below Polish soldiers marching to the front during the Battle of Warsaw, August 1920.

The USSR at 100

Graham Goodlad analyses the landmark engagements that forged a communist state.


There were two revolutions in Russia in 1917. In March, tens of thousands of striking workers, peasants, and soldiers — exhausted by the privations of the First World War — took to the streets of Petrograd (St Petersburg) in protest. This set in motion a chain of events that within days would lead to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, and bring an end to the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia since 1613. Months later, as the country’s economy worsened still further amid the chaos, the Bolsheviks, one of several socialist groups demanding radical change, stepped into the void that followed the old regime’s collapse. Under the leadership of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924) — better known by the pseudonym Lenin — they seized power in what was later celebrated as the October Revolution.

Within hours of making their move, the Bolsheviks began to hand over land and authority to the ‘soviets’ (or workers’ councils). The following March, they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a peace agreement with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) that ended Russia’s participation in the First World War, against the wishes of the Allies. But though the Bosheviks had succeeded in taking power, their support was weak, and the country was plunged into a bloody civil war, as elements of the old guard regrouped as the ‘White Army’ in order to fight the new communist ‘Red Army’ led by Lenin’s colleague Leon Trotsky (1879-1940).

below Soldiers advancing under fire during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942.
Soldiers advancing under fire during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Reds eventually prevailed, it would not be until 30 December 1922 — five years after the October Revolution, and 100 years ago this winter — that the flagship communist state known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) would formally be proclaimed. By then, Lenin’s powers were failing, and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) would emerge as the leader of an emerging new superpower.

As we will see over the following ten pages, the tumultuous events that led to the creation of the Soviet Union, and those that followed in the decades to come, gave rise to an army that would grow to become one of history’s most feared fighting forces, and would carry the country to victory amid the cataclysm of the Second World War. In our special for this issue, Graham Goodlad traces the rise and fall of the Red Army (later known as the Soviet Army) and analyses the five key battles that helped shape the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union in five battles

The Red Army – known as the Soviet Army from 1946 – emerged from the Bolshevik Revolution to become the military arm of the Soviet state. It was originally conceived as the embodiment of the ‘nation in arms’, a volunteer force whose commanders were mostly chosen by workers’ committees. Revolutionary fervour, however, proved insufficient to keep at bay the determined opposition faced by the new-born workers’ state in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921.

Under the ruthless leadership of Leon Trotsky as People’s Commissar for War, the Red Army became a more professional body, harnessing the expertise of ex-tsarist officers, and conscripting workers and peasants. Ideologically committed political commissars were attached to military units to supervise the officers, and to spread communist propaganda among the rank and file. This force defeated a disparate collection of counter-revolutionary White armies. However, in August 1920 – in the first of our chosen battles – it suffered a serious reverse at Warsaw at the hands of the Polish army.

left A 1943 railway map of the USSR, overlaid with our five battle locations, shows the vast distances the Red Army (known as the Soviet Army from 1946) was required to travel in order to fight.
A 1943 railway map of the USSR, overlaid with our five battle locations, shows the vast distances the Red Army (known as the Soviet Army from 1946) was required to travel in order to fight.

The period between the First and Second World Wars saw the re-equipment of the army and its enlargement to more than a million men. These advances were blunted by the effects of Stalin’s political purges. Eight generals – including the leading exponent of modernisation, Marshal Tukhachevsky – were executed, with approximately 30,000 other officers killed or imprisoned. The Red Army achieved an outstanding success against Japanese forces at our next battle, Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia, in August 1939. Overall, however, its morale and efficiency were seriously impaired. Heavy losses in the ‘Winter War’ of 1939-1940, against a Finnish army one-third of its size, highlighted its parlous state and encouraged Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941.

After suffering severe reverses in the opening phase of Operation Barbarossa, Soviet forces mounted a remarkable fight-back against the German onslaught. In the ‘Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-1945, the Red Army prevailed not just through sheer weight of numbers but as a result of improved tactics, a temporary lessening of political control, and the mobilisation of a popular will to expel the invader. The movement of Soviet factories to the east, beyond the reach of the German forces, made possible a steady flow of armaments, supplemented by equipment provided by the US and Britain.

