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To the 60th Anniversary of liberation. Liberation from what?
Serhiy HRABOVSKY, deputy editor in chief of the Suchasnist Magazine,
describes the year when Ukraine was liberated from the German
occupation but remained in the clutches of the soviet totalitarian regime.
Ukraine became one of the major battlefields of the Second World War as early as September 1939 when the German armoured units, thrusting from the west, and the Red Army armoured units and cavalry pushing from the east, crushed Poland. Western Ukraine got caught in between the two thrusts and was “liberated” by the Red Army. In 1940, the Red Army occupied Bessarabia (Moldavia) and Bukovyna, then Rumania’s dominions. Bukovyna, which was mostly populated by Ukrainians, had been under Rumanian domination for several centuries. Though the occupation of Western Ukraine was in compliance with the secret protocol of the Soviet-German Pact signed in August 1939, both Hitler and Stalin, these two “arch friends” distrustful of each other, began preparing for war. Hitler managed to finish his war preparations ahead of Stalin and struck first. Ukraine was particularly badly hit.
In 1941, the Red Army in Ukraine suffered catastrophic defeats fighting against the invaders. On June 22 1941, the German offensive was launched by three army groups; in the south, the army group, under Rundstedt, with an armoured group under Kleist, advanced from southern Poland into Ukraine against Kyiv, whence it was to wheel southeastward to the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The invasion along a 1,800-mile front took the Soviet leadership completely by surprise and caught the Red Army in an unprepared and partially demobilized state. Rundstedt and Kleist had made short work of the foremost Soviet defenses stronger though they were than anywhere else. A new Soviet front (army group) south of Kyiv was broken by the end of July; and in the next fortnight the Germans swept down to the Black Sea mouths of the Buh and Dnipro rivers to converge with Rumania’s simultaneous offensive. Kleist was then ordered to wheel northward from Ukraine, Guderian southward from Smolensk, for a pincer movement around the soviet forces behind Kyiv; and by the end of September the claws of the encircling movement had caught about 600,000 men. These gigantic encirclements were partly the fault of inept Soviet high commanders and partly the fault of Stalin, who as commander in chief stubbornly overrode the advice of his generals and ordered his armies to stand and fight instead of allowing them to retreat eastward and regroup in preparation for a counteroffensive.
By the end of the year almost all of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. In the winter of 1941/1942, the Soviets launched a big counteroffensive and regained control of some of the Ukrainian territory. The Red Army’s winter counteroffensive continued for more than three months after its December launching, though with diminishing progress. By March 1942 it had advanced more than 150 miles in some sectors.
The German plan to launch another great summer offensive crystallized in the early months of 1942. Hitler’s generals had been awed by the prodigality with which the Soviets squandered their troops in the fighting of 1941 and the spring of 1942. By this time at least 4,000,000 Soviet troops had been killed, wounded, or captured, while German casualties totalled only 1,150,000. Before the Germans were ready for their principal offensive, the Red Army in May started a drive against Kharkiv, but this premature effort actually served the Germans’ purposes. This move not only preempted the Soviet reserves but also provoked an immediate counterstroke against its southern flank, where the Germans broke into the salient and reached the Donets River. The Germans captured 240,000 Soviet prisoners in the encirclement that followed. In May the Germans drove the Soviet defenders of the Kerch Peninsula out of the Crimea; and on June 3 the Germans began an assault against Sevastopol, which, however, held out for a month.
The Germans were delivered a devastating blow at Stalingrad at the end of 1942–early 1943 and began to roll back. But their counteroffensive of February 1943 threw back the Soviet forces that had been advancing toward the Dnipro River and by mid-March the Germans had retaken Kharkiv and Belhorod and reestablished a front on the Donets River.
