Little wonder that the war appeared to many as a sort of spiritual purification, a violent purging of the ‘inhuman power of the lie’ that had stifled all political discussion in the years before. ‘The war forced us to rethink our values and priorities,’ remarks Lazarev, ‘it enabled us, the ordinary soldiers, to see a different kind of truth, even to imagine a new political reality’.
This rethinking became more widespread as the war neared its end and much of the vast Soviet army entered into Europe, where the soldiers were exposed to different ways of life. By the start of 1944, the Soviets had amassed an army of 6 million men, more than twice the size of the German army on the Eastern Front. In June 1944, just as the Allies launched the invasion of northern France, the Red Army burst through the bulk of the German forces on the Belorussian Front, retaking Minsk by 3 July and pushing on through Lithuania to reach the Prussian border by the end of August. Meanwhile the Soviet troops on the Ukrainian Front swept through eastern Poland towards Warsaw. In the southern sector, where the German forces soon collapsed, the Red Army swept across Romania and Bulgaria to reach Yugoslavia by September 1944. The Soviet advance was relentless. By the end of January 1945, the troops of the Ukrainian Front had penetrated deep into Silesia, while Zhukov’s Belorussian Front had reached the Oder River and had Berlin in its sights.
Hardly any of the Soviet soldiers had ever been to Europe. Most of them were peasant sons who had come into the army with the small-world views and customs of the Soviet countryside and an image of the wider world shaped by propaganda. They were not prepared for what they discovered. ‘The contrast between the standard of living in Europe and our own in the Soviet Union was an emotional and psychological shock, and it changed the views of millions of troops,’ observed [war correspondent] Simonov. Soldiers saw that ordinary people lived in better houses; they saw that the shops were better stocked, despite the war and looting by the Red Army; and that the private farms they passed on their way to Germany, even in their ruined state, were far superior to the Soviet collective farms. No amount of propaganda could persuade them to discount the evidence of their own eyes.
The encounter with the West shaped the soldiers’ expectations of the future in their own country. Peasant soldiers were convinced that with the end of the war the collective farms would be swept away. There were many rumours of this sort in the army, most of them involving promises by Zhukov to the troops. Retold in a million letters from the soldiers to their families, these expectations spread throughout the countryside, resulting in a series of peasant strikes on the collective farms. Other soldiers talked about the need to open the churches, about the need for more democracy, even about the dismantling of the Party system root and branch. The film director Aleksandr Dovzhenko remembered a discussion with a military driver, a ‘Siberian lad’, in January 1944. ‘Our life is bad,’ the driver had said. ‘And all of us, you know, just wait for changes and improvements in our lives. We all wait. All of us. It’s just that we don’t all say it.’ ‘I was astonished by what I heard,’ Dovzhenko noted in his diary afterwards. ‘The people have a tremendous need for some other kind of life. I hear it everywhere. The only place where I don’t hear it is among our leaders.’
Officers were in the forefront of this army movement for reform. They openly expressed their criticisms of the Soviet system and their hopes for change. One lieutenant wrote to the Soviet president Mikhail Kalinin in 1945 with a ‘series of considerations to put to the next meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet’. Having been to Maidanek, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and having seen the consequences of a dictatorship in Germany, the officer demanded an end to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment in the Soviet Union, which, he said, had its own Maidaneks; the abolition of the collective farms, which he knew were a disaster from what he had been told by his own troops; and a list of other, more minor grievances, which his soldiers had asked him to convey to the president.
Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas. For those who cared to look back at history, there was an obvious parallel with the war against Napoleon in 1812–15, when the returning officers brought back to tsarist Russia the liberal thought of Western Europe which then inspired the Decembrist uprising of 1825. Political activists attending a conference at the Second Belorussian Front in February 1945 called for efforts to counteract the pernicious influence of the West.