Article by: James Oliver
On 19 September 1939, advanced units of the Soviet 6th army reached the outskirts of the city of Lviv. What they found was a city that had already been subject to relentless bombardment from German artillery placed upon nearby hills as well as from the Luftwaffe. Officially, the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were supposed to keep a 25km distance from one another during their joint invasion of Poland . But here (as elsewhere), it was not the case. Lviv was meant to be a city to be defended at all costs for the Polish in the name of keeping alive a transport route for supplies and promised western aid to Poland known as the Romanian bridgehead to be delivered from Constanța. However, Plan Zachód, the Polish codename for the defensive plan to protect Poland from a German invasion, had not anticipated the Soviets and the Germans being allies. Because of the Soviet invasion, and because no promised western aid was forthcoming, the defense of Lviv was rendered untenable. On September 22, the city’s commander, Władysław Langner, was forced to surrender, not to the Germans who had withdrawn from Lviv as part of honouring their side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but to the Soviets. According to one eyewitness: “Hardly had they laid down their arms when they were surrounded by Russian troops and marched off.” 
If we were to believe the Soviet version of history, the capture of Lviv was part of a joyous liberation of “blood brothers” in 1939.
This was also how it was presented in the West at the time. David Lloyd George, former British prime minister, wrote an article for the British newspaper the Daily Express on 23 September 1939 praising the USSR for liberating natural kinsmen from a class-ridden Polish yoke.  On 31 May 1941, Sir Bernard Pares, who had an international reputation as being one of the foremost historians of Eastern Europe of his era wrote an article in the Guardian praising the USSR for liberating “10 million Russians [sic]” in the invasion of Poland whom he regarded had been cut off from Russia “by accident” in the aftermath of the end of WW1. His definition of what these “10 million Russians” were had nothing to do with either actual self-identity or actual self-determination. 
With this in mind, it’s worth noting Lviv did not have a history of being ruled by Moscow until 1939. With regards to whether the conquest of Polish held “Western Ukraine” can really be called a “liberation” as the Soviets claimed, there is also the matter of what the Red Army actually did to the Ukrainian peoples. According to Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, the Soviets deported about 400,000 Ukrainians from Western Ukraine between 1939-41. 
Much like Pares’ “10 million” comments are as wrong as they are over-simplistic, calling the Red Army during WWII simply “Russian” as many westerners did at the time and continue to do so today is also as wrong as it is over simplistic. The Red Army was very much a multinational force. This makes Vladimir Putin’s speech commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Victory Day in Europe all the more interesting because in his speech he conceded that point, honouring soldiers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia.
Missing from that list for political reasons are Ukrainians. In my last post I told the stories of some of the Ukrainians who fought for Poland and in the West in WWII. In this post, I turn to Ukrainians who fought as part of the Red Army. Between 1941-45 there were an estimated 7 Million of them. They also participated in the Pacific theatre against Japan.
As was the case of Ukrainians fighting for Poland in September 1939, Ukrainians also served as part of the invading Red Army. The core of the aforementioned 6th Soviet army which took Lviv was formed in Kyiv in August with the specific intention of participating in the invasion of Poland. Reflecting the multinational character of the Red Army, it was commanded by a Russian, Filipp Golikov, who in turn was subordinate to a Ukrainian, Semyon Timoshenko.
Unfortunately, that Ukrainians were also present in the Red Army also means that certain Ukrainians were complicit in the crimes against humanity conducted by the Red Army against the peoples they occupied as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. On 5 March 1940 Beria and Stalin approved the execution of 22,000 POWs captured in the invasion of Poland. Beginning in April they were to be taken to the Katyń forest, blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs, where they were to be shot in the back of the head and buried in mass graves. The most infamous of the Katyń executioners may well be Vasily Blokhin, but the 22,000 POWs were under the jurisdiction of the “Department for POW Affairs”, a branch of the Soviet NKVD created by Beria. It was headed by a Ukrainian, Peter Karpovich Soprunenko, born near Kyiv in 1908 and it was he who decided the fates of those destined for massacre. 
In May 2014, Putin signed into law making illegal what is called “wittingly spreading false information about the activity of the USSR during the years of WWII” under the pretense that doing so rehabilitates Nazism. It has now become increasingly risky for Russians to dispute an official line that glorifies the wartime achievements of the Soviet leadership and plays down its errors, or its crimes! For context, Putin has a history of attempting to justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and all the bloodshed that is associated with it. It is quite a state of affairs that condemning a man like Sopruenko may well be considered now illegal in Russia.
