Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front. Many people blamed the Jews for the excesses of the Stalinist regime, usually on the reasoning of Nazi propaganda that the Bolsheviks were Jews. According to David Ortenberg, the editor of Krasnaia zvezda, soldiers often said that the Jews were ‘shirking their military responsibilities by running away to the rear and occupying jobs in comfortable Soviet offices’. More generally, this gulf between the front-line servicemen and the ‘rats’ who remained in the rear became the focus of a widening divide between the common people and the Soviet elite, as the unfair distribution of the military burden became associated in the popular political consciousness with a more general inequality.
But if there was no genuine national unity, people did unite for the defence of their communities. By the autumn of 1941, 4 million people had volunteered for the citizens’ defence (narodnoe opolchenie), which dug trenches, guarded buildings, bridges and roads, and, when their city was attacked, carted food and medicine to the soldiers at the front, brought back the injured and joined in the fighting. In Moscow the citizens’ defence had 168,000 volunteers from over thirty nationalities, and another half a million people prepared for defence work; in Leningrad, there were 135,000 men and women organized in units of the citizens’ defence, and another 107,000 workers on a military footing, by September 1941. Fired up with civic patriotism, but without proper training in warfare, they fought courageously but died in shocking numbers in the first battles.
Comradeship was also crucial to military cohesion and effectiveness. Soldiers tend to give their best in battle if they feel some sort of loyalty to a small group of trusted comrades, or ‘buddies’, according to military theorists. In 1941–2, the rates of loss in the Red Army were so high that small groups seldom lasted long: the average period of front-line service for infantrymen was no more than a few weeks, before they were removed by death or injury. But in 1942–3, military units began to stabilize, and the comradeship that men found within them became a decisive factor in motivating them to fight. The closeness of these friendships naturally developed from the dangers the men faced. The mutual trust and support of the small collective group was the key to their survival. ‘Life at the front brings people closer very fast,’ wrote one soldier to the fiancée of a comrade, who had been killed in the fighting.
At the front it is enough to spend a day or two together with another man, and you will find out about all his qualities and feelings, which on Civvy Street you would not learn in a year. There is no stronger friendship than the friendship of the front, and nothing can break it, not even death.
Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had ‘bigger hearts’ and ‘acted from the soul’, and that they themselves were somehow ‘better human beings’, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of ‘family’ that was missing from their lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).