Yury Zhukov: “By estimates of directors of military factors, the USSR could be ready for the war only by late 1942”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Part 5: Soviet Union

Yury Zhukov: “By estimates of directors of military factors, the USSR could be ready for the war only by late 1942” Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #267 / Ustinov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

Realnoe Vremya continues a cycle of talks with Russian historians dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Today’s talk with historian Yury Zhukov is about the pre-war state of the USSR. The senior researcher of the Institute of Russian History at the Russian Academy of Sciences explains if the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was inevitable for the Soviet Union and why there is, in fact, no famous secret protocol to it.

“Nobody doubted in the USSR in 1933 that a war with Germany was inevitable and it would be very soon

Mr Zhukov, another dictator came to power in Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the national socialist party. Was Stalin getting ready for a war with another dictator?

There was a preparation for the war. But the country, not Stalin, was getting ready for it that didn’t doubt that Germany would attack the Soviet Union, which wasn’t ready for war throughout the 30s. In the 30s, the German economy became the world’s second after the USA, and Germany always had powerful both the heavy and military industry, while the USSR began to create its metallurgic factories only in the early 30s, without which no opposition to the enemy was possible. The USSR was getting ready for war at a high speed — Stalin said in 1931 that we had 10 years for the preparation, otherwise, they would attack and destroy us.

But in 1931 Stalin could consider Great Britain and France as enemies, not Germany. When did he understand that Germany was the number one and major enemy?

When Hitler came to power, in January 1933. Don’t forget that he declared the USSR his major enemy in Mein Kampf, which means that Germany could be considered as an enemy since the middle of the 20s. Nobody doubted in the USSR in 1933 that a war with Germany was inevitable and it would be very soon.

Hitler at the window of the Chancellery on Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin while receiving the ovations of the people on the evening of the day on 30 January 1933. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-026-11 / Sennecke, Robert / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

Did the USSR’s foreign politics regarding those who were also meant to enemies — Great Britain and France — change suddenly in this case? How fast did Stalin stop supposing them dangerous for the USSR?

Politics changed suddenly. The USSR signed an anti-German agreement with France as early as 1934 (for this purpose, the USSR entered the League of Nations), and then with Czechoslovakia on assistance in case of German aggression. Politics changed in a way that the USSR couldn’t resist Hitler alone, and at that moment only a union with western powers was needed.

Whose mind did the quite a progressive idea of collective securty linked with Hitler’s appearance in power cross? That of Stalin?

People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the USSR Maksim Litvinov did a lot in this respect, and he did his job very quickly without waiting for aggravation of events.

“London and Paris didn’t want to fight. Paris thought in general that Hitler would get stuck in the East”

Why were the agreements signed but there wasn’t created collective security by 1939 anyway?

London and Paris already thought that the most important thing was not to join any war but send Hitler to the East. Despite the mentioned agreements between the USSR with France and Czechoslovakia, Premier of France Daladier flew to Munich together with British Prime Minister Chamberlain to give Czechoslovakia to the Germans. London and Paris didn’t want to fight. Paris thought in general that Hitler would get stuck if he went to the East by providing France and Britain a calm life.

Was the influence of Soviet diplomats on Great Britain and France weak?

There were attempts to influence, but what could the USSR do if the position of London and Paris was pro-German?

Édouard Daladier (centre) with Joachim von Ribbentrop at meeting in Munich in 1938. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H13007 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

Did England influence Paris a lot?

No, these countries mutually tried to distance themselves from what was happening in the world. They began to live with illusions that Hitler would go to the East and wouldn’t touch them.

Was the USSR afraid of the USSR immediately after Munich?

No. But there was an understanding that we weren’t ready for a war. The USSR began to get ready for the war from scratch — aviation and tractor factories were built in the country to manufacture tanks, while Germany had it all. This is why the task after Munich was to drag the inevitable war by all means, to drag it to get ready for defence.

“The Soviet Union could develop so much needed latest planes, tanks, test them and launch mass production only by late 1942”

You say that Stalin considered the Soviet Union needed 10 years to get ready for the war. When could the USSR be really ready for the war regarding its development, this preparation itself, Stalin’s due instructions?

