A crimson locomotive pumps across a gold-drenched horizon while the tips of transmission towers, smokestacks, and the Kremlin peek up behind it. A black train chugs across the geographical version of the Soviet Union, appearing to stretch from The Ural Mountains to Yakutsk. A group of bright-faced Soviet soldiers stand in the foreground looking out of frame as a red train beats in the same direction behind them. Each car is trimmed in gold and adorns at least one Soviet flag at its front.
The perfect metaphor for the inevitable and direct progress of Communism, Socialist Realistic artists utilized the idea of the train to formulate the consciousnesses of their viewers. Soviet leadership, on the other hand, took hold of the novel machine and, intentionally or not, would use it to define two of the greatest struggles in history. In 1933, Josef Stalin’s Second Five-Year Plan took a step forward in the natural direction. Where the First Plan built up the groundwork of Soviet industry necessary to be a world power, the Second Plan moved towards expansion, communication, and became one.
Items required for interfacing with the Soviet Union’s surroundings and spreading Communism were at the top of the list: coal, oil, and railways. Although nothing could match the First Plan in its shocking and immediate efficacy, this by no means a failure, and the economic advantages of the Soviet investment developing a national railway infrastructure. Much has been made of the necessity of a robust transportation industry for the support of such rapid industrialization. Lengthening the scope of easily accessible land meant modernized society could stretch itself farther and reap the benefits of regional comparative advantages.
Even where Soviet tracks were less extensive or trains were slower, hyper-efficient planning kept Although these new economic opportunities were mishandled, they certainly resulted in a bolstering of the state and the Soviet Union’s continued progress into a world power. In fact, even in 1959 Ernest W. Williams remarked in his comparison between American and Soviet rails that, “in the light of overall Soviet objectives… what [had] occurred in [their] railways [found] ready justification. ” Even in through the height of the Cold War with all its resentment and misinformation, there was no doubt that they had achieved something impressive.
While the economic necessity of the Soviet transportation apparatus is apparent enough, there have been other assessments, spanning topics as diverse as the structural design of the trains to the diseases spread by the apparatus. Devastatingly little, however, has been written specifically about the unique military advantages it provided Stalin surpassing the mundane transport of troops and supplies through the tumult of the mid-twentieth century. In hoping to draw attention to these additional benefits, I have identified three broad victories which the Soviet transportation machine helped to achieve.
Reinforcing Soviet security in the beginning years of World War Two, rebuffing Adolf Hitler’s Operation Typhoon, and quite literally positioning the Soviet Union to assert itself as hegemon of the East in the operation’s aftermath through the race to Berlin, make the decision to live oppressed so that the trains run on time a much more difficult one. From the start, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union faced a sort of iterated prisoner’s dilemma. Both knew of each other’s expansionary intentions, but in the short-term, both benefited from delaying conflict as much as possible and maintaining the facade of good-relations.
Prior to the invasion of Poland, Berlin knew it had no leverage if it was threatening Europe with yet another futile two-front war, and after war had broken out there were more immediate prizes to be won. Stalin’s approach is best related through two speeches, the first to Moscow in March of 1939. “Nonintervention represents the endeavor… to allow all the warmongers to sink deeply into the mire of warfare… The result will be that they weaken and exhaust one another. Then… [we will] appear on the scene with fresh forces and step in. The second speech, revealing the same sentiment far more aggressively, was delivered privately to the Political Bureau just four days before the signing of a ten-year non-aggression pact with Germany. “It must be our objective that Germany wage war long enough to exhaust England and France so much that they cannot defeat Germany alone… Should Germany win, it will itself be so weakened that it won’t be able to wage war against us for 10 years. ” This iteration reveals the motivation behind Stalin’s non-interventionism which outweighed ease of conquest.
