Stalin’s War Against His Own Troops
- The Tragic Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War in German Captivity
At dawn on June 22, 1941, began the mightiest military offensive in history: the German-led Axis attack against the Soviet Union. During the first 18 months of the campaign, about three million Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner. By the end of the conflict four years later, more than five million Soviet troops are estimated to have fallen into German hands. Most of these unfortunate men died in German captivity.
A major reason for this was the unusual nature of the war on the eastern front, particularly during the first year — June 1941–June 1942 — when vastly greater numbers of prisoners fell into German hands than could possibly be accommodated adequately. However, and as Russian journalist Teplyakov explains in the following article, much of the blame for the terrible fate of the Soviet soldiers in German captivity was due to the inflexibly cruel policy of Soviet dictator Stalin.
During the war, the Germans made repeated attempts through neutral countries and the International Committee of the Red Cross to reach mutual agreement on the treatment of prisoners by Germany and the USSR. As British historian Robert Conquest explains in his book Stalin: Breaker of Nations, the Soviets adamantly refused to cooperate:When the Germans approached the Soviets, through Sweden, to negotiate observance of the provisions of the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, Stalin refused. The Soviet soldiers in German hands were thus unprotected even in theory. Millions of them died in captivity, through malnutrition or maltreatment. If Stalin had adhered to the convention (to which the USSR had not been a party) would the Germans have behaved better? To judge by their treatment of other “Slav submen” POWs (like the Poles, even surrendering after the  Warsaw Rising), the answer seems to be yes. (Stalin’s own behavior to [Polish] prisoners captured by the Red Army had already been demonstrated at Katyn and elsewhere [where they were shot].
Another historian, Nikolai Tolstoy, affirms in The Secret Betrayal:Hitler himself urged Red Cross inspection of [German] camps [holding Soviet prisoners of war]. But an appeal to Stalin for prisoners' postal services received a reply that clinched the matter: “There are no Soviet prisoners of war. The Soviet soldier fights on till death. If he chooses to become a prisoner, he is automatically excluded from the Russian community. We are not interested in a postal service only for Germans.”
Given this situation, the German leaders resolved to treat Soviet prisoners no better than the Soviet leaders were treating the German soldiers they held. As can be imagined, Soviet treatment of German prisoners was harsh. Of an estimated three million German soldiers who fell into Soviet hands, more than two million perished in captivity. Of the 91,000 German troops captured in the Battle of Stalingrad, fewer than 6,000 ever returned to Germany.
As Teplyakov also explains here, Red Army “liberation” of the surviving Soviet prisoners in German camps brought no end to the suffering of these hapless men. It wasn’t until recently, when long-suppressed Soviet wartime records began to come to light and long-silenced voices could at last speak out, that the full story of Stalin’s treatment of Soviet prisoners became known. It wasn’t until 1989, for example, that Stalin’s grim Order No. 270 of August 16, 1941 — cited below — was first published.
“What is the most horrible thing about war?”
Marshal Ivan Bagramyan, three-time Hero of the Soviet Union Alexander Pokryshkin, and Private Nikolai Romanov, who has no battle orders or titles, all replied with just one word: “Captivity.”
“Is it more horrible than death?” I was asking soldier Nikolai Romanov a quarter of a century ago when, on the sacred day of May 9 [anniversary of the end of the war against Germany in 1945], we were drinking bitter vodka together to commemorate the souls of the Russian muzhiks who would never return to that orphaned village on the bank of the Volga.
“It’s more horrible,” he replied. “Death is your own lot. But if it’s captivity, it spells trouble for many …”
At that time, in 1965, I could not even vaguely imagine the extent of the tragedy which had befallen millions upon millions, nor did I know that that tragedy had been triggered by just a few lines from the Interior Service Regulations of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army: a Soviet soldier must not be taken prisoner against his will. And if he has been, he is a traitor to the Motherland.
How many of them were there — those “traitors"?