After the Battle of the Kursk Salient, or Bulge, the Red Army advanced on all fronts. In September the Soviet advance was accelerated, and by the end of the month the Germans in Ukraine had been driven back to the Dnipro. By the end of the first week of October 1943, the Red Army had established several bridgeheads on the right bank of the Dnipro River. By early November the Red Army had reached the mouth of the Dnipro, and the Germans in the Crimea were isolated. Kyiv, fell to Vatutin on November 6. Vatutin’s forces from the Zhytomyr – Korosten sector advanced westward across the prewar Polish frontier on January 4 1944. Vatutin’s left wing, wheeled southward to converge with Konev’s right, so that 10 German divisions were encircled near Korsun, on the Dnipro line south of Kyiv.
The fighting in Ukraine was particularly fierce — the Germans had about 40 percent of all their infantry divisions and about 70 percent of their armored units fighting at the Ukrainian fronts, and the Soviets concentrated over 40 percent of their infantry and up to 80 percent of their armored and mechanized units in Ukraine. Stalin, after the earlier failures to achieve large-scale success in recapturing Ukraine, urged his generals to mount a major offensive and in March 1944 saw a triple thrust by the Red Army. Odesa fell to the Red Army on April 10 and on May 9 the Germans in the Crimea abandoned Sevastopol, caught as they were between Soviet pincers from the mainland north of the isthmus and from the east across the Strait of Kerch.
Thus in the spring of 1944 Ukraine saw arguably the heaviest fighting of the Second World War: about 4 million soldiers, 45,500 cannons and grenade launchers, 4200 tanks and self-propelled guns, over 4000 aircraft were involved in fighting at the Ukrainian fronts on both sides. On April 1944, the Soviet troops reached the Ukrainian border in the west in Bukovyna, but it took several more months of intensive fighting before in the fall of 1944 the entire territory of Ukraine was freed from the Germans. In Western Ukraine the Red Army faced not only the Germans — the Ukrainian Insurrection Army fought both the Germans and the Soviets.
Liberators or invaders?
The official Soviet history books claimed that the Red Army liberated Ukraine. But there is another point of view, that of the Ukrainian nationalists who claim that the Red Army came to Ukraine to conquer it rather than liberate. Whose claim is closer to the truth?
First, let’s turn to some documents, reminiscences and opinions of historians and those who are in a position to pass judgment.
An excerpt from a German soldier’s letter written in 1944: “The Red Army mobilizes all the population in the areas it recaptured. Battalions are formed from these mobilized civilians and are used to increase the bulk of their attacking forces. The Soviets did not care whether these recruits had had any military training at all, that most of them had no weapons and that many of them even had no boots. The POWs we captured said that they were expected to take the weapons of those who had them and who were killed. The Soviets accused these unarmed people of collaboration with us and were to pay with their lives for this accusation.”
Professor Boris Sokolov from Moscow, 2003: “Those who were called up in the areas which had been temporarily occupied [by the Germans], particularly in the western lands [of Ukraine] were looked upon as potential traitors. They were driven into battle as cattle is driven to the slaughter. The idea was to use these recruits, nicknamed “black infantry,” for wearing the Germans out and make them use a lot of their ammunition so that the fresh regular troops would have much less trouble in knocking the Germans out of their oppositions. These [“black infantry”] people were not even issued uniforms or rifles. Why should these things be wasted if these miserable people were doomed to die anyway in the very first engagement? Besides, their deaths meant that the Soviet NKVD secret police would have less work to do after the war was over.”
Marshal Konev, 1973: “Men from the areas newly liberated [from the Germans] voluntarily joined the regular forces engaged in fighting the enemy. For example, in the village of Kvitka alone about 500 men joined the 180th Infantry Division and immediately engaged the attacking enemy at the outskirts of their village.” Konev, whom we also mentioned earlier, wrote his memoirs at the time when no one, marshals included, could express themselves freely and uncensored. The Soviets used the word “voluntarily” in their very peculiar manner: “collectivization” of the countryside in the late 1920s was described as “voluntary” whereas in fact it was forced and cost millions of lives; in the Terror of 1935–1937, victims of the regime confessed “voluntarily” to crimes they had not committed after terrible torture was inflicted upon them; the rank-and-file Soviet citizens “voluntarily” bought bonds issued by the state knowing they would never get their money back. There were many other instances when people were coerced by the Soviet regime into “voluntary” sacrifices. George Orwell, in writing his 1984, must have had in mind this Soviet specific use of words inventing his “newspeak.” There is another thing worth commenting in the quoted passage from Konev’s memoirs — these “volunteers” were evidently given rifles but surely there was no time to teach them how to use them, let alone instruct them in the gruesome art of warfare.
