On the Verge of the War

Apparently, with the acquisition of new territories and having implemented a new structure of security services aimed at better ruling the enlarged country, Stalin did not expect that the war with Germany would come soon. He initiated a new wave of purges against the military, especially those officers who recently fought in Spain and showed independence from Moscow in their professional decisions. At the same time, Stalin made preparations for a future offensive war by making himself head of the government (Chairman of the Council of Commissars), which would allow him to declare and lead a war if necessary.

New Mass Purges

Just two months before the war, the NKO 3rd Directorate began to uncover a new military ‘plot’, this time in the air force and the armaments industry. The investigation was triggered by an extraordinary event. On April 9, 1941, thirty-year-old Pavel Rychagov, head of the Air Force Directorate and a deputy Defense Commissar, dared to confront Stalin at a Politburo meeting. Rychagov, a flying ace who had fought in both Spain and China, was distraught about a spate of plane crashes caused by mechanical problems. At the meeting, he blurted out: ‘The accident rate is high and will continue to be so because you force us to fly in coffins!’1 After a pause, the dictator responded: ‘You should not have said that.’ Rychagov was dismissed instantly, but, in keeping with the usual ritual, not immediately arrested.2

Two days later came the arrest of the first ‘plotter’, and more arrests continued until the beginning of the war with Germany (Appendix I, see As head of military counterintelligence, Mikheev was in charge of the arrests. Among the sixteen leading air force generals and officials arrested between April and June 1941 was Aleksandr Loktionov, recent commander of the successful Soviet military occupation of the Baltic States.4 Yakov Smushkevich, deputy head of the General Staff in charge of the Air Force, who was awarded the Star of the Hero twice—for his service in Spain (where his nom de guerre was ‘General Douglas’) and later for commanding the air force group during a short military action against Japanese troops in 1939 near the Khalka River—was arrested in a military hospital after a serious operation and brought to Lubyanka Prison on a stretcher. Because almost all those arrested were Spanish Civil War heroes, the operational name for the case was ‘The Plot of Heroes’.

Rychagov was finally arrested on June 24, 1941 two days after the Nazis began their invasion.5 Arrested on the same day were his wife, Maria Nesterenko, a legendary female pilot and deputy commander of a special aviation corps, and afterwards, five more commanders. Arrests continued through July 1941.

After severe beatings, almost all of those arrested ‘confessed’ to having been plotters.6 The only ones who did not sign confessions were Loktionov and Nesterenko. Investigative journalist Arkadii Vaksberg, who had access to the investigation files, later wrote: ‘I do not have the strength to describe the kinds of torture the investigators applied to this remarkable woman [Nesterenko].’7

As usual, Stalin personally supervised the investigation and read the interrogation transcripts.8 The senselessness of arresting experienced air force officers at this time underscores Stalin’s extreme fear of any military challenge to his power. The investigation was interrupted only by the lightning advance of German troops toward Moscow.

Just Before the War

On May 4, 1941, the Politburo appointed Stalin chairman of the Council of Commissars (Sovnarkom or SNK), demoting Molotov to Stalin’s deputy.9 Previously, Stalin was only a Party secretary—officially not a governmental position. As Sovnarkom chairman, Stalin merged the work of the Sovnarkom with that of the Politburo. He created the Bureau of Sovnarkom in which he included all Politburo members (except Kalinin), and the Bureau made all major decisions regarding industry, agriculture, and the economy. From this time onwards, Politburo meetings in Stalin’s office began as Bureau of Sovnarkom meetings and then continued as Politburo meetings. Nikolai Voznesensky became Stalin’s deputy in charge of Sovnarkom questions, and Georgii Malenkov was in charge of the Party questions. However, Stalin made all decisions. Yakov Chadaev, Sovnarkom’s Secretary who wrote down transcripts of Bureau of Sovnarkom meetings, recalled in his memoirs: ‘Stalin’s comrades-in-arms had a great reverential attitude toward him and had never contradicted him.’10

Now, as head of the government, Stalin could lead the war, if necessary. 11 The day after his appointment as Sovnarkom chairman, Stalin indirectly mentioned a plan to ‘fight for our land on foreign soil’ at a Kremlin banquet following a graduation ceremony for Military Academy students. He proposed a toast: ‘Only a war against Fascist Germany, and winning that war, can save our country. I want to drink to the war, to offensive efforts in that war, and to our victory in that war!’12

