Pioneers at the ready, Leningrad

On Retronaut, Viktor Bulla's "Pioneers defense drill, Leningrad." It dates from 1937, four years before the Siege of Leningrad, and that makes the weirdness vivid and poignant. So many of the children here would have died in the Siege, or lived through it in the civil defense force, eating wallpaper paste and digging trenches. How brave and ready they must have felt in 1937, though.

Pioneers defense drill, Leningrad


    1. Tell that to Poland, Ukraine, Finland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, et al. Siberia wasn’t exactly a holiday camp for these folks.

      1. “Tell that to Poland, Ukraine, Finland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, et al. Siberia wasn’t exactly a holiday camp for these folks”

        Well, since nothing was a holiday camp for anybody, that doesn’t say much. Eastern Europe in the post-war era was a hell of a lot better than it would have been under the Nazis who, after they were done with the Jews, communists and gays, still would have had a few hundred million Slavs to work through before they achieved their continental goals.So, I too salute the Soviet people for defeating the Nazis. That is a service to humanity that will never be forgotten.

        1. Sheer conjecture. We cannot know what would have happened based on maybes and possiblys. It’s entirely possible the Allied Forces might have defeated the Axis Forces without any involvement from Russia – albeit at unknown costs. It is equally possible that the Third Reich, even in victory, might have come undone via any number of efforts – local Resistance movements, internal strife within Germany herself, some accidental death of Hitler sparking a Civil War or perhaps merely a swift collapse of the empire…

          We do not, and cannot, know. The full measure of the actions of any of the parties involved in the second World War is beyond human understanding. All we CAN know is that the war was senseless, needless, and that the only truly innocent parties were the countless civilians on every side who perished for no reason that can ever be good enough.

          By the way – everything is forgotten in time. Often, this is for the best. A world which is peaceful and free enough to allow the forgetting of past wars is the sort of world we all ought dream of.

          1.  Actually, from the biographies of Churchhill and his generals, we Can know that without the Russians sacrificing millions upon millions of troops and citizens, England would have fallen to the Nazis with no chance of survival. The Nazis would have taken over the rest of Europe and probably all the useful parts of Africa.

            It was a horrible choice the western nations faced, but Russia was the lessor evil, but we’re dealing with magnitudes of infinity here, not actual conceivable numbers

          2. eldritich: “It’s entirely possible the Allied Forces might have defeated the Axis Forces without any involvement from Russia – albeit at unknown costs”

            But the western Allies wouldn’t have defeated Germany by 1945 and every year that victory was delayed meant more slaughter. Quite possibly, western victory, assuming its inevitability, would have been closer to 1980 which was Hitler’s own estimate of when the struggle with the United States would occur.

            The US and UK only managed a successful invasion of western Europe in 1944, after the Germans had been thoroughly beaten on the Eastern Front. The scale of the struggle in the east simply dwarfs that in the west, with the possible exception of the terror bombing of German cities.

            Given that the Nazis has a goal of emulating the United States’ successful… eh… clearance of Native Americans in order to provide a long-term continental base for the German nation, the future for Eastern Europeans would likely have been vastly worse under Germany than Russia.

            “All we CAN know is that the war was senseless, needless, and that the only truly innocent parties were the countless civilians on every side who perished for no reason that can ever be good enough.”

            The war wasn’t at all senseless. Each state had its own worked out goals and strategies, e.g. Hitler’s strategic goal was to establish continental hegemony and use that to build up German strength in order to safeguard its longtime survival as a race (sic). England, as always, wanted to prevent the emergence of a continental hegemon etc.

            We might not like those ‘reasons of state’, but they were far from senseless. 

            Similarly, atimoshenko writes: “World War II (much like all wars before and after) was a handful of crazed leaders tragically and horrifically imposing great suffering on tens of millions of innocent people, with repercussions stretching for decades.”

            The narrative of crazed leaders sacrificing doesn’t aid understanding of the social forces at work at all. Chamberlain, in my view, really did want to avoid war, but eventually concluded, that to preserve Britain’s hegemony, war was necessary. Hardly crazy, since it was likely true. Why did leaders feel they had to  make those choices? What domestic pressures were they under? How did their respective ideologies contribute to their decisions? 

            War would be much less of a problem if it was just the result of a few crazed leaders.

            ocker3: “It was a horrible choice the western nations faced, but Russia was the lessor evil, but we’re dealing with magnitudes of ininity here, not actual conceivable numbers”

            I disagree with the depiction of Russia as the lessor evil. Or at least the implication in the above statement that Russia was a lessor evil than Nazi Germany (obviously true) but a greater evil than the US and UK or the western European countries generally.