All the evidence we possess suggests that we are talking not of occasional, separate instances but of a generally practiced behaviour of the Red Army in the “liberated” areas of the Ukrainian territory. Millions of Ukrainians who were looked upon as second-rate cannon fodder must have died as a result of such practices. Is it the way that liberators should treat the liberated? Does it not look very much like genocide of the Ukrainian people?
Now let’s turn to some of the hard facts which unequivocally reveal the way Ukraine was “cleansed” by the “liberators.” On January 7 1944, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) issued a decree which in part said that “all those who have been found to have abetted the enemy in the territory of Ukraine must be arrested with confiscation of their property and deported to the Chornogorsky special camp [in the Land of Krasnoyarsky Kray, Russia].” Anyone who had remained “in the territories temporarily occupied by the enemy” and worked in the industrial or management sectors run by the Germans could be regarded as “enemy abettors.”
In March 1944, the NKVD issues another ukase: “The families that harbour the outlawed OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] members and the families, members of which have been sentenced as OUN members, are to be registered and then deported to the remote areas of the USSR.”
On June 22 1944 secret Order # 0078/42, signed on the behalf of the Soviet leadership by Marshal Zhukov, deputy head of the Stavka (Soviet High Command with Stalin at its head — tr.) and Beria, People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs, was issued. In that infamous document the sins of the Ukrainian nation before the USSR were listed and all the Ukrainians who had stayed “in the territories temporarily occupied by the enemy” were “to be deported to the remote areas of the USSR”, (since all of the territory of Ukraine was “temporarily” occupied — did it mean then that all of the Ukrainians were to be deported?); those who collaborated with the Germans in any way were to be deported ahead of others. The next in line for deportation were those who worked for the Germans or provided some services. The deportations were to be carried out in secret; those who were called up for service in the Red Army from among the population “in the territories temporarily occupied by the enemy” were to be kept under constant secret police surveillance.
The Soviet historians and politicians insist (and those who have inherited their ideology continue to do so) that no such order was issued and that it is “a concoction” of Nazi propaganda. The Germans did distribute leaflets, dropping them from their planes, with the text of this order. The Germans could have obtained this order through their channels and made it public. Not always Nazi propaganda told lies — didn’t Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, for example, tell the truth about the massacre by the Soviets of Polish officers in Katyn? Stalin’s intention to deport the Ukrainian people is verified by several independent sources such as memoirs of Khrushchev and of Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian politician. Some of the formerly high-ranking Soviet officials confirm Stalin’s intention to do away with the Ukrainian resistance once and for all. For instance, talking to Felix Chuyev, a Moscow writer, the former People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR General Ryasny said: “The text of this order was delivered to me by one of the deputies of the Minister for Internal Affairs of the USSR. It said in part that for active OUN resistance to the Red Army, for armed struggle, for hostile attitude toward the Soviet people in general, Comrade Stalin ordered to deport all the Ukrainians to hell, or more concretely to Siberia. My subordinates have packed several trains with them [to be deported] but later the order was revoked.”
