The USSR at war: five battles that shaped a communist state

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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.

Soldiers advancing under fire during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942
Soldiers advancing under fire during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942

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).

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.

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.

This is an extract from a special feature on the USSR at war from the latest issue of Military History Matters magazine.

Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

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