Tactical blunders plagued the Red Army in 1941 when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. In theory, Ukraine east of Kyiv was meant to be protected by the southern end of a series of fortifications built in the 1920s under Stalin’s orders, however by 1941 the “Stalin line”, as it was known, had been deliberately weakened of men and materials in light of the westward expansion of the USSR. In early June, the men tasked to defend Ukraine against the oncoming Wehrmacht onslaught were poorly prepared. Not merely was the Red Army still reeling from the bloodletting purges of the 1930s, it was prepared for offensive, not defensive warfare. Warnings that Germany was going to invade the USSR were ignored, such as that on 15 April 1941, when a German plane crash landed near the city of Rivne. Upon inspection of the plane, cameras, rolls of films and maps were discovered.  It was apparent the pilots had been undertaking reconnaissance missions to aid an up and coming invasion. When that invasion came, Soviet tactical ineptitude doomed the aforementioned 6th Army. By August 3, the German Blitzkrieg had trapped the Soviet 6th and 12th armies around Uman. Despite a further two weeks of fighting the Germans captured 103,000 POWs, among which was general Ivan Muzychenko who had assumed command of the 6th army by 1941. He was to spend the rest of the war in captivity and his army dissolved. Details of the fate of the Soviet 6th army can be found here.
An even greater disaster for the Red army befell at Kyiv. On 4 August 1941, Hitler ordered his generals commanding the “Army Group Center” fighting their way to Moscow to divert south. Hitler was allured to capture Ukraine because of its geopolitical assets. Between 1940-41, “90% percent of the food shipments from the Soviet Union came from Soviet Ukraine. […] For Stalin, mastery of Ukraine was the precondition and proof of the triumph of his version of socialism. Purged, starved, collectivized, and terrorized, it fed and defended Soviet Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union. Hitler dreamed of the endlessly fertile Ukrainian soil, assuming that Germans would extract more from the terrain than the Soviets. Food from Ukraine was as important to the Nazi vision of an Eastern empire as it was to Stalin’s defense of the integrity of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s Ukrainian “fortress” was Hitler’s Ukrainian “breadbasket.” 
On September 12 the German 2nd Panzer army, having been victorious in subduing Minsk further north met the 1st Panzer army, which had been fighting through Ukraine at the small town of Lokhvytsia, east of Kyiv, thereby completing what was the largest encirclement of an opposing force in military history. 600,000 POWs were taken.  Despite further setbacks for the Soviets, including an encirclement of almost similar size at Vyazma on the approach to Moscow,  the Red Army was not beaten. At the beginning of the campaign, Hitler’s generals, such as Franz Halder were confident that they could simply smash all opposition before them.  By August 6th, Halder was already complaining about the ability of the Red Army to escape from the jaws of the Wehrmacht across the Eastern front  and by the time the Germans had reached the outskirts of Kyiv, Halder was reporting that the German 6th Army was losing 1,600 men daily.  Halder also complained that after smashing a dozen Soviet divisions, “the Russians [sic] simply put up another dozen. The time factor favors them, as they are near their own resources, while we are moving farther and farther away from ours.”  Despite what looked like on paper eyewatering losses for the Red Army in the grand encirclements such as at Kyiv, the Red Army could draw on reserves of manpower that the Germans simply did not have, and nowhere on the Eastern front could the Wehrmacht land a fatal blow to the Red Army.
When Hitler ordered the diversion of his Army group center forces on August 4, his decision was met by protests from some of his generals. They said that Moscow, not Kyiv, would decide the war. The focus, they argued, should be on the destruction of the Red Army, not mere land-grabbing for the sake of it. Seen in this light, in addition to the problems highlighted above the offensive capabilities of the Wehrmacht’s thrust into Russia proper were blunted not just merely as defenses around the capital city of the USSR (as well as at the same time the organisation of the Red Army was improved) but also as Autumn turned into the infamous “Russian Winter” that the Wehrmacht was ill-prepared for.  Although it can be argued that the Red Army would have fought on even if Moscow had been captured as the Russian Empire did in 1812 when Napoleon Bonaparte captured the city, it can also be argued that Hitler’s obsession with Ukraine was a major contributor to the failure of Operation Barbarossa even before the 1st of the winter snows fell, and thus actually helped cost Hitler the war. 
Despite all the above, when the Wehrmacht’s advance finally stuttered in the face of the resistance of the Red Army, all of Ukraine had been subdued, whilst only a portion of Western Russia had fallen to the Wehrmacht. Sevastopol held out against the Wehrmacht in a lengthy siege that lasted until early July in 1942, when it was abandoned by Stalin in light of an inability to resupply the city’s defenders with munitions. Oleksiy Leshchenko, born near Vasylivka in 1906, was one of the men tasked to defend the city. In 1940, he had been placed command of “coastal battery 35,” which although designed to protect Sevastopol from sea attacks ended up playing a role in delaying the advance of the Wehrmacht on land. Leshchenko kept his guns firing at the Germans until 3am on July 2 1942, when after having run out of ammunition, he ordered his men to destroy the turrets of coastal battery 35 to prevent it falling into enemy hands before escaping by boat out of the Crimea.  Leshchenko returned to Sevastopol in 1944 to help drive the Germans out of the city.
