Why Soviet soldiers feared Stalin more than the Nazis in World War Two

Stalin's Order 270 and Order 227: The Eastern Front, WW2, 1941-45. Read time - 11 minutes 45 seconds
Order 270 Meme

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Joseph Stalin wasn’t very nice

Joseph Stalin was a cruel dude. Unlike most people who enjoy walks in nature or playing with their dogs, Stalin liked to start famines, invade Poland, and purge anyone who had the wrong opinion. 

Today though, we’re going to focus on his famous Order 270 and Order 227, orders that instilled fear into every Russian soldier.

Order 270: Banned commanders from surrendering and severely punished officers who did not carry out orders. Issued on August 16th, 1941.

Order 227: An order issued by Joseph Stalin designed to prevent soldiers from retreating. It was popularized with the slogan “Not a step back.” Issued on July 28, 1942.

Stalin Meme

At the beginning of the German invasion into the Soviet Union, millions of Russian soldiers were captured with many more retreating with little resistance. In stepped Stalin’s two orders which essentially forbade the retreat or surrender of any soldier. 

Of course, these orders weren’t enforced by carrots, but rather sticks with the sticks being gulags, machine guns, landmines, and penal battalions, but more on that later. First, let’s get into some context.

Hitler’s favorite shape was a circle

We know those annoying neckbeards online who are always like “hItLeR wAs StUpId FoR iNvAdInG rUsSiA.” Yeah yeah maybe it wasn’t the best idea in hindsight, but in the beginning Germany was kicking Russia’s ass. 

In 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression pact called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. For some odd reason or another, Stalin, who was perhaps the most paranoid man in human history, believed that Hitler would honor the pact despite his spies telling him that Germany was mobilizing on the Soviet border. 

There were even many German defectors who told the Soviets that Germany was about to attack. They were of course detained and tortured.

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: A nonaggression pact signed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939. It also partitioned Poland between the two powers.

Stalin and Ribbentrop after signing the non-aggression pact

As you all know, Hitler would in fact, not honor the pact. In the largest land assault in human history – Operation Barbarossa, the German war machine penetrated deep into Soviet territory on a front as wide as the west coast of America.

Operation Barbarossa: The initial invasion by Nazi Germany and allies into the Soviet Union. The goal was to conquer Russia by the end of the operation. Lasted from June 22 – December 5, 1941.

They used giant encircling tactics to trap and capture millions of Russian soldiers. In the Battle of Kyiv alone, the Soviets sustained more than 700,000 casualties with more than 450,000 soldiers captured while the Germans only suffered a little more than 60,000 casualties.

*When these captured soldiers were liberated later in the war they were looked down upon. They were often called “the encircled ones.”

Battle of Kyiv: A battle that was part of the larger Operation Barbarossa that took place from August 23 – September 26, 1941. It was a massive defeat for the Soviets as they lost over 700,000 soldiers.

A simple map overview of Operation Barbarossa

It was looking grim for the Soviets. The American foreign intelligence predicted that the Soviets would collapse within the three months. Many British officials said six weeks, with the intelligence service saying ten days

Yeah these seem like crazy estimates in hindsight, but keep in mind that only a year prior, Germany defeated the supposed most powerful land power – France, in six weeks.

Operation Barbarossa

First let’s identify a few key reasons why the Soviets sucked. 

  • The Soviets didn’t mobilize and were unprepared across the board. With the exception of a few categories like tanks, they were outgunned and equipped.
  • In the Great Purge between 1936-1938, Stalin killed or imprisoned around a million people including tens of thousands of experienced military officers.
  • Soviet morale was looooow. 

Morale is the big topic of this newsletter. Many of the officers in the Soviet army were recalled from the gulags which wasn’t exactly candyland. 

To say the least, these officers held some resentment towards the Soviet Union and would often surrender easily. 

This extended to the common soldier as well as they surrendered in droves to the Germans, especially the Ukrainians who viewed them as liberators (they would soon find out that was not the case). 

