After a series of dramatic Nazi successes during the opening stages of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, foreign observers predicted that Soviet resistance would soon collapse. By October, German troops were poised outside both Leningrad and Moscow. But the Germans were doggedly held off in front of Moscow in late November and early December, and then rolled back by a reinvigorated Red Army in a staggeringly brutal winter counteroffensive.
That the Soviet victories of late 1941 were won with Soviet blood and largely with Soviet weapons is beyond dispute. But for decades the official Soviet line went much further. Soviet authorities recognized that the “Great Patriotic War” gave the Communist Party a claim to legitimacy that went far beyond Marxism-Leninism or the 1917 Revolution, and took pains to portray their nation’s victories in World War II as single-handed. Any mention of the role that Western assistance played in the Soviet war effort was strictly off-limits.
During Nikita Khrushchev’s rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a window of greater frankness and openness about the extent of aid supplied from the West under the Lend-Lease Act—but it was still clearly forbidden for Soviet authors to suggest that such aid ever made any real difference on the battlefield. Mentions of Lend-Lease in memoirs were always accompanied by disparagement of the quality of the weapons supplied, with American and British tanks and planes invariably portrayed as vastly inferior to comparable Soviet models.
An oft-quoted statement by First Vice-Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars Nikolai Voznesensky summed up the standard line that Allied aid represented “only 4 percent” of Soviet production for the entire war. Lacking any detailed information to the contrary, Western authors generally agreed that even if Lend-Lease was important from 1943 on, as quantities of aid dramatically increased, the aid was far too little and late to make a difference in the decisive battles of 1941–1942.
But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a trickle of information has emerged from archives in Moscow, shedding new light on the subject. While much of the documentary evidence remains classified “secret” in the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense and the Russian State Archive of the Economy, Western and Russian researchers have been able to gain access to important, previously unavailable firsthand documents. I was recently able to examine Russian-language materials of the State Defense Committee—the Soviet equivalent of the British War Cabinet—held in the former Central Party Archive. Together with other recently published sources, including the wartime diaries of N. I. Biriukov, a Red Army officer responsible from August 1941 on for the distribution of recently acquired tanks to the front lines, this newly available evidence paints a very different picture from the received wisdom. In particular, it shows that British Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviet Union in late 1941 and early 1942 played a far more significant part in the defense of Moscow and the revival of Soviet fortunes in late 1941 than has been acknowledged.