6 – The Relocation of Russia
Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In doing so, he contravened the non-aggression Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed nearly two years previously, and broke the first rule in the Handbook of Warfare: Never March on Moscow. Stalin had repeatedly received information about Führer’s intentions but had officially chosen to ignore them, believing the Axis wouldn’t commit forces to Russia until they’d first defeated Britain. Unofficially, however, Stalin had already set in motion plans to keep the Soviets’ in the war long into the foreseeable future.
He would do this by relocating Soviet factories to the east behind the Ural Mountains; for—given that manpower was never a problem for the Russians—it was believed that as long as they protected production, the Soviet war machine could continue to run. Plans got underway on June 21. Stalin established an evacuation committee that would oversee the relocation—and establishment— of Soviet industry to the east (complete with hundreds of thousands of workers). And what they achieved was remarkable: railways cars shepherding men west to the front would, upon arrival, be loaded with industrial machinery and sent back east. By the end of 1941, GOSPLAN (the Soviet State Planning Committee) had overseen the transfer of 1,523 factories—most to the Urals, but others to Western Siberia, Central Asia and Kazakhstan.
Fortunately for the Soviets, there was already contingency in place, albeit unplanned. A core economic principle of the Soviet regime was that development should be encouraged away from the heartlands of Moscow and St. Petersburg. One of the chosen areas was the Urals. And so it was that it was already equipped with factory shell buildings, sophisticated railway networks and a powerful electricity grid. The only thing they hadn’t yet built was housing for the workers. But this was resolved in time. And just as well: for despite the enormous number of munitions and other factories captured by the advancing German army, it was only because of this massive undertaking that the Soviets could remain contenders in the war.
Of course, there were human retreats as well as industrial relocations during the campaigns on the Eastern Front. And in further efforts to limit the amount of supplies the Germans could get their hands on, the Soviets adopted a scorched earth policy. They cut communication lines, collapsed mineshafts and destroyed the area’s rail and road infrastructure. But as the fortunes of war shifted, the Germans adopted the same strategy, using it to much more brutal effect. During their retreats, they would burn farms, steal harvests and raze settlements—most famously that of Novgorod in 1944. Their rationale was psychological as well as pragmatic; as well as denying the Soviets resources they would also be committing them to help affected communities and damaging morale. Judging by the severity with which the Soviets ransacked Berlin, they had been right.