            Let’s compare two areas where the USSR and USA exercised hegemony, bordering on total control in the post-war era: Eastern Europe and Latin America. To just compare the body count alone should be instructive, never mind basic statistics on healthcare, literacy and so forth. It would have been vastly more preferable to be a Polish peasant in the 1980s rather than an El Salvadoran one. Not so, in the period 1939 – 1945.

          3. Now that’s how it’s done. Not a single trite reference to “our mummy,” no half-thought-out BS that sounds like Paul Ryan as a half-drunk frat boy. Just someone reporting from the world work thinking and reading happens. Again, well-done!

          4. The war would have ended in 1945 no matter what.  The United States became a nuclear power, and that would have shut down the Reich pretty quickly.  Even if the Nazis had taken over the UK, we still could figure out how to get a B-25 to Berlin.

          5. So, oppression, murder of civilians, slave-labor death-camps, genocide, extermination of whole populations, over-running of countries, and plans for world domination are excused, as long as they wear the right uniform? I knew there were people who would white-wash the crimes of the Soviet Union during the 30s and 40s, but never imagined they still existed today.

            Take another look: these are not people preparing to defend the Motherland; they are forces mobilising to reconquer Finland.

        2. Stalin killed more Jews than Hitler did (and the Soviet system under Stalin killed more of its own citizens than any government before or since). There are accounts of Polish survivors of Nazi concentration camps who committed suicide when Poland fell to the Soviets because the conditions in the gulags were so much worse.

          And of course the great sacrifice of the Russian people in the Great Patriotic War comes largely down to Stalin refusing to listen to intelligence that didn’t agree with his misguided intuition (exacerbated by his purging his most gifted officers), and his callous disregard for the lives of soldiers he threw into the German meat-grinder with little consideration of efficiency or tactical planning. Credit is certainly due to the brave Soviet people who fought in that war and undoubtedly secured victory in the West for the allies – but we should also credit them for showing heroism in the face of two despots who were planning on and counting on their death, the despot in Berlin and the despot in Moscow who was ostensibly on their side.

          Which isn’t to say the Soviets were objectively worse than the Nazis, but they sure as hell weren’t objectively better. Europe at the time was crushed between two enormous, intractable evils. In pop-culture terms, the battle between the Soviets and Nazis was less Jedi vs. Sith and more Alien vs. Predator. “Whoever wins, we lose.”

          1. Girad: “Stalin killed more Jews than Hitler did”
            The Nazis killed vastly more Jews than Stalin’s regime. Millions more, unless you are denying the Nazi death camps existed.

            Girad: “(and the Soviet system under Stalin killed more of its own citizens than any government before or since).”

            I dunno, the Belgians managed to work their way through a few million Congolese, not counting their tactless chopping off of limbs. That wasn’t even spread out over a decent length of time, unlike, say, the famines in British ruled India and Ireland or the cleansing of the Native Americans from the Continental United States. And so on, and so  forth. I suppose the Americans did manage to get through a few million Indo-Chinese from 1950 – 1975, so one shouldn’t be too hard on them.

            But at least they weren’t citizens eh. What foresight to not grant Native Americans citizenship until 1924, well after the worst was over for them!

            The many crimes of the Stalin regime should not be forgotten to be sure. Like many a country undergoing the process of industrial modernisation, there was a tremendous amount of suffering. When compared to the trauma of industrialisation in the West, the experience of the USSR is bad, but not way off the scale. 

            What made the Nazis so distinct was that they were in power in an already industrialised country and then proceeded to deliberately kill, nay exterminate, millions. It wasn’t a cruel, heartless by-product, as one could argue with regard to the Irish famine or the 1930s Gulags. The purpose of Auschwitz was extermination and nothing in the nadir of the Soviet Union comes close to that.

          2.  I apologize – it looks like the numbers I was looking at were showing only the German Jews killed by the Nazis (about 165,000), which comes far short of the total death tally of 5.4 million, a number which dwarfs all the anti-Semitic pogroms and purges under Stalinism. You are absolutely correct that Hitler killed more Jewish people than Stalin did.

