World War II broke out, Russia was not prepared, nor did she manage to be the military threat she could have been, because the nation was weakened by lack of industrialization, the defeat by Japan in 1905, and a lack of support by the people for involvement in this new war. What seems clear is that Russia was not prepared when the war began and had to work to muster its army, provide war materials, and protect its own territory against the German advance. The fact that Germany was indeed stopped cold in Russia shows how well the Russians did their job, but the issue is why they did not do what they could before the war started given that the whole world could see war coming long before it reached Russia. More recently, though, the question of unpreparedness has been given a new look, and a new theory of what happened has been advanced.
Some critics blame what they call a "historical malady," referring to a long-standing Russian curse that caused the country to do poorly at the outset of all conflicts. Other critics blame native military incompetence, which they say was magnified by German betrayal and military skill. Still other critics blame Stalin's inept leadership and his naive action in trusting Adolf Hitler while he was distrusting his own intelligence reports about the imminence of war. These latter reports originated with the same security and intelligence organs Stalin had recently and ruthlessly purged. In addition, once the war did start, "the burden of troop leadership fell on the shoulders of an officer corps seriously impaired by the same purges. It was as if Stalin were out to prove the adage that "most wounds are self-inflicted'" (Menning 861).
Certainly, Russia should have been aware of the nature of Germany. At the end of World War I, Russia along with the other victors helped fashion the Versailles Treaty that included provisions to prevent Germany from ever developing a war machine again. The Germans were forced to surrender large amounts of war material, to withdraw their forces behind the Rhine, and to hand over their fleet for internment. The armistice was used by the Allies to change the shape of Europe and to shift power away from Germany: "They were anxious to ensure that the German nation acknowledged defeat..." (Taylor 23). Having done this, the Russians should have been as alarmed as other nations as Germany under Hitler rearmed. Critics note that when Germany invaded in 1941, the strength of Soviet troops on the frontier stood at little more than peacetime strength. The Germans had timing and experience on their side, and three German army groups moved rapidly through Russian air and ground defenses so that in little more than a week, their momentum carried them deep into Soviet territory (Menning 861).
After the war, and during Stalin's lifetime, the "Great Patriotic War" (as the Russians call World War II on the Eastern Front) was now "a black hole from which little historical light radiated" (Menning 862). The post-Stalin period gave rise to some further information, "but regard for the communist legacy and the reputations of Stalin's inheritors, who owed their rise and careers to preparation for and conduct of the war, precluded more than a few stray flickers of light" (Menning 862). After 1956, Stalin gradually emerged as scapegoat. During the last years of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev's regime, there was a more positive atmosphere for the pursuit of historical truth, and new information began to emerge for a time. More recently, the information flow has started again (Menning 862-863).
In terms of Stalin's leadership, it was stated that while he had much time to prepare for the war, he also had other concerns in the 1930s which may have prevented him from monitoring Germany as he should have. Many Americans at the time saw little difference between Stalin and Hitler, though there are very real differences. There are in fact a number of superficial similarities between Hitler's Germany under the philosophy of National Socialism and the Communist Russia of Lenin and Stalin, including such factors as the oppression of the people, the use of secret police, widespread propaganda, and the subordination of the individual to the state. In truth, though, there are radical differences between the two ideologies, and the two are violently antagonistic toward one another. Tucker notes the similarities and the differences and the ways in which Stalin and his followers attempted to emphasize these differences early in the 1930s when he writes:
The home front had to be solidified in face of the threat of Nazi aggression. The austerity of Soviet life must be relieved by more attention to housing and consumer goods. The rampant governmental terror of recent years must be curbed. The Soviet political system must be made at least to appear more democratic so as to dramatize the gulf between Communism as a basically humanistic movement and fascism as a racist, terrorist, and openly anti-democratic one (Tucker 239).
Actually, the period of the great purges was yet to come, and any effort to try to seem more democratic than the Nazis was largely cosmetic. Stalin used the charge that there was a conspiracy to seize the government as an excuse to rid himself of his enemies. Tucker says that there really was such a conspiracy, but that Stalin headed it. He also cites the letter Stalin sent claiming that there was a conspiracy to seize power by terrorist action as evidence:
Those accused of being ringleaders of the conspiracy... were among its intended victims; and the one named in the letter as the chief intended victim--Stalin -- was the archconspirator. The secret letter was projective. Through a glass darkly it revealed what happened: from the time when Stalin came to see himself as the target of a plot by a multitude of masked enemies, he began conspiring against them (Tucker 271).
Stalin made himself the center of the Russian political system the way a fascist leader such as Hitler did in his own political system, and the purges were to solidify his move and assure there would be no opposition. Indeed, it would seem that Stalin had learned from the Germans how to accomplish precisely this placement of him in a stronger position of power:
German events proved instructive to him at this time. The Reichstag fire of the previous year had been played up in the Soviet press for what it may have been: a Nazi-staged crime followed by legislation to authorize summary justice and ensuing terror against Communist and other left-wing elements (Tucker 275).
Stalin, however, could not act as openly as had Hitler and knew it:
Not only did Bolshevik political culture militate against any such action; it was not Stalin's way to act so. Besides, his enemies were far too numerous to be put out of the way in a single limited operation. what he needed was, rather, a Soviet equivalent of the Reichstag fire: a heinous crime and politically shocking event in which numbers of prominent Old Bolsheviks could be implicated (Tucker 275).
In addition, Stalin was consolidating his power by eliminating enemies in purges, and some believe he may have allowed his personal interest to prevent him from preparing for the coming war.
The process of governing a communist country was perverted under Stalin into a system for the promotion of his cult. The purges that would take place had to fit within the shape of the socialist system the Bolsheviks created, and hence the pretext devised by Stalin so his enemies could be portrayed as enemies of the people instead. The creation of enemies itself is shown by Tucker to have been a necessary result of the cult of personality that developed around Stalin:
Extreme self-idealizing such as that seen in Stalin inescapably leads to conflict -- within the person and with others. Being at best humanly limited and fallible, such an individual is bound in practice... To fall short of the ideal self's standards of perfection and supremely ambitious goals of achievement and glory (Tucker 162).
The resulting hidden self-hatred is projected outward to enemies real and perceived.
There is some recently revealed evidence that Stalin may have been playing a dangerous game in the 1930s, a game that he could not control, by trying to foster a war so he could use it to the benefit of the Soviet Union and Bolshevism:
In Stalin's eyes, the interest of one was identical with that of the other. Widely broadcast Marxist-Leninist theory, proclaiming wars between "imperialist" powers as the unavoidable path to their inevitable destruction in proletarian and colonial revolutions, should have focused contemporary and historical attention on the connection between the existing war and Stalin's likely interest in profiting from it (Raack 199).
The belief is that Stalin should have known that Germany was preparing to attack and therefore that he did know and tried to use this information for his own benefit.…