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The military doctrine of the Red Army on the eve of the Great Patriotic War: myths and facts

Soviet historiography did not provide a complete picture of the history of the Great Patriotic War. Victories scored by the Red Army oftentimes were excessively praised and glorified, while its failures and lost battles were mentioned only in passing--as a general rule, without any indication as to the original lineup and balance of forces, own losses and mistakes by military leadership, especially in so far as concerned the coverage of the prewar period and the initial period of the war. Ledokol [Icebreaker] by V. Rezun (Suvorov) struck the reader by the unprecedented manner in which it raised pertinent questions, the intensity of accusations made against unshakeable authorities, and an abundance of unexpected, hitherto unknown facts. It makes easy reading as it has a pronounced journalistic character and is far from the methodology generally adopted in military historiography. All of that made for a big public response among the readers.

Careful analysis, however, shows that many of the author's conclusions hold no water. Thus, the keynote, the pivot of the whole book is the assertion that the Red Army was an army of aggression, that it had been preparing for a preventive strike in 1941, and that Hitler had to preempt the Soviet Union. V. Rezun has no conclusive evidence, no direct proof on this score so he uses indirect, circumstantial evidence, but it is unconvincing. The only thing that it is indeed impossible to disagree with is that the Red Army's operational training, structure and weapon systems were really geared above all toward offensive action, while in the summer of 1941 a powerful force grouping was being concentrated in western military districts. But in this case the author is trying to prove the obvious.

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Yes, the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army (RKKA), and later on the Soviet Army, had an offensive military doctrine. The 1939 Field Manual thus summed it up: "Should the enemy impose a war upon us, the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army will be the most offensive of all offensive armies ever known in history." Politicians and journalists, as a general rule, used to add at this point that an aggressor would be smashed on its own territory and the Red Army would free the working people of those countries from the yoke of landowners and capitalists. That doctrine existed essentially unchanged until 1987.

Yes, from the spring of 1941 the RKKA began to raise an offensive force grouping. A map of that grouping just before the outbreak of the war can be found in the fourth volume of Istoriya Vtoroy mirovoy voyny (A History of World' War II). Military districts, armies, mechanized corps and armies moving forward from hinterland areas are shown in the map more completely and accurately than Ledokol's author did. There is also a map of the disposition of fronts and armies by the onset of combat operations as well as of changes in the force grouping that occurred in the course of battles in border areas. Here, too, V. Rezun makes some military/historical mistakes that could have been forgiven had the author not put an equals sign between the Red Army's offensive doctrine and its supposedly absolute readiness to be the first to start a war in 1941.

It has been proved beyond any doubt that the Soviet leadership did not have a plan to attack Germany (let alone to destroy, conquer or enslave it) that could be seen as analogous to Plan Barbarossa. There was a plan of active offensive operations designed to rout Werhmacht's offensive force grouping, possibly outside Russian borders. Depending on the prevailing political and military situation, that plan could have been carried out by delivering a preemptive strike on an aggressor preparing to attack, by delivering a counterstroke or a retaliatory strike after a brief phase of defensive and holding combat action in a border area or through a combination of the aforementioned methods of strategic action.

That was in theory. In reality, however, by the summer of 1941, the RKKA was not ready either for a strategic offensive or especially for strategic defense, as evidenced by, among other things, extensive memoir literature by German authors.

If V. Rezun's logic is followed and it is accepted that Hitler preempted the Soviet Union by just two weeks, that army, effectively ready for a strategic offensive operation, should have, at the very least, carried out several successful counterstrokes on the operational level, which, as is known, was not, however, the case.

It is quite possible that in the subsequent period, contingent on an international situation favorable to the Soviet Union, Stalin could have come to the conclusion about the expediency of a preventive strike with far-reaching objectives. History, however, does not know the oblique mood: It does not abide hypothesizing on what would have been. We should only assess the actual course of past events, without any conjectures or unjustifiable assumptions.

A thorough analysis of Ledokol's content also calls into question the author's competence and scrupulousness. A careful study of arguments made in the book shows that V. Rezun's principal method of operation is to put forward an unexpected and startling thesis that he then selects "facts" to back up with. In so doing, he is not loath to juggle the facts or deliberately tell semi-truths or even outright lies. Add here the author's rather limited knowledge of military matters and his dilettantism in presenting historical material. Following are some of the most glaring examples of V. Rezun's "revelations" in the military-technical area, the military art, and contemporary history, accompanied by some comments on the author's style and manner of work.


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