The instruction was unequivocal: "Frontline commanders should unconditionally eliminate feelings of retreat in the troops," determined the instruction No. 227 of the Stavka, the Soviet high command headed by Josef Stalin. The order was dated July 28, 1942, i.e. it was issued four weeks after the start of the Wehrmacht’s summer offensive, which led to enormous advances, especially on the southern section of the Eastern Front.
The order also clearly described the recipe for this: “In the army area, three to five well-armed units (up to 200 men) are to be deployed, which are to be deployed directly behind unreliable divisions and have the task of catching any fleeing in the event of a disorderly retreat of the divisions in front of them and to shoot every coward, and thereby assist the honest fighter in defending his homeland.”
This order entered the consciousness of the Soviet soldiers as "Not a step back!". Around eight decades later, this seems to be repeating itself. Because according to findings of the British secret service published on Twitter on November 4, 2022, such “blockade units” are also behind the Russian troops in occupied areas of Ukraine. This cannot be verified independently. But it suits the situation of the Russian armed forces, especially since more mobilized reservists are now being thrown to the front.
The blockade units, mostly formed from militarily equipped units of the Soviet secret service NKVD, became notorious, especially in connection with the Battle of Stalingrad. The enemy reconnaissance of the German army, during the extremely hard fighting for some individual houses in the Volga city in the autumn of 1942, repeatedly registered cases in which the Soviet side fired on retreating Red Army soldiers from rear positions. Interrogations with prisoners of war confirmed this.
Astonishingly, corresponding references can also be found in official Soviet sources, albeit regularly twisted into heroic proportions and exaggerated. Examples of this are the eyewitness reports known as the "Stalingrad Protocols", which Soviet historians recorded in the embattled city from December 1942.
Sergeant Michael Gourov of the 38th Motorized Rifle Brigade, for example, recounted what happened during a German assault on Stalingrad when some Red Army soldiers left their positions: “We received orders not to let anyone through, and those who disobeyed we simply shot .” Gurov referred directly to Instruction No. 227: “We had read Comrade Stalin's order. So we decided that the order had to be carried out. We didn't let anyone through, no matter how difficult it was.”
In the Stalingrad Protocols, a battalion commander described the case of a Red Army soldier who was subordinate to him and whose last name is Kurvantiev. This soldier shot his own superior and was honored for it. The battalion commander reported: “It so happened that the Germans were attacking and the platoon commander raised his hands when a couple of Germans ran towards him. Kurvantiev saw this and mowed down both his superior and the Germans with a salvo of machine guns. He took command of the platoon, repulsed the German attempt to break through in his sector and held the position." The consequence - a high honor for the simple soldier: "We accepted him into the party."
How many Red Army soldiers fell victim to this murderous tactic against their own people is unknown. There are not even vague estimates, because dead Soviet soldiers were almost always automatically recorded as "killed in combat against the Wehrmacht".
But such blockade troops were not an invention of 1942; they had been in the Red Army since August 1918. Leon Trotsky, then People's Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, authorized General Mikhail Tukhachevsky to station behind "unreliable infantry regiments" detachments of Cheka officials, who had orders to shoot if Front-line troops either deserted or retreated without permission.
Revolutionary leader Lenin knew about it and asked by telegraph on December 18, 1918: “What about the blocking units? It is absolutely necessary that we have at least a certain network of such blockade groups.” The telegram was quoted by the critical Soviet-Russian military historian Dmitry Volkogonov in his biography of Trotsky, first published in 1992.
The leading Bolsheviks also used this method in the attack on the rebellious Kronstadt sailors in 1921. On March 8, when the ice on the Gulf of Finland was already beginning to melt, 13,000 Red Army soldiers stormed eight kilometers towards the island occupied by the insurgents, protected only by heavy snowfall. Around 24,000 sailors and soldiers were holed up behind fortress walls and barbed wire.
To prevent his people from deserting, Tukhachevsky again used machine-gun Cheka detachments, writes British historian Orlando Figes. "As the blizzard abated, it became apparent that the vast expanse of ice was strewn with bodies."
It is still unclear how the blockade units will behave in the current war of conquest in Ukraine and whether they are FSB troops, Wagner mercenaries or Chechens. The Soviet tradition makes the worst seem possible.
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