Ordinary Men? Collaboration and Resistance in Occupied Mogilevskaya Oblast’

The subject of collaboration and resistance in occupied Europe is one of the most controversial issues related to the history of the Second World War. Research in the Soviet Union on the Holocaust and Nazi occupation was hampered by the Soviet system. Access to information was limited by the destruction of the Jewish population in the USSR and because the occupation raised uncomfortable questions about the roles that large portions of the population played in these events. Historical accounts were thus required to align with the official version of events, namely the role of the Communist Party in the resistance to the fascist enemy, and not present a detailed and realistic history of the period.

The focus of this research is to examine these developments in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ in eastern Belarus. How the region fell under occupation, the attitudes of the thousands of Soviet citizens who decided to collaborate with the fascist occupiers, and the divisions that developed in the population as a result of collaboration are discussed. At roughly the same time, a resistance movement, made up of partisans and underground urban fighters, developed in these occupied territories. The development, tactics, and effectiveness of these partisans and resistance fighters will be analyzed, along with the reactions of the occupying powers to this insurgency.

The sources used are varied in their character and origin. The inspiration for the research came from the recently published memoirs of Xonya Epshteyn. Epshteyn was a 13-year old Jewish boy living in a village in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ when the invasion of the Soviet Union began. The memoirs cover the invasion and occupation, Epshteyn’s survival during the destruction of the Jewish community, and his life as a partisan in the forests of eastern Belarus. Other Russian primary source documents include collections of local economic statistics and the above-mentioned memoirs of Mogilevskaya partisans and underground fighters, which are stored at the Russian National Historical Library and the Russian State Library.[1] These memoirs, although burdened by the confines of Soviet censorship, are rich sources of information typically ignored by Western historians. Several Wehrmacht document collections deal with occupation policy both in Belarus and on the whole Eastern Front, such as Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in der UdSSR and Lebensraum in Osten, were also researched to understand the occupier’s perspective. Also considered in this study are several secondary histories of the Wehrmacht occupation of Belarus and Bogdan Musial’s recently published history of the partisan movement.

The Invasion of Mogilevskaya Oblast’

Mogilevskaya Oblast’ is one of ten administrative regions that existed in the Belarusian Soviet Republic at the beginning of the war. [2] The east borders with Russia, while other regions of Belarus surround the rest of the oblast’. Minsk, the Belarusian capital, is located 100 kilometers to the west, while Moscow is located 610 kilometers east of the region’s capital. Two large cities existed in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ at the beginning of the war: the city of Bobruisk and the capital, Mogilev, which was one of the five largest cities in Belarus at the beginning of the invasion.[3] One local historian described the capital as an “important strategic point and developed transportation center”[4] that stood directly in the path to Moscow. The region had experienced massive economic and industrial growth in the 1930s as a result of Stalinist industrialization, with new industrial bases that were important to supply continued military campaigns.[5] The vast majority of the oblast’s residents at the beginning of the war lived outside of the major cities in the rural areas that cover most of the territory.

June 22, 1941 was a clear, sunny day in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ as the news broke that Germany and its proxy states had broken their Non-Aggression Treaty with the USSR. Hitler’s armies launched a surprise full-scale attack. Citizens of the region crowded around radios and loudspeakers in public places in order to hear General Molotov’s announcements from the Soviet government about the unfolding events. Xonya Epshteyn recalls that on the way home

everywhere women cried, men frowned, and young boys didn’t understand: why was everyone frowning if the Red Army was unbeatable? Yet the very next day I saw a Nazi war plane with black crosses on its wings—it flew over us but Soviet planes were nowhere to be seen. Something was wrong here…and suddenly long lines of refugees appeared from the west—the Germans had invaded very quickly.[6]

The war’s beginning was also a complete surprise for those in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ serving locally in the Soviet Armed Forces. In his memoirs, Vagan Agadjanyan, an Armenian soldier in the Red Army and later a partisan, recalls that when he told his commander, a senior lieutenant, that war had broken out, his superior immediately asked, “With whom?”[7]

By July 4, the Wehrmacht had reached Epshteyn’s village in the east of the oblast’. He remembers: “An avalanche of German soldiers rode through our village: tanks, motorized infantry…it seemed as though there would be no end to the iron mass. After four days the stream finally disappeared.”[8] By July 10, the Wehrmacht had seized almost all of Belarus and marched 450-500 km into the Soviet Union.[9]

While the Fascist forces moved quickly through the region’s eastern territory, the citizens of Mogilev in the west and the Red Army prepared a desperate attempt to defend the oblast’ capital from the invaders. The rivers of Dvina and Dnepr, which were the main rivers that stood between the Wehrmacht and Moscow, became defensive positions.[10] The invading troops encountered very heavy resistance and were held back for several weeks by the defense forces in Mogilev, until supplies ran out at the end of July 1941 and the Red Army was forced to pull back.[11] By mid-August, all of Mogilevskaya Oblast’ was under