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The Soviet Union in World War II

The Soviet Union in World War II

Engaged in a border war with Japan in the Far East and fearing the German advance in the west, the Soviet government in 1939 began secret negotiations for a non-aggression pact with Germany, meanwhile continuing negotiations, begun earlier, with France and Britain for an alliance against Germany. In August 1939 it suddenly announced the conclusion of a Soviet-German pact of friendship and non-aggression. This pact contained a secret clause providing for the partition of Poland and for Soviet and German spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. On September 1 Germany invaded Poland, thereby provoking declarations of war by Great Britain and France and launching World War II. Sixteen days later, the Red Army crossed the Polish frontier, took possession of eastern Poland, and began the Sovietization of the occupied areas. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia. On September 29, the German and Soviet governments signed a treaty demarcating their so-called spheres of interest in Poland. The treaty acknowledged the supremacy of each power in its respective sphere and provided for joint resistance to interference from third parties.

The pact with Hitler signalled the opening of a new phase in the development of the USSR. In the immediately preceding years the central emphasis of Soviet policy had been on "building socialism", that is, on the industrialization of the country. The seizure of eastern Poland was the first of a series of territorial annexations that launched a new expansionist phase of Soviet policy. The Polish annexation was soon followed by domination of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Non-aggression pacts, imposed on the Baltic states, gave the Soviet Union the right to station troops on their soil.

The Winter War with Finland

Also during the fall of 1939, the Soviet government demanded of Finland that it cede territory on the Karelian Isthmus north-east of Leningrad and permit the USSR to establish a naval base on the Finnish coast of the Gulf of Finland. Rejection by the Finnish government of the Soviet demands led to the undeclared Russo-Finnish War, which began with the Soviet invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939. After a valiant but futile resistance, the Finns were overcome by the immensely superior forces of the Soviet Union. The war ended on March 12, 1940.

By the treaty terms signed on that day, the Soviet Union acquired the Karelian territories and the port of Viborg, as well as other strategic and economic advantages.

Expansion in the Baltic and the Balkans

Soviet expansion continued during 1940. On June 15-16 the USSR demanded free passage of Soviet troops and the formation of pro-Soviet governments in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Without waiting for acceptance of these demands, the Red Army occupied the countries. Soviet puppet governments were established, and all anti-Soviet elements were suppressed. By decrees of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, issued between August 1 and August 8, the three states were annexed as Union republics.

At the same time the Soviet Union was extending its reach to the Balkans. Demands were made on Romania for the cession of Bessarabia, annexed by Romania from Soviet Russia in 1918, and for the surrender of northern Bukovina. Romania complied at the end of June 1940; the ceded territories were later incorporated into the Moldavian SSR. In the fall of 1940 the Germans established a puppet government in Romania and guaranteed the Romanian-Soviet frontier.

Still fearful of German intentions, the USSR had an interest in ending hostilities with Japan; on April 13, 1941, the two countries signed a five-year neutrality pact.

German invasion

On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, surprising Stalin, who had refused to believe that an attack was imminent. Italy and Romania declared war on the USSR the same day. Instantly the world military and political alignment was radically transformed, and the scope of the war began to assume global proportions. Germany now confronted enemies on both west and east, as in World War I. As Finland, Hungary, Albania, and other Axis satellites declared war on the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States undertook to extend material aid to the USSR. The US programme, known as Lend-Lease, ultimately provided the USSR with some $12 billion worth of equipment and food. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, the three powers became military allies. In January 1942, four months after it had pledged allegiance to the principles of the Atlantic Charter, the Soviet government and 25 other Allied governments signed a declaration formally subscribing to the programme and purposes of the Atlantic Charter and pledging their cooperation in the war against the Axis powers.

The Axis assault on the USSR was launched from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. During the late summer and fall of 1941 the Germans plunged deeply into the Soviet Union, striking at Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine.

As the Red Army reeled under the stupendous blows of the German armies, Stalin began frantic efforts to remove industrial plants and workers from the path of the invader and relocated them in and behind the Ural Mountains. Much of what could not be removed was laid waste in accordance with a "scorched-earth" policy.

For a time the German blitzkrieg appeared successful, as millions of Soviet soldiers were encircled and annihilated or captured. In the Baltic states, Belorussia and the Ukraine, the invaders met with a friendly reception from those who had suffered most under the Stalinist yoke. The atrocities of the Germans, however, stiffened Soviet resistance. The advance on Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was checked in September 1941, but the city was besieged until January 1944; casualties there ultimately exceeded 1,250,000. The advance on Moscow was stopped in October 1941.

The Battle of Stalingrad

In the south the Germans were more successful; they took the entire Ukraine, and pressed on towards the Volga to sever Moscow and Leningrad from the Caucasus and south-west Asia. They were finally halted and defeated in the epic Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgorad) (August 1942 through January 1943). This battle was the turning point of the Russo-German war and one of the decisive engagements of world history. Thereafter the Germans were driven steadily westwards. In the spring and summer of 1944 the Baltic states and the Ukraine were practically cleared of enemy forces; by the end of August, Soviet armies were fighting in Poland and Romania. Other victories followed. On April 22, 1945, Soviet forces entered the outskirts of Berlin; three days later Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe. The war in Europe ended on May 8.

Three months later, in accordance with a secret agreement, the USSR declared war on Japan. In a series of swift moves against crumbling Japanese resistance, Soviet armies occupied most of Manchuria, northern Korea, the Kuril Islands, and the southern part of Sakhalin Island, which had been a Japanese possession. On the basis of these actions the USSR claimed a share in the victory over Japan.

Post-war Arrangements

By the end of the war, the Soviet Union was recognized as one of the great powers of the world. Stalin participated with the heads of government of the United States and Great Britain at the Tehran Conference in 1943 and at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945 to decide the overall military and political strategy of the war and a common post-war European policy.

The USSR also played a leading role in the preliminary international conferences leading to the establishment of the United Nations in 1945.

Instead of making a treaty immediately with defeated and disorganized Germany, the victorious powers temporarily designated four occupation zones. The eastern zone was assigned to the USSR. Berlin, surrounded by the Soviet zone, was divided into four sectors, and its eastern zone was also assigned to the USSR. The occupied zones were to be administered as parts of one country, with free trade among them. German territory east of a line formed by the Oder and Neisse rivers was assigned to Polish occupancy pending a final peace settlement. The northern part of East Prussia was ceded to the USSR. The Soviet Union, however, set up its own type of government in the areas assigned to it, and by 1947 the so-called Iron Curtain had been drawn to divide Eastern and parts of Central Europe from Western Europe. The USSR, having suffered enormous losses, exacted huge reparations in the form of dismantled industrial plants and the output of current production. It also benefited from the forced labour of millions of German prisoners of war.

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