World War II: Soviet Home Front

Figure 1.--Children continued to attend schools, although all supplies including teachers were in short supply. Schools in the occupied area were heavily damaged. I am not sure where this photograph was taken. It may be an area occupied by the NAZIs and subsequently liberated. Notice the boys wearing what look like military uniform caps.

We do not know a great deal about the Soviet home front yet. The most significant aspect of the home front was Soviet war production. The Soviets were able to maintain and even expand war production despite the huge area conquered by the Wehrmacht during Operation Barbarossa. The NAZIs did not fully understand this. What the NAZIs failed to appreciate was that much of the areas conquerred were the non-Russian areas of the western Soviet Union (the Baltics, eastern Poland, Bylorussia, and the Ukraine). Enormous damage occurred n the occupied areas and the three great cities (Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad) targetted by the NAZIs. Other areas of Ruddia were largely undamaged by the War. The Luftwaffe did not have a long0-range fleet of heavy bombers with which to conduct a strategic bombing campaign. Children cntinued to attend schools, although all supplies including teachers were in short supply. We have little information on the rationing system. Nor are we sure how Russia survived without the Ukranian bread basket. America provided substantial food supplies, but this was primarily used for the military. One huge problem encountered was large numbers of displaced children. This problem was especially severe in the occupied areas and had to be addressed when they were liberated.

Soviet War Economy

The Soviet Union because it was such a closed society is difficult to compare with other countries, but assessments suggest that it had a total national output roughly comparble to Germany (about $15 billion). The Soviet Union was, however, much less economically developed than Western Europe. And Soviet enterprises were extremely inefficent as we saw after the disolutiin of the Soviet Union decades later. Because of the larger population, percapita income was only a fraction of European levels and living standards even lower because of the inefficencies in the economy. Soviet statistics show continued economic expansion during the Depression years of the 1930s. We are unsure just how to interpret these ststistics. As a result of Stalin's policies, beginning with the First Five Year Plan (1928), the Soviet Union had significntly expanded heavy industry, but seriously weakened its agricultural base. American companies had helped expand Soviet production of cars and trucks, importabt in preparing for a mechnized war. And the Soviet Union even before the NAZIs seized power in Germany had concentrated on military production. An extremely large share of national output was being directed to the military, meaning that the country had the largest army in the world and heavily armed with modern weapons. Unlike the Germans, the Soviets had vast deposits of natural resources, especially oil. Obtaining raw materials, unlike the situation in Germany, was not a major factor in Stalin's decesion to ally himself and his country with Hitler and the NAZIs to launch World War II (1939). Stalin's calculation was based on power politics and ideology. The Soviet Union on paper was better prepared for war than most countries. But Stalin's purge of the Red Army has seriously weaked the country's military. And various strategic and domestic policies made the country dangerously vulnerable. In addition, while heavily armed, many Soviet weapons, especially tanks and aircraft, were obsolete, but kept in service. The Soviet Union after the German invasion (June 1941) suffered enormous losses in men and material. Some 4.5 million men were killed or captured. The Soviets managed to move important war industries east of the Urals beyond the range of Luftwaffe bombers. It took time, however, to being the industries back on line. They began forming large numbers of new divisions. There were enormous shortages, especially in 1942 as the war plants moved east were not yet back on line. While poorly trained at first, they managed to stop the vaunted Whermacht in its tracks--albeit deep in the country. Food proved a critical matter as the Germans occupied much of the riches farm land and major grain producing regions of the country. As the Soviets began to resume production, the United States began to deliver important Lend Lease shipments. The Soviet Union after Britain were the largest recipients of Lend Lease aid. As with Britain, Lend Lease was just a fraction of overall Soviet output, but it not only plugged in major defincies in the the Soviet war economy, but assisted the Soviets in increasing their production.

