Russia yesterday marked 70 years since the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, an event that apparently caught then-Russian -dictator Josef Stalin wholly unprepared and is still remembered by Moscow with deep unease.
The German Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa in the early hours of June 22, 1941, and would sweep through vast tracts of Soviet territory almost to the point of taking Moscow before finally suffering defeats over the winter.
Russia and most other former Soviet states see June 22, 1941, as the true start of World War II, which is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Within months, key Soviet cities like Kiev and Rostov-on-Don were under Nazi occupation.
In contrast to the military parades and bombastic speeches that mark the May 9 Victory Day -remembering the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in 1945, commemorations of this anniversary were somber.
In cities all over Russia and other republics, people marked the day simply by holding up a candle at mass public meetings, while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Moscow.
A small group of mostly elderly people observed a minute’s silence at the eternal flame at the Kremlin wall at 4am, the hour when summer dawn broke and the first German tanks tore through the porous Soviet border.
Russian society has only in recent years started to realign its remembrance of the heroism of Soviet people in the war with the evidence that Stalin’s brutality and naivety greatly handicapped the USSR at the start of the war.
Stalin, who two years earlier had overseen the signing of a notorious non-aggression pact with the Nazis in Moscow, had been sure that Adolf Hitler’s forces would not attack the USSR in 1941, Western historians believe.
Meanwhile, Stalin’s ruthless purges in the mid-1930s, which cut swathes through the Soviet elite, also took out much of the military leadership who would have been involved in planning defense against the Nazis.
“Would the Fuhrer have dared attack France in 1940 if he had feared the Red Army?” the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper asked.
After the shock of the invasion, Stalin retreated to his dacha, leaving trusty foreign affairs supremo Vyacheslav Molotov to address the Soviet people on June 22 and only giving a radio address himself on July 3.
“Molotov’s radio address is one of the biggest enigmas of the first day of the war,” the mass circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets told its readers. “Why did Stalin, the leader, the head of the government and the country, himself not appear?”
The mistakes of Stalin at the outbreak of war have long sat uncomfortably with the modern Russian state’s bid to promote the Soviet victory in the war as a great national achievement of Russia.
There has been evidence of a cautious change under Medvedev’s presidency, who has condemned Stalin’s crimes more boldly than his predecessor, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
At an unusual news conference this week, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the successor to the KGB, unveiled declassified documents showing how Stalin had been repeatedly warned the outbreak of war was imminent.
SVR Major General Lev Sotskov said that the documents showed that Stalin had been kept amply informed of Hitler’s intentions to launch the attack, but had paid little attention.