Stalin, coming off of a boute of purges and still in the midst of his industrialization project, was in no condition for war. The longer he could delay conflict, the weaker Moscow’s foes became, all while the Soviet Union was in the midst of exponential development. The goal was clear: create incentives for Berlin to keep itself occupied, and prepare for his inevitable betrayal. Every day gained was supremely valuable as another day for the soviet project to grow, and the unnaturally expansive web of tracks across the Soviet Union facilitated two powerful incentives to stall Berlin to the greatest extend possible.
The first of these was the rapid mobilization of the Soviet Union into Poland 16 days after Germany’s invasion. This aggressive stance provided the Soviet government with two vital benefits. The first was a display of power aimed at Berlin. Since Germany had taken the initiate in capturing its section of partitioned Europe, Moscow responded in kind. Despite Berlin’s two-week head start, Moscow mobilized quickly enough to split what was then Poland in half due to its extensive tracking along the border, and even made it to Brest in just one day, an impressive display of mobilization regardless of the relative lack of combat equired. The second benefit was an extension of the Soviet buffer state.
Due to a combination of city, river, and terrain placement, the only plausible path to Moscow was through Smolensk. As such, Moscow sought to give itself as much padding at this point as possible. Because it had proved itself capable of exerting power in the region, Moscow enjoyed relatively equitable and accommodating territorial negotiations within the region with Berlin over the next couple of years, with both sides willing to make corrections on the specifics of borders despite their inherent distrust of each other for short term mutual political benefit.
Berlin’s second incentive, however, was to maintain its trade partner. At the point at which the Soviet Union was working towards adopting the machinery required to utilize its wealth of natural resources, and Germany was trying to reach out for the resources and population necessary utilize its highly industrialized state, the two made for ideal trade partners. The Soviet railroad system, explicitly designed to relocate resources as quickly as possible, so it was fully capable of providing Germany with the raw materials it desperately needed in exchange for advanced machinery.
In fact, Berlin thought it had gotten the much better deal in negotiations, but there were broader benefits to Moscow than could be reflected in its balance of trade. Not only was there easily enough comparative advantage for economic gains for everyone, but the Soviet Union benefitted from supplying Berlin. Ultimately, Germany would invade due to the need for more oil, but providing them with raw materials made the German expansion strategy far more solvent helped Moscow to build itself up before the inevitable conflict to come. Any discussion of said conflict necessarily must ground itself in the notable context of Russian military history.
Specifically, I want to use perhaps the most famous success and failing of the Russian military since the start of the 19th century, the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. Oftentimes Operation Barbarossa is conflated with the Napoleonic Invasion, largely because they both were commanded by conquerors with personalities portrayed in media similarly and they both encountered retreats as well as environmental difficulties. The problem with this comparison, however, is that Hitler was strikingly aware of it through his study of the Napoleonic Campaigns.
The deferral to assuming it was the Winter which stunted the German advance is simply ahistorical. Assessing the words of Berlin’s generals themselves, it’s clear that, “[they were] at the end of [their] resources,” by November. Although there is a case to be made regarding the limiting effects of the Autumn rains, either the Spring rains or Mussolini’s struggles delayed Operation Barbarossa’s original scheduling, and Hitler’s choice to launch the invasion on June 22nd, the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion, was a clear signal that he was aware of what he was doing in its full historical and strategic context.
In addition to improved technological capacity to deal with the supply-line issues of the Winter and the scorched earth strategy, Hitler was adamant that he had, “only… to kick in the door [for] the whole rotten structure [to] will come crashing down. ” Critiquing both the society and the military of the Soviet Union, Hitler felt that the recent purges had not only gutted the military of its experience, but the people of their will to fight.
The former, at the very least, was certainly true, leaving us to wonder exactly which element of the invasion was not one prepared included within the victory calculus. On the other hand, Crimea, represents a point of major failing for Russian society, one additional humiliation right in the wake of international influence which only served to reinforce the Russian peoples’ backwards self-perception. Russian failings during the Crimean War is known, the significant cannot be understated.