But Hitler ruined all of Stalin’s plans. In the early hours of June 22, 1941, German troops invaded Soviet territory, and the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, began.13 The Germans claimed it was a preemptive measure: ‘Due to the enormous threat to the eastern German border created by the massive concentration and preparation of all kinds of Red Army troops, the German government has been forced to take immediate military counter measures.’14 Though Hitler had planned the invasion of the Soviet Union for some time, his fears of a Soviet military build-up were not unfounded. At the time of the German attack, the Red Army had 5.4 million servicemen, and the Soviet Union was clearly superior in manpower and weaponry.15

Soon after the attack, 550 million copies of detailed Soviet maps held in military warehouses became German trophies.16 Interestingly, these maps showed only the area bordered by the cities of Petrozavodsk–Vitebsk–Kiev–Odessa on the East, and Berlin–Prague–Vienna–Budapest–Bucharest on the West. According to Stalin’s prewar plans, these would be the areas of future battles, to the west of Soviet territory. Military maps of Soviet regions to the east of the Petrozavodsk–Vitebsk–Kiev–Odessa line were not produced before the war, and a few days after the German attack Soviet commanders found themselves in regions for which they had no maps at all.17 Only in early 1942, after gigantic efforts, did the Soviet troops begin to receive newly printed maps.

Preparations on June 21, 1941

A day before the German invasion, Stalin was still denying the possibility of an attack. On June 21, 1941, the Soviet military attaché to France, Major General Ivan Sousloparov, reported that the Germans would attack the next day.18 Stalin replied: ‘This information is an English provocation. Find out who the author is, and punish him.’ Fortunately for Sousloparov, as he had predicted, the war began the next day.

By the evening of June 21, Stalin could no longer hide from the truth. The Soviet naval attaché to Germany, Mikhail Vorontsov, who had just arrived from Berlin, was summoned to the Politburo meeting at 7:05 p.m.19 According to the Navy Commissar Nikolai Kuznetsov, Vorontsov spent fifty minutes describing the imminent German attack.20 Apparently, after his report, Stalin and the Politburo finally realized that the country was on the verge of a military catastrophe.

The Politburo immediately ordered the organization of two new fronts, the Southern and the Northern.21 The usage of the word ‘fronts’ in the Politburo decision, as during the war, instead of ‘military districts’, as it should be in peacetime, means that Politburo members understood that war had become inevitable. Georgii Zhukov, who had replaced Shaposhnikov as Chief of the General Staff, was appointed commander of both the Southwestern and Southern fronts, while deputy defense Commissar Kirill Meretskov became commander of the Northern Front. After this Timoshenko, the NKO Commissar, and Zhukov sent a directive to the Leningrad, Baltic, Western, Kiev, and Odessa military districts to be on alert for a German attack.22

Additionally, the Politburo reinstated Lev Mekhlis as head of the Main Political Directorate of the Red Army, the GlavPURKKA.23 The GlavPURKKA was a directorate within the Party Central Committee responsible for ideology and morale within the armed forces, while Mekhlis was one of Stalin’s most loyal men, having served as his personal assistant from 1924 to 1930. Later, during the 1937–38 purges, Mekhlis monitored the Red Army through GlavPURKKA’s network of political commissars. His predecessor at this post, Yan Gamarnik, shot himself in 1937 while expecting to be arrested. Despite Mekhlis’s devotion, Stalin liked to play jokes on him, and Mekhlis told his friends: ‘He is a cruel man. Once I told him straight: “I’ve never heard a good word from you.”’ In this new crisis, Stalin turned to Mekhlis again.


1. Konstantin Simonov, Glazami cheloveka moego pokoleniya. Razmyshleniya o I. V. Staline (Moscow: APN, 1988), 429 (in Russian). A detailed analysis of problems in the Soviet airplane industry in 1938–42 in Mark Solonin, Na mirno spyashchikh aerodromakh… 21 iyunya 1941 goda (Moscow: Yauza-Eksmo, 2006) (in Russian).