“During the war years,” I was told by Colonel Ivan Yaroshenko, Deputy Chief of the Central Archives of the USSR Ministry of Defense, in Podolsk near Moscow, “as many as 32 million people were soldiers, and 5,734,528 of them were taken prisoner by the enemy.”
Later I learned where this happened and when. Thus, the Red Army suffered the most tragic losses in terms of prisoners of war in the following battles: Belostok-Minsk, August 1941, 323,000; Uman, August 1941, 103,000; Smolensk-Roslavl, August 1941, 348,000; Gomel, August 1941, 30,000; Demyansk, September 1941, 35,000; Kiev, September 1941, 665,000; Luga-Leningrad, September 1941, 20,000; Melitopol, October 1941, 100,000; Vyazma, October 1941, 662,000; Kerch, November 1941, 100,000; Izyum-Kharkov, May 1942, 207,000. People were taken prisoner even in February 1945 (Hungary), 100,000.
The same archives in Podolsk hold another 2.5 million cards “missing in action” — two and a half million who never returned home. Experts believe: two million of them are still lying in Russia’s forests and marshes. And about 200,000 must be added to the list of POWs. Proof? From time to time the Podolsk archives receive a letter from somewhere in Australia or the United States: “I was taken prisoner. Request confirmation that I took part in battles against fascism.”
This person was lucky — he survived. The majority, however, had a different lot. German statistics put it on record: 280,000 person died at deportation camps and 1,030,157 were executed when trying to escape or died at factories or mines in Germany.
Many of our officers and men were killed by famine before they reached the camps. Nearly 400,000 men died in November–December 1941 alone. During the entire war there were 235,473 British and American prisoners of war in Germany — 8,348 of them died. Were our men weaker? Hardly. The reasons were different. In the West it is believed that the millions of our POWs who died in captivity fell victim not only to fascism but also to the Stalinist system itself. At least half of those who died from hunger could have been saved had Stalin not called them traitors and refused to send food parcels to them via the International Red Cross.
It can be argued how many would have survived, but it’s a fact that we left our POWs to the mercy of fate. The Soviet Union did not sign the Geneva Convention concerning the legal status of prisoners of war. Refusing to sign it was consistent with the Jesuitical nature of the “leader of the peoples.”
From Stalin’s point of view, several provisions of the Convention were incompatible with the moral and economic institutions which were inherent in the world’s “freest country.” The Convention, it turns out, did not guarantee the right to POWs as working people: low wages, no days off, no fixed working hours. Exception was also taken to the privileges fixed for some groups of POWs. In other words it should be more humane. But greater hypocrisy can hardly be imagined. What privileges were enjoyed at that very same time by millions in [Soviet] GULAG prison camps? What guarantees existed there and how many days off did they have?
In August 1941 Hitler permitted a Red Cross delegation to visit the camp for Soviet POWs in Hammerstadt. It is these contacts that resulted in an appeal to the Soviet government, requesting that it should send food parcels for our officers and men. We are prepared to fulfill and comply with the norms of the Geneva convention, Moscow said in its reply, but sending food in the given situation and under fascist control is the same as making presents to the enemy.
The reply came as a surprise. The Red Cross representatives had not read Stalin’s Order of the Day — Order No. 270, signed on August 16, 1941. Otherwise they would have understood how naive their requests and offers were, and how great was Stalin’s hatred for those who had found themselves behind enemy lines.
It made no difference: who, where, how and why? Even the dead were considered to be criminals. Lt.-Gen. Vladimir Kachalov, we read in the order, “being in encirclement together with the headquarters of a body of troops, displayed cowardice and surrendered to the German fascists. The headquarters of Kachalov’s groups broke out of the encirclement, the units of Kachalov’s group battled their way out of the encirclement, but Lt.-Gen. Kachalov preferred to desert to the enemy.”
General Vladimir Kachalov had been lying for 12 days in a burned out tank at the Starinka village near Smolensk, and never managed to break out to reach friendly forces. Yet this was of no concern for anyone. They were busy with something else — looking for scapegoats whom they could dump all of their anger on, looking for enemies of the people whose treachery and cowardice had again subverted the will of the great military leader.