            Stalin certainly killed more people, period (and he killed more Russians than Hitler did, a statistic which tends to bother Russians, who still tend to lionize the guy). And while Stalin’s mass killings weren’t racially motivated, they were often calculated and ideologically motivated. The killing of the “kulak” class of higher-income farmers (300,000 killed, 2 million exiled to Siberia) precipitated the deaths-by-starvation of 7 million citizens, including 5 million in the ‘Holodomor’ in Ukraine, where the Soviets forcibly requisitioned the grain of Urkainian farmers, knowing what the results of such an action would be. (It is debatable whether the decision was simply a callous annexation of resources or a pointed attack on Ukrainian nationalism – if it were the latter, it would count as a genocide). This was just one event in a larger pattern of death, of course.

            It is true, though, that while the Soviet horrors weren’t as uniformly, clinically, ideologically-based as the Nazi horrors, and weren’t rooted in unquestionably evil race-hatred the way the Nazi horrors were. I don’t think that means we can say one was more ‘evil’ than the other. Is an Ed Gein serial killer who clinically tortures and mutilates a small number of carefully selected people more evil than a murderer who bombs an office building and indiscriminately kills a much larger number? Both are horrible, both are sociopathic, and I don’t think I could honestly call one “better” or “worse” than the other.

      2. Brad DeLong posts bit about WWII in his blog every day or so. 

        70 years ago Soviets were fighting like rats in the ruins of Stalingrad to hold the German army as the Soviets prepared an offensive to smash them. They fought and held for five months. 80% died. For everyone of them that perished, perhaps a dozen or a hundred lives were saved. Think hard before trying to take that from dead men younger than you.

      3. My dad & his family were in Poland during the Nazi invasion. His family had no place to go, so they went to the U.S.S.R. When the U.S.S.R. offered them life in a labor camp, they headed back to Poland & my father joined the Polish army. You know what? It was a shitshow.

        Everyone knew that the Soviets were bad, but nobody could ever imagine the Nazis were worse.  The genuine attitude—and I know I saw this repeated via my father & peers in the neighborhood who were in the U.S.S.R. at the time—was that whatever divisional hate existed in the Eastern European nations at the time it was genuinely swallowed in the wake of Hitler & the Nazis.

        Which is all to say the idea that anyone would dismiss the lives lost on the U.S.S.R. side is asinine. The Nazi threat was truly an “alien” invasion because 100% of nobody really saw that level of insanity coming.

        And more to this post, Cory’s description is truly gut wrenching.  You look at that photo & you basically see lost souls.

        I know people think that whole “Greatest Generation” stuff is nonsense—and the branding is a bit silly—but truly look back on what was happening & I doubt anyone with half a shred of consciousness can truly say, “You know, we can second guess this…”

        1.  A very close friend of mine with German family has a grandmother who was a German peasant girl during WWII, and who is still haunted by the memories of her country being liberated by that “greatest generation” of Soviet heroes. Which mostly involved her and her sisters being brutally raped by their “liberators.”

          It was an absolute horror show on all sides. Basically The Painted Bird, but not fictional.

          1. If you are looking for pure angels there are none.  The allies—for example—created hell on Earth with the firebombing of Dresden. But anything that accelerates the end of a conflict is a good thing.

          2.  Absolutely. It’s amazing how much we romanticize that period, and it’s “greatest generation,” especially when some of the most erudite veterans of that war (your Vonneguts and Hellers) had a much different, darker story to tell when they put pen to paper.

            That same friend’s German family is actually from Dresden, and her ancestors lived there. They had the ‘pleasure’ of the Nazis seizing the yield of their family farm to feed the Wehrmacht, the Americans bombing that family farm to hell, and the Soviets kicking them off of their family farm, collectivizing it and turning the farmhouses into crummy offices for military personnel.

      4.  I’m prepared to separate my post-war blame for Stalin and the credit due the Soviet people in WW2.

    2. World War II (much like all wars before and after) was a handful of crazed leaders tragically and horrifically imposing great suffering on tens of millions of innocent people, with repercussions stretching for decades.

      Dressing this up in “heroism” and “patriotism”, despite having some scope to make the victims feel better through the public acknowledgement of their sacrifices, unfortunately also lays the foundation necessary for similar tragedies to occur in the future.

    1. A fairly widespread idea after the great war were that the new technologies of radio and flight would bring people togeather and make war unlikely. Unfortunately humanity got radio propaganda and even more efficient war machines but you can argue that flight today brings people togeather with mass tourism and todays “radio” has more “frequienzies” then the propaganda broadcasts.