Let’s say that Stalin didn’t do a great job of endearing his people to his regime. To be fair, equally as many Russian soldiers fought bitterly to the last man, but Russia was losing entire armies at an alarming rate. Something had to be done – something drastic.

Order 270 was not fun

To prevent mass retreats, Stalin issued Order 270 on August 16th, 1941. This order decreed that soldiers are not allowed to surrender, refuse orders, or incapacitate themselves to avoid fighting. 

Soviet officers who violated this would be shot or imprisoned – along with their families. The same happened to regular soldiers who violated Order 270 except their families would be taken off state welfare – which is a big thing in a communist country.

Soviet soldiers had the go ahead to shoot any officer who attempted to surrender. Stalin would say “There are no Soviet prisoners of war, only traitors.” 

Even when Stain’s own son was captured by the Nazis, Stalin had his own daughter in law sent to a prison camp. I gotta respect the dedication, no nepotism out here😤.

This order absolutely terrified officers. Listen to this story of a regimental commander which was (hate to say it) kind of funny, but also captures the fear these officers felt:

The regimental commander has maps and orders from above, while I have nothing but a rifle, a pistol, and an entrenching tool. As such, they have the burden of giving orders, while I must see those orders enforced. Somewhere up above a general looks at a map and it seems reasonable to him to change the front line. He sends down an order. “At such and such a point, move 5 kilometers forward.” 

Well, as luck would have it there turns out to be a river just at that point, the White Sturgeon. It’s deep and swift, in open terrain. It would be convenient and relatively safe to dig some trenches and sit behind this natural obstacle. But an order is an order, and I can’t say that it’s technically impossible to cross here, even though from a sane man’s point of view it is indeed impossible to cross; we have no boats, nor planks, nor are there nearby trees to cut into rafts.

Another predicament lies in the fact that all the soldiers in my regiment come from the steppes. Not only can they not swim, but I’d wager that they’ve never even seen a river in their entire lives.

I relay the orders to advance the front to the men under my command. Looking confusedly at the rushing river and each other, one of the slant-eyes that speak Russian says “Comrade Lt. Sir, I can’t go in the water. I don’t know how to swim.” He looks back at the others, and they nod their agreement. I know that it’s better to drown a soldier than to show irresoluteness or insubordination to orders given from a commanding officer. Even if they all have to drown, it’s better than what could happen to us all if we disobey an order. Besides, I already reported to the Major upon receiving the order that there are no boats. He told me to do it anyway.

Steeling myself for what I must do, I pull out my service revolver, cock it, and point it at the face of the cucumber (slang word for Russian soldiers) in front of me. “Get in the water you son of a bitch! I’ll give you to the count of 3 to get in there, or you’ll never go anywhere else.” The soldier starts sweating. With a worried look on his face he glances from me to the other men. I shove the gun into his face and yell for him to hurry up. He quickly turns and hustles to the river bank. Holding his pack up above his head in one hand and his rifle in the other, he steps into the water, evidently trying to wade across. Of course the strong current immediately seizes him and carries him down the river as he ineffectually thrashes about. He disappears under the water and is swept downstream, apparently drowning. Some of the others don’t speak Russian, but they understand when I point my pistol at them that they must also wade into the river. All the rest of the cucumbers that I force into the river drown.

I walk into the Major’s tent, where he sits examining lists of supplies, equipment, and other such logistical paperwork. He looks up at me as I enter. “What do you have to report, Comrade?” 

“Comrade Major, there are only 5 men left in my company.”

“WHAT?! What did you do to them?! I didn’t hear a single shot!”

“They all drowned crossing the river, Comrade Major.”

“What do you mean drowned? I’ll shoot you right here like a dog!”

“As you will Comrade Major, but I did report to you that there were no planks or logs to be found in the area, that the river is deep and swift, that it can’t be forded. You told me to stop arguing and to just obey orders.”

“You blockhead! What a stupid way to destroy a whole company!”

The Colonel arrives shortly in a groundcar. “I gave you five hours to cross the river!” he shouts as he enters. “Have you carried out the order!?”

