Wartime Evacuation

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Subject Essay: Kristen Edwards

The swift German advance of 1941 forced millions of Soviet citizens to evacuate from the western borders of the country to regions in the east and south, with the Urals, Western Siberia and Central Asia serving as the country’s three primary receiving areas. The first wave of the evacuation began in late June 1941 and lasted through the end of December, and the second wave took place during the summer and fall of 1942. Historians have debated the size of the wartime civilian evacuation for decades due to the paucity of demographic records, and current estimates range from 17 to 25 million evacuees. Thousands of organizations were also evacuated to safer regions during 1941 and 1942, including 1,523 large enterprises involved in defense production. A major goal of the evacuation effort was to defend and develop the Soviet military capability, so defense workers and factories were evacuated with the highest priority. The Soviet wartime evacuation of civilians and industry was hampered by a lack of pre-war planning, however, because Stalin feared that this type of planning might encourage defeatism.

After the war started, Stalin’s State Defense Committee created a series of ad hoc committees to direct the evacuation process, such as the Evacuation Council, the Civilian Evacuation, and the Evacuation Commission. These ad hoc committees worked with all-Union ministries and the State Defense Committee to oversee the evacuation effort on the national level, and they sent plenipotentiaries to evacuating and receiving areas to support local government and industry leaders. In spite of these measures, panic and confusion marred the evacuation of civilians and institutions along the front, with orders to leave arriving too late and officials fleeing instead of managing the evacuation effort. Millions of frightened civilians, both those with evacuation orders and those too scared to stay home, overwhelmed train stations and receiving areas throughout 1941 and 1942.

With huge numbers of evacuees suddenly arriving in the receiving areas, local leaders tried to increase the availability of housing, cafeterias, medical clinics, and day-care centers, but they were not given enough resources to serve the entire evacuated population. There was a significant difference in the administration of non-industrial evacuees and of industrial evacuees. Resources to support non-industrial evacuees (mostly women, children and the elderly) were inadequate throughout the duration of the war. After traveling in crowded cars with little food or water, these evacuees often had to remain in railroad stations for days or even weeks, waiting for a housing assignment or further travel instructions. In contrast, industrial evacuees received larger food rations, higher quality housing, and better medical care.

From 1941 to 1943, the Soviet economy was completely mobilized for military production, leaving the evacuation and resettlement effort without enough personnel or funding to provide adequate services to the evacuees. Many evacuees became ill and died due to malnutrition and exposure. Sickness among the evacuees contributed to widespread epidemics that lasted for years. And yet, while the toll in human lives was extremely high, the massive relocation of industries and workers in 1941 and 1942 resulted in substantial defense production, crucial to the Soviet victory of 1945. As stated by G.A. Kumanev, a leading Russian military historian, the evacuation’s “main goal – to save millions of Soviet citizens, a major amount of industrial and agricultural resources, and other material riches – was achieved.”

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