Russia reflects on sixty-five years since the Soviet Union’s World War Two victory

This online supplement is produced and published by Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russia), which takes sole responsibility for the content. 

Alexander Mekhanik, Expert magazine

Something has changed in Russia. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the values on which Soviet society was based – and after two decades of hard times – the search is on for a firm footing in values and ideology. Attention has focused on the Second World War, especially the question of what we were fighting for.
It seems, in Russia and in the rest of the world, that there are two points of view about the war. The first holds that Stalin’s regime was undoubtedly tyrannical, but the war was fought for humanitarian values and freedom. The Soviet Union made a decisive contribution to the victory of these values, though it was certainly no showcase for them.

The second may be called the revisionist one, that the Second World War was in fact two wars: the one on the Western Front a battle for democratic ideals and freedom; the other, on the Eastern Front, between tyrants seeking to oppress and enslave nations.

One Russian political analyst has even written that, while the Western allies were fighting for democratic ideals, most people in the Soviet Union had little idea of either democracy or Nazism, and were simply fighting for the Motherland. And even then they thought long and hard before fighting: Stalin’s regime had so “exhausted” them that many were ready simply to surrender. This, in part, explains why Russia lost the early stages of the war.
Most Soviet citizens fought simply for their Motherland, with no thought of ideology; the same can be said about most people in the anti-Nazi countries and those who fought in the Resistance. It is true that all the enemies of Germany and Japan also lost ground in the early stages of the war.

If one pursues the logic further, then, evidently, the French, as well as the Czechs, Belgians, Dutch and others, had been “exhausted” by democracy. That isn’t too far from the truth: democratic positions, as we now know, were seriously undermined throughout Europe as a result of the First World War and the Great Depression. This preordained the victory of the fascists and the Nazis in Italy and Germany.

One shouldn’t forget that the younger Soviet generation supported the regime because it had allowed them to have educations and careers that before had been off-limits to them. They were fighting, if you will, for the Soviet Dream, for anyone having the chance to become, if not general secretary of the Communist Party, then at least a marshal or a people’s commissar.

Who was the backbone of the Resistance in France? Supporters of de Gaulle and the communists. De Gaulle could not be called a consistent democrat. In his youth he was, after all, close to the right-wing thinker Charles Maurras.

The countries that conducted a real underground partisan battle and put up a genuinely fierce resistance to the Germans were ones that had not been especially democratic before Nazism: Poland, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. Resistance leaders in these countries, such as Josip Tito and Enver Hoxha, could hardly be called democrats.

Indeed, only a small group of countries were then democracies, and far from contemporary notions of what a true democracy should be. Think of segregation in the United States; think of the state of human rights in British, French and other European colonies. In Eastern Europe there was real democracy only in Czechoslovakia: in Poland you had the Sanacja regime; in Lithuania Smetona’s dictatorship; in Latvia Ulmanis’s dictatorship; in Hungary you had the dictatorship of Horthy; and in Romania that of Antonescu.

Indeed, it’s not a question of the moods of the warring countries, their citizens and leaders, or of their political systems: it’s a question of the objective nature of a war which, from the point of view of the anti-Hitler coalition, was a war to preserve humanitarian and democratic values; a war for freedom in the highest sense of the word. This does not change the nature of the Soviet regime and its crimes, or the crimes of the English and the French in their colonies, or the discrimination against blacks and the lynch mobs in the US.

The question of what the communists were fighting for or, more broadly, the question of the values of communists in the USSR and in Europe is far more complex. The Russian Revolution was brought about by people who believed that the road they had chosen was the only possible road to a consistent democracy combining political and social freedoms.

During the Second World War those same people believed that they were fighting for their ideals. This is the fundamental difference between communism and fascism/Nazism, which in principle rejected democracy as an institution. One has only to compare the works of classic communists, from Marx to Lenin, with those of fascists/Nazis, such as Maurras, Mussolini, Hitler, et al.

It is not just the attitude toward democracy; it is the common spirit of universalism, humanism and cosmopolitanism that distinguished classic communism from the spirit of anti-humanism and chauvinism in fascism. Despite all the transformations, Soviet communism in those years still reflected classic values.

However one feels about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it did not run counter to the logic of the behaviour of leading countries in Europe at the time toward fascist Germany. From Britain to Poland and from Norway to Greece, all were trying to come to an understanding with Hitler behind each other’s backs and at each other’s expense.

First, the socialists and liberals of France, conservatives and labourites in Britain, and their European colleagues betrayed the Spanish Republic led by fellow socialists and liberals by allowing it to be torn apart by German and Italian fascists.