According to some sources, Khrushchev begged Stalin, literally groveling at his feet on the floor and hugging Stalin’s boots, to rescind the order. But there is no clear indication that in fact it was rescinded. In the post-war years up to 1952, 200,000 families (it translates into about 800,000 people) were deported from Western Ukraine alone to remote areas of the Soviet Union for forced labour (in the Soviet newspeak — “to take part in communist construction”). There are no even approximate figures how many people were deported from other parts of Ukraine. According to the NKVD archives, about 5,000 OUN members were arrested in the Land of Dnipropetrovshchyna alone. And as we remember, being arrested as an OUN member meant that the whole family which the arrested OUN member came from were deported too. In the second half of the 1940s, about the third of the inmates of the gulag concentration camps were Ukrainians which, in percentage, was much higher than the percentage of Ukrainians in the population of the whole Soviet Union.
This is how liberation from “the Nazi German invaders” looked from the Ukrainian perspective.
Between two fires
We return to the events of 1944. The territory of Ukraine was completely “liberated” in the fall of 1944 during the so-called Eastern-Carpathian Operation which was launched in September 1944. Its aim was to break through the German defenses in the Carpathians in several days and penetrate into the plain beyond the Carpathians in order to provide armed assistance to the Slovak insurrection against the occupying Germans. Only five days were allotted for crossing the Carpathians but the Red Army failed to accomplish this objective and the insurrection was crushed. The Red Army units involved in the operation had not been trained for a military action in the mountains and in the ill-prepared frontal attack their losses were in excess of 120,000 men, or 30 percent of their strength at the beginning of the attack. The attacking units lost almost 500 tanks and self-propelled guns, almost a thousand artillery pieces and mortars and almost two hundred planes. The operation lasted for two months and the Red Army occupied the territories part of which before the war had been under Czechoslovakia. These Transcarpathian lands were heavily populated by people of Ukrainian descent and on November 26 they were declared to be “a constituent part of the Ukrainian SSR.” The final integration of some of the Transcarpathian territories into the Soviet Union took place in 1945. On October 28 1944 the railroad station Tchop on the Western border of Ukraine fell to the Red Army and this date became the date of “the final liberation of Ukraine from the Nazi German occupants.”
Now we shall turn to two historians for the assessment of the situation the Ukrainian people found themselves in when they were squeezed between two totalitarian monsters.
The British historian Professor Hugh Trevor Roper writes that some people continue to think that Stalin and Hitler were two completely different phenomena — one of them being an ultra-right dictator, and the other one an extreme-left dictator. Both of them, according to Professor Trevor Roper, had much more in common than is usually thought; both were thirsty for power based on the same principles and supported by similar methods; when they started fighting each other it was a struggle of two strong adversaries rather than a confrontation of irreconcilable political antagonists. Both were fascinated with each other, both studied each other’s methods and means of staying in power; both hated the western civilization of the twentieth century and both were bent on destroying it.
The Russian historian Professor Sokolov has this to say: “People of the occupied territories suffered heavier losses and went through much greater suffering than the rest of the Soviet population. Dozens of millions of people who had lived under the terrible, inhuman conditions of German occupation, after they were liberated found that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Untold numbers of them were deported or put into concentration camps; millions who were called up for service in the Red Army were sent untrained to be butchered by the German machine and artillery fire. Those who had been lucky to survive, were branded for many years as “those who had stayed in the territories temporarily occupied by Nazi Germany” [by the Soviet standards it immediately put on the KGB “list of suspicious characters” — tr.). For decades after the war the Soviet citizens had to inform the authorities when they were being hired for jobs or were planning to go abroad as tourists or on business whether they or their relatives had stayed “in the territories temporarily occupied…” The victory in the Second World War was a victory achieved by one totalitarian regime over another one, a personal victory of Stalin over Hitler. On the final count, the [Soviet] people have lost the war though they still think that they have won it.”
In view of all this we can say that “liberation of Ukraine” 60 years ago was in fact only “a semi-liberation” of this country — it got rid of one totalitarian oppressor to find itself under domination of another one. The full liberation came on August 1991 when Ukraine proclaimed itself at long last a sovereign state.
All of these pictures were taken during World War II
(photos from various archives).
The people you see in these photographs had one native land
Veterans of the Ukrainian Insurrection Army (two top photographs)
Red Army veterans (the bottom photograph) were prepared