisions.” Pivovarov, the young anchor to NTV news, has made a reputation on programs about the war, such as “Moscow: Autumn, 1941;” “Rzhev – The Unknown Battle of Georgy Zhukov;” “Brest – Fortress of Heroes;” and “Second Shock – Vlasov’s Treasonous Army.”  Each one of these productions dealt with disturbing shadows in the contours of the Soviet narrative. Autumn touched on the panic of October that swept the capital in the face of what seemed an unstoppable German advance. Rzhev dealt with what David Glantz has called Zhukov’s greatest defeat in the fall of 1942. Brest touched on the fate of the soldiers who fought at Brest in June 1941, became German POWs and then were placed in the Gulag on their liberation. Second Shock dealt with the fate of the soldiers of that Army – which Vlasov took command of during the spring 1942 offensive to relieve Leningrad,  encircled by German forces – who, after Vlasov’s surrender and defection, were treated as traitors simply by association with their disgraced former commander. Each of these explored themes outside the officially accepted Soviet interpretation of the Great Patriotic War and generated protests from those offended by such “revelations.” The usual terms of Soviet ideological struggle, “lies and falsifications,” were invoked by his critics. If the earlier programs touched on sensitive issues, the latest program struck at the core of the patriotic narrative of the Great Patriotic War:  Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Pivovarov in media interviews before the airing of the program discussed the making of the film. He noted the Russo-German cooperation involved in the production. He enlisted the German journalist, Andreas Albes, who had served as Der Stern’s Moscow correspondent. In discussing the production of “Fatal Decisions” Pivovarov took pains to say that the program was not about the war but the events leading up to it. He said that the program addressed certain “unanswered questions.” These included: the role of Stalin and the Soviet Union in the events from 1938 to the Nazi invasion, the issue of Soviet preparations for war, and the reasons why the country was so ill-prepared. In an interview Pivovarov explained the logic of his program as a continuation of his struggle with Soviet mythology about the war:
"In Russia there is not competing explanations. We have a complex mythology, which we are trying to come to grips with so that we can understand what it true and what is false. And also to say just how things really were and to understand from where these myths came about. For what purpose were they invented and just how far are they from reality. I cannot say that there is the same sort of mythology in Germany on this score. If you talk about the historical main stream, there no one doubts that the war was an act of aggression by Germany, or that Hitler provoked it. Disagreements between us on this question do not exist. But we are not trying to say that Germany did not attack the Soviet Union. That would be absurd. We are trying to make a different point. Is it true that the Soviet Union was not prepared for war? Why was it so surprised? Why did the Army and the country prove not prepared for that which transpired on June 22?" (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, June 17).
In the same interview he promised that was, in fact, his last project addressing the war.
Even in articles devoted to the anniversary in general, Pivovarov’s program was a topic of hot discussion. The program was aired on June 19 and the reviews appeared shortly thereafter. In a two-part article devoted to Soviet intelligence before the war, Colonel (retired) Viktor Baranets, a former defense ministry press secretary and currently defense correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda, concluded the series with an interview with Army-General (retired) Makhmut Gareev, one of the most active veterans of the war and President of the Academy of Military Sciences. Here was a review from a frontline soldier, and that veteran condemned it in the most extreme terms associated with ideological struggle. He spoke of an expanding web of lies and falsifications against the leadership of the USSR and the High Command of the Red Army. He criticized the experts used during the production and referred to the producers as “these kids from television.” When pressed for detailed criticism Gareev made two telling points about pre-war operational plans, which called for countering aggression and then mounting a counter-offensive and about the Vasilevskii-Vatutin draft proposal of May 15 to forestall the anticipated attack by the German force massing along the Soviet border, which was never signed by the Commissar of Defense nor the Chief of the General Staff. Gareev accused the film’s producers of turning every mention of a “strike” into a general offensive. But Gareev outside of his military expertise stuck to the standard Soviet interpretation. In September 1939 the Red Army liberated Belarusians and Ukrainians and did not stab Poland in the back. He states that the producers spoke of the Red Army occupying Poland and imposing a communist regime but he says the Red Army liberated Poland from the Nazis. In the conclusion, Baranets returned to the question of historical truth and asked: “But in that case I would like to ask: do we veterans have a right to truth about the war? Should we not seek it? Does not it offend you veterans of the war that we fought to no purpose?” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, June 21, 22).