Then England and France, along with Poland and Hungary, betrayed Czechoslovakia. And between these betrayals they closed their eyes to Hitler’s annexation of Austria. What could the Soviet leadership expect from such players? Another betrayal.

When France and England (after Germany invaded Poland) declared war, they were “just pretending”. Small wonder that this war came to be known as the phoney war. This, evidently, is what Stalin was afraid of when he concluded his pact with Hitler: in the West there would be a pretend war, but in the East there would be a real one.

To all appearances, Stalin foresaw an extended war in the West and did not want to be left alone with Hitler. A highly rational, if not always highly moral, foreign policy combined with a domestic policy that was irrational in its terrorism: that was the trademark Stalinist style.

If the irrational anti-Semitism of the Nazis can be attributed to centuries-old prejudices peculiar to all of Europe, then the Stalinist terror cannot be attributed to anything but fear: fear of the ruling classes of old Russia that had suffered defeat in the Civil War; fear of the enemies real and imagined in one’s own party; fear of the anarchic element in the peasantry, and so on. These fears were in part justified, but they assumed a paranoid form.

Responding to criticisms that he and Khrushchev did not do enough to expose Stalin’s crimes, former first deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan reportedly said: “We couldn’t do that because then everyone would have known what scoundrels we were.”

That, too, is the difference between communism and Nazism: the communist scoundrels understood who they were because they realised the gulf separating them from the ideals they revered; the Nazis liked being scoundrels – that was their ideal.

Many historians and politicians in the new countries that rose from the ruins of the Soviet Union justify the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists and Lithuanian guerrillas on two fronts during the Second World War (against the Nazis and the communists) by saying that neither side in this “clash of tyrants” was better than the other; that these members of small nations were simply fighting tyranny. This is disingenuous: similar formations fought on the side of the Nazis and only towards the end of the Third Reich did they attempt to feign resistance.

The Second World War was no ordinary war. It was possibly the only war in history that was fought against absolute evil, a fight that united idealists defending their ideals, cynics defending their interests, and even scoundrels trying to incinerate their sins in the flames of a great struggle.

Together, they were all, like all the people who fought in that war, defending their Motherland, their life and their home in the present and the future – freedom for themselves and all mankind.

The Vandals as a Naval Power

Later Roman Liburnian type galley

Geiseric (428–477) was certainly the most important of the Vandal kings, and indeed was among the most influential figures of the fifth century Mediterranean world. It was under his watch that the Vandals crossed into Africa, and secured the two imperial treaties of settlement in 435 and 442. He established the position of the Vandals as a major naval power by commandeering the Carthaginian merchant marine, and was able to spread Vandal authority into Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands.

Fall of Carthage to the Vandals aggrieved the western and eastern empire, as there was a large number of galleys and a great shipyards in Carthage, creating the Vandal fleet as the equal to the joint navy of the two empires. That the empire ever allowed for so many galleys to be left in Carthage’s port while the Vandals were so close by, must be one of the most monumental blunders of its history. For the first time in nearly 6 centuries, Carthage became the greatest danger to Rome since the Punic Wars.


AD 468 witnessed the most ambitious campaign ever launched against the Vandal state in Africa, which deserves admiration for its logistical brilliance, if not its eventual result. A massive naval operation, under the command of the emperor’s brother-in-law Basiliscus, lay at the heart of this offensive, which was intended to strike directly at the Vandal capital. The statistics for this campaign given by sixth- and seventh-century historians are clearly grotesquely exaggerated, but even if we can reject Theophanes’ assertion that the fleet numbered 100,000 ships or even John the Lydian’s more modest (but still unlikely) figure of 10,000 ships, it is clear that the logistical operation was massive. Marcian ordered the extensive requisition of merchant shipping in eastern ports, including considerable numbers of Carthaginian vessels. Simultaneously, western troops were mustered under Anthemius or Ricimer, and Sicily was again taken by Marcellinus and his barbarian federates.

The mobilization of this campaign startled the inhabitants of Carthage into action. The Suevic and Gothic envoys in the city fled, and Geiseric rapidly deployed his own legates in an attempt to make peace. Quite what happened next is unclear, but Geiseric’s overtures apparently had some effect. In the early stages of the campaign, the imperial forces enjoyed some success, and may even have defeated Vandal ships sent out to intercept them. Crucially, however, Basiliscus delayed the crucial landing operations and kept his ships anchored at Mercurium off the African coast for five days. Various explanations for this delay circulated among later historians. Some suggested that Basiliscus had simply been bought off by Geiseric, others that Aspar had promised him the eastern throne if he agreed to sacrifice his fleet to the Vandal allies of the magister militum. Whatever the cause, the delay proved to be fatal. After a long stand-off, a shift in the wind allowed Geiseric to launch a fire-ship raid on the becalmed fleet. The effects were devastating. Basiliscus’ vast armada was scattered and the opportunity for a crippling blow at Carthage was lost.

