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The Fourth Blow: A Revolution in Soviet Historiography

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By H.G.W. Davie

A Soviet soldier waving the Red Banner over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943 (Source: Wikimedia)

A large part of historical research is interpreting or re-interpreting a canon of known documents and evidence of varying degrees of reliability and forming these into a coherent argument. Occasionally a new document may be found or more likely re-discovered, and events such as the revelation of the existence of ULTRA by Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham in 1972 are once in a lifetime. An event like this which requires a complete re-evaluation of the historical narrative is both rare and exceptional. This has not been the experience of researchers into the Soviet Union, especially of the Second World War, who have suffered long periods of famine, with closed archives, publication of stereotyped, formulaic Russian books and using only material gleaned second hand from captured German documents or Allied intelligence reports. Discovering even basic information, such as the establishment of a Mechanised Corps, required collecting facts from a wide variety of different secondary sources with a significant element of guesswork and even then, the results were questionable.

In the sixty years since the end of the Second World War, there have been only three short periods when the door of the archives was opened to Western researchers and even then, only partially with access only to general files. The first period was in the 1960’s following Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Jospeh Stalin when Soviet authors were allowed greater freedom of expression. The second period resulted from Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy and saw American contractors such as Kent D. Lee (who ultimately founded Eastview Information Services) sent into closed Soviet archives to copy information. The third period occurred after 2000 as part of Putin’s policy of re-establishing national pride in Russians, a period that ended around the year 2005 when access to archives became much more difficult. The last two periods allowed a limited number of historians, both Russian and Western, to use the archives and this has led to significant reappraisals of the then current historiography. An idea of the scale of this change can be gained from the more than six volumes of ‘forgotten battles’ privately published by David Glantz as Forgotten Battles of the German-Soviet War (1941-1945).

Yet a potentially more significant ‘Fourth Blow’ (to coin a Stalinist phrase) occurred in mid-2015 with the publication of three websites ‘Memory of the People’ (‘Pamyat Naroda’ «Память народа»), ‘Memorial’ (‘Memorial’ «Мемориал») and ‘Feat of the People’ (‘Podvig Naroda’ «Подвиг народа»), which covered different aspects of the Soviet-German War. For military historians, by far the most significant is ‘Pamyat Naroda’ that released from the Ministry of Defence Archive (TsAMO) over 3 million documents in 2015 and a further 2 million documents in February 2018. These documents are scans of contemporary military documents, produced at the unit, Division, Army, Front and General Staff levels and covering a wide range of topics, from operations, strength and casualties, intelligence reports, logistics and transport summaries, medal citations and formal after-action reports. The site is divided up into several sections, Heroes, Combat Operations, War Graves, Military Units and Unit Documents, however, the website is cleverly designed, so that related documents appear grouped together. For instance, selecting Combat Operations brings up a listing of 266 ‘operations’ together with a map showing them both geographically and chronologically. Selecting a particular operation will bring up the Combat Reports, Award Citations, Military Units and a variety of other documents such as maps and videos relating to the operation with links to the previous and following operations in the same area. There is a decent search engine that allows Boolean search terms, searches for specific operations, by document type, dates, units and sorts by relevance and date. Once found a specific document may consist of a single page or many hundreds of pages, which can be viewed, magnified, or downloaded and displays an archival reference of at least Fond, Opis, Delo levels. Such is the significance of the continuing release of this information that Glantz in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies suggested that the:

Massive recent archival releases by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation promise to revolutionize the historiography of the Soviet-German War 1941-45.

For all this, the simple amount of information available makes it difficult to find specific details quickly and requires a certain dogged persistence when using the site. However, the popularity of the website with Russians researching missing relatives and military history enthusiasts has spawned several much more effective tools to aid research into the site. Spreadsheets in Russian give full archival titles and references with webpage links and the ability to filter by a whole range of parameters. Even more powerful, is a specific search engine available which allows searches by archival reference down to Delo level, by document name, unit, type, ID, the number and archive classification for both general documents and Combat Reports. More importantly, the engine can list any number of search results, allows them to be sorted by a variety of parameters and then allows the results to be downloaded as a spreadsheet for further sorting. The results, unlike those on the main 'Pamyat Naroda' website, show full archival reference and each result has a link that opens the document on the main website with a clever feature that puts map images from the archive on top of a more comprehensive Google map so that their location is at once apparent. When this search engine is combined with online listings of Fond references for each Directorate, Front, Army, Corps and Division of the Red Army, it only takes minutes to find the specific documents for a particular unit in any given operation.

Soviet soldiers in Polotsk, 4 July 1944 (Source: Wikimedia)

My own research has made full use of this new material in studying the logistics of the Red Army and combined it with other sources of material such as the excellent Russian Military Studies Archive, based at the Barrington Library, Cranfield University, Shrivenham, the British Library collection of Russian language books and journals and the School of Slavonic Studies Library for much of the Eastview catalogue and further journals and books. Combined with my collection of books and papers, this should potentially allow a study on any operation down to division level. However, the size of the TsAmo archive is enormous, and even 5 million documents are but a tiny fraction of the whole so that there are significant gaps in the record. For instance, the results show that the ‘Pamyat Naroda’ website has complete collections of logistical documents at Army level for only five Armies (3rd, 8th 33rd, 2nd Guards and 7th Guards Armies) and one Tank Army (2nd Tank Army) with only one of these for the 1941 period, one for 1942 and the rest for 1944. So, the chances are that if you want to study a particular unit for a specific period, then you are likely to be disappointed. In part, this represents the natural archival weeding process that discards over 90% of any cache of documents and only keeps representative samples, yet it also represents a specific agenda by the TsAMO authorities to focus attention on specific periods, locations, and operations. Nonetheless, there are real discoveries to be made. For instance, the 7th Guards Army provides detailed vehicle records for every unit in the army for large parts of the period 1943-45, and this shows that Field Armies transport fleet did not grow significantly over the course of the war and that the number of Lend Lease vehicles remained comparatively small. Likewise, there is a comprehensive study of the anti-tank defences of the 225th Rifle Division in April 1944 showing units and complete with maps showing the positions of guns.

With the rise of digital scholarship, accessing this material is easier than ever before, even for non-Russian speakers. The downloaded images can be run through document handling software such as Abbyy FineReader 14 to produce an electronic text, which in turn can be translated by Google Translate or Microsoft Translator to produce a rough draft of the text. Then specific areas of interest can be manually translated to produce a good working translation. While more laborious than reading the secondary material, the chance of genuine, discoveries should outweigh the extra effort.

This amount of information, should transform the writing of the military history of the Soviet-German War and allow a balanced assessment from both German and Soviet sides of any operation. The old method of relying solely on German accounts can no longer be considered an acceptable level of scholarship.

H.G.W. Davie is an independent researcher of the Soviet-German War in the field of logistics and transport who publishes his work in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies. His first article was published in 2017 and a further two articles are scheduled for publication later this year.

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