Occupied Area

German armies as a result of Barbarossa drove deep into the western Soviet Union, occupying the Baltics, Bylorussia, and the entire Ukraine. These of course were non-Russian areas. The Germans failed to occupy the Russian heartlnd. German units were on the outskirts of Moscow and attempting to encircle it. Lenningrad was cut off. But the Germans would advance no further into the Russian heartland. The Red Army counter-offensive (Sepember 1941) suceeding in driving the Wehrmacht out of most of the Russian areas of the Soviet Union. What the Red Army found as they liberated Russian villages (December 1942-March 1942), confirmed their worst fears about the nature of the NAZI enemy. The Red Army offensive wreaked enormous damage on the Wehrmacht and liberated a much of the Russian areas occupied by the Germans, but it left the Germans in control of large areas of the western Soviet Union. What the NAZIs failed to appreciate was that much of the areas conquerred were the non-Russian areas of the western Soviet Union (the Baltics, eastern Poland, Bylorussia, and the Ukraine). These areas included enormous resources, but the Russian heartland remained unoccupied and the Red Army rapidly began forming new divisions to replace those lost in 1941. Despite the German advances, control of the Russian areas of the Sioviet Union gave the Red Army to recruit abd build divisions at a much greater pace than the Germans. German intelligence significantly underestimated the Soviet capacity to form new divisions. Hitler for his part had expected his conquests in the East to feed the German war economy. In fact, the reources from the east barely fed the enormous German and Axis ally armies deployed there. It did, however, deny those resources to the Soviets. And the mot important was food. The area occupied by the Germans included mich of the most productive agricultural land of the Soviet Union--the incredibly productive back soil district. This created enormous food shortages in the unoccpied Soviet Union. And as priority was given to the Red Army, Soviet civilians were forced to survive on extemely low rations. The situation was even worse in the German occupied areas. The German goal was to depopulate the East as part of Generalplan Ost and to destoy the industrial cites turning the East into a giant agricultural zone for German colonists. As a result the Germans had no desire to use available food to feed the population in the occupied areas. As a reult, rations were only assigned to those working for the Germans in some way. The Wehrmact attempted to get farms, mines, and even some factories back into operation to support the war effort. Those who did not work for the Germans faced starvation.

War Damage

Enormous damage occurred n the occupied areas and the three great cities (Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad) targetted by the NAZIs. The areas of the Soviet Union not occupied by the Germans were largely undamaged by the War. The Luftwaffe did not have a long-range fleet of heavy bombers with which to conduct a strategic bombing campaign.


We are not entirely sure what happened to schools in the occupied areas. There were differences. Presumably the schools in the Baltics continued to function. In other areas, we are not sure. The NAZIs arrested university professors in Poland. Presumably the same occurred in the areas outside the Baltics. The NAZI plan was to eliminate many Slavs and turn thoe not killed into mannual slave laborors for German agricultural colonists. This was all skectched out in Generalplan Ost. Thus they saw little need to educate the children. Just to what extent they began initiating this system, we are not sure. We know they began killing the Slavic population, although not on the scale of the Jews. Those not working for the Germans did not receive food rations and this of course mean many children. They begn in Poland, but the securitysituation did not permit beginning to plant German colonists in the occupied Soviet Union. Children continued to attend schools in the unoccupied areas of the Soviet Union, although all supplies including teachers were in short supply.


The peasantry has played a key role in Russia from the very beginning of the Tsarist state. Peter the Great's expanding empire in many ways resembled that of another developing empire at the time--Prussia. The state in both countries developed essentially out of the need to build and support a modern army. The success of these two states largely is due to their effectiveness of doing just this. The Tsarist state developed autocratically. TheTsar dominated an aristocratic landlord class which was force to fulfill state service and which was rewarded by being allowed to hold the peasantry in serfdom. Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs (1861), but the landlord class was not destroyed until the Revolution (1917) and Civil War (1918-21). The Tsarist Army in World War I desintegrated as peasant soldiers deserted to return home and claim theur share of the old esates. The Bolshevicks promised land to the peasantry, but Stalin initiated a collectivization program that resulted in millions of deaths of peasants who wanted their private parcels. The greatest numbers of deaths occurred in the Ukraine becise of the Great Famine Stalin enginnered, but lsarge numbers if peasants were executed or committed to the Gulag. Stalin had various objectives. He wanted to gain control over agriculture. This was partof his desire to totally control economic activity. It also put him in a position to better redirect resources to the urban proletraiat as part of the 5 Year Plans to expand Soviet industry. As a result, the loyalty of the peasantry when the NAZIs invaded the Soviet Union was far from certain. And in certain areas the Germans were received more as liberators and greated with flowers rather than invaders. This varied greatly by area. The Germans were often well recrived in Belarus (which had been Poland before the Sobiet 1939 invasion) and the western Ukraine. They were less warmly received in Russian areas, but the Soviet offensive before Moscow (December 1941) prevented the Wehrmacht from penetrating deep into the Russian heartland.


