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Soviet Conduct toward Prisoners during Wars with Less Clear Aims of Territorial Conquest

All of the cases discussed up to this point involved extremely high levels of violence inflicted upon prisoners, suggesting Stalin's Russia deserves its place as one of the most ruthless regimes of the twentieth century. When turning to conflicts during the period where the Soviet Union did not seek large-scale territorial annexation, however, the record of Soviet conduct toward captives is more mixed.

The Winter War against Finland is particularly useful for assessing the impact of territorial motives on prisoner abuse. Real estate certainly played a role in the conflict, but it was more a function of Soviet unease over the proximity of the Finnish border at around twenty miles from Leningrad, one of the communist country's largest and most strategically important cities.160 The Soviet Union feared Finland could be used as a launching point for an attack against Leningrad by Germany, Britain, or France, with or without consent from the Finnish

government.161 The Soviets in fact offered to exchange a much larger parcel of Russian territory for the Finnish areas adjacent to the Leningrad environs. Soviet aims in this war were more modest and primarily based on occupying a nearby slice of land as a buffer zone rather than seeking a major or near complete annexation of Finland. As Stalin personally remarked in a private meeting with other Soviet officials on the more limited aims in a possible war against its neighbor, “We have no desire for Finland's territory. But Finland should be a state that is friendly to the Soviet Union."162

The two sides were unable to come to an agreement, and fighting broke out near the end of November 1939. Nevertheless, the disputed land was sparsely populated, and its inhabitants were for the most part not of Finnish origin, but rather predominantly from the Karelia people who were ethnically distinct from both Russians and Finns. Concerns over the dangers of potential “fifth columns" were correspondingly weaker. The motive to abuse captured combatants to ensure territorial conquest was thus less present in this case and was reflected in the lower levels of violence against prisoners during the war. The conflict also poses a further problem for cultural accounts, which would expect much higher levels of abuse against captives given the differences between the opponents. With the absence of strong territorial objectives, Finnish prisoners were instead on the whole treated fairly well.163

As with the Winter War, the Soviet conflict with Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945 also involved culturally dissimilar foes but was associated with extremely high levels of prisoner abuse perpetrated by all parties involved.164 The Soviet Union was on the defensive for much of the war and did not initially seek to aggrandize itself at Germany's expense unlike in the Polish, Baltic, and Romanian cases. Territory was instead a central issue for the Nazi leadership and its aims of Lebensraum, and help to explain the ferocity with which Germany eliminated many captured Soviet combatants. While territory would eventually present itself as an objective on the Soviet side as well, reciprocity appears to have been a much greater factor in this conflict from the communist leadership's standpoint. The ferocity of Soviet treatment of German prisoners once the war turned in its favor was partially motivated out of revenge for earlier abuses committed by the Third Reich when it had previously held the upper hand.165 The German case thus does not necessarily undermine the role of territory in explaining prisoner abuse, but rather demonstrates that other factors can sometimes contribute in substantial ways to a captor state's prisoner policies.

Soviet Russia was also involved in several earlier conflicts during the interwar period against various Asian adversaries. None of these conflicts involved far- reaching territorial aims on the part of the Soviet Union, and as expected, levels of prisoner abuse were minimal compared to the later treatment of Polish prisoners or those from other nearby annexed territories during the Second World War. The pattern of prisoner treatment in these conflicts further questions the merits of racial or cultural factors, since in all cases Soviet troops were pitted against a culturally distinct enemy but did not resort to high levels of abuse. In the Sino- Soviet War of 1929, Russian forces limited themselves to relatively low levels of abuse against Chinese soldiers.166 When entering into hostilities with China the Soviet Union sought the more modest aim of ensuring its continued stake in the Manchurian Chinese Eastern Railway rather than taking over the surrounding areas or beyond. Wanting to maintain good relations with the Chinese populace to further their narrower objectives in the region, the Soviets calculated that good conduct toward enemy combatants would reduce the threat of escalation and make a stable postwar environment more likely.167

Along similar lines, the fighting against Japan at Changkufeng in 1938 and then the following year at Nomonhan essentially involved border skirmishes that escalated into wars. Japan was the initiator of both conflicts, leaving the Red Army largely on the defensive, yet in neither instance were large swaths of territory at stake.168 In both cases the Soviets refrained from instigating abuses that came anywhere near to those committed against Polish prisoners not long afterward.169 When territorial annexation did not figure as a primary wartime objective, Soviet proclivities to commit high levels of prisoner abuse were greatly weakened.

The analysis from this chapter demonstrated that the Katyn massacre resulted primarily from Soviet territorial ambitions rather than cultural differences, the captor state's communist ideology, or other common alternative explanations. The threat posed by Polish officers to the Soviet Union's long-term absorption of lands acquired through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact meant these prisoners, along with other security elites, would be liquidated to reduce the strength of any future resistance movement. Although most Polish prisoners were treated harshly, the massacre shows that those segments of the armed forces most threatening to Soviet rule were dealt with in the most definitive manner possible. By killing almost every single officer and other high-ranking member of the Polish security apparatus under their control at the time, Soviet authorities sought to ensure that those with the greatest capability to organize and rise up against their occupiers would not be around to do so. Yet despite the ruthless reputation garnered by Stalin's Russia in its policies at home, the country was not always so brutal in its conduct toward external enemies. In the absence of a strong appetite for new territorial conquests, the Soviet Union was normally much more restrained in its treatment of captured enemy combatants, and in some cases even cared for its captives relatively humanely. Incentives generated by the nature of the war aims thus played a key role in patterns of prisoner abuse even for a country as exceptionally callous as the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era.

 
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