Much was sacrificed to keep Sevastopol alive, including Odesa which was abandoned to shore up the defences of the Crimea. As the rest of western Ukraine fell into the hands of the Wehrmacht, the city of Odesa managed to repulse the German onslaught and their Romanian allies in a near 70 day siege – in part because the Germans and Romanians were frustrated by partisan resistance. Yakov Gordiyenko, born in the city in 1925, was one of the early partisan leaders and became locally notorious for conducting sabotage activities behind enemy lines. However, he did not survive the siege. Another Ukrainian who began to make a name for herself here was Lyudmyla Pavlychenko, born in Bila Tserkva in 1916. Pavlichenko is still regarded as the deadliest female sniper in history with over 300 confirmed kills during the battles of Odessa and Sevastopol. Her exploits made her not only a hero of the Soviet Union, but also a celebrity in the west
On the evening of November 4 1941 in the small village of Baravnika, local Ukrainian partisans got word that a group of German commanders of the 667th regiment of the 6th army had stayed in the house of the village doctor, Ovram Martynenko. At midnight they made their move and in the ensuing firefight dispatched the doctor as well as three of his German guests, identified as Colonel Sinz, Sgt Graf and Lance corporal Tischler. By no means had this been the 1st time the Wehrmacht had met local partisan activity around Myrhohod, but it was the 1st time a Colonel had been dispatched by partisans in the area.  The German response to this and other acts of partisan activity was to intensify massacres of Ukrainian villagers and Jews under the pretext of being “complicit” in partisan activities. In practice, this not only meant that lower officers and men of the Wehrmacht became complicit in the Holocaust, but also men and resources had to be siphoned off from the front lines to deal with the partisan movement.
One of the most well known partisan leaders in Ukraine is Sydir Kovpak, born in Kharkiv in 1887. In 1943, he would conduct a lengthy partisan raid into Volhynia to disrupt German lines. According to the encyclopedia of Ukraine “the raid had an important psychological effect on the Ukrainian population: it destroyed its belief in German invincibility.” In Ukraine, Soviet partisans played a less important role in the Soviet war effort against the Germans than they did in other parts of the USSR but nonetheless the Partisans still offered a major avenue of resistance.
On 20 October 1943, units of the Red Army that by this stage were now pushing into Ukraine and which had taken part in the battles around the Russian city of Voronezh, as well as the defence of Stalingrad, were renamed as the 1st Ukrainian front. This contingent of the Red Army was 80% Ukrainian. Among them was the Tank commander Andriy Kravchenko, born near Kyiv in 1899, and Kyrylo Moskalenko, born near Donetsk in 1902. By 1943 both had already distinguished themselves by leading tank units at the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk. Both also participated in the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939.
By November 1943 the Wehrmacht, by this stage outnumbered and had lost the initiative against the Red Army, retreated across to the western side of the Dnipro river, hoping to utilise its banks as part of a defensive line. By November 5, that defensive line had been broken by a concentrated river crossing to the north near Lyutizh. By November 6, the Germans, fearing encirclement and a mirror image of the battle of 1941, made a bloody retreat. Moskalenko and Kravchenko’s tanks had reached the center of Kyiv and and Nikolai Vatutin, commander of the 1st Ukrainian front, proclaimed the liberation of Kyiv to Moscow. Kyiv was in soviet terms “liberated” the day before the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Theories have long persisted that Stalin ordered the liberation of Kyiv at any cost to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution; however the liberation of Kyiv was initiated by a bypassing attack, not a direct offensive, which puts those theories into question. 
(“The Liberation of Kiev from Nazi Rule.” A British Pathé interwar Newsreel. Note how the Red Army is depicted here as being “Russian” among other things.)
When the Germans were thrown out of Kyiv in 1943, the war had still had more than 1½ years to run. It was a slow and brutal process. The most decisive defeat of the Wehrmacht came not in a battle in Russia, but in an offensive operation that began in Belarus and would end in Poland in 1944. Operation Bagration caused the near destruction of 20 German divisions and another 50 severely mauled.  Part of the reason for its success was the deception campaign the Soviets conducted. German intelligence had anticipated a massive Soviet Summer offensive, but they had anticipated it being in Ukraine. 
On 13 July 1944, the Ukrainian fronts began a joint offensive in conjunction with operation Bagration to drive out the Germans from the rest of Ukraine. On July 26, they entered Lviv, only to find that the city had already been liberated by the Polish home army. For this, Władysław Filipkowski, the Polish commander of the home army forces based around Lviv, was arrested along with 5000 of his men. The next day Edward Osóbka-Morawski, head of the Polish PKWN, or Stalin’s Polish puppet government, signed an agreement to change the borders of eastern Poland creating in effect the outline of Poland we see today. However, this change left a number of Ukrainian communities and smaller groups such as the Lemkos in limbo. To solve this, Stalin began a process of ethnic cleansing. But in the meanwhile the Ukrainian Soviet secret police became obsessed by another piece of ethnic cleansing, this time conducted by the Germans and their allies.