Food was a difficult problem in the Soviet Union before World War II. Stalin for both ideological and political reasons decided to collectivize agriculture once he was in full command of the Soviet state. He hoped collectivuization because it aklso meant mechanization would increase harbvests. It was one part of the First Year Five Year Plan to rapidly industrialize, The idea was to extract more grain from the peasantry to feed industrial workers in the expanding cities. When the Ukranian peasantry resisted, he orcestrated the Ukranian Famine. Millions perished, including the Kulaks--the most prosperous peasants. They were the most prosperous of course because they were the best farmers. And as a result, instead of increasing harvests, food production plumeted. Soviet agriculture never fully recovered. It was further hampered by another of Stalin's ideological initiatives--supporting Trotim Lysenko. Lysenkoism put back Soviet genetucs, including developing hardy grain strains a generation. As a result food shortages existed in the Soviet Union before the German invasion. After the invasion, the food situation got much worse. Food was one of the most difficult problens faced by the Soviet Union during World War II. The phenomenal early successes of Barbarossa left the Germans in control of most of the best agricultural land of the Soviet Union--the highly productive black soil lands of the Ukraine and adjacent areas of Russia and Bylorussia. This had been one of the major attractions that had drawn Hitler to the East. Hitler believed that the vast tracts of productive land would feed the Reich during the War. It did not. It did meet the needs of the Whermacht, but very little food from the East reached German civilians. But it did deny food to the embattled Soviets, creating one of the Soviet regime's major problems. Thec Whermacht only fed the Soviets working for them. All other Soviets had to fend for themselves. No one really knows how mant Soviet citizens died during the War. Estimate generall range in the 25-30 million range. Some estimates are even higher. There were about 9 million military deaths. That number is fairly well accepted. Less clear is the mumber of civilian deaths. One of the leading causes of civilian deaths was starvation. The Germans starved civikians in the oxxupied areas and the Soviets Union simply did not have enough food to feed its population after the Germans occupied the Ukraine and other food producubng regions. We know that some 1 million Lenningraders starved. The numbers who starved outside Leningrad in iccupied and unoccupied regiions will never be known with any precissiion. Another 1-2 million surely starved. [Collingham, p. 317.] The actual total is probably higher, especially if you include causes that were brought on by starvation. While much of this occurred in the occupied area there are many reports of starvation in the unoccupied areas, bodies on thecstreets or peoopler collapsing as rthey worked in ae plabts. [Moskoff, p. 37.] One author contends that of war-related causes such as conditiins brought on or worsened by chromic malnutrition are considered, the death toll would be well over 30 million. [Miller, p. 284.]

Soviet War Propaganda

Soviet propaganga at the onset of the War focused on Communist and the Marxist class struggle. Nationalism was not only deempasized, but generally seen seen as a negative force in the great proteriet struggle. The Soviets also actively suppresed religion through agressive atheist campaigns. And from the onset of the War , the Soviet Union was a NAZI ally. Propaganda attacked the American capitalisrs as well as the British and French. Posters from this era have not survived in numbers, because the Soviets after the War were ashamed about their alliance with Hitler. This changed dramatically after the German invasion (June 1841). Marxism took a back seat to Russian nationalism which suggests where tghe hear of the Sussian people was at. In addition, the attacks on the religion cased, at least publically. The Great Patritic War became a modern day crusade against Fascism. Immages of women and children raveged by the NAZI invaders were meant to inspire the Red Army soldier. The images may seem over the top, only even the most graphic images do not capture the totality of what Hitler planned for the Russian people. Some Soviet war propaganda had an almost religious tinge to it. But in a way Communism in the Soviet state had in many ways the outward trapping of a state religion. But even more evident was the historicaal tone. Gone was class struugle. Patriotic images of great Tsarist military heros were a mainstay of Soviet war propaganda from the Napoleonic invasion back to the medieval era.

War Industry

Stalin rushed to industrailize the Soviet Union through Five Year Plans during the 1930s. Small villages were turned into vast new industrial complexes. This was a priprity as the lack of industry was seen as the reason for Russia's defeat in World War I. In addition, a Communist state needed an industrial proleterit, not a peasant population. Many of the ne new heavy industry was sited deep in the Soviet Union east of the Urals. This meant that even with the German advances, they were out of range of Luftwaffe attacks because the German air force was built as a short range tactical force. Much of Soviet light industry, including the most sophisticated industry was located in European Russia west of the Urals. Here they were in great danger of being overrun by the German armies that were rapidly druving deep intio the country. This meant that important factories might be over run or bombed as the Germans advanced. The Soviet State Defense committee decided to disassemble and evacuate as many whole factories as possible. The areas of Poland annexed in and the Baltics bought a little time. The Soviets rapidly began dismantling the factories and shiping the equipment along with the industrail, workers east beyond the Urals. They were transported by rail and reassemble at secure locations. It was a gargabtuan undertaken that had to be accomplished within a few months. It would play a major role in the eventual Soviet victory. It took some time to reassemble the factories and get sraw materials to them, but some were beginning to function in 1942 and in full production by 1943. The Soviets rapidly shofted over to war production when the Germans were still priducing large quantities of consumer goods. The Sovier waer ecomomy had obly about one third of the steel and coal available to German industrty, but Soviet factories produced twice as much war material (1942). Many Soviet factories were constructed with dual production capabilities. A tractor factory wasalso capable of producing tanks. The German industry might have been able to match Soviet production, but Hitler and the Gaulitiers inrerfered with efforts to reduce production of consumer goods.

