The coronavirus pandemic compelled Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to postpone the nation’s celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II – the bloodiest and most destructive military conflict in the history of humanity. The Russians call it the Great Patriotic War, and each May 9 they commemorate their [...]

Sunday Times 2

75 years of Russia’s victory: Revisiting barbarities during WWII


A Russian Communist party supporter carries a red flag as he walks along Red Square in Moscow on May 1, 2020. (AFP)

The coronavirus pandemic compelled Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to postpone the nation’s celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II – the bloodiest and most destructive military conflict in the history of humanity.

The Russians call it the Great Patriotic War, and each May 9 they commemorate their victory over the Nazis with a massive military display that sees thousands of troops and tanks parade through Red Square as military jets fly over the capital.

It is the single most important event in Russian history that elicits such a strong feeling of pride and patriotic fervour.

A mainstay of the parade that intensely stirs the emotions of the Russians is the March of the “Immortal Regiment” in which millions of Russian civilians march carrying a portrait of a victim or survivor – mostly a family member.

Postponing the event, Putin said, “On Victory Day, we honour the heroes who defended the country and the rest of the world and sacrificed their lives to protect others”. He assured “Russians still will mark the day, and every family will remember and honour its heroes”.

The horrific consequences
of World War II

According to Wikipedia, “An estimated total of 70–85 million people” around the world perished during the War –  including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians. Many of them died due to deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, disease, and starvation.

Some of the bloodiest WWII atrocities we can never forget are:

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941: It destroyed nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleships, and over 300 airplanes, and killed 2,400 Americans, and injured thousands of others.

Later, after the Germans surrendered, and the Japanese were to surrender, the United States of America dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. It is estimated that more than 135,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and more than 50,000 in Nagasaki – and tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure. To date, these remain the only use of nuclear weapons.

Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, as part of a deliberate programme of extermination, systematically killed over 11 million people including 6 million Jews, 2.7 million ethnic Poles, and 4 million others who were deemed “unworthy of life”.

The mass-bombings of civilian areas all over Europe – including Dresden and Hamburg – caused the destruction of more than 160 cities and the death of more than 600,000 German civilians.

Russia’s deaths and destruction

Since my description of this war may not do justice, I wish to quote from the post-war Nuremberg Trials that chronicled the devastation sustained by the Soviet Union.

According to the testimony presented by General Roman Rudenko at the Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, the largest number of civilian deaths in a single city occurred during the Siege of Leningrad. Some 1.2 million Russians died.

The combined damage in Russia consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages, 98,000 collective farms, 2,508 churches, 31,850 factories, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4,100 railroad stations, 6,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, 43,000 public libraries, and left 25 million homeless – as a direct result of the war.

Appalled by the extent of the carnage during a visit to Russia, Dwight Eisenhower, Commander in Europe during the war, wrote, “When we flew into Russia, in 1945, I did not see a house standing between the western borders of the country and the area around Moscow”.

Epic battles inside Russia

To comprehend why the Russians remember and revere the “Great Patriotic War”, we need to glance at some of the horrific but heroic battles against Nazi barbarity.

The War’s infamous Siege of Leningrad began in Sep 1941. It lasted 900 days, and cost the lives of more than 1,000,000 city residents. Its people had to endure starvation and cruelties that anyone in Western Europe or North America could hardly imagine.

Battle of Moscow,
Oct 1941 – Jan 1942

Hitler sent a battalion of million German troops to Moscow with orders to raze the City of Moscow to the ground if it cannot be captured. The Red Army foiled Germans attempts and banished them out of Moscow – at a staggering cost of 1,000,000 Russian casualties.

Battle of Stalingrad,
Aug 1942 – Feb 1943

This was the largest and bloodiest battle during the War with the military and civilian casualties running as high as two million.

Battle of Kursk (July – Sep 1943)

Recorded as the largest tank battle in history, involving some 2,000,000 troops, 6,000 tanks, and 4,000 aircraft, it marked the end of the German offensive capability on the Eastern Front. The Soviets lost more than 800,000 soldiers in this battle.

Altogether, in the former Soviet Union, more than 27 million people lost their lives –  including 8.7 million military and 19 million civilians. It was the Soviet Union that bore the brunt of the fighting on the Eastern front.

There were no parallels to these battles anywhere on the Western Front. With death and destruction for four long years, it was the fortitude of the Red Army and other Soviet citizens that won World War II.

Saying that, “The Red Army was the main engine of Nazism’s destruction” the British historian, Max Hastings wrote, “It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 percent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance.”

Fury and retribution
in the  final battle

In early 1945, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered his two Marshals (Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev) to capture Berlin.

The Battle of Berlin – April to May 1945 –was the final major decisive counter-attack by the Red Army. They forged their way through Eastern European nations liberating them from the Nazi occupation. It was a bloody battle as Hitler forced three quarters of a million German troops to fight a desperate final defense against the advancing Red Army.

According to, wikipedia and other records, the Soviet army deployed more than 2,500,000 soldiers, 7,500 aircraft, and 6,250 tanks for the final onslaught against the Germans. It is estimated that around 80,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and another 280,000 were wounded in the Berlin attack.

On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide. The Germans surrendered to the Russian Army and the Battle of Berlin ended on May 2, 1945. On May 9, 1945, Germans signed the declaration ending the war with Russia.

I asked a Russian friend with rank of Colonel (name withheld at his request), “Why did your Red Army decide to liberate Eastern European countries, and take over Berlin?” His response was: “Fury and Retribution. We banished Germans after every battle inside Russia but they kept coming back, and killed our people and destroyed our country. We had to stop them forever”.

Historical records show that Germany suffered 10 million deaths including 5.3 million military losses, mostly inside Russia, and during the final battles in Germany.

It is an irony that about seven decades prior to the War, Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the 1870s, who unified Germany left his successors an important advice: “Never Wage War on Russia”. Hitler defied that advice.

It was thanks to Stalin’s leadership, and the bravery of the Red Army that defeated Nazi Germany – and saved Russia and the world from the Nazis. It is no surprise that since the glorious days of the former Soviet Union, Victory Day has been the nation’s most revered holiday, remembering the country’s enormous suffering and loss of life – and especially the heroes who saved their country during WWII.

Last year, addressing the military parade in Red Square, President Putin said, “The Soviet Union faced the most powerful assaults by the Nazis, but there is no force, and there will be no force, that could conquer our people”.

(The writer is an international lawyer, worked for IAEA and FAO; was delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly; and representative of UNAIDS)

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.