The Short March to the Front

By the time the first snow fell in October 1941, the Soviet people were facing the most harrowing winter of their existence. Winter itself doesn’t worry a Russian- but in 1941, the Wehrmacht was on the road to Moscow and seemingly little could be done to stop it. As the winter of 1941 approached, every soldier, politician, and civilian alike knew that this winter would bring a new challenge; one that they would need both courage and unity to overcome.

1941 was a terrible year for the Soviet Union. After Nazi Germany’s invasion in late June, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and much of the Soviet military’s equipment was lying in charred piles in the Ukraine and Belarus. There was not a great deal to be optimistic about; seeing as in four months the Red Army had proved completely ineffective against the well-trained and advanced Wehrmacht.

German Panzers Late 41

Scenes like this one, of rampant German panzers and burning villages, were everywhere after the Nazi invasion. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B17220/Tannenberg/CC-BY-SA

By the third week of October, German panzers were 70 miles from Moscow and the capital was in crisis. Everyone who wasn’t already fighting or working in a factory was mobilized to dig trenches and construct fortifications around the capital; and the city was turned into a veritable fortress complete with anti-tank obstacles, AA guns, and barrage balloons. The atmosphere was tense if not panicked- some civilians began to move east as the Germans closed in from the West.

Civvies Building 1941

Women, children, and the elderly all helped to fortify Moscow’s defenses. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #3500/B. Vdovenko/CC-BY-SA 3.0

AA Gunners Moscow 1941

AA gunners in Moscow await the seemingly inevitable German arrival. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #14/Knorring/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Soviet Planes Moscow 1941

Soviet aircraft patrolling German positions near Moscow. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #2564/ Samaryi Guraryi/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Stalin, for all his indecision and reprehensibility, made a crucial decision amidst the German advance. Even as civilians and essential industries were leaving Moscow, he chose to stay at the Kremlin to set an example for the Soviet people. Meanwhile, despite the fright in Moscow, the Germans’ success was declining. The notorious autumn rains washed away the days of miles upon miles of progress, and the Germans found themselves literally mired in a sea of mud. This is called rasputitsa, and was an enormous problem since most Russian roads in 1941 were unpaved. With the rasputitsa, the Germans began to experience their first real adversity on the Eastern Front.

Rasputitsa 1941

In the autumn rains, everything was rendered nearly useless- tanks, trucks, and horses all became stuck in the thick mud. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1981-149-34A/CC-BY-SA

The Wehrmacht pushed through the mud with difficulty, but by November they were closer still to Moscow. With the significant November 7 anniversary of the October Revolution nearing, it was decided by Soviet leadership to hold a massive military parade through Red Square; in which participants would then continue straight on to the front. This event was meant to instill confidence and a defiant spirit in the Soviet people and military, and by all accounts it worked.

Units were notified less than a day beforehand that they would be participating, and the whole thing was put together quite quickly although not rashly! AA gunners in Moscow were put on high alert because of Stalin’s presence at the parade; and for the same reason, participants’ ammunition was seized. The glass stars which top the spires of the Kremlin (and which throughout the war were concealed by tarps to mislead enemy aircraft) were uncovered and lit in a show of national pride. As well, Stalin made a very famous and patriotic speech in which he reminded the people of past national heroes such as Dmitry Donskoy and Mikhail Kutuzov, and urged them to be inspired by these men’s great deeds in war.

Troops Nov 7 1941

Rifle troops marching to the front via Red Square. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #429/Oleg Ignatovich/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Tank Nov 7 1941

Even the shells of the T-34s and KV-1s that drove through the Square were confiscated to protect Soviet leadership. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #59790/Strunnikov/CC-BY-SA 3.0

The parade commenced at 8:00 and featured members of nearly every part of the Soviet military. Army cadets, an orchestra, infantry and artillery troops, tanks, cavalry, and sailors processed one after another through Red Square; and then, many of these tanks crews and soldiers did indeed continue to the front only miles away.

More Troops Nov 7 1941

These riflemen are fully equipped for battle. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #267/Ustinov/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Horse Carts Nov 7 1941

A group of horse-drawn carts in Red Square. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #669659/Anatoliy Garanin/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Tank after Nov 7 1941

Soviet civilians wave farewell to this tank crew, as it drives through Moscow to the front. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #669663/Anatoliy Garanin/CC-BY-SA 3.0

The hastily-prepared yet very necessary November 7 parade had a great effect on the war and the defense of Moscow. It rallied the population and strengthened the troops; and although perhaps not everyone bought into the propaganda side of the event, it provided a reinvigorated sense of national unity and determination which served the Soviet Union well in its struggle against Nazi Germany.

Kholkoznik Tanks 1941

The population rallied behind its troops in late 1941- here, tank crews stand in front of brand-new KV-1 tanks financed by collective farmers. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #87961/Shagin/CC-BY-SA 3.0

The worsening weather, coupled with the Red Army’s new determination, spelled the end of German domination. In the harsh snow of winter, the Soviets held the Wehrmacht away from Moscow and then slowly began to push them west.

Soviet Camo Troops Winter

Camouflaged Red Army troops set up positions in the snow. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #284/Knorring/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Nazi Surrender 1941

A group of Red Army soldiers, well-equipped for the cold, stand alongside some very uncomfortable-looking captured Germans. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #375/V. Kinelovskiy/CC-BY-SA 3.0

The November 7 parade through Red Square was so integral to the Soviet war effort and the population’s outlook that it is remembered even today, 73 years later. Throughout the Soviet era, the day was still used to commemorate the October Revolution, but today reproductions of the 1941 parade are staged in Red Square; complete with historical vehicles, uniforms, and legions of soldiers.

MOCKBA Nov 7 1977

This scene is from the 1977 parade in Red Square. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Szilas

The annual November 7 parade has become a deeply symbolic and important event for modern Russia. While the Victory Day parade in May rivals this one, I prefer the November 7 parade. It symbolizes a nation’s resilience and courage in the face of terrible odds, and for this reason it continues to be a part of the Russian identity in the 21st-century.

Red Square Soldiers

73 years after the original parade, riflemen assemble in Red Square to mark the anniversary. Image found here. Attributed to Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

PPSh-41 Soldiers Nov 7

I imagine it must be a very solemn and meaningful honour to participate in this parade. Image found here. Attributed to Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Ski Troops Nov 7

The parade is duplicated almost exactly, even featuring ski troops in white camouflage suits. Image found here. Attributed to Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Krasnoarmeytsi Nov 7

Here, young men brandish the standard-issue Mosin rifle and sport pilotka sidecaps. Image found here. Attributed to Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

T-34 Nov 7

This gorgeous T-34/76 is painted with the words, “For the Motherland!” Image found here. Attributed to Maxim Shemetov/Reuters




6 thoughts on “The Short March to the Front

  1. Until this post, I did not know that the annual November 7 parades were of such importance in Russia nor that they included units reenacting the parade of 1941. Thanks for the wonderful research and the new perspective it provided me of the national importance of this event.

  2. I wonder if the Nazis would have suffered so badly had they not been so ill equipped for the Russian winter or if indeed the winter had not happened when it did. A major turning point in the war and one where many Russians were shot by their own men for retreating / cowardice. One of Russia’s biggest celebrations.

    • You raise a good point- I’m sure the war could have gone differently if the winters of 1941 and 1942 (think Stalingrad) hadn’t affected the Wehrmacht so deeply. And of course, the directive authorizing the execution of deserters and cowards was a very grim reality. War enables terrible things to happen, but thank goodness it can also encourage bravery like that shown in the parade! Thanks for your comment!

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