The Nazi onslaught was checked in 1942-1943 at Stalingrad and the tide finally turned in the epic tank battle of Kursk. The spring of 1945 saw the Red Army play a decisive part in the ending of the European war with the capture of Berlin. Victory was attained at a heavy price, however, with an estimated 11 million Soviet military losses.

After 1945, the army’s numbers were cut from 13 million to below 3 million, while a major programme of mechanisation and reorganisation was undertaken. As the leading force in the Warsaw Pact from 1955, its main function was to sustain Soviet control over the satellite states of Eastern Europe. The army repressed popular uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), and engaged in a limited border war with China (1969). But it proved unequal to the one sustained conflict that it fought during the Cold War, its nine-year occupation of Afghanistan. Inconclusive campaigns such as the repeated Panjshir Valley offensives of 1980-1985 demonstrated the difficulties faced by a conventional army, operating against dispersed guerrilla forces amid hostile terrain.

below Polish soldiers marching to the front during the Battle of Warsaw, August 1920.
Polish soldiers marching to the front during the Battle of Warsaw, August 1920. Image: Alamy

In the late 1980s, Soviet armed forces were reduced in size and gradually withdrawn from Eastern Europe as part of the attempt by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, to ease the intolerable economic strains on the communist system. With the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991, its military units

Warsaw: August 1920

The Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920 underlined the vulnerability of the young Soviet state at a time when, on other fronts, it was prevailing against the divided opposition mounted by anti-Bolshevik White forces. The conflict originated in the re-emergence after World War I of Poland, which had been partitioned more than a century earlier between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Under its nationalist leader, Marshal Jósef Pilsudski, the new Polish republic sought to guarantee its independence by creating a federation with Lithuanians and Ukrainians. In May 1920, Polish forces pushed into Ukraine and seized the capital city, Kiev (Kyiv).

In opposition was a Bolshevik regime seeking to carry revolution into central Europe. ‘Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to worldwide conflagration!’ proclaimed Mikhail Tukhachevsky, commander of the Soviet Western Army. Poland was to be the bridge over which communism would pass into a still-unstable Germany. Polish forces retreated, rapidly losing control of Vilnius, Minsk, and other major population centres. By July, it seemed possible that Warsaw itself might fall, which would have given the Soviet state an enormous propaganda victory. But then a remarkable turn-around occurred.

The Bolshevik leadership underestimated the strength of Polish nationalism, mistakenly assuming that workers in Warsaw would welcome the Red Army as liberators. Instead, Poles of all classes united against the external threat. Vladimir Lenin and others in the Soviet leadership also failed to anticipate the boldness of Pilsudski’s plan to resist the invaders. Taking a calculated risk, on 5-6 August he decided to pull his forces back across the Vistula River to engage the Soviets in front of Warsaw.

Pilsudski’s plan was informed by knowledge of Soviet movements derived from intercepted radio communications and aerial reconnaissance. The Polish commander showed skill in exploiting the mistakes made by the Soviet leadership. At the behest of Joseph Stalin, who was attached to it as political commissar, the South-West Army focused on taking Lwów (Lviv) in western Ukraine. This left a vulnerable gap between it and the main Soviet force under Tukhachevsky. It allowed Pilsudski to envelop the latter’s exposed southern flank, cutting his lines of communication. Some Soviet troops continued to advance on Warsaw, others fell back in confusion. Unable to regroup, Tukhachevsky ordered a general retreat.

right The Red Army became a more professional body under the ruthless leadership of Leon Trotsky (pictured here in 1924).
The Red Army became a more professional body under the ruthless leadership of Leon Trotsky (pictured here in 1924). IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

In heavy fighting between 12 and 25 August, some 25,000 Soviet troops were killed or wounded and 65,000 captured. Polish casualties were closer to 40,000 in total. The battle revealed the inexperience and disorganisation of the Red Army, faced with determined opposition. Its supply lines were overextended, the troops exhausted and in no position to resist effectively when confronted with a surprise counter-offensive.

Fought across a broad front, the fighting featured cavalry charges redolent of an earlier age. Both sides possessed tanks but they were unreliable and of limited use in a fast-moving battle. Rumours of divine intervention – the so-called ‘miracle on the Vistula’ – circulated to explain the communist defeat, but in truth it was a victory for superior skill and resolve.