Other press reviews of the program simply took the point of view that the fight over the truth about June 1941 was still subject to debate. One commentator noted that reviews divided into those who considered the program a pack of falsifications and others who did not question its accuracy but accused it of containing no new revelations. But the author of the article understood that the program was not made for historians but for a mass public and its target were the very official myths created about the initial period of war. What was involved was a struggle for public consciousness, and the author answered the question, which served as the title of the article, “Have We Finished Our Accounting of the War?” in the negative (Novaya Gazeta, June 24).
Conservative critics of the program linked it to current defense issues. Major-General German Kirilenko, a retired General Staff officer and historian answered the film’s interpretation of events before June 22, 1941, by asserting that there was no “fatal mistake.” Kirilenko described the film’s producers as “. . . people who clearly have absolutely no familiarity with military science in general and with military history in particular.” He accused them of asserting that Stalin and Zhukov had plans to attack Germany first. But the film represented an even deeper threat to Russian security. The producers had confused the hypothetical opponents of war games with real operational plans and by that confused the public about the real contemporary threat environment where the US and NATO do not act against hypothetical opponents but actually conducts combat operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and over Libya. “Yes, and they have taken ‘decisions’ about the placement of missile and air defense along our borders not as part of some exercise goals. They do not consider these to be ‘fatal.’” Like Stalin and the Soviet High Command before June 22, this world demands vigilance in the face of the forces of aggression (Slovo, July 1).
Beyond the dispute over “Fatal Decisions” there was some valuable analysis of lessons from June 22, 1941, by Andrei Kokoshin, former deputy defense minister and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Kokoshin looked at a broad range of factors that contributed to the initial Soviet defeats far beyond the usual topics for discussion. His analysis reflected key insights into military systems and how they impact the actual conduct of war. This pointed to major institutional weaknesses in the Soviet military system. One that received major attention was systems integration: how the components of a weapon are put together to optimize their battlefield effects. Kokoshin discussed the T-34 tank, which was just being introduced into the Red Army inventory in 1941. Here was a weapon that had the attention of Soviet political, military, and technological elite. But while the tank itself was given priority, components that would determine its tactical effectiveness were not given the same attention. Weapons and subcomponents in the highly centralized Soviet system received different priorities, depending on whether they were “reported,” i.e., considered significant enough to be worthy of the leader’s concern or “not-reported,” i.e., only matters of secondary importance. With regard to the T-34 two components that impacted battlefield effectiveness went “not reported:” radios and gun sights, both of which were either inferior to German systems or not produced in sufficient quantity to equip the entire force. In maneuver warfare, radios make possible coordinated movement and combat. Inferior gun sights limited the effective range of fire and make fire when moving less accurate. Other major weaknesses included a failure to appreciate German tactical-operational innovations in armor combat which put stress upon combined armor and air attacks and the psychological impact on opponents of deep exploitation on defenders, who facing the destruction of key tactical and operational command points in their rear, were overcome by shock (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 17).
While Soviet military historians have stressed the progress made by Soviet theorists in developing the theory of deep operations in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, further progress was disrupted by the decapitation of the Soviet military elite by Stalin. Some Soviet theorists like Isserson recognized the qualitative leap that German forces had achieved in their campaigns in Poland and France, but the military elite did not appreciate the change in scale. In December 1940, Zhukov had spoken of German successes with Panzer divisions and mechanized corps, but, in fact, the Wehrmacht had already in November 1940 created its first Panzerarmee, carrying mechanized warfare to greater operational capabilities. Soviet military theory still thought in terms of “an army of invasion,” a first-echelon force that would fight frontier battles while man forces deployed to join the conflict. But Germany was already mobilized and was deploying its main operational forces along the Soviet-German border, hereby making the initial period of war potentially decisive. Soviet senior commanders focused exclusively on the conduct of operations to the exclusion of strategic questions, which were left in the hands of the communist and state political elite and de facto in Stalin’s hands. The Soviet Union for all its centralization did not achieve what Aleksandr Svechin called the key to strategic conduct of modern war, the creation of the integral commander, combining political, military, and economic elites with sufficient understanding in each realm to effective plan and conduct war. As Kokoshin points out, neither did Nazi Germany achieve such strategic leadership. Instead, it had a political megalomaniac set upon a war of annihilation on a scale that neither his state nor his armed forces were prepared carry to decision. The people of the Soviet Union and the German nation itself became the victims of that miscalculation (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 17). Such is the stuff of tragedy. And 70 years after the event, it would seem time to move beyond mythology and sensationalism to simply account for human losses inflicted as a result.