Battles for Ukraine went hand in hand with the irresponsible and merciless exploitation of the local population in the offensive operations of the Red Army
Soviet mobilization efforts on the territory of Ukraine during the Second World War were part of the general Soviet enlistment campaign which, from the very start, was directed towards scoring victories by virtue of overwhelming quantity rather than quality, which would require working out an efficient strategy and training troops. Wartime enlistment campaigns swept across the Ukrainian SSR in two waves: The first one between 23 June 1941 and the complete German occupation of the republic in July 1942, while the second one, in 1943-45, was conducted when the Red Army was already advancing, the result of which was the re-occupation of the territory of Ukraine.
THE UKRAINIAN MOBILIZATION RESOURCE
The rapid advance of the German troops, negligence of Soviet military enlistment offices, chaos in Soviet government bodies, local defeatist sentiments and distrust for the ruling regime were all factors that gradually caused the disruption of Soviet mobilization efforts. In many central and eastern oblasts of Ukraine, less than half of the eligible men showed up at enlistment stations, while the process was, in essence, completely derailed in Western Ukraine. A large number of recruits failed to reach the military units they were assigned to. According to the Mobilization Directorate of the Red Army’s General Staff, over two million men subject to military service and recruits remained on the occupied territory of the USSR. Researchers’ estimates are much higher – 5,631,000 men, including over three million in Ukraine.
Add to these the Red Army deserters from the front-line or soldiers who were surrounded, released Soviet POWs, young men who reached conscription age under German occupation, as well as older and sick men (their eligibility for conscription was determined by additional orders of the Soviet command in 1942-43.). These were the groups of potential conscripts for the second mobilization campaign when the Germans were already pulling out of Ukraine. At the time, the Red Army was in dire need of human resources. Everyone fit for military service was dispatched to the front-line from the entire Soviet Union. Women were mobilized to replace the rank and file and non-commissioned officers in air defence, air force, communications and support units. A new, much shorter list of disqualifying illnesses was approved. So-called “enemies of the people” and other “unreliable” categories of citizens were conscripted.
Conscription rules were also changed. A Supreme Command order from 9 February 1942 read: “Since the active army requires the timely replacement of human resources, but the trained military contingent is delayed due to transportation problems and is late coming to active units, the army’s military councils are granted permission to replenish their human resources on their own during offensive operations.” In this way, the advancing Red Army was given the power to conscript the newly “liberated” population.
At first glance, this order appears fairly liberal, because at the early stage of the German-Soviet war, Stalin condemned the Soviet citizens who had remained on occupied territories and called them the “traitors of the Fatherland”. Now they had an opportunity to restore a legal status for themselves, join the Red Army, distinguish themselves in action and receive decorations. But a close look at the way mobilization was carried out in Ukraine reveals a stark contrast between official orders and their practical implementation.
“ATONING FOR GUILT WITH BLOOD”
It was the rule rather than the exception for poorly equipped and untrained recruits to be sent directly into battle instead of first being trained in reserve regiments. Military units, divisions and even regiments also conscripted men without due regard for instructions sent from above. Shortly after the liberation of Ukraine, battles were fought with varied success and the situation on the front often required immediate reaction, so sending recruits into battle was sometimes a forced measure. However, it later became an integral part of planning and implementing strategic operations. The memoirs of former commanders and combat documents often mention that certain combat tasks were to be executed using the local population. Alexander Lebedintsev, a former infantry officer and head of the veterans’ association of the 38th infantry division, described one such case in his memoirs: “We conscripted 72 men from the small village of Dolyna to our regiment alone. There were 13 men with the surname Kyianyts and nine each called Kyiashchenko and Pliut. Battalion commanders went from house to house, conscripting everyone who was at home and those who had reached conscription age in the two years of occupation to our unit. Two infantry battalions were formed out of these recruits. These conscripts came out to defend their village in their own civilian clothes, armed with their own spades. Once the trenches were dug, they were given rifles, submachine guns and machine guns. Many of them died 10 km from their homes, near Hermanivska Slobidka where 132 men from our division were killed and 285 more were wounded on 27-28 December.”