The battle did not end the Russo-Polish War but it was only a matter of time before the Soviets were obliged to accept defeat. They signed an armistice in October, a preliminary to the Treaty of Riga in March 1921. The Bolshevik dream of igniting revolution in the heart of Europe had failed to materialise. The Soviet defeat was not, however, to be forgotten. In September 1939, Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler enabled his forces to roll into eastern Poland, exacting belated revenge for the events of August 1920.

Khalkhin Gol: August 1939

The defeat of Japan at the Khalkhin Gol River was the only decisive victory for the Red Army in the two decades between the end of the Russian Civil War in 1921 and Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Soviet forces succeeded against a less mobile opponent by bringing to bear mechanised forces in open country. The location was the long-disputed border between the Soviet puppet republic of Mongolia and Japanese-held Manchuria (Manchukuo) in north-east China. Near the village of Nomonhan – an alternative name for the battle – the border bulged to the east of the river in a thinly populated zone of grassland.

below Soldiers of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Army, a secondary force under Soviet Red Army command, at Khalkhin Gol.
Soldiers of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Army, a secondary force under Soviet Red Army command, at Khalkhin Gol. Image: Alamy

The Red Army at Khalkhin Gol had the benefit of being led by the man who was to emerge as the Soviet Union’s most outstanding military figure, Lieutenant General Georgy Zhukov. A former cavalry­man turned passionate exponent of armoured warfare, Zhukov was ruthless, forceful, and clear-thinking. He was also fortunate to have avoided the Stalinist purges that took the lives of many of his peers.

Khalkhin Gol was the culmination of a now little-remembered seven-year cold war between the Soviet Union and an expansionist Japan. In the summer of 1939, ongoing tensions escalated as Japan geared up for a cross-border offensive. Small-scale clashes between Mongolian and Manchukuo units gave way to a major engagement in early July when the Japanese 23rd Infantry Division attempted to envelop entrenched Soviet forces in the disputed zone. This ended in failure as the attackers came under heavy fire, as did a further frontal assault three weeks later.

Both sides reinforced their troop numbers, but with almost 500 armoured vehicles at their disposal, the Soviets had an advantage of more than 2:1. The Red Army fielded older BT-5 light tanks alongside the BT-7, an improved model with a more powerful engine and stronger frontal armour. Both types were equipped with an effective 45mm gun. Zhukov’s artillery outgunned the Japanese, while Soviet Tupolev SB bombers were able to operate at a height of 20,000 feet, where they were largely invulnerable to Japanese fighters. The Soviets overcame the logistical challenges of this remote region by using a fleet of trucks to bring up supplies.

On 20 August, the Soviets launched a double-envelopment with overwhelming force. They used their artillery and aircraft to pin down the Japanese front before using tanks against both enemy flanks. Although Japanese infantry resisted bravely, they were no match for tanks equipped with flame throwers, advancing in coordination with the infantry. Lacking adequate anti-tank weaponry, they resorted to improvised Molotov cocktails in a vain bid to slow the advancing Soviet armour. The result was the complete encirclement of the 23rd Division.

By the time that a truce was concluded on 15 September, the Japanese had lost an estimated 50,000 soldiers. The Soviets admitted to 10,000 casualties but the real figure is likely to have been much higher. The scale of their defeat took the Japanese by surprise. Following Stalin’s Moscow purges, they had expected to confront a much less formidable foe. Checked in the Manchurian theatre, they now focused their expansionist ambitions on the Pacific. Crucially for the Soviet Union, when Nazi Germany attacked two years later, Japan was not tempted to engage the Red Army in battle again.

right Japanese soldiers creeping in front of wrecked Soviet armoured cars during the summer of 1939.
Japanese soldiers creeping in front of wrecked Soviet armoured cars during the summer of 1939. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Khalkhin Gol was a template for success in the Second World War, featuring the use of massive firepower, effective coordination between infantry, artillery, tanks, and airpower, and a willingness to take heavy casualties. The battle made Zhukov’s reputation. He was promoted to the rank of full general and awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, and would go on to play a leading role in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

In the wake of its victory over Japan, the Soviet high command began to invest in development of the Red Army’s armoured wing, with the superb T-34 tank coming on stream the year after Khalkhin Gol. Tragically, the process of upgrading was not yet complete when Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on a still-unprepared USSR in June 1941.