We had to be “convinced” again and again: the top echelons of authority, the leaders, have no relation whatsoever to any tragedy, to any failure — be it the collapse of the first Five-Year Plan or the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the Dnieper. Moreover, these misfortunes cannot have objective reasons either, being due solely to the intrigues of saboteurs and the enemies of the progressive system. For decades, ever since the 1930s, we have been permanently looking for scapegoats in the wrong place, but finding them nevertheless. At that time, in the first summer of the war, plenty of them were found. And the more the better. On June 4, 1940, the rank of general was re-established in the Red Army. They were awarded to 966 persons. More than 50 were taken prisoner in the very first year of the war. Very many of them would envy their colleagues — those 150 generals who would later die on the battlefields. The torments of captivity proved to be darker than the grave. At any rate the destinies of Generals Pavel Ponedelin and Nikolai Kirillov, mentioned in the same Order No. 270, prove that this is so. They staunchly withstood their years in the German camps. In April 1945 the [western] Allies set them free and turned them over to the Soviet side. It seemed that everything had been left behind, but they were not forgiven for August 1941. They were arrested after a “state check-up": five years in the Lefortovo jail for political prisoners and execution by a firing squad on August 25, 1950.
“Stalin’s last tragic acts in his purging of the military were the accusations of betrayal and treachery he advanced in the summer of 1941 against the Western Front commanders, Pavlov and Klimovskikh, and several other generals among whom, as it became clear later, there were also people who behaved in an uncompromising way to the end when in captivity.” This assessment is by the famous chronicler of the war, Konstantin Simonov. It appeared in the 1960s, but during the wartime ordeals there was indomitable faith: the prisoners of war (both generals and soldiers) were guilty. No other yardstick existed.
International law states that military captivity is not a crime, “a prisoner of war must be as inviolable as the sovereignty of a people, and as sacred as a misfortune.” This is for others, whereas for us there was a different law — Stalin’s Order No. 270.
If … “instead of organizing resistance to the enemy, some Red Army men prefer to surrender, they shall be destroyed by all possible means, both ground-based and from the air, whereas the families of the Red Army men who have been taken prisoner shall be deprived of the state allowance [that is, rations] and relief.”
The commanders and political officers … “who surrender to the enemy shall be considered malicious deserters, whose families are liable to be arrested [just] as the families of deserters who have violated the oath and betrayed their Motherland.”
Just a few lines, but they stand for the hundreds of thousands of children and old folks who died from hunger only because their father or son happened to be taken prisoner.
Just a few lines, but they amount to a verdict on those who never even thought of a crime, who were only waiting for a letter from the front.
Having read these lines, I came to understand the amount of grief they carried for absolutely innocent people, just as I understood the secret sorrow of the words Private Nikolai Romanov told me a quarter of a century ago: “Your own captivity spells trouble for many.”
I understood why the most horrible thing for our soldiers was not to be killed, but to be reported “missing in action,” and why before each battle, especially before the assault crossing of rivers, they asked one another: “Buddy, if I get drowned, say that you saw me die.”
Setting their feet on a shaky pontoon and admitting, as it were, that they could be taken prisoner solely through their own fault, they mentally glanced back not out of fear for their own lives — they were tormented and worried over the lives of those who had stayed back at home.
Soviet prisoners of war in a German POW camp. This photograph was found by Red Army troops among the belongings of dead German soldiers.
But what was the fault of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers encircled near Vyazma when Hitler launched Operation Taifun — his advance on Moscow? “The most important thing is not to surrender your positions,” the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief ordered them. And the army was feverishly digging trenches facing the west, when panzer wedges were already enveloping them from the east.
General Franz Halder, Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht’s ground forces, made the following entry in his diary on this occasion: “October 4 — 105 days of the war. The enemy has continued everywhere holding the unattacked sectors of the front, with the result that deep envelopment of these enemy groups looms in the long term.”
