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Soviet Resistance

LAURENCE REES: Let’s discuss the level of Soviet resistance. There were instances like the siege of Leningrad where hundreds of thousands of people - maybe a million - were dying.

RICHARD OVERY: Well, with the extraordinary nature of the Soviet war effort, and it is an extraordinary effort, there is a staggering cost which exceeds anything which the Western states had to cope with. It is an indication of the extent to which Stalin’s state had always been a state of mobilisation. It’s a state that is rooted in ideas of the social mobilisation of whole societies. The British talk about fighting total war and the Soviet Union fight it and experience it. It’s what they do. Theirs is a whole society, it’s a Communist society rooted in the proletariat and the peasantry; it’s the only one, and it’s not going to survive unless you fight the Germans.

Now, you might think a lot of Russians would welcome that [ie the destruction of Communism] and say, well, why the hell am I fighting? And of course there were quite a few who drew exactly those conclusions. But in the end the nature of the German occupation and the endless rumours which then fed through the rest of the Soviet population made it absolutely clear that, just as with the British and the French, what they were fighting was an extraordinary apocalyptic enemy and that there was no alternative but to accept this extraordinary level of sacrifice.

This is a population already used to high levels of sacrifice, and it doesn’t mean that sacrifice is a good thing, but in a sense, like the British with the Blitz, the Soviet public had also been attuned to it, so that when the final struggle comes with the forces of imperialism and capitalism, whatever it is, you’ve got to fight it to the absolute limit.

Now, here there is no moral question; absolutely you do whatever you have to do in order to be able to win that contest. In Leningrad there’s not a lot of options. Either you carry on fighting or you give the city up. And of course the Russians didn’t know what the German plans were, which were to destroy Leningrad and just to kill off or scatter the population. But they made up ideas that this is what would happen to them if they did. The Party beefs them up but I think the extraordinary thing about the Soviet war effort is that increasingly the role of the Party and the police becomes more muted and the Soviet people find it within themselves, as Russian people have found for 300 years, that when you’re invaded, you fight back.