Stalingrad: August 1942 –February 1943

In the first months of the German invasion, the Soviet Union endured appalling losses: three million died and a similar number were taken prisoner. The summer of 1942 seemed set to be no less disastrous as German forces once again took the initiative, heading deep into the southern USSR in a bid to secure the vital oilfields of the Caucasus. But at Stalingrad, in a six-month slogging match on the banks of the River Volga, the invaders finally overreached themselves. Here, the Red Army began the fight-back that would result in victory just over two years later.

Stalingrad assumed enormous importance for both sides, not only for its strategic position and as a centre of engineering and manufacturing industry. It also bore the name of the Soviet leader, lending its capture immense propaganda value in the eyes of the Nazi leadership. The German assault began in August 1942, an intense aerial bombardment levelling buildings as Soviet civilians desperately improvised defences or sought refuge across the river.

Concentrated in a narrow strip along the western bank of the Volga, Soviet forces prepared to hold the city against the German Sixth Army, commanded by General Friedrich Paulus. Masterminding the defence of the city was Vasily Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army, whose unflinching determination stabilised a deteriorating situation. His strategy was to confront the invader at close quarters, fighting stubbornly for possession of every building. The central station, for example, changed hands 15 times during the fighting. By ‘hugging the enemy’ closely, he made it difficult for the Luftwaffe to bring its firepower to bear without hitting its own side. Artillery and anti-tank weapons took out panzers whose progress slowed in the ruined streets.

above A byword for human suffering, the Battle of Stalingrad was fought out amid an inhuman environment of unrelenting fire, noise and dust.
A byword for human suffering, the Battle of Stalingrad was fought out amid an inhuman environment of unrelenting fire, noise and dust. Image: Alamy

Stalingrad has become a byword for human suffering. The fighting took place in an inhuman environment of unrelenting fire, noise, and dust. A trickle of supplies arrived from across the river but there was never enough food. Soldiers scavenged amid the rubble of shelled factories and workshops. The aim was simply one of survival. Civilians joined the battle, inspired by a stubborn sense of patriotic duty. This was reinforced by Stalin’s uncompromising ‘Order No. 227’, instructing the defenders to stay put, and by the threat of execution for those found to have deserted.

The turning point came in late November when Soviet forces outside Stalingrad sprang a giant trap, Operation Uranus. Aimed at the weak flanks of the invading forces, where the Germans’ less-effective Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian allies were concentrated, it was a ‘deep penetration’ offensive. The result was the encirclement of Sixth Army, whose line of retreat was now cut off. As autumn gave way to winter, without adequate supplies of warm clothing, German troops froze in the sub-zero temperatures. Their plight was compounded by Hitler’s stubborn refusal to sanction an attempt to break out. Instead, he relied on the Luftwaffe to resupply the besieged army, a task which proved to be wholly beyond its capacity.

In late December, an attempt to organise an overland relief column failed, sealing the fate of Paulus’ forces. Ignoring orders from Berlin, he finally surrendered. By the beginning of February 1943, it was all over. Germany had lost 147,000 men, with a further 91,000 taken prisoner. The vast majority faced death by starvation and disease in the grim prison camps to which they were consigned.

It had been a remarkable victory for the Soviet war machine, as well as a miracle of human endurance. More than a million Red Army soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Stalingrad retains its legendary aura, endlessly recalled in books and films. Today, the city skyline is dominated by a statue of a defiant female figure, some 170 feet high, holding aloft a sword. The battle demonstrated beyond doubt that the Wehrmacht was no longer invincible. But it was not the end of the struggle on the Eastern Front. German forces remained deep in Soviet territory, still capable of hitting back in the spring and summer of 1943. The Red Army had a long road to travel as it reoccupied the shattered urban landscape of Stalingrad.

Kursk: July-August 1943

In the summer of 1943, the Wehrmacht was poised for a massive assault in western Russia. The target was the Kursk salient, an upland agricultural region some 150 miles long from north to south, and protruding 100 miles into the German lines. Hitler’s aim was to pinch off the bulge with coordinated attacks on its northern and southern ends, to destroy the Soviet forces trapped inside, and thereby to recover the initiative on the Eastern Front.

Operation Zitadelle (Citadel) was to be Nazi Germany’s last major offensive against the Soviet Union. Secret intelligence – including information from the so-called ‘fifth man’ in the Cambridge spy ring, Bletchley Park informant John Cairncross – enabled the Soviets to strengthen their defences in readiness.