Who was supposed to see these wedges? A soldier from his tiny foxhole or Stalin from the GHQ? And what was the result? Who was taken prisoner? Who betrayed the Motherland? The soldier did.
In May 1942, as many as 207,047 officers and men (the latest figure) found themselves encircled at Kharkov. When Khrushchev held power, it was Stalin that was considered to be guilty of this. When Brezhnev took over, the blame was again put on Khrushchev who, incidentally, had been merely warned by Stalin for that defeat which opened the road for the Germans to the Volga. But who then betrayed the Motherland, who was taken prisoner? The soldier.
May 19, 1942, is the date of our army’s catastrophe in the Crimea. “The Kerch Operation may be considered finished: 150,000 POWs and a large quantity of captured equipment.” This is a document from the German side. And here is a document from the Soviet side cited by Konstantin Simonov: “I happened to be on the Kerch Peninsula in 1942. The reason for the humiliating defeat is clear to me. Complete mistrust of the army and front commanders, Mekhlis' stupid willfulness and arbitrary actions. He ordered that no trenches be dug, so as not to sap the soldiers' offensive spirit.”
Stalin’s closest aide and then Chief of the Main Political Administration (GPU), Lev Mekhlis, the first Commissar of the Army and Navy, returned to Moscow after that defeat. And what did the soldier do? The soldier stayed in captivity.
There is no denying that no war can do without treachery and traitors. They could also be found among POWs. But if compared with the millions of their brothers in captivity, they amounted to no more than a drop in the ocean. Yet this drop existed. There is no escaping this. Some were convinced by leaflets like this one:
The Murderous Balance of Bolshevism:
Killed during the years of the Revolution and Civil War — 2,200,000 persons.
Died from famine and epidemics in 1918 –1921 and in 1932–1933 — 14,500,000 persons.
Perished in forced labor camps — 10,000,000 persons.
Some even put it this way: I am not going into action against my people, I am going into action against Stalin. But the majority joined fascist armed formations with only one hope: as soon as the first fighting starts, I'll cross the line to join friendly troops. Not everyone managed to do this, although the following fact is also well known. On September 14, 1943, when the results of the Kursk Battle were summed up, Hitler explained the defeat by the “treachery of auxiliary units": indeed, at that time 1,300 men — practically a whole regiment — deserted to the Red Army’s side on the southern sector. “But now I am fed up with this,” Hitler said. “I order these units to be disarmed immediately and this whole gang to be sent to the mines in France.”
It has to be admitted that it was Hitler who rejected longer than all others the proposals to form military units from among Soviet POWs, although as early as September 1941 Colonel von Tresckow had drawn up a plan for building up a 200,000-strong Russian anti-Soviet army. It was only on the eve of the Stalingrad Battle, when prisoners of war already numbered millions, that the Führer gave his consent at last.
All in all, it became possible to form more than 180 units. Among them the number of Russian formations was 75; those formed from among Kuban, Don and Terek Cossacks — 216; Turkistan and Tatar (from Tataria and the Crimean Tatars) — 42; Georgian — 11; peoples of the Northern Caucasus — 12; Azerbaijani — 13; Armenian — 8.
The numerical strength of these battalions by their national affiliation (data as of January 24, 1945) was the following: Latvians — 104,000; Tatars (Tataria) — 12,500, Crimean Tatars — 10,000; Estonians — 10,000; Armenians — 7,000; Kalmyks — 5,000. And the Russians? According to the official figures of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s “government,” as of May 20, 1945, there were the 599th Russian Brigade — 13,000, the 600th — 12,000, and the 650th — 18,000 men.
If all of this is put together (as we are doing now), it would seem that there were many who served on the other side. But if we remember that only 20 percent of these forces took part in hostilities, that they were recruited from among millions of POWs, that thousands upon thousands crossed the front line to return to friendly troops, the brilliance of the figures will clearly fade.