“No, Comrade Colonel, we’ve sustained heavy losses.”

“Losses? Well, that’s fine. If there weren’t any losses our heads would roll. What happened? Everything’s quiet, I didn’t hear a single shot from over here. Did they all get knifed or what?”

“No. Drowned. The company that was to cross over were all slant eyes. Never saw a river before. Naturally they drowned, since there was nothing to float on.” 

“You son of a bitch! Why didn’t you take some pontoons? We’ve been dragging a whole transport of pontoons around! I could give you as many as you want!” 

“I no longer need them Comrade Colonel. There are five cucumbers left in the first company, ten in the second, maybe twenty in the third. There’s no one left to cross.” The Colonel ponders for a moment.

“Well, you’ll just have to cross anyway. What counts is the fact that the order has been carried out, even if only one man makes it.”

-Found in Dan Carlin’s Ghosts of the Ostfront 

Order 227 was also not fun

While Soviet officers surrendered less, retreat and desertion was still a big problem among the common soldiers. Stalin would then issue Order 227 on July 28th, 1942. 

Order 227 reinforced Order 270, decreeing that no soldier should retreat unless ordered to do so. This order was ingrained into every soldier’s head with the slogan “Not a step back.” This was enforced by some pretty drastic means.

A Soviet postage stamp with the writing “Not a step back.”

“Panic-mongers and cowards must be destroyed on the spot. The retreat mentality must be decisively eliminated. Army commanders who have allowed the voluntary abandonment of positions must be removed and sent for immediate trial by military tribunal.’ Anyone who surrendered was ‘a traitor to the Motherland.’”

-Anthony Beevor describing Order 227 in his book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943

Blocking units were formed to prevent any retreat. Like in American football you have defensive linemen to block the offense from advancing, the Soviets had units that blocked their soldiers from retreating – except with machine guns! 

Yes, there were literally soldiers whose job it was to shoot soldiers who retreated without orders. 

Blocking Units: Soviet units whose job it was to shoot any retreating soldier. 

Let’s set the scene here. You’re a Soviet soldier facing the seemingly unstoppable German army. As you look down the battlefield you see the mass of German soldiers and their Panzers. You see your comrades, your friends, falling one by one. You just want to go home to your parents or your wife and kids. You can’t run or else your own countrymen will shoot you. Your chances of survival are zero.

Anyways, the Soviets got even more creative. They would train artillery behind the frontlines to blast soldiers who retreated to bits or plant landmines behind trenches. This obviously had some pretty negative psychological effects, especially in a society where all people were (theoretically) equal. 

Plus officers understandably got pissed when they had to divert troops to shoot their own troops.

The widespread use of blocking units was quietly rescinded a few months later, but not before a thousand soldiers were killed. Blocking units were still used on a much smaller scale by the NKVD and were done away with completely towards the end of the war. 

In the end, over 158,000 men were formally ordered to be executed, with many more dying uh… I guess informally?

NKVD: The secret police in the Soviet Union, similar to the Gestapo. Responsible for mass deportations and executions. Later became the KGB.

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Launching October 28th!

The worse kind of detention

Another important, longer lasting part of Order 227, and my personal favorite were the penal battalions. Soldiers and officers who showed cowardice, defiance, or dissent were placed in these battalions. 

Many criminals, including the officers recalled from the gulags served in these battalions. These men who were called the shtrafniki (sound it out) were seen as expendable troops who performed the not so fun tasks of war. 

Penal battalions: Units of Soviet soldiers who violated Order 227 and gulag prisoners. They were often sent on suicidal missions. The soldiers are often referred to as the shtrafniki.

Shtrafniki: Russian word for soldiers in a penal battalion.

You have a minefield that needs to be cleared? Penal battalion. You want to know the location of German machine guns? Penal battalion. You need an infiltration unit? Penal battalion. You get drunk one night and want to launch an offensive? Penal battalion.

