Ukraine, Russia united again by victory celebration
In 1943 Tank Commander Ivan Litvinenko liberated Ukraine’s capital Kiev from Nazi occupation. The Hero of the Soviet Union says their group had a tough time even getting close to the city. German forces were defending it with extreme enthusiasm – as if the outcome of the war depended on keeping Kiev in their grasp.
“They defended with passion,” Litvinenko recalls. “And they had the most up-to-date weaponry. Besides this, they used defensive facilities which our army built before we lost Kiev. So we had to use all our might – both on the land and in the sky – to defend the city. It was evident that Kiev was highly important for them.”
It was the same motivation which drove the Nazi army when it made its attempt to seize strategically-crucial Ukraine in 1941.
All of a sudden, Hitler altered his Barbarossa plan and redirected troops which were heading for Moscow towards Ukraine. The central division was to join the battalions coming from the south to blockade Kiev in a circle.
By the end of August 1941, Ukraine’s capital was completely surrounded. Joseph Stalin said Kiev must be held at all costs.
"It wasn’t purely about holding Kiev, but also the Dniepr and the Diesna rivers, which were strategically important,” says historian Aleksey Isaev. “These rivers were crucial defensively. If the southern Soviet frontline didn’t have them, they would have been destroyed in a matter of days. That’s why it was so important to keep them."
This decision still causes controversy among historians, with some calling it Stalin’s biggest strategic mistake. It is believed that several months before the fall of Kiev, Marshall Zhukov warned of the upcoming catastrophe and suggested relocating the troops. Stalin ignored this. Only after several weeks of bloodletting, fights, and massive losses did he concede that it was time for the defenders of Kiev to flee.
Having destroyed all bridges across the Dniepr River, the Red Army pulled out.
In September 1941 what is now picturesque central Kiev looked like hell on Earth. Retreating Soviet troops set the most strategically-important buildings on fire to prevent the Germans from gaining control over them. That did not help. On September the 24th, the German Army marched through Kiev’s central street. More than 600,000 people became prisoners.
By comparison, half as many soldiers were surrounded by the Nazi army during the historic siege of Stalingrad. The Kiev operation became the biggest of its kind in the entire course of World War II and one of the biggest defeats for the Red Army. This failure led to a loss of Moscow’s south-western frontline and – eventually – the rest of Ukraine.
"The Kiev trap is a perfect example of how an enemy could be underestimated,” states Aleksey Isaev. “It wasn’t a direct fault of the highest military command, but that of intelligence. It misinformed Moscow of Hitler’s plans. On the other hand, thanks to a change of Hitler’s initial attack plan, the Red Army gained additional time to strengthen its defenses."
Ironically, it was this painful defeat which many say contributed greatly to the Soviet Army’s future counter-push. And although the fall of Kiev is still regarded as one of the most tragic events of the Great Patriotic War, many historians believe that the liberation of Ukraine and the rest of Europe would not have been possible without this bitter page in the war’s history.