One detail — the Reich’s special services displayed special concern over forming non-Russian battalions as if they knew that they would be required, especially after the war when whole peoples, from babies to senile old men, came to be accused of treachery. And it made no difference — whether you were kept in a prison camp or served in the army — all the same you were an enemy.
But the POWs themselves were not yet aware of this — everything still lay ahead. The hangover after liberation would set in a little later. Both for those who themselves escaped from the camps (500,000 in 1944, according to the estimate of Germany’s Armaments Minister Speer) and for those who after liberation by Red Army units (more than a million officers and men) again fought in its ranks.
For too long a time we used to judge the spring of 1945 solely by the humane instructions issued by our formidable marshals — allot milk for Berlin’s children, feed women and old men. It was strange reading those documents, and at the same time chewing steamed rye instead of bread, and eating soup made of dog meat (only shortly before her death did my grandmother confess she had slaughtered dogs to save us from hunger). Reading those orders, I was prepared to cry from tender emotions: how noble it was to think that way and to show such concern for the German people.
And who of us knew that at the same time the marshals received different orders from the Kremlin with respect to their own people?
[To the] Commanders of the troops of the First and Second Byelorussian Fronts [Army Groups], and the First, Second, Third and Fourth Ukrainian Fronts …
The Military Councils of the Fronts shall form camps in [rear-zone] service areas for the accommodation and maintenance of former prisoners of war and repatriated Soviet citizens — each camp for 10,000 persons. All in all, there shall be formed: at the Second Byelorussian Front — 15 [camps]; at the First Byelorussian Front — 30; at the First Ukrainian Front — 30; at the Fourth Ukrainian Front — 5; at the Second Ukrainian Front — 10; at the Third Ukrainian Front — 10 camps …
The check-up [of the former prisoners of war and repatriated citizens] shall be entrusted as follows: former Red Army servicemen — to the bodies of SMERSH counter-intelligence; civilians — to the commissions of the NKVD, NKGB, SMERSH …
I phoned Col.-Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, Chief of the Institute of Military History under the USSR Ministry of Defense [and author of Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy]: “Where did you find that order? Both at the State Security Committee and at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs they told me that they had nothing of the kind.”
“This one is from Stalin’s personal archives. The camps existed, which means that there are also papers from which it is possible to learn everything: who, where, what they were fed, what they thought about. Most likely, the documents are in the system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The convoy troops were subordinate to this government department. It included the Administration for the Affairs of Former Prisoners of War. Make a search.”
And search I did. Maj.-Gen. Pyotr Mishchenkov, First Deputy Chief of the present-day Main Administration for Corrective Affairs (GUID) at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, was sincerely surprised: “This is the first I heard about this. I would be glad to help, but there is nothing I can do about it. I know that there was a colony in the Chunsky district of the Irkutsk Region. People got there after being checked up at the filtering camps mentioned in Stalin’s order. They were all convicted under Article 58 — high treason.”
One colony … Where are the others, what happened to their inmates? After all, as many as 100 camps were at work. The only thing I managed to find out — by October 1, 1945, they had “filtered” 5,200,000 Soviet citizens; 2,034,000 were turned over by the Allies — 98 percent of those who stayed in Germany’s western occupation zones, mostly POWs. How many of them returned home? And how many went, in accordance with Order No. 270, into Soviet concentration camps? I don’t yet have any authentic documents in my possession. Again only Western estimates and some eyewitness accounts.
I spoke to one such eyewitness on the Kolyma. A former “traitor to the Motherland,” but then the accountant general of the Srednekan gold field, Viktor Masol, told me how in June 1942 in the Don steppes after the Kharkov catastrophe they — unarmed, hungry, ragged Red Army men — were herded like sheep by German tanks into crowds of many thousands. Freight cars took them to Germany, where he mixed concrete for the Reich, and three years later they were sent in freight cars from Germany across the whole Soviet Union — as far as the Pacific Ocean. In the port of Vanino they were loaded into the holds of the Felix Dzerzhinsky steamship [named after the founder of the Soviet secret police], which had previously borne the name of Nikolai Yezhov, [a former] People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs [that is, the NKVD or secret police], bound for Magadan. During the week they were on their way, they were given food only once — barrels with gray flour, covered with boiling water, were lowered through the hatch. And they, burning their hands and crushing one another, snatched this mess and stuffed it, choking, into their mouths: most often people go crazy with hunger. Those who died on the way were thrown overboard in the Nagayev Bay, the survivors marched into the taiga, again behind the barbed wire of — now — their native prison camps.