Order 227 Meme

Ivan Gorin who served in a penal battalion recalled that he and his group of 330 men were sent to charge German machine guns. In one morning, everyone except for Ivan was dead. He would later say “We thought it would be better than a prison camp. We didn’t realize at the time that it was just a death sentence.”

Yeah penal battalion life wasn’t great. They typically received only a fraction of the already miniscule rations. On the flip side, many officers actually volunteered to lead the shtrafniki as they made significantly more money and could get promoted faster. It was also a quick way to get promoted to six feet under.

You could be sent to a penal battalion for a variety of reasons, with insubordination and cowardice being two of the most common. 

In the memoirs of penal battalion commander Alexander Pylcyn recalls that one soldier was sent there for yeeting a child with a motorcycle and another for translating a German radio broadcast under the suspicion of “spreading German propaganda.” 

Many penal battalions also consisted of criminals sent from the gulags who died at a rate 3-6 times more than a regular battalion.

Penalty Strike is the memoir of Alexander Pylcyn who was penal battalion commander. Over 80% of his men would die in a single attack. It is one of the few primary sources from a penal battalion

There were only a few ways to be honorably discharged from a penal battalion. You could:

  1. Survive your sentence (typically three months) which was pretty unlikely
  2. Sustain an incapacitating injury
  3. Be discharged for fighting heroically

The third option really depended on your commander. Some didn’t really take notice, but there were instances when entire battalions were relieved after acts of bravery.

This also only applied to the temporary shtrafniki which pretty much included everyone except for criminals and officers. 

These penal battalions were not all for naught. They often changed the tide of many battles. 

Pylcyn wrote about an operation where he was sent behind German lines. With over 300 troops he caused mayhem, playing a critical role in opening the way for the Russians to invade modern-day Belarus.

They employed the use of flamethrowers which were super-effective. Pylcyn describes a time when his flamethrower unit unleashed on a German column saying “It is no wonder that the screams of those burning enemy soldiers cheered up our extremely exhausted men, so strong was our hatred of the enemy” and remembers saying himself “the enemy’s dead body smells well.” Hot. 

This was one of the cases where much of the personnel in the battalion were deemed “rehabilitated” and discharged.

A Finnish soldier with a captured Soviet ROKS-3 flamethrower.

Stories of heroism were common – many wanted to stay even when they were discharged. Pylcyn himself ran away from the hospital after he was shot inches away from his dick to rejoin his battalion. 

Let’s also note that Pylcyn served later in the war, where conditions for penal battalions were much improved especially with the improvement of tactics and an abundance of supplies from the Lend-Lease Act.

Lend-Lease Act: An act passed by the United States in 1941 to supply the allied powers with equipment, food, and weapons. Aid to the Soviet Union ramped up significantly in the later years of the war.

Before Order 227 only around 25,000 served in penal battalions. Shortly after, this number swelled to over 177,000. By the end of the war, an estimated 422,700 total served in penal battalions. Most would never return home. 

Eastern Front Meme

How effective were Orders 270 and 227?

After Order 270 and 227 were issued, the Soviets fortunes changed for the better. However this may have not been directly related to the orders. Stalin reformed the entire military – with Order 270 and 227 only being a part of it. 

For one, the Germans committed many atrocities in Russia which fueled Russian hatred and morale. Incompetent leaders were thrown out in favor of generals such as the legendary Georgey Zhukov. Old tactics were thrown out in favor of modern tactics. Suicidal charges were no more – it was a whole culture change. 

Gerogey Zhukov: A Soviet general who oversaw many decisive victories including the Battle of Stalingrad. Considered by many to be the best general of the war.

The production of tanks, weapons, and other material were improved after factories that were shipped to Siberia started to run at full capacity. No more was the policy of “every other man has a rifle, if you don’t have one, pick it up off a dead comrade.” 

*At the start of the war, the Soviets broke down more than 500 factories and transported them via railroad east to Siberia to avoid German capture. A decision that may have won the war.

The Soviets won a decisive victory at the Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943 – a turning point in the war. From then on the German war machine was halted and would never advance into Soviet territory again.