Mobilization targeted not only those who were eligible for conscription for the first time on “liberated” territories, but also former POWs, deserters and other categories of people. According to an order issued by Yefim Shchadenko, Head of the Chief Formation Directorate (Glavupravform), dated 10 March 1943, “all military servicemen who earlier surrendered themselves as POWs to the enemy without resistance, deserted from the Red Army and lived at their residential address on territories temporarily occupied by the Germans, found themselves under siege at their place of residence, stayed at home and have made no effort to join Red Army units must be immediately sent to penal units. The checking procedure and place for the rank and file and non-commissioned officers are determined by an order issued by the army’s military councils and for medium and higher officers - by an order issued by front-line military councils. Only those against whom there is sufficient data to suspect that they are involved in anti-Soviet activities should be sent to special NKVD camps.”
Former Soviet servicemen who had not cooperated with the German authorities on occupied territories were given one month in a penal company. Those who were elders or policemen under the Germans or collaborated with them in other ways were given two months. Former POWs or medium- and higher-ranking officers were also placed in disciplinary units – assault infantry battalions – and sent to the hottest spots on the front-line, together with penal units. The term of service in assault units was set at two months of fighting or until a person was decorated for bravery or wounded for the first time. After that, personnel with good credentials could be appointed to commanding positions in field forces.
The fate of the youngest recruits, aged 17-19 was particularly tragic. Compared to their peers who lived in rural areas of the USSR, the young men in Ukraine who had survived the occupation not only saw their conscription age reduced but also faced much stricter requirement for transition from civilian to military conditions – they immediately found themselves on the front-line. After “liberation” they were mobilized by army-run conscription commissions, which sent them for selection and training to reserve infantry regiments. It later turned out that these regiments were unable to train them properly. Two weeks was not enough time for the young men to master even the basics of military craft. There were cases when they went into battle without even knowing how to use a rifle. So a directive was issued ordering recruits to be sent to reserve brigades in rear military districts rather than to army reserve regiments. As of 10 October 1943, the Central Front had mobilized and sent 2,000 recruits into battle born in 1926, and the South-Western Front - 7,000.
BLEEDING THE UPA DRY
When the Red Army entered Western Ukraine, the total mobilization of the local population became a burning issue, considering how active the nationalist underground and the UPA were in this region. Stalin’s commanders believed that the population of Galicia and Volyn was insufficiently loyal to the Soviet authorities. In 1942, the People’s Commissariat for Defence ordered for non-commissioned officers born in the western oblasts of Belarus and Ukraine and in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovyna to be weeded out of the army on ethnic grounds.
On the eve of the arrival of the Red Army in western regions, the Commander of the First Ukrainian Front, Nikolai Vatutin, asked Nikita Khrushchev, a member of the front’s Military Council at the time, about mobilization. After attending a rally in the “liberated” city of Sarny, Khrushchev informed Stalin: “I have come to the conclusion that these people need to be conscripted to the Red Army according to standard procedure. The only thing is that unreliable men must be identified and filtered out with greater scrutiny, as well as agents who will most certainly be sent to us by the Germans through those OUN men, Banderites and Bulba followers. I believe that these people will do a good job fighting against the Germans.” After that, the State Committee for Defence issued the order “On Mobilizing Soviet Citizens in Regions of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus, Liberated from the German Invaders” which launched the conscription campaign there.