On August 28 1944 Sergey Savchenko – deputy head of state security for the Ukrainian SSR reported to his superiors in Moscow about intelligence he had received concerning activities of a concentration and extermination camp complex located south-east of Katowice. This was Auschwitz-Birkenau, and its full horrors were exposed when it was liberated by the 60th army of the 1st Ukrainian front on January 27 1945. As I have mentioned before, the first Red Army officer to enter Auschwitz was a Ukrainian Jew by the name of Anatoliy Shapiro.
One of the most iconic photographs of the end of WWII is of the flag of the USSR flying over the Reichstag on 2 May 1945. This was a photo created for propaganda purposes. The man who took the photo was Yevhen Khaldei, born in Donetsk in 1917. He wanted to create an image as iconic as that of Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the raising of the US flag on the summit of Iwo Jima. Before he took his photo the Reichstag had already been surmounted on 30 April 1945 by a Russian soldier, Mikhail Minin, born in 1922 in Vinino, Pskov oblast of the RSFSR. However Minin’s raising of the flag of the USSR took place at night and in conditions not suited to war photography. As a result no photos exist of it and his flag was taken down by Germans the next day. Khaledei took a series of images of the raising of the flag of the USSR and in his recollections he identified three men who served as his photo subjects. Oleksiy Kovalev, the depicted flag raiser was born in Kyiv in 1925 who had served as part of the 1st Belorussian front. He was supported by Abdulkhakim Ismailov from Dagestan and a Alexei/Leonid “Gorychev” from Minsk. For political reasons subsequent Soviet propaganda identified the men in the photos not as the above but as two Russians and a Georgian.
The Rosenthal photo that inspired Khaledi also has a Ukranian connection. Michael Strank was born in Jarabina in what is now Slovakia to Ukrainian Lemko parents in 1919 before his family moved to Pennsylvania to seek a better life. In 1939 he enlisted to join the Marine corps and it was through this in WWII that he found himself fighting island to island against the Japanese in the Pacific theatre. Rosenthal’s iconic photo did not depict the first raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima on 23 February 1945. Earlier on the same day, another US flag had been raised, but it had been deemed too small to see down the mountainside. The full story is here. Rosenthal photographed Strank and his men raising the flag for a 2nd time. Unfortunately for Strank, he died just a few days later on March 1.
When the USSR invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria on 9 August 1945, they were facing an enemy already reeling from losses in China and of the Pacific islands. Three days earlier, the city of Hiroshima had been devastated by a new weapon that fundamentally altered how wars and power-politics have been looked at ever since – the Atomic Bomb. On the same day as the Soviet invasion, the Japanese supreme war council met to discuss if Japan should continue the war. As they were doing this, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. This and the Soviet invasion made the Japanese position of continuing the war untenable. Despite nationalist and militarist opposition, on August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced to his nation acceptance of the terms of surrender as agreed by the allies at Potsdam. However, this did not end the fighting. Conflict between the Red Army and the Japanese persisted and Ukrainians drawn from the west were participants in that fighting.
The aforementioned Tank commander Kravchenko was among the Red Army contingent in the Far East. So was Oleksiy Gnechko, born near Kharkiv in 1900. On 18 August 1945, it was he that was placed in charge of the amphibious conquest of the isle of Shumshu, one of the northernmost of the Kuril islands, and which possessed a Japanese military base. As a result of his exploits, in 2012 the Russian Federation decided to name one of the small islets of the Kurils after him. Officially, the war in the Pacific ended on September 2 on board the USS Missouri, when Japan signed the instrument of Surrender. The representative for the USSR in this ceremony was Kuzma Derevyanko, born in 1904 near Kyiv.
Ukrainians were a major presence in the Red Army from the beginning of September 1939 until the bitter end of WWII in 1945, being full participants in not just its victories, but also many of its crimes. The above is just a selection of some of their stories. The eastern front of the European theatre remains the largest, as well as the bloodiest, arena of war to date. There can never be enough room for telling its full story. Ultimately, it was where Hitler and his allies were defeated, but it came at a heavy cost. At least 27 million people died in the fight against fascism in Europe, but “Soviet losses” does not translate as mere “Russian losses.” Yet, crude assumptions and stereotypes about WWII, the Eastern front, and Ukrainians still persist. It is long past time for the West to rethink what it thinks it knows about the most important conflict of the 20th century. Contrary to Putin’s line, the Red Army, even with its Ukrainians, isn’t exactly something to be completely glorified either, even if it defeated the Wehrmacht.