Originally scheduled for early May, the German assault was postponed for two months by a nervous Hitler. By the time the offensive was launched, under Marshal Zhukov’s supervision the Soviets had constructed a formidable network of minefields, anti-tank ditches and other obstacles. Ingenious deception measures, including dummy airfields and troop concentrations, served to distract Luftwaffe bombers in the run-up to the land battle. In the rear, immense reserves were held in readiness to administer the counter-punch when the time came.

BELOW Soviet troops of the Voronezh Front counter-attacking behind T-34 tanks at Prokhorovka during the Battle of Kursk.
Soviet troops of the Voronezh Front counter-attacking behind T-34 tanks at Prokhorovka during the Battle of Kursk. Image: Alamy

The six-week-long engagement at Kursk was to be the largest armoured battle in history. At the start, 1.3 million Soviet troops, backed by almost 3,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft and 19,000 artillery pieces, faced some 900,000 Germans with 2,700 tanks, 2,000 aircraft and 10,000 guns. The battle began on 5 July with intense German artillery bombardment of the two ends of the salient, supported by infantry and air attacks. German armour poured in but soon ground to a halt in the north.

The Wehrmacht initially made more progress in the south. Here, II SS-Panzer Corps encountered the tanks and self-propelled guns of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army at the village of Prokhorovka, 50 miles south-east of Kursk. This was the most intense part of the battle. In an area little greater than three square miles, the German tanks took out or damaged some 400 Soviet vehicles but were unable to advance any further. Amid the thick smoke of burning tanks, the offensive ground to a halt.

On 12 July, the Soviet counter-attack began, named Operation Kutuzov after the Russian marshal who had led the fight-back against the 1812 French invasion. Meanwhile, as news came through of the Anglo-American landings in Italy, Hitler withdrew essential army units from the east to meet the new threat. By the end of the month, German forces had been pushed back beyond their original starting point, and by 23 August, with the fall of the city of Kharkov, it was all over.

Kursk was the finest hour of the Soviet T-34 tank. Simple and cheap to manufacture, its sloped armour, speed, and manoeuvrability marked it out as a highly effective design. Its 76mm gun could not penetrate the frontal armour of a German Tiger I or Panther – the upgrade to an 85mm barrel came after Kursk. Used en masse, however, it proved a formidable machine. The over-engineered Panther, making its debut at Kursk, had been rushed into service without an opportunity to iron out its mechanical defects. The mass production of a rugged, serviceable machine trumped smaller numbers of tanks that were technically more advanced but harder to maintain.

left Soviet commanders Georgy Zhukov (centre) and Ivan Konev (right) during the Battle of Kursk.
Soviet commanders Georgy Zhukov (centre) and Ivan Konev (right) during the Battle of Kursk. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Victory, as so often in combat on the Eastern Front, was achieved at a phenomenal human cost. Soviet forces took an estimated 800,000 casualties – four times as many as the German figure. They employed sacrificial tactics, hurling petrol bombs and grenades against the panzers at close quarters. As the only major European army without armoured personnel carriers, Soviet troops frequently rode into battle on the outside of tanks, increasing their losses. But, crucially, the Soviet Union was able to replace its manpower more easily than Nazi Germany. Industrial production, too, was by now in full spate. In the war of attrition that the Second World War had become, there would ultimately be only one winner.

Panjshir Valley: 1980-1985

The Soviet-Afghan conflict of 1979-1988 was a protracted struggle between an occupying army and bands of indigenous guerrilla forces. Soviet forces seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, in December 1979 after Moscow judged that the country’s endemic instability would invite Islamic fundamentalism to threaten the security of the USSR. The Kremlin initiated the conflict in the mistaken belief that it could install a docile puppet regime and rap idly pacify the country. Instead, its actions attracted international condemnation and it found itself bogged down in a war dubbed the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, or the ‘bear trap’. The invasion united a range of Islamic resistance groups, who received financial aid and weaponry from the US, China, Saudi Arabia, and other donors, much of it funnelled through Muslim Pakistan.