Labor Force

The Gulag

Most World War II histories focus on the Axis, mostly NAZI, concentration camp system. There was, however, another large conccentration camp system which operated furing the War--the Soviet Gulag. The Soviet Gulag held only about 0.1 million inmates during the 1920s. As Stalin seized control,of the Soviet state (late-1920s), he began to rapidly expand the Gulag. The initial major expansion resulted from Stalin's collectivization of agriculture and the resistance he encountered. This was followed by the Great Purges which targeted the Party and military. The Gulag is believed to have held 2-5 million inmates (1936). Estimates vary widely. This huge system contginued at about this size or somewhat larger throughout Stalin's rule. Besides recalcitrant (perhaps betterstated 'surviving') peasants, the Gulag consisted of purged Communist Party members and military officers, German and other Axis prisoners of war, suspect ethnic groups, saboteurs and traitors (meaning for the most part completely innocent individuals), family members or friends of those arrested, dissident (or more properly not fully engaged) intellectuals, clerics and other religious people, as well as common criminals. Many victims were absolutely innocent citizens arrested by the NKVD to meet their quotas. Some NKVD commandersc sought to please Stalin by exceeding their quota. With the out break of World War II (September 1939), the Soviet Union invaded or seized terririry from several neigboring countris. Beginning in Poland, the Soviets attacked or forced concessions on Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania). Large numbers of people were killed, deported, or committed to the Gulag in the process of Sovietization. After the German invasion (June 1941), the Gulag like the Soviet economy as a whole was rapidlyh shifted to production of arms and supplies for the Red Army. Transportation projects such as the laying of rail lines was another priority project. Some purged military men were released to fight the Germans as well as Polish POWs. During the War, German and other Axis POWs entered the Gulag system. Despite the influx of Axis POWs, tghe Gulag populations fell sharply. The major reason was food shortages. Inmates began starving because of lack of food along with the heavy labor exertions forced on them. The Germans occupied much of the best agricultural lands of the Soviet Union createing terrible food shortages. One report suggests that a quarter of the Gulag's population starved during the terrible winter of 1941-42. [Appelbaum] Other sources estimate over 0.5 million Gulag imamtes died during 1941-43. [Zemskov, pp. 14-15.] Productivity at the Gulag camps never achieved the levels expected and the goals set, in part because the food shortages and harsh conditions. This caused the NKVD to increasepressure on the inmates leading to higher death totals. After the War Soviet soldiers held as POWs and civilians brought to the Reich as forced labor were not liberated, but arrested by the NKVD and sentenced to the Gulag.

Displaced Children

One huge problem which developed during the War was large numbers of displaced children. As a result of the fighting as well as NAZI attrocuities and pilligaing of Soviet resources, huge numbers of Soviet citizes were killed outright or died as a result of deprivation or mistreatment. No one knows precisely how many Soviet citizens were killed, but most estimtes exceed 10 million people. This includes many children, but it also includes many parents. The NAZIs also shipped large numbers of Soviets west to serve a slave labor in Germany. No provision was made for any children they may have. The result was a huge number of orphaned or displaced children. This problem was especially severe in the occupied areas. The NAZIs ignored the problem because their goal was to reduce the population of Slavs and the children in particular were of no economic value. Soviet authorities were thus left with a massive problem when they began liberating areas occupied by the NAZIS.


Applebaum, Anne Gulag: A History (Broadway Books, 2003), 720 p.

Moskoff, William. The Bread of Affluence: The Food Supply in the Soviet Union during World War II (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990).

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (Penguin Books: New York, 1962), 634p.

Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin: Stalin's War with Germany Vol. II (Widenfield & Nichols: Lpmdon, 1983).

Miller, James R. "Conclusion: impact and aftermath of World War II," in Susan Linz, ed. The Impact of World War II on the Soviet Union (Rowman & Allanheld: Totowa, N.J., 1985), pp. 283-91.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago (Harper & Row), 660 p.

Zemskov, Viktor Nikolaevich. "Gulag," Sociologičeskije issledovanija (1991), No. 6. Zemskov along with Solzhenitsyn is one of the most repected Gulag scholars. He published during 1990-92 the first precise statistical data on the Gulag which were based on the Gulag archives. There is, however, considerable debate as to Gulag scholars as to the size of the Gulag and the death toll at the camps.


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main Great Patriotic War page]
[Return to Main World War II country page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: 4:56 AM 3/2/2005
Last updated: 10:29 AM 3/23/2016