Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.e-reviews 2 (2012), 1 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Mark Edele


Vladimir O. Dajnes: Štrafbaty i zagradotrjady Krasnoj Armii. [Strafbataillone und Sperreinheiten der Roten Armee.] Moskva: Ėksmo, 2008. 445 p. ISBN: 978-5-699-25316-6.

Blocking detachments emerged during the Russian Civil War as one of the responses of the Red Army to desertion and low discipline. They became part of the normal horizon of possibilities of the Red Army at war: they were used in the Japanese-Soviet border war of 1938–39 as well as the Finnish Winter War of 1939–40. This pre-history explains why they were created so soon after the German attack. A 27 June 1941 order of the Head of the Third Administration of the Commissariat of Defense created “control-blocking detachments” to secure the hinterland close to the front and arrest deserters and other “suspicious elements.”

Vladimir Daines’ history of these units is rich in documentation and thin on interpretation. Sources, nearly all of them already published elsewhere, are often cited in full and left to speak for themselves, recounting an important aspect of Soviet war making. The transformation of the zagradotriady from military police operating behind the lines to disciplinary organs acting close to the combat troops began locally. Faced with large-scale desertions in their retreating units, regimental commanders and their Special Section plenipotentiaries organized mobile forces to keep their troops together. Seeking top-level sanction for such spontaneous innovation, the commander of the Briansk Front General-Lieutenant A. I. Eremenko approached the General HQ (Stavka) in late August or early September, prompting Stavka Directive No. 001650 of 5 September 1941. It allowed the formation of blocking units “in those divisions, which have recommended themselves as unstable.” The task of the detachments, the directive continued, was “to prevent unauthorized retreat and to stop fleeing troops, if necessary by force of arms“ (p. 79). Soon this practice was applied to the entire field army. From now on, rather than falling under the jurisdiction of the Special Section alone, blocking units were directly formed and maintained by the military field commanders themselves, who more and more frequently ordered to “shoot on the spot” panicked soldiers running from their positions. The much-quoted Stalin order No. 227 of 28 July 1942, then, was the endpoint of this organizational evolution, rather than its beginning. It replicated for armies what had been already field tested on the divisional level. After the turning points of Stalingrad and Kursk, the importance of the blocking detachments decreased. In September 1943, they were consolidated and in the elite tank armies even abolished. With the Red Army on the offensive, they were increasingly transformed back into military police, employed to control the close hinterland of the front. On Stalin’s order they were abolished after 29 October 1944.

Like the blocking detachments, penal units had their origin in the Civil War. They continued to exist as “disciplinary units” until 1934 and re-emerged in 1940 as “disciplinary battalions.” On 12 August 1941, they were abolished and their troops transferred to the normal field army. Their formation in consequence of order No. 227, then, was a re-appropriation of a long-standing tradition. During the entire war, 427,910 people served in penal units, constituting between 7 and 8 percent of the field army. Their fate was a harsher version of normal infantry plight: while by and large performing similar tasks, the shtrafniki were sent to the most dangerous sectors of the front, were used as shock-troops to pierce enemy defenses, to capture key objectives, conduct combat reconnaissance behind the lines, capture prisoners for interrogation, or clear mine fields. As a result, their losses were three to six times higher than those of regular troops.

As this book shows convincingly, then, two of the central symbols of the Soviet way of war were not just reactions to the German example, even if Stalin tried to sell them as such in Order No. 227 of 28 July 1942. Rather, they were a re-activation of what the Civil War had taught the Bolsheviks. In the interpretation offered by Daines, moreover, the context of their emergence was not World War I but the Civil War and the Civil War on the side of the Bolsheviks. The ideological readiness to extreme violence of a Lenin or a Trotsky merged with the conditions of an intra-Russian conflict where rank and file soldiers had to be kept fighting against other people like themselves – drafted peasants. Sometimes, as in the suppression of peasant uprisings and the Kronshtadt revolt, these troops even had to fight against their equals armed with revolutionary rhetoric. As far as these specific Bolshevik practices are concerned, then, Daines’ account does not reinforce the notion of the “continuum of crisis” since 1914 (Peter Holquist) but begins the story (like most histories of the Civil War) in 1917: there were no blocking units or combat penal battalions in the Tsarist army.

Mark Edele, Crawley, Australia

Zitierweise: Mark Edele über: Vladimir O. Dajnes: Štrafbaty i zagradotrjady Krasnoj Armii [Strafbataillone und Sperreinheiten der Roten Armee]. Moskva: Izdat. Ėksmo, 2008. 445 p. ISBN: 978-5-699-25316-6, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/erev/Edele_Dajnes_Strafbaty.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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