By its very nature, the war did not see any decisive set-piece battles. But if one location illustrates the conflict, it is the series of offensives that took place in the Panjshir Valley between 1980 and 1985. The valley assumed strategic significance as a base for Islamist mujahideen fighters resisting the occupation. Situated some 40 miles north of Kabul, it was close to the Salang pass in the Hindu Kush, through which supplies came to support the invaders. The mujahideen in this region were led by one of the most gifted irregular leaders of the 20th century, Ahmad Shah Massoud, known to his followers as ‘the lion of Panjshir’.

Not surprisingly, Soviet trucks became a prime target for guerrilla attacks, and no fewer than nine offensives were launched in a bid to dislodge the insurgents. The outcome of these was inconclusive. Typically, the Soviets would drive the mujahideen out by deploying helicopter gunships and armoured personnel carriers, but they would return once the occupiers had left. Although the resistance took heavy casualties, they found replacements amongst those who were driven from their homes by Soviet ground troops or bombing raids. Many refugees migrated to training camps in Pakistan, where their commitment to the cause of jihad was confirmed.

above An abandoned Soviet T-62 tank in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, in 2009.
An abandoned Soviet T-62 tank in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, in 2009. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The first of the Panjshir offensives was in April 1980, when a well-resourced Soviet force entered the valley. This was the largest single operation by the Soviet army since 1945. In a classic guerrilla move, the mujahideen attacked them from above, forcing them to abandon their vehicles in a vain attempt to find cover. When the Soviet troops moved into the mountains in search of their attackers, they had melted away. After withdrawing from the valley, the Soviets left behind an Afghan army garrison, but their poorly trained and unmotivated allies proved unequal to the task, and by the end of the year they had given up.

The best-prepared Soviet offensive was the fifth one, in May 1982, an assault involving 12,000 troops supported by more than 300 armoured vehicles and 100 helicopters. The Soviets planned a diversionary attack, which was largely successful. The mujahideen concentrated their defences on the entrance to the valley, making them vulnerable to troops who were airlifted over their heads. But it was only a partial Soviet victory. The paratroopers secured key positions on the valley floor, but groups of mujahideen dispersed and took refuge in the mountains.

After a further unsuccessful operation later in 1982, the Soviets agreed a brief truce with Massoud, but the mujahideen leader used the period of respite to strengthen his defences. In a seventh offensive, in April 1984, large-scale helicopter landings forced the insurgents to climb higher into the mountains. This time, rather than withdrawing, the occupiers established a chain of forts and outposts in the valley, but these became targets for continued attacks, and by September the policy had been abandoned.

Soon after the final Panjshir offensive in June 1985, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, decided to begin the phased withdrawal of combat troops. This process was completed by February 1989. What happened in Panjshir was emblematic of the Soviet failure in Afghanistan. It was an environment where highly mobile fighters returned time and again to ambush and harass their enemies. The Soviet army lacked the numbers, the means, and the tactical doctrine to assert its will on the ground for more than brief periods. When the soldiers finally returned home, they found a Soviet Union that was fast moving away from the world-view that had been sustained by the army’s efforts over the previous 70 years.

The greatest Soviet weapons


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Short for Pistolet-Pulemet-Shpagina, the PPSh-41 was the most widely used and instantly recognisable machine-gun employed by Soviet troops during the Second World War. Its designer, Georgy Shpagin, answered the call for a weapon that was cheap to make and could easily be mass produced.

The gun incorporated a wooden stock and 7.62mm-calibre steel barrel, and was fitted with a 71-round drum magazine. Capable of firing an impressive 1,250 rounds per minute, and with an effective range of 150-200 metres, it was ideal for close-quarters urban combat.

The PPSh was capable of being manufactured by a semi-skilled workforce and was straightforward to maintain. Two PPSh barrels could be made by cutting the barrel of a Mosin-Nagant rifle in half. Some six million PPSh guns were made during the war. It continued in service with Soviet satellite states for some years afterwards, including during the Korean War.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Officially known as the BM-13 rocket launcher, the Katyusha was a simple but effective weapon, its multiple barrels mounted on a truck chassis. Although its accuracy was limited, it could saturate enemy formations with a hail of fire, withdrawing rapidly before the Germans could get a fix on its position. The Katyusha was known widely as ‘Stalin’s organ’ because of its distinctive whine, and the resemblance between its closely packed launch rails and the pipes of an organ.