2. Politburo decision P31/132, dated April 19, 1941. Document No. 162, Lubyanka. Stalin i NKVD, 263–4.

3. A. Pechenkin, ‘Chernyi den’ Krasnoi Armii,’ Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, February 21, 2003 (in Russian),, retrieved September 5, 2011.

4. L. Ye. Reshin and V. S. Stepanov, ‘Sud’by general’skie,’ Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal [hereafter, VIZh], no. 2 (1993), 4–15 (in Russian).

5. L. Ye. Reshin and V. S. Stepanov, ‘Sud’by general’skie,’ VIZhno. 6 (1993), 21–28 (in Russian).

6. Pages 785–6 in Document No. 2 (appendix), in Reabilitatsiya: Kak eto bylo. Fevral’ 1956-nachalo 80-kh godov, edited by A. Artizov et al., 671–788 (Moscow: Demokratiya, 2003) (in Russian).

7. Arkadii Vaksberg, Neraskrytye tainy (Moscow: Novosti, 1993), 59 (in Russian).

8. Merkulov’s report to Stalin, dated May 15, 1941. Document No. 165, in Lubyanka. Stalin i NKVD, 285–87.

9. Oleg V. Khlevniuk, Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 229–45.

10. Page 467 in G. A. Kumanev, Govoryat stalinskie narkomy (Smolensk: Rusich, 2005) (in Russian).

11. Document No. 17, in Stalinskoe Politburo v 30-e gg., edited by O. V. Khlevnyuk et al., 34–35 (Moscow: AIRO-XX, 1995) (in Russian).

12. Stalin’s toasts quoted in A. Pechenkin, ‘Sekretnoe vystuplenie Stalina,’ Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, April 25, 2003 (in Russian),, retrieved September 5, 2011. For Stalin’s speech on May 5, 1941, see Document No. 437, in 1941 god. Kinga vtoraya, edited by L. Ye. Reshin et al., 158–61 (Moscow: Demokratiya, 1998) (in Russian).

13. On the general military events in 1941–45, see, for instance, Evan Mawdsley, Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941–1945 (London: Hodder, 2005)..

14. Notes of the meeting of Molotov with the German ambassador to Moscow, Friedrich Werner von Schullenburg, on June 22, 1941. Document No. 876, in Dokumenty vneshnei politiki. 1940–22 iyunya 1941. T. 23, pt. 2 (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 1998), 753–4 (in Russian).

15. For the updated discussion, see, for instance, Mark Solonin, 22 iyunya, ili Kogda nachalas’ Velikaya Otechestvennaya voina? (Moscow: Yauza, 2005) (in Russian).

16. A. Sharavin, ‘Velikaya Otechestvennaya voina 1941–1945 gg.: Sovetskie karty byli luchshe nemetskikh,’ VIZh, no. 6 (1999): 16–25 (in Russian).

17. Report by T. Volsky to Lt. General Ya. N. Fedorenko, in ibid., page 16.

18. P. I. Ivashutin, ‘Sovetskaya voennaya razvedka dokladyvala tochno,’ VIZh, no. 5 (1990), 56–59 (in Russian).

19. Records of visitors to Stalin’s office in 1941 in 1941 god. Kniga vtoraya, edited by L. Ye. Reshin, et al. (Moscow: Materik, 1998), 298–301 (in Russian). Surprisingly, many historians ignored Vorontsov’s presence at this decisive meeting and omitted or replaced his name.

20. N. G. Kuznetsov, Kursom k pobede (Moscow: Golos, 2000), 12–13 (in Russian). Kuznetsov did not mention that the conversation with Vorontsov occurred at the Politburo meeting in Stalin’s office.

21. Draft of the Politburo decision on June 21, 1941, written by Georgii Malenkov. Document No. 596 in 1941 god. Kniga vtoraya, 413–4.

22. Directive to the military councils of five military districts, dated June 21, 1944. Document No. 121, in Russkii arkhiv. Velikaya Otechestvennaya. Prikazy narodnogo komissara oborony SSSR, T. 13 (2-1) (Moscow: TERRA, 1994), 283 (in Russian).

23. Detailed biography of L. Z. Mekhlis (1889–1953) in Yurii Rubtsov, Alter ego Stalina (Moscow: Zvonnitsa, 1999) (in Russian).

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