 

Battle of Stalingrad: A battle that occurred between August 23, 1942 – February 2, 1943. It was the deadliest conflict of WW2 with over 2 million casualties. Marked the turning point of the war in favor of the Soviets.

Order 227 would not be made public until 1988, however there wasn’t a single soldier who did not hear the phrase “not a step back.”

So how effective was Order 270 and 227? I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. I just write historically accurate shitposts with memes.

Timeline - Terms - Sources - Memes - Sources

August 1935  – November 1938: Stalin initiates The Great Purge, to purge any dissenters including most experienced military officers.

August 23, 1939: Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is signed, which was a German-Soviet treaty of non-aggression. 

June 22nd, 1941: Germany launches an invasion into the Soviet Union in what was called Operation Barbarossa (Ended December 5th, 1941).

August 16th, 1941: Order 270 is issued. Implemented to prevent officers from retreating and surrendering.

September 26th, 1941: The Soviets are defeated in the Battle of Kyiv. It was the greatest encirclement of the war with over 700,000 Russian soldiers captured.

December 5th, 1941: Operation Barbarossa ends in German defeat at the Battle of Moscow.

July 28th, 1942: Order 227 is issued. Implemented to prevent soldiers from retreating primarily using penal battalions and blocking units.

August 23, 1942 – February 2, 1943: The Soviets win the Battle of Stalingrad marking the turning point of the war. From now on the Soviets would be on the offensive.

Battle of Kyiv: A battle that was part of the larger Operation Barbarossa that took place from August 23 – September 26, 1941. It was a massive defeat for the Soviets as they lost over 700,000 soldiers.

Battle of Stalingrad: A battle that occurred between August 23, 1942 – February 2, 1943. It was the deadliest conflict of WW2 with over 2 million casualties. Marked the turning point of the war in favor of the Soviets.

Blocking Units: Soviet units whose job it was to shoot any retreating soldier. 

Gerogey Zhukov: A Soviet general who oversaw many decisive victories including the Battle of Stalingrad. Considered by many to be the best general of the war.

Lend-Lease Act: An act passed by the United States in 1941 to supply the allied powers with equipment, food, and weapons. Aid to the Soviet Union ramped up significantly in the later years of the war.

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: A nonaggression pact signed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939. It also partitioned Poland between the two powers.

NKVD: The secret police in the Soviet Union, similar to the Gestapo. Responsible for mass deportations and executions. Later became the KGB.

Operation Barbarossa: The initial invasion by Nazi Germany and allies into the Soviet Union. The goal was to conquer Russia by the end of the operation. Lasted from June 22 – December 5, 1941.

Order 227: An order issued by Joseph Stalin designed to prevent soldiers from retreating. It was popularized with the slogan “Not a step back.” Issued on July 28, 1942. 

Order 270: An order by Joseph Stalin that declared anyone who surrendered would be treated as deserters. This was mostly aimed at officers whose punishment for violating this order was imprisonment or execution along with their families.Implemented to prevent officers from retreating and surrendering.

Penal battalions: Units of Soviet soldiers who violated Order 227 and gulag prisoners. They were often sent on suicidal missions. The soldiers are often referred to as the shtrafniki.

Shtrafniki: Russian word for soldiers in a penal battalion.

Sources and Supporting Readings

Ivans war: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 Catherine Merridale 2006

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943, Anthony Beevor 1999

Red Army’s Penal Battalions in the memoirs of a witness of history by Konrad Harasim and Marta Perzyna, Siedlce University, Poland, 2018.

Dan Carlin’s Ghosts of the Ostfront, 2009.

Image Credits

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:යුද_සිතියම.jpg by Dhammika111 under Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Voennaia_marka_Ni_shagu_nazad!.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Finnish_soldier_with_a_ROKS-3_flamethrower_SA-kuva_131383.jpg 

Moskau, Stalin und Ribbentrop im Kreml from the German Federal Archives. Under the under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-H27337,_Moskau,_Stalin_und_Ribbentrop_im_Kreml.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lavrenti_Beria_Stalins_family.jpg 

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