The second world war was the bloodiest and most destructive war in human history. It saw armies, navies, and air forces pitted against each other, sometimes in a war of annihilation, where there could be no choice but to fight. Much attention has been placed on the flashy parts of World War II – the battles, the people, and the stories that came from them.
But there’s another facet of World War II that sometimes gets overlooked when discussing the history, and that is that World War II was, in many ways, a war of resources. Japan first invaded China, and then Southeast Asia, in pursuit of resources for its war machine. And Germany invaded the Soviet Union mainly out of murderous ideology, but its actual wartime maneuvers were focused on capturing Soviet resources.
It is the Soviet Union that we will be focusing on in this story, specifically their actions at the start of the war, when Germany first attacked the USSR, taking them by surprise. This is the story of how the Soviet Union evacuated not just citizens, but entire factories away from the front lines.
The Home of the Revolution
Following the death of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union was in a rough state. It had just come out of World War I, which was hugely devastating to the Russian people, and the Russian Civil War, which tore the country apart further. As Lenin had described it before his death, the country of Russia resembled “a man beaten to within an inch of his life”.
It really is difficult to understate how sorry things were in Russia during the 1920s. Orphans roamed the streets in the hundreds of thousands, jobs were not to be found in most places, and outside the cities, it was practically still the Middle Ages. Remember, only a few years before, Russia had been a feudal society, and the industrial revolution had not spread quite as deeply as it had in, say, Germany or the United Kingdom.
That’s not to say there was no progress; it was primarily factory workers in the cities that had delivered the Bolsheviks to power, after all. In addition, a burgeoning rail network had been established; in 1914, there were over 70,000 kilometers of railways in Russia. Two-thirds of them were state-owned, in case you thought state ownership was just a Bolshevik thing. But following Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin ascended to the party leadership, and he decided he was going to accelerate that progress. To that end, he began the so-called “Five Year Plans”, so named on account of the fact that they typically lasted for four years.
The first five year plan started in 1928, and focused on reforming agriculture into a collective farming system. This, to put it bluntly, failed, and caused several famines, including a major one in Ukraine remembered today as the Holodomor. To Stalin, however, the plan was a success, providing more grain for the state and helping to reform the agricultural system to something more suitably communist. And hey, those starving peasants were probably counter-revolutionaries anyway.
The second and third five year plans shifted the focus away from agriculture and some light industry, towards heavy industry. This included railways and steelworks and large factories to facilitate industrial production. These plans had more solid successes behind them, although there were still inefficiencies that resulted from trying to build an industrial society from almost literal scratch. One way or the other, the end result was that there were over a thousand additional factories in 1941 than there had been in 1928.
The plans continued apace, although a major change happened towards the end of the 1930s. During the course of the third five year plan, Germany under Hitler and the Nazis was invading country after country in Europe. Stalin, realizing that he was probably next, shifted the focus from civilian products and consumer goods towards armaments. This included tanks, airplanes, and good old fashioned guns. Though Stalin and others believed that an attack was coming, they didn’t know exactly when, and there was an assumption that they would have more time before Hitler came knocking at the door.
So, in the middle of 1941, this is the situation in the USSR. The country has squeezed decades of industrial advancement into just a few short years, and much of that advancement has been focused on cities in the western part of the country. There’s a general sense that war is coming at some point, but nobody knows when. Until, finally, it does.
On June 22, at 3:15 in the morning, three million Axis soldiers, most of them German, crossed the Soviet border. Contrary to popular belief, the Soviets had been expecting the attack; it wasn’t possible to hide the massive buildup of German forces across the border. It was true, however, that the Red Army was still completely unprepared for it. The German army proceeded to annihilate the concentrated Soviet forces, including the destruction of most of the Soviet air force before it even got off the ground. According to reports, the Luftwaffe destroyed anywhere from 3000 to 4000 aircraft in the first three days of the war, at the loss of around 80 of their own.
Stalin was dangerously ignorant of the disparity between his own armed forces and the Wehrmacht. He believed that the Red Army was a match for the Germans, which wasn’t true to begin with, and certainly wasn’t true following the initial attack. He ordered counterattacks, which ended in disaster most of the time, and over the course of the next few days it became clear just how serious the defeat was. It also became clear that, as the Germans advanced, the heavily industrialized western part of the country would fall into the hands of the German war industry. That, it was decided, could not happen.
And so, the evacuations began – not simply of people, but of industry, as well. Counterattacks were still ordered, and retreats were still denied, but now it was no longer about trying to throw the Germans back, but merely to slow them down while factories were disassembled and carried on trains to the eastern parts of the country, far from the enemy forces and out of range of their bombers.
Much like the military situation, the initial stages of the evacuation were chaotic and unplanned; as one might expect, the logistics for moving entire factories brick by brick are rather complicated. Many cities took initiative on their own without waiting for orders from above, but the cities immediately close to the border often couldn’t evacuate before the Wehrmacht overran them.
In Moscow, a Council for Evacuation was set up to coordinate the effort, but for the most part, the nitty gritty details were hammered out by local officials. Bases were established for logistical purposes, often train stations, ports, and factory sites. And then, of course, came the actual dismantling. Factories were pulled apart and loaded onto train cars, along with the machinery inside them, and shipped across the country out of reach of the German forces. Because of the sheer amount of material that had to be shipped, and the limited time in which they had to do so, trains often ran very close to each other. A total of 30 thousand trains and 1.5 million cargo cars were used for the operation.
Much of this work was done by citizens, although the Red Army helped as well. Many people volunteered for it, as the invasion was seen as a call to arms for many people to defend the nation, whether by enlisting or working in the factories.
The evacuation schedule coincided with the general advance of the German forces: Belarus evacuated around 100 factories between June and August; in Ukraine, around 300 in July through October; a hundred from Leningrad at the same time; and almost 500 from Moscow through to November. In total, a little over 1500 industrial enterprises were up and moved from their sites in the western USSR to beyond. The majority of the factories ended up in the Ural Mountains region, which was close enough to the front to be useful, while far enough to be safe. Others ended up in Siberia or Central Asia, with no chance of Germany ever reaching them.
It wasn’t only factories that were brought to the east. Experienced workers who had been in the factories for some time were also loaded onto trains and transported eastwards, along with their families. A total of 18 million people went eastward this way, with the total number of evacuees amounting to around 25 million over the course of the war.
Setting the factories back up again took precious time. It wasn’t clear if Moscow would hold against the German offensive; as the capital of the country, as well as a major railway center, its fall would be catastrophic. With time of the essence, the factories needed to be reconstructed and put back into production, so that they might feed the war effort.
Moscow did hold, as it turned out, but the factories continued to be rebuilt apace. By the middle of 1942, one year after the German invasion, many of them were back in production, and were safely producing the material needed to supply the Red Army. Indeed, following the initial attack, the Soviets proceeded to out-produce the Germans in terms of tanks and aircraft, the two resources that would prove pivotal in the eventual outcome of the war.
Tides of War
The front lines moved back and forth as offensives began and fizzled out, but eventually the Soviets started winning, and kept winning. It’s unclear if that would have been the case, had there not been that mass evacuation of industry at the start of the war.
A BBC correspondent, living in the Soviet Union at the time, had this to say about the whole episode: “The story of how the whole enterprise, and millions of people were taken to the East, these companies were restored in the shortest possible time and in unheard-of difficult conditions… is, above all, a tale of incredible human resilience.”