By estimates of those factory directors who worked for the USSR military industry, we could be ready for the war only in late 1942. Only by this moment the Soviet Union could develop so much needed latest planes, tanks, test them and launch mass production. And I want to note that not Stalin and Voroshilov are the case: the economy acts on its own. Because any engineer needs time to develop the same tank T-34 or Il plane, and so the readiness for the war would be ideal in late 1942. And earlier it was impossible to resist Hitler’s aggression in the same Czechoslovakia without allies.

How could the relationships of the USSR and Germany be described in 1933-1939?

There weren't any relationships. There were just weak relationships, and that’s it. For instance, Germany had a chain of petrol stations that belonged to a joint Soviet-German joint-stock company — in fact, it was the sale of Soviet petrol in Germany, but in 1934 Hitler ordered to close all these stations and terminated all agreements with the USSR on purchase of petrol, oil and so on. Here is an example of the relationship. Our countries didn’t have any serious economic relationships before 1939.

The Khalkhin Gol River crossing. Photo: samlib.ru

Many know that Germany had a communist party, and Ernst Thälmann who allegedly was in prison for arson of the Reichstag was among its famous executives. In 1939 Hitler tried to have contacts in the USSR but he didn’t say about the necessity to free Thälmann. Why?

How could the USSR do it? German police arrested Thälmann, kept him in prison, and what can be done here? Yes, there was process about the arson of the Reichstag in 1933 where communist Georgy Dimitrov was condemned, but this process was open, and lawyers who were pro-Soviet managed to obtain evidence that Dimitrov wasn’t guilty, and the Germans had to release him, which allowed taking Dimitrov to the USSR soon. While Thälmann was put in prison, he was kept there without trial and investigation, and in this case, it was impossible to help him.

In 1939, the USSR had to solve more serious problems. There is such a concept as omission. And when we talk about the year 1939 and the signing of the Soviet-German agreement of non-aggression, we often forget that the USSR almost had a war with Japan in the East — up to 150,000 people participated in battles near the Khalkhin Gol River in Mongolia by July-August. It wasn’t a borderline conflict, it was a local war that could turn into a real and quite a dangerous war for us. The same Trans-Siberian Railway was along the border behind the Lake Baikal, and the Japanese could easily cross the border in several places and cut the railway. So the Japanese would separate Eastern Siberia and all Far East from the USSR, and Moscow wouldn’t have any connection with these parts — it wouldn’t send all the essentials for the war by sea. Such a situation was very serious, and they should be solving such problems first of all.

“There is no secret protocol, it is a legend”

How should we treat the secret protocol to the agreement of non-aggression where the USSR and Germany confirmed their areas of interests? So the USSR got the Baltic States, Finland, eastern Poland.

I am sorry, but there is no secret protocol, it is a legend. How can a secret protocol explain that we drew a red line in Poland with the Germans? The map of this red line signed by Stalin was published either on 18 or 19 September 1939 in Izvestia and Pravda. It is an open secret.

Secret protocol to the agreement. Photo: wikipedia.org

Moreover, this red line coincided with the Curzon Line, that’s to say, that eastern border of Poland that the Supreme Council of Entente recognised in 1919 and Poland violated in 1920 having assaulted our territories (Western Ukraine and Western Belarus). Our territories were illegally assaulted in 1920, and the USSR just recovered what Entente established. Not the Commintern, not Stalin, not Lenin but the Supreme Council of Entente. The same Lithuanian got Poland’s Vilna region by agreement where a lot of Lithuanians lived — is it bad? Ukraine and Belarus got their lands back, and note that nobody — Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine — protests against this agreement.

It seems that the formulation of the protocol “delineation of spheres of interests” confuses many, which gives foundation to suppose that there was a deal between Hitler and Stalin.

So what if there is such a formulation? Let’s look at post-war years and endless talks between the USSR and the USA: discussion and determination of the sphere of interests — it is a normal and natural process in relations between great powers. Earlier, in the early 19th century, our Emperor Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon signed the Treaties of Tilsit where as a secret appendix we got Finland, but the Finns forgot about this fact for some reason.

What is the correct way to evaluate the agreement of non-aggression between the USSR and Germany? As a threat to our country during those years?

The agreement was very important for our country. We got a two-year delay of war, and this is why American magazine Time, which annually chooses Person of the Year, declared Stalin as such in 1939 because he managed to keep his country out of military actions.

…though there was signed an agreement with the personification of the evil for the Soviet person, the Fascist dictator.

When the case is a tough situation the USSR was in in 1939, ideology is forgotten.

By Sergey Kochnev