As Basiliscus led his fleet towards the cataclysm of Mercurium, and Marcellinus occupied Sicily, a third front was opened up on the southern frontier of the Vandal kingdom. Drawing his army from the Byzantine troops and federates of Egypt, Heracleius led an expedition by sea against the Vandal coastal stronghold of Tripolis. Heracleius occupied the city, and then followed an overland route towards Byzacena, with the intention of uniting with Basiliscus in the Proconsular province. This expedition would have represented a considerable threat to the Vandal kingdom, but it seems to have been halted by news of Basiliscus’ defeat. Apparently demoralized, Heracleius led his army back to the relative safety of Tripolis. Tripolis remained in Byzantine hands until 470 when military pressures on the Balkan frontier, and political infighting at court, required that the troops in Africa be withdrawn. A formal peace treaty was probably signed in the same year.

Naval Power in the Renaissance Africa

In 1500, a number of dynamic powers were expanding. The conflicts involving Ottoman Turkey, Mameluke Egypt, Safavid Persia, the Mughals, and the Lodis were all important, although with hindsight Portuguese and Spanish naval activity may appear most important. China was less affected than other major Asian states by external challenges
The long-distance extension of power and influence by sea was scarcely novel: the Vikings had colonized Iceland and Greenland and reached Newfoundland; the Chinese had sent a number of major expeditions into the Indian Ocean in the early fifteenth century. Yet no state had hitherto dispatched and sustained major naval and amphibious forces across the Atlantic or the Pacific, let alone to the other side of the world.
Naval force was also important because it was easier to move men, munitions, and supplies by sea than by land. Such movement came to play a greater role in many struggles. The Turks, for example, learned in the late fifteenth century to move cannon by sea, and then land them for the sieges of coastal fortifications that played such a major role in the military system of their rival, Venice. The conflict in the Horn of Africa between Ethiopia and Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi of Adal (1506-43), known to the Ethiopians as Ahmad Gran (the left-handed), was affected by support received by sea from foreign powers. The war is indeed an instructive instance both of how such struggles could become aspects of wider conflicts and of the transforming role of firearms. Ahmad, a fiery imam, conquered Ada! in the mid-1520s and then launched a holy war against Ethiopia. He also trained his men in the new tactics and fIrearms introduced into the Red Sea region by the Ottomans, who conquered Egypt in 1517. Ahmad overran much of Ethiopia in 1527 and, thanks to better leadership and weapons, higher morale, a more effective command structure, greater mobility, and more flexible tactics, he was able to defeat the Ethiopian Emperor Lebna Dengel at Shimbra Kure in 1528. Ahmad then conquered much of Ethiopia, including the wealthy Amhara plateau, though Lebna Dengel continued to resist from the Christian highlands. In 1541, the Portuguese despatched 400 musketeers to the aid of Ethiopia. A joint Ethiopian and Portuguese army defeated Ahmad in 1541. He then turned to the Ottomans for help. They in turn provided him with 900 musketeers and 10 cannon, with which he defeated his opponents in August 1542, killing 200 Portuguese, including their commander Christopher da Gama. The conflict in Ethiopia, hitherto the land of the mythical Prester John for Europeans, had thus been integrated, at least partly, into global military relationships.