Men eligible for military service and conscripts aged 19-46 (born in 1898-1925) were conscripted in the “liberated” cities and villages. The locals did not exactly rush to conscription offices. People were tired of war and were looking forward to its end, wishing it would spare their families. Moreover, the first mobilization efforts revealed that the Ukrainian national liberation movement had a significant influence in the region. To disrupt Soviet mobilization, the command of UPA-North announced, among other things, its own conscription in Volyn and Polissia and issued a number of calls urging the locals to avoid Soviet conscription. Mobilization reports produced by conscription offices in the Volyn, Lviv and Drohobych oblasts often mentioned that recruits who were on their way to assembly stations of Soviet conscription offices were either intercepted by “UPA bands” or fled to “nationalist bands” on their own.
Taking this into consideration, mobilization in Western Ukraine began to be viewed by the Soviet Command not only as a military necessity but also as one of the most important tools with which to fight the insurgents. The first thing the Soviets decided to do was to conscript “the most active male population”, aged under 30, and send them far away from their native land. Conscripts were dispatched to the rear and, after filtration and training, the most “politically reliable” were sent to combat units, while the rest were used in rear-based units and in construction.
Researchers have calculated that between 2.7-3mn and 4mn people were conscripted to the Red Army in Ukraine and sent away during the second wave of mobilization. A total of over seven million residents of the Ukrainian SSR, which is nearly 23% of the entire Soviet Armed Forces, donned Red Army uniforms during the war.
The front steamrolled across Ukraine twice and its lands were under hostile occupation. Thus, in addition to serious military and demographic significance, Soviet military mobilization efforts also had a political dimension. When the Red Army re-entered Ukraine, servicemen who had lived on occupied territories faced extremely cruel forms of conscription and use in the army. On the one hand, the wrongful actions of the military regarding the local contingent were a result of the hardships experienced on the front as well as the Soviet practice of gaining victory at any human cost. On the other hand, they were a continuation of Stalin’s policy against people who had stayed behind on occupied territories, including in Ukraine.
Chornosvytnyky (black overcoats), or chornopidzhachnyky (black suits), was the unofficial name of infantry units in the Red Army, made up of the civilian population from the “liberated” territories. They were thrown into battle without training, proper weapons, ammunition or uniforms. These men were conscripted from among peasants, who wore drab home-made overcoats – hence the designation. The Soviet Command believed that those who had remained on occupied territories and had not joined the Soviet partisans were traitors and thus had to “atone for their guilt before the Fatherland” with their own blood. The assumption was that the civilian-clothed infantry would simply exhaust the Germans and make them use up their ammunition allowing fresh Soviet units to drive them out of their positions. In this twisted and inhuman way, the Stalin regime rehabilitated these people postmortem by sending all of them to a certain death. The way the Reds treated their own people, especially conscripts, astonished even the Germans, who called them Beutesoldaten (booty soldiers). The most extensive massacre of unarmed Soviet peasant conscripts occurred in autumn 1943 during the storming of the Dnipro River.
From the eye witness account of the Ukrainian writer, Anatoliy Dimarov:
“When the village was freed, all men aged 16-60 – everyone who had a leg and a hand (whether they were blind or deaf did not matter) – were conscripted into the army. We were ‘armed’ – given half a brick each – and told to ‘go and atone for your guilt with blood”, because we had been on occupied territories. They told us: You throw the bricks, and the Germans will think they are hand grenades! 500 of us were driven onto an ice-covered reservoir. There was a factory on the opposite bank and the Germans made gun slots in the wall surrounding it. The wall was three metres high. Try getting over it, not to mention running over the ice to reach it. The Germans let us come close and opened targeted fire. We could not turn back – behind us were the Smersh men with machine guns aimed at our backs… A mine exploded – I was contused once more and fell down. When I was picked up, still unconscious, and taken to the hospital, they could not pry that brick from my hand – I clung to it and it froze to my hand. As a true soldier, I did not leave my weapon behind in the field (laughs). Guys told us that only 15 of the 500 men survived! Near Izium, they sacrified 10,000 such unarmed Ukrainian men! And they destroyed men across all of Ukraine in this way. No-one has written about this. I am the only one. The rest are keeping mum.”
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration