On the 22nd of June 1941, Nazi Germany achieved an almost perfect surprise attack on arguably the world's premier intelligence gathering nation. This historiographical essay looks at how this came about.
Histories Greatest Blunder
‘Germany will never on its own move to attack Russia’
- Joseph Stalin, mid-May 1941
‘Lenin left us a great legacy, but we, his heirs, have fucked it up’
- Joseph Stalin, 28th of June 19411
In just over a month, Joseph Stalin, the Man of Steel, collapsed into a shadow of his
former self. On the 22nd of June 1941, Nazi Germany achieved an almost perfect
surprise attack on arguably the world's premier intelligence gathering nation. Despite
what seems like an avalanche of warnings the Soviet Union was unprepared for the
attack.2 To discover why this was and the extent to which Stalin is to blame for the
disaster, four key areas must be analysed. The diplomacy and foreign policy of the
Soviet Union changed drastically as Stalin looked for support in a time where world
war was obviously approaching.3 His choice to ally with Germany and the great
lengths he went to, to honour the agreement seem to be illogical. The Great Purge of
in 1937/8 hampered the improvement of the Soviet military and led many
international observers to downgrade their capability.4 This mistake became obvious
during the Winter War with Finland where the Soviets failed to crush a severely
outnumbered army.5 Not only were choices made that left the Soviet Union
unprepared for war but also intelligence reports from countless sources were ignored
as 'provocations'. The suspicion of these sources left the Red Army not expecting an
attack.6 Finally, the actions of the Red Army, under the orders of the General Staff
and ultimately Stalin, immediately before, during and after the invasion on the 22nd
need to be analysed to discover tactical errors that worsened the disaster.7 Following
this, it should be clear why the Soviet Union was so unprepared for an invasion and
the extent to which Stalin was responsible for this.
Although most historians hold opinions on this issue Peter Kenez and Christopher
Read have conducted the most detailed contemporary analyse of it. Kenez, from the
University of California, Santa Cruz, is an expert in the impact of the Soviet system
on the people, particularly the Jews.8 Read is the Professor of 20th Centaury European
History at the University of Warwick who specialises in the history of the Bolshevik
intelligentsia.9 The national background will have an influence on their writing as well
as the fact they grew up in pro-capitalist nations. Positively it will mean their work is
free from harsh censorship. These two historians will be used to analyse the issue with
support from other historian’s work.
Kershawk, I., Fateful Choices, Penguin Books (2008), p 243. Various translations of the second
quote have been included in memoires of people close to Stalin at this time, all of which have a similar
meaning. This rendition is the most commonly quoted.
Kenez, P., The History of the Soviet Union from Beginning to the End, Cambridge University Press:
Cambridge, (1999) p.135.
Read, C., The Making and Breaking of the Soviet System, Palgrave: Hampshire, (2001) p.116-117.
Kenez, op. cite. p.267
Ries, T., Cold Will: The Defense of Finland, Potomac Books (1988) p.78
McCauley, M., The Soviet Union 1917 – 1991, Longman (2005) p.145.
Read op. cit. p120.
quot;Directory - Peter Kenez.quot; UC Santa Cruz - Department of History. 04 June 2009
quot;History: Academic Staff: Professor Christopher Read.quot; University of Warwick. 04 June 2009 <http://
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By the mid-1930s, it was clear that the Nazi party had consolidated its power
successfully in Germany. The theory of collective security became integral to Soviet
foreign policy, particularly with Britain, as any agreement needed their support to act
as any deterrent to Germany. 10 Read believes the British strategy of appeasement sent
a strong message to Stalin, that Britain would ‘turn a blind eye to a Nazi-backed
assault’ and try to push Hitler towards Moscow.11 The Munich agreement of 1938,
where Czechoslovakia was given to Germany, finally ended any hope of collective
security. Appeasement was ‘the most tragic series of blunders in European Diplomatic
history’12 and created a pathway for Hitler’s invasions of Poland and Western Europe.
Stalin still feared an isolated Soviet Union and in an address to the Eighteenth Party
Congress of 10 March 1939, he left the door open for an Anglo-French alliance but it
is clear Germany was now the favourable ally.13 Although some such as Viktor
Suvorov argued that collective security was a diversion and Stalin always saw a pact
of Germany as Plan A, Read shows that the majority of evidence points to this being
very much a Plan B.14
On 20 May of that year, German Ambassador Count von der Schulenburg met with
Vyacheslav Molotov, the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs. To the
astonishment of the world, the two nations, who were ideological enemies, quickly
developed close relations culminating in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939.15 Read
believes Stalin was influenced by his wishes to restore the lands of the Tsarist Empire,
with substantial border territories being transferred back to the Soviet Union.16 On the
other hand, Kenez sees this as a strategic move as it gave the Soviets territory to the
northwest of Leningrad providing a defensive buffer in case of an attack. 17 This
difference in opinion is likely due to Read’s focus on the intelligentsia that was
influenced more by the history of Russia yet Kenez is looking from a purely tactical
view in this section of his work.
Stalin saw the Nazi-Soviet Pact as the ideal way to buy time to build up the
production of armaments and to improve the training of the Red Army. Both sides
knew the Pact was no more than a marriage of convenience, according to memoires of
both German and Russian generals.18 Yet Brower, an historian who has conducted in
depth historiographical research on this period, giving him strong insight into the
mind set of the government at this time, 19 believes, Stalin assumed that Hitler would
be distracted by the war in the west until at least 1942.20
Von. Rauch, G., A History of Soviet Russia, International Thomson Publishing, (1972) p.273.
Read, op. cit. p119.
Read, op. cit. p.115.
Kenez, op. cit. p.133.
Von. Rauch, G., A History of Soviet Russia, International Thomson Publishing, (1972) p286
Hagen, W., T. Margadant, and D. Price. quot;Daniel Brower.quot; University of California. 04 June 2009
Brower, D., “The Soviet Union and the German Invasion of 1941: A New Soviet View” in The
Journal of Modern History, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1969)
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The economic collaboration between Germany and the Soviet Union greatly favoured
the Nazi regime.21 According to Kenez, Stalin say this as unavoidable, his own form
of appeasement, a way to buy time before the inevitable war. After Stalin’s death, this
constant ‘conciliation’ of Germany was unquestionably attacked by Soviet
historians.22 Von Rauch, a Russian born, German historian, well respected for his
original research, notes that, despite the mutual caution, Stalin believed that the pact
with Germany would last until the war in the west was completely settled. 23 Why
Stalin, a man known for his suspicion of everything, allowed himself to believe has
been difficult for historians to understand, although Kenez believes Hitler himself
gives some credence to this view. The Nazi dictator wrote in a letter to Mussolini
explaining the mutual benefits of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and even comparing it to the
relationship between Italy and Germany.24 There was also talk, in records Von Rauch
found, that Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, planned to include the Soviet
Union in the Tripartite Pact.25 This seemingly close friendship between Germany and
the Soviet Union must be put into perspective according to Read, by realising the
purpose the Soviets had for the Nazis. By having an ally in the rear Hitler avoided a
two front war, the downfall of Germany in the First World War. It also protected
Hitler from the Achilles’ heel of all campaign generals, the lack of supplies to conduct
an extended war. Once Germany had secured Western Europe, the Soviet Union no
longer served a purpose and Hitler was free to begin the invasion. Read is able to give
this insight due to his strong understanding of the political situation at the time
particularly from the research for The Making and Breaking of the Soviet System.
All credible historians agree this was Stalin’s first blunder. Read, Kenez and others
such as Sakwa, a British historian, who although respected is sometimes criticised for
focusing to much on political history and not considering the social aspects, all claim
Stalin recognised that war with Germany was inevitable. 26 By 1939, this was a regular
theme in Stalin’s speeches. 27 Despite this, Stalin was obsessed with postponing the
war until at least 1942 at which point the Red Army would apparently be able to stand
against any Nazi advance. If this is true and not merely political propaganda justifying
the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Kenez believes that by 1941 Stalin had clearly lost sight of this
objective, possibly because he became spooked by the quick defeat of France when it
became clear the victorious German army would not be weakened by an extended war
of attrition. 28
Stalin requested the latest military equipment but received only some blueprints, a battleship that
was not fully equipped and assistance to build and remodel Soviet warships.(Kenez, op. cit. p.135.;
Von Rauch, op. cit. p287.) On the other hand, the Soviet Union allowed German use of a naval base
near Murmansk and a constant flow of raw materials crucial to the German war effort.(Ibid.).
Ultimately, the Soviet Union exported more than it imported (Kenez, op. cit. p.136.)
Brower, op. cit.
Von Rauch, op. cit. p.286.
Koch, H., “Operation Barbarossa – The Current State of the Debate” in The Historical Journal, Vo.
31 No.2 (1988).
Von Rauch, op. cit. p.298.
Sakwa, R., The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union 1917 – 1991, Taylor & Francis (2007) p.235.
Ibid.; Stalin’s speech to the Politburo of 19 August 1939 showed Stalin understood war was
inevitable and that he sought the best opportunity to enter the war. He saw the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a
way to ensure war in Western Europe would occur, allowing the Soviet to attack the weakened western
nations once the war had run its course. (Ibid.)
Kenez does balance this by saying that this assumption is not as ridiculous as hindsight makes out;
the French army was the largest in Europe and was widely expected to grind the Wehrmacht to a stand
still. (Kenez, op. cit. p.133.)
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After the Winter War with Finland in 1939/40, Stalin announced that the Pact was
“sealed in blood”29. To try to keep the peace until 1942 was more than ambitious
according to Kenez and it led to Stalin focusing too much on this goal and missing the
bigger picture. 30 Interestingly, historian Christopher Read raises the idea that Stalin
should have attacked Germany in 1939/40.31 He believes this because in 1939, the
Red Army had over 100 divisions on alert, although France and Poland had collapsed
with little resistance, Britain was taking a stubborn stand against the Nazis. This
would have been the perfect time to attack Germany. The Nazi-Soviet Pact gave
Hitler a free reign in Western Europe. On the other hand, opening up the Eastern
Front would have stretched the Wehrmacht across the same two fronts that led to the
downfall of Germany in the First World War. By giving the Red Army time to
regroup it also allowed Germany to consolidate its own power and by 1941, ‘Nazi
Germany was immensely stronger’.32
In 1934, Stalin launched a ‘purge of the Party ranks’ to try to destroy any opposition
to his regime.33 The purges led to these preparations being poorly executed as Read
believes command experience was lost but Kenez goes deeper stating those left were
less likely to take risks on new projects.34 According to Hosking, a Scotish historian
who spent time studying at Moscow State University, giving him a unique insight into
life behind the iron curtain, ‘the armed forces were thus not in a position to take full
advantage of the benefits of the country’s new industry [from the Five Year Plans]’.35
The Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939 proved just how disastrous the
purges had been for the Red Army. Despite greatly outnumbering the Finns, the
Soviets still did not make significant ground.36 Kenez claims this showed Hitler the
Soviet Union’s weakness and encouraged him to pursue an invasion of Russia.37
Kenez states that ‘the leadership of the Red Army was proven incompetent, the moral
of the troops was low and the army was inadequately equipped.’ 38 Yet Read and Von
Rauch argue that the small amount of land gained assisted in providing just enough of
a buffer for the Red Army to regroup after the German invasion and that without it
Leningrad would have surely fallen.39 The fact Kenez was brought up in Cold War
America justifies this harsher view. The bias in American history from this period is
to assume the worst of the Soviet system and decisions made under it.
Von Rauch, op. cit. p292.
Kenez, op. cit. p137.
Read, op. cit. p.119.
Conquest, R., Stalin and the Kirov Murder, Oxford University Press New Yoork (1989) p.122-138;
Stalin purged three of five Marshalls of the Sviet Union – the highest rank in the Red Army, 13 of 15
army commanders, 50 of 57 corps commanders and 154 of 186 division commanders.; Courtois,
Stéphane, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis
Margolin, Stephane Courtois, and Jean-Louis Panne. The Black Book of Communism Crimes, Terror,
Repression. New York: Harvard UP (1999) p.98.
Hosking, G., A History of the Soviet Union, Fontana Press, (1992) p.265
The Soviet Union having four times as many soldiers, 30 times as many aircraft and 218 times as
many tanks than the Finish, the Soviets were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty in March 1940
gaining only 9% of Finland’s pre-war territory. (Ries, T., Cold Will: The Defense of Finland, Potomac
Books (1988) p.78)
Kenez, op. cit. p.133.
Kenez, op. cit. p.133.
Read, op. cit. p.116.
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Upon the completion of the purges in 1938 and again after the end of the Winter War
in 1940 there was a concerted effort by the Red Army to improve.40 Only Kenez
seems to discuss a vital error, the old fortifications on the pre-1939 border were
dismantled before the new ones could be erected, leaving the border unfortified.41 It is
agreed by all that by 1941, the Red Army was improving the ability of it’s members 42
in a desperate hurry but according to Read the Soviets failed to adapt themselves to
the Blitzkrieg tactics exhibited in Poland, France and North Africa.
The most astonishing blunder of all according to Kenez, is Stalin’s blindness to the
Nazi build up of war. It is most often claimed, that the first reports of the planned
invasion became known in autumn 194043 although Sakwa describes the first reports
arriving up to three months earlier.44 Hitler explained the troop build up on the Soviet
border firstly as part of preparations for Operation Sea Lion,45 the invasion of Great
Britain and then in preparation for an invasion of the Balkans. 46 With disastrous
effects, Stalin was unable to believe the intelligence that he was receiving, yet he
easily trusted Hitler to honour the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A TASS (the Soviet news
agency) report on 14 June 1941 reiterated to the Red Army and air force that there
would not be an attack.47 According to McCauley, this left both the air force and the
Red Army unprepared.48 According to Hosking and McCauley, the extraordinary
extent of Stalin’s disbelief that any invasion was imminent is highlighted in the Soviet
press. They stated that the reports were ‘clumsily concocted propaganda by powers
hostile to the USSR and Germany’49 Also Stalin proclaimed that spies were to be
‘ground into the dust’ in labour camps for attempting to systematically deceive the
Soviet Leadership.50 Even on the day of the attack itself, it has been reported in
memoires that ‘Stalin considers this a provocation of the German generals’.51
By 1939, the Red Army had grown to a maximum of five million men under arms, similar to levels in
the 1920s.( Hosking, op. cit. p.265.) Stalin planned to use the territory gained in the Nazi-Soviet Pact
and the Winter War as buffer zones, to help protect the Russian mainland.(Kenez op. cit. p.135.)
Hosking op. cit. p.265
The Red Army, learning from the Winter War, improved officer training and created new infantry
divisions. (Kenez op. cit. p.135.) Secondary Education was improved so that the men could cope better
with technical demands.( Hosking op. cit. p.265.)
Kenez, op. cit. p.138.
Sakwa, op. cit. p.252.; By early 1941, Stalin received detailed plans of the invasion, in May
legendary Soviet spy Richard Sorge reported the exact date of the invasion as well as the number of
German divisions involved and British, American and even German diplomats sent warnings to Stalin.
(Kenez, op. cit. p.138.) German reconnaissance planes flew over Soviet territory 200 times between
late 1940 and 22 June 1941, each time focusing on military installations. One plane, which was forced
to land in the Soviet Union, was returned to the Germans to avoid provocation.( Sakwa, op. cit. p.253.)
On top of this, imports from Germany slowed dramatically and there were dozens of border violations
committed by the Wehrmacht, some of these reconnaissance parties were even captured and
interrogated but again their reports were dismissed as provocation.(Kenez, op. cit. p.138.) According
to the naval commissar, Stalin had definite knowledge of Operation Barbarossa in the early afternoon
of 21 June. (Brower, op. cit.)
Read, op. cit. p.120.
Uldricks, T., “Codeword Barbarossa by Barton Whaley” in The History Teacher, Vol. 7, No.4 (1974)
McCauley, M., op. cit. p.145.
Aircraft were left exposed and uncamouflaged on airfields, sporting activities had been planned for
22 June and many divisional artillery regiments were undergoing training away from the front (Ibid.)
Hosking, op cit. p.269.
McCauley, op. cit. p.145.
Brower, op. cit.
Page 5 of 8
Read questions how a man famous for his suspicion, would behave like this. It seems
unthinkable to him, that no war plans were drawn up. There was no discussion of how
an attack should be defended. Kruschev, among others, blames Stalin for not heeding
the eighty-four separate warnings that reached the Soviets.52 Kenez looks to
psychology to explain this. ‘The snake looked into the eyes of the mongoose, and the
mongoose froze.’53 It is likely Stalin was aware of the poor state of the Red Army and
feared a similar uprising during the war to the one that brought the communists to
power in 1917. Stalin was left with no option but to appease Hitler, this allowed the
Nazi dictator to play out Operation Barbarossa on his own terms.
It is also likely the Soviet system under Stalin affected his ability to analyse the
intelligence. According to McCauley, an historian who has linked the impact of
history to events, particularly communism and the events since 199154, totalitarian
systems are very bad at assimilating and evaluating information unwelcome to the
leadership.55 An excellent example of this occurred shortly before the invasion.56 All
historians agree that to varying extents Stalin thought that all the intelligence pointing
to war with Germany was falsified. Staffers therefore followed the ‘party line’. On 21
June Beria, head of the NKVD, demanded that Dekanozov be punished for
disinformation due to Stalin’s ‘wise prognosis: Hitler will not attack us in 1941!’ 57
Although it seems mostly likely, this adherence to the idea of disinformation came
from Stalin down, Colonel Anfilov asserted in 1966 that it was Soviet military
intelligence which had informed Stalin that the information in their possession on
Operation Barbarossa was a ‘trick of German counter-espionage’. It is therefore
possible, but unlikely based on the evidence, that Stalin was led down this path by
people around him.58
In addition, Hitler was able to achieve strategic surprise through a deliberate
campaign of deception that masked his true intentions. The Soviets collected large
amounts of raw data about German activities but according to Stine the evaluation of
this intelligence led Stalin to the wrong conclusion.59 More than likely, there were
conflicting intelligence reports. A study of the American failure to predict the attack
on Pearl Harbor, suggest that the Soviets failed to distinguish between the incoming
‘signals’ forecasting the attack and the contradictory ‘noise’ and Brower see’s this as
Stine, R., “Codeword Barbarossa by Barton Whaley” in The Western Political Quartely, Vol. 27 No.
Kenez, op. cit. p.138.
quot;Martin McCauley - Member of Limehouse Group of Analysts.quot; 02 June 2009
McCauley, op. cit. p.269.
The Soviet ambassador to Berlin, Dekanozov, dined with von Schulenburg who stated: Mr
Ambassador, perhaps this has never yet taken place in the history of diplomacy, but I intend to reveal
to you state secret number one: pass this on to Mr Molotov, and I hope he will inform Mr Stalin; Hitler
has decided on 22 June to start a war against the USSR. You ask, why am I doing this? I was brought
up in the spirit of Bismarck, and he was always against war with Russia.
The statement is discussed the next day by the Politburo. Stalin declared ‘We consider that
disinformation has now reached up to the level of ambassadors.’
Sakwa, op. cit. p.252.
Brower, op. cit.
Stine, op. cit.
Page 6 of 8
a link.60 It is not surprising Brower would put forward this idea; the American
historian is well known for his innovative historiographical work.61
Historian Whaley, suggests the readiness of Stalin to believe Hitler’s word over
intelligence was due to a preconceived idea that him would deliver an ultimatum prior
to an attack. This would allow Stalin more opportunity to appease Hitler and improve
the Red Army on the borrowed time. Due to Stalin’s belief in the ultimatum thesis,
Whaley believes that he was guided into the trap of deception deliberately by Hitler
praying on this belief.62
Although the ultimatum thesis fits the evidence, it does not excuse Stalin for being
afflicted with tunnel vision according to both Read and Kenez. Uldricks, rebuts
Whaley as it seems ludicrous that the best place to coordinate an attack on Great
Britain would be from Poland. 3,000,000 men also is an extremely excessive number
of soldiers for an attack on the Balkans and the thesis does not explain how Stalin
could believe that the Americans, British and the majority of his agents were all
deceiving him.63 These three historians agree that it was Stalin obsession about
keeping the peace with Germany, that led to his famous suspicion being targeted at
the least logical place and so ultimately, Stalin did not see Hitler’s true motives.
Although the Red Army was not in the best position to fight a war, it is generally
accepted that it should have performed better than it did.64 It was widely believed by
both foreign observers and Soviet commanders that Hitler would attack. 65 Stalin was
reluctant to bolster defences.66 If an attack was to occur troops were ordered to not,
‘give way to provocations of any kind which might produce major complications.’
According to Hosking, this created chaos due to the inflexible obedience of Soviet
commanders, a recurring problem Hosking would have experienced during his time in
Moscow. 67 Read believes Stalin was cautious due to the memory of the First World
War where the conflict accelerated due to hast and aggressive mobilisations by Russia
which allowed German generals to execute the Schlieffen plan as a form of self-
defence. Every effort was made to avoid the appearance of mobilisation. This could
be why Stalin implemented his strict policy, forbidding units to fire upon German
troops and planes until hours after the actual German attack on 22 June.68
It was only in the evening that the first order was issued by Marshall Timoshenko,
commissar of war, and it clearly shows how out of touch with the situation the
General Staff was. It required, ‘deep counterthrusts with the aim of destroying the
enemy’s main forces and carrying operations into his territory.’ According to both
Read and Hosking, these ill-planned actions made soldiers face superior enemy fire,
Brower, op. cit.
quot;Daniel Brower.quot; University of California. 02 June 2009
Stine, op. cit.
Uldricks, op. cit.
Read, op. cit. p.116.
Kenez, op. cit. p.136.
Colonel General Kirponos, commander of the Kiev Military District, wrote to Stalin proposing the
hardening of defensive positions. He was informed this could be viewed as a ‘provocation’ by the
Nazis and it could give a ‘pretext for the initiation of military action against us.’ In fact, Kirponos was
ordered to withdraw some of his troops. (Hosking, op. cit. p.269.)
Hosking, op. cit. p.269.
Read op. cit. p120.
Page 7 of 8
allowing troops to be easily surrounded, the order also impeded the defence in depth
strategy needed to stop the Blitzkrieg attack.69 The Soviet leadership was not ready for
and consequently could not fathom the nature of the German attack, greatly
handicapping their ability to defend against it.
Kenez stats that Stalin’s reaction to the invasion was most extraordinary and accuses
the Man of Steel was frightened.70 Service supports this due to the fact that Stalin’s
miscalculation stunned him and his subordinates were left to run the war.71 In the time
where leadership was needed most Stalin retired to his dacha for eleven days and saw
no one.72 This loss of control highlights how convinced Stalin was that Germany
would not attack based on his faulty assumptions.
It is indisputable that the Soviet Union was unprepared for Operation Barbarossa. As
the (totalitarian) leader, it is hard to move responsibility for this away from Stalin.
The dictator entered into a one sided peace agreement with Germany when it was the
ideal time to take the offensive. The Great Purge robbed the Red Army of vital
experience and stiffened ingenuity from commanders. This manifested itself in the
Winter War and although steps were taken to rectify this, the inexperienced
commanders failed to do this effectively. Undeniably, ignoring the overwhelming
intelligence Stalin cost the Red Army the vital ability to predict the enemy’s
movements. Finally, the Soviet commanders were slow to react to the invasion and
Stalin himself showed no leadership. Historians’ views vary widely on the extent of
Stalin’s responsibility, from the more sympathetic such as Von Rauch and Suvorov,
who have undoubtedly been influenced by their Russian heritage to the harsher views
of Kenez and Hosking, who are more traditional Western historians. In between is
balanced the more progressive historians such as Brower who, since the fall of the
Iron Curtain have led the way in rewriting Soviet history. Nevertheless, as leader,
Stalin is ultimately responsible for the actions that led to the Soviet Union being
totally unprepared for Operation Barbarossa, confirming the views of both
Christopher Read and Peter Kenez.
Ibid ; Hosking, op. cit. p.270.
Kenez, op. cit. p.137.
Service, R., A History of Modern Russia, Harvard University Press, (2005) p.146.; It was Molotov
who eight hours after the invasion informed the country that the Soviet Union was at war.
Kenez, op. cit. p.138.
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