In Africa, firearms had most impact along the savanna belt, where European and Islamic ‘foreign’ influence was strongest, but the overall military situation was more complex. Towards the close of the century, the nomadic pagan Galla advanced from the Ogaden and overran both Ethiopia and Adal. Native fighting methods could be very effective. African coastal vessels, powered by paddles and carrying archers and javelinmen, were able to challenge Portuguese raiders on the West African coast. Although it was difficult for them to storm the larger, high-Sided Portuguese ships, they were nevertheless too fast and too small to present easy targets for the Portuguese cannon. In 1535, the Portuguese were once more repelled when they tried to conquer the Bissagos Islands. On land, the Portuguese cannon proved to have little impact on the African earthwork fortifications.
In Angola, the base of Portuguese operations in the 1570s, the slow rate of fire of their muskets and the openness of the African fighting formations reduced the effectiveness of firearms, and the Portuguese were successful only when supported by local troops. Initially, their position was saved by the intervention of an army from the kingdom of Kongo. The global range of the European maritime powers and the impact of gunpowder must be considered alongside the importance of the non-European users of firearms and the resilience of the peoples who lacked them. Both are themes throughout this period, and remind us of the dangers of adopting a teleological perspective in which the future is read back into the past, made to appear inevitable with the perspective of hindsight.
The fact that the Europeans dramatically increased the percentage of the world’s surface that they controlled in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were to continue doing so in the eighteenth, does not mean that the process of European expansion was inevitable, although it would be foolish to discount its significance and interest. It is, however, important to .appreciate also the great complexities of this process, the many imbalances between the military and naval developments of the various regions, and the contrasting trajectories of European success in many different parts of the world.


Excavations on the site of the Mainz Hilton discovered eleven fast patrol boats of the Roman navy, which must have been used for defending the Rhine frontier. Tree-ring dating of one boat shows that it was constructed in the 370s, and repaired with wood cut in 385 and again in 394.

The Roman version of a machine gun, mounted on a fast patrol boat in the Maritime Museum in Mainz. The picture above is of the weapon mounted in the bow of the larger one, a sort of automatic bolt firing ballista, the sort of thing that would spoil any invader’s day. The iron tipped “bolts” were fed in from above, each descending in turn as the operators cranked the mechanism. As the drawstring reached its full draw, a trip mechanism allowed an bolt to fall into the firing groove and the action then tripped a release allowing the bolt to be discharged and the cycle started again.

These fast patrol boats were stationed at intervals along the Rhine and swept back and forth making sure the “barbarians” to the North didn’t cross. All this came to nought in 407 AD when the Rhine froze during a severe winter and an estimated 100,000 barbarians swept into the Empire. Famine and destruction followed and the Empire began to crumble rapidly. By 410 AD Alaric, King of the Visigoths, reached Rome itself and sacked it.

In 400 the Rhine, patrolled by ships such as those found recently at Mainz, was still a major dividing line between Roman and barbarian. Certainly some Franks had been ceded land to the west of the mouths of the Rhine, while other Germans captured in the fighting, including Franks, were settled in small groups throughout northern Gaul to serve as recruiting pools for the Roman army. The Franks in particular were just as often allies as enemies: in the late fourth century a number of them rose to be commanders-in-chief of the Roman army and even consuls. But the defensive system in Gaul, set up after the serious inroads made by the Germans in the third century, still functioned well and most of Gaul, governed still from Trier, remained secure from attack. Even in Britain the Roman army and navy successfully repelled a number of attacks by Scotti (as Romans called the Irish), by Britons and Picts from north of Hadrian’s Wall, and by sea-borne Germans. Each attack brought fresh refortification in its wake; in 399, Stilicho, the German general who commanded the Roman armies in the west, himself came to Britain to supervise operations.

The Museum of Ancient Shipping


James I of Aragon: The Barcelona Maritime Code of 1258

By the middle of the thirteenth century there was a well-established system of usages or maritime law at Barcelona and Tortosa in Spain, and at Marseilles in France, besides similar systems in northern Europe, the laws of Oleron and the laws of Wisby. As may be seen, these laws regulated lading and discharge of cargo, freight charges, contracts, arms, provisions, rescue, tolls, and relations between crew and merchants. The whole may be regarded as a codification of customs which had developed in the period of the Crusades. Sailing ships and vessels were used for the carrying trade and both ships and vessels had covered decks. 

Be it known to all that we, James, by the grace of God, King of Aragon, of Majorca, and of Valencia, Count of Barcelona and Urgell, and Lord of Montpellier, hearing the ordinances written below, which you, James Gruny, our faithful servant, have made at our wish and command and with our consent, and which you have drawn up with the advice of the honest water-men of Barcelona and based upon the ordinance of the same, having heard, seen, and understood that the said ordinances were to be made in our honor, and for the use and welfare of the water-men and the citizens of Barcelona, having confirmed the document by the authentic application of our seal, we grant, approve, and confirm all and each of the undermentioned ordinances, made by you and the said honest men on our authority. Wishing that the said ordinances may endure and be observed as long as it shall please us and the said honest water-men of Barcelona, by commanding our mayors, and bailiffs, both present and future, that they observe each and all of the undermentioned regulations, firmly and strictly, if they hope confidently for our grace and affection, and that they see that they are observed inviolably, so that they do not allow them to be disturbed by any one.