Given that few militaries are consistently better shots than others, the success or failings of a military engagement is entirely dependent on technology, access to supplies, or ability to move forces with a higher degree of flexibility. Due to what was almost an implausibly fortuitous set of circumstances, the Soviet Union applied its advantages in all of these realms through effective railroad usage. There’s not doubt that the Soviet Union had a structural disadvantage in militarized technology, yet a structural advantage in terms of access to supplies.
It is for this reason that I suggest that greater mobility may have been the conflict’s tipping point. Additionally though, even if the allies victory was assured, a fallen Moscow would still have reshaped the world he currently inhabit, almost certainly leading to the fall of Russian Communism. In a conflict so bloody and close then, every impact is significant, every weight potentially tipping the scales in one direction or another.
The primary military advantage of an extensive track system during an invasion is a greater ability to relocate forces at will. Since Soviets were easily able to destroy tracks while on the retreat, it was nearly impossible to the German military to engage with them non consensually. In order to do so, it had to employ the pincer formations it was so used to. While effective, the effectiveness of this strategy was mitigated by the greater ease with which Soviet soldiers could evade armies attempting to pin them down, simply by moving faster.
The objection here that the Germans, perhaps with slightly more care for their supply lines, should have been able to apply the same strategy arouses the first stroke of luck fate awarded Stalin for his adoption rail transit en masse: railroad gauges of a different scale. What this meant was that in order for a German train to utilize Soviet tracks, the tracks had to be re-fitted for their trains. So even where Moscow wanted to keep its tracks or forgot to destroy them, Berlin still faced difficulty.
On top of this, because train tracks are so fragile and the Germans were in enemy lines, German supply lines and routes for retreat were regularly undermined by Soviet citizens. Perhaps the more interesting military difficulty the Germans dealt with, however, was the total lack of any utilizable road infrastructure. Robert Forczyk elaborates on the difficulties the Germans faces in trying to travel through the Soviet state by non-railway means. “While German artillery losses… had been light,” he writes, “its effectiveness was plagued by mobility problems caused by… Russia’s primitive roads.
Thousands of trucks and horses had been lost… ” While lack of contemporary transportation infrastructure may explain a large part of Berlin’s struggle to reach Moscow, it also took a toll on the morale of German soldiers who had become accustomed to routing victories. This newly wearied sentiment is well depicted by a letter from German soldier Heinrich Stahr contained within book of propaganda filled with carefully selected but still honestly written letters: The roads. We in the infantry are probably the best judge of good and bad roads, since we have to march for kilometer after kilometer on them.
Here too the Soviets haven’t lifted a finger. The main roads are no better than field paths. Believe me, my dear comrades, the soldiers have had many a justifiable curse after marching 40 or 50 kilometers on such a road. Besides, it is 30-35 degrees C. in the shade, and huge clouds of dust make it almost impossible to breathe. Swamps, forests, and bad roads make military action unpleasant, but we keep moving forward. While Stahr does have a right to complain, he’s certainly incorrect when he claims that the Soviets did nothing to create his poor circumstances.
Take the case of the French, for instance. The Germans utilized the same flanking tactics against the French, but rather than relocating themselves out of reach, the French were quickly overrun, because they did not possess a monopoly on regional transportation. Bruno Carriere details the processes by which, in the late 1920’s, post-Great War French demobilisation had quite literally left burgeoning automobile companies to their own devices, and the result was the establishment of thousands of innovative small businesses, “subsidized by… ocal authorities always ready to pander to… their electorate. ”
The result was the undoing of the railroad industry in favor of personal motor vehicles. The problem being, of course, that in order for automobiles to popularize, an effective road system has to exist, and there was no way for France to ensure that its roads were inaccessible to invaders. Paradoxically, in focusing its entire soul on the development of railroads for industrialization, Moscow neglected to develop its society in more fundamental ways and inadvertently saved itself being overcome.