Just a few survived and returned. But even they were like lepers. Outcasts. How many times they heard: “Better a bullet through your head …”
Many former POWs thought about a bullet in the 1940s–1950s. Both when they were reminded from the militia office — “you are two days overdue” (all the POWs were kept on a special register with mandatory reports on strictly definite days), and when people told them: “Keep silent. You whiled away your time in captivity on fascist grub …”
And they did keep silent.
In 1956, after Khrushchev’s report, it became possible to speak about Stalin. Former POWs were no longer automatically enemies of the people, but not quite yet defenders of the Motherland. Something in between. On paper it was one way, but in life everything was different.
Two years ago, on the eve of V-Day, I interviewed Col.-Gen. Alexei Zheltov, Chairman of the Soviet War Veterans' Committee. As befits the occasion, he was telling me with tears in his eyes about the holiday, about a Soviet soldier, an accordion in his hands, in the streets of spring-time Vienna. And I don’t know what made me ask him, well, and former prisoners of war, are they war veterans?
“No, they are not veterans. Don’t you have anything else to write about? Look how many real soldiers we have …”
If Alexei Zheltov, the tried and tested veteran commissar, were the only one to think that way, that wouldn’t be so bad. The trouble is that this philosophy is preached by the majority of the top brass. Both those who have long retired on pensions and who still hold command positions. For nearly 40 years we have been “orphaned,” have lived without “the father of the peoples,” but we sacredly revere his behests, sometimes not even noticing this ourselves.
Human blood is not water. But is has also proved to be a perfect conserving agent for Stalin’s morality. It has become even thicker. It has not disappeared even after several generations. It lives on. And not infrequently it triumphs. Try and raise the problem of prisoners of war (even before me this theme was taken up on more than one occasion, so I'm no discoverer here) — the reaction is always the same: better talk about something else. And if you fail to heed a “piece of good advice,” they may even start to threaten: “Don’t you dare!”
To whom should one address his requests? To the government or the Supreme Soviet? What beautiful walls of the Kremlin should one knock on to demand that soldierly dignity be returned to former POWs, that their good name be restored?
Suppose your knocking has been heard. They will ask: what are you complaining about? What resolution do you take exception to? Oh, not a resolution. You are only worried over the past? How strange …
But it’s even more strange that we still have real soldiers, real heros and real people, meaning that there are also those who are not real. To this day our life is still like a battle front: by force of habit, we continue putting people in slots — these on this side, others over there. There seems to be neither law nor Order No. 270 any longer, like there is no one and nothing to fight against, but all the same whatever was once called black may at best become only gray. But by no means white.
… May 9: the whole country cries and rejoices. Veterans don their medals and pour out wine, remembering their buddies. But even in this circle a former POW is the last to hold out his glass and the last to take the floor.
What then is to be done? What should we do to squeeze the Stalinoid slave out of ourselves?
About the author
Yuri Teplyakov, born in 1937, studied journalism at Moscow State University. He worked as a journalist for the Moscow daily newspapers Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda, and for the APN information agency. From 1980 to 1993 he worked for the weekly Moscow News. In writing this article, he expresses thanks to Mikhail Semir-yaga, D.Sc. (History), “who provided me with considerable material, which he found in German archives. As for the documents of Soviet filtering camps, I shall go on with my searches.” This article originally appeared in Moscow News, No. 19, 1990, and is reprinted here by special arrangement.
From the Journal of Historical Review, July/August, 1994; vol. 14 no. 4: p. 4.