The Katyusha’s 132mm high-explosive rockets were originally intended for use on ground-attack aircraft but were adopted for battlefield use from 1941. Initially classed as a secret weapon, operated only by NKVD state police units, it was soon mass produced, providing a cheap alternative to conventional artillery. A drawback was the length of time that it took to reload, but this was mitigated by using it en masse.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

First introduced in 1940, the T-34 medium tank spearheaded Soviet resistance to Operation Barbarossa. Until Germany introduced the more heavily armoured Tiger I and Panther models, its 76.2mm gun made it a formidable prospect, while its sloped armour provided protection against incoming shells.

The T-34 had its weaknesses. Its gun sights and range-finding were crude, and the cramped turret offered restricted vision. But it was rugged and reliable, its wide tracks enabling it to cope with the mud and snow of the Eastern Front. With a top speed of 32mph, it gave good cross-country performance. From 1944, the T-34 was up-gunned to take account of advances in German tank design, and a more powerful 85mm weapon was introduced.

Some 84,000 T-34s were manufactured, making it the most widely produced tank of the Second World War. If nothing else, its sheer numbers meant that it played a decisive role in the USSR’s victory.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Given the NATO reporting name of ‘Hind’, the Mi-24 was one of the most distinctive Soviet machines of the Cold War, serving through the 1970s and 1980s. The USSR decided to develop its own armed helicopter gunship after observing American use of the Bell UH-1 ‘Huey’ in Vietnam. It was primarily used as an attack helicopter rather than a means of delivering troops.

The Hind’s ‘double bubble’ cockpit provided room for a pilot and gunner, the slim fuselage presenting a relatively small target from the front. Its twin engines generated a maximum speed of 208mph, and enabled a range of 280 miles. It carried an assortment of cannon, rockets, machine-guns and bombs, making it a formidable platform for anti-guerrilla operations in Afghanistan.

In the final years of the Soviet occupation, it proved vulnerable to US-supplied ‘Stinger’ surface-to-air missiles. Nonetheless, it was feared by the Mujahideen, who dubbed it ‘Satan’s chariot’.

Graham Goodlad has taught History and Politics for more than 30 years. He is also a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MHM.
Further reading Chris McNab, The Great Bear at War: the Russian and Soviet Army 1917-present (Osprey, 2019).

The Soviet Union: a military timeline

The October Revolution: the Bolshevik Party seizes power in Russia
The Russian Civil War: the Red Army defeats the White movement and its allies
The Russo-Polish war: Soviet troops suffer defeat in the aftermath of WW1
The Red Army invades Georgia, establishing Soviet rule
The Kronstadt Rebellion: the last major uprising against the Bolshevik government
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is formally created on 30 December
August Uprising in Georgia: the last major rebellion in Georgia is put down
Sino-Soviet conflict: the first major combat test of the reformed Soviet Red Army
The Soviet Invasion of Xinjiang, in China’s north-western region, ends in stalemate
Red Army troops assist Xinjiang’s provincial government in fighting Uyghur rebels
Battle of Lake Khasan: Soviets repulse a Japanese incursion on Korea-USSR border
The Red Army wins a decisive victory over Japan at the Khalkhin Gol River
Eastern Europe divided with Nazi Germany under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact
Winter War: Soviet troops annex 9% of Finnish territory in the early days of WW2
The Red Army defeats the Wehtmacht on the Eastern Front, turning the tide of WW2
Continuation War: Soviet forces finally defeat Finland, seizing more territory
Ili Rebellion: Soviet support for Uyghur separatism leads to a clash with China
Baltic ‘forest brothers’ wage a decades-long war of resistance against Soviet rule
The Soviet invasion of Manchuria evicts Japanese forces from mainland Asia
Berlin Blockade: an early Cold War crisis sees the Soviets seal off access to Berlin
NATO is established in response to the USSR’s perceived post-WW2 threat
The Soviet Union and seven other Eastern Bloc states sign the Warsaw Pact
Hungarian Revolution: the Red Army suppresses a countrywide anti-Soviet revolt
Cuban Missile Crisis: a dramatic Cold War stand-off almost leads to nuclear war
Prague Spring: mass protest prompts Eastern Bloc countries to invade Czechoslovakia
A seven-month border conflict leads China and the Soviet Union to the edge of war
Intervention in the Afghan Civil War becomes a quagmire for a disintegrating USSR