    1. I imagine they did- though the real nasties were either invented in Germany during the war or elsewhere afterwards, phosgene and mustard gas are WW1 tech so the Soviets certainly could have made them.

    2.  Since Most of the combat was done on land that was occupied by the Germans you’d only end up gassing your own civilians. Plus by the turning point in the was it was much more important to produce anti armor weaponry like Kateushas and maintaining the supply lines to your troops. The idea of sieging Germany was a distant goal.

      Germans on the other hand had a scorched earth policy and would annihilate town before abandoning them. So WMDs were a focal point for their weaponry development.

    1. That image is simultaneously cute & horrific.  As Cory states, the game they seem to be playing now might have actually played out for real a few years later.

    1. Well, there’s a star on the cap of the guy center front. And if you squint just right, you can make out the hammer-and-sickle in the flag finial on the far right.

  1. That’s certainly a ZIS-5 truck in the picture, so Soviet Russia seems to be the source of the photo. Interesting films to watch for the Soviet view of the war are “The Cranes are Flying”, “Ballad of a Soldier”, “Ivan’s Childhood”, and “Come and See”.

  2. I think the two tiny kids crewing the Vickers-type heavy machine gun bottom left is possibly the most poignaint part.  You know a few years later they were using that in desperate anger.  Whatever you think about the Soviet regime at the time ( and I think they were pretty nearly as evil as the Nazis in many respects), everyone in the west must be grateful for the incalcuable sacrifice that Russian people and those of Stalingrad in particular, made to the defeat of Nazisism.  Where (according to Wikipedia) the USA and UK both lost less than 1% of their population during WWII, the Soviet Union lost 13%.

    1. A major reason for the bloodiness on the Russian side were Stalins purges of officers, that is mass murder of officers. The only good that came out of that were that Finland could survive the attack when Stalin and Hitler had divided eastern Europe in the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. Stalin were paranoid and ruled by fear, also Hitler ruled by fear but his hate were more focused.

      Both leaders and regimes were togeather with the Japanese regime evil in the mass murdering, war starting, culture anihilation, torturing and experiment on living humans kind of evil. The major fault after the start if the second world war was that nobody defeated Stalin.

      1.  So you want to invade the only country in the world to not only withstand the Blitzkrieg but steam rolled through the Germans once their forces were fully equipped?


        You’d be sending every adult man in the world in to that meat grinder.

        1. If I had a magic machine that could hinder a war I would go for hindering the first world war or at least granting any side in it a swift victory. The extremely bloody and long war set the stage for Bolsjeviks and Nazis leading to the second world war and that led to the cold war with its huge political and environmental cost and that set the political stage for not doing anything about climate change and also the ongoing war on terrorism.

          USA and Uk could have stopped all military aid to USSR after establishing a foothold in France and then could USA have used nuclear weapons to destroy logistics hubs, major powerplants and other industrial facilities. This would of course later be regarded as one of the greatest crimes against humanity.

          But the real key to a victory in the east is to be a lot kinder then Stalins regime and be able to get enough logistics for both military and civilians to get the populations to switch sides. The Nazis could have done this but it would have required them to not be mad and sane leaders would not have started the mess in the first place. The only major power with the moral and the means to do this were USA and back then were USA a country who wanted swift victory to be able to disband, go home and live in peace.

  3. This might not interest people, but this pic is also the album art to The Left’s Gas Mask album, which is a really well produced hip hop album. Huh. Who thought it’d show up here.

  4. Girad: “You are absolutely correct that Hitler killed more Jewish people than Stalin did. Stalin certainly killed more people, period (and he killed more Russians than Hitler did, a statistic which tends to bother Russians”

    That’s just not true either though. With all due respect, I think you’re repeating anti-communist propaganda that inflates the numbers so as to put communism on the same level of Nazism.

    The commonly accepted figure, particularly since the clearer picture that emerged upon examination of the archives in the 1990s, for executions in the Stalin period is 750,000. That is a truly horrendous number. The personal cost to families was terrible while the social cost to the USSR, in terms of repressing free thought, wasting talented people etc was incalculable and perhaps even contributed significantly to its later stagnation. There is no need to exaggerate the scale of the crimes in order to appreciate what occurred. If anything, it inhibits understanding.

    If you want to include famines where the state contributed significantly to their magnitude, then let’s. But let’s also include them when recounting the history, including the colonial history, of the US, England and the western states. Sure, we can then say that all these governments were evil, but, again, that leads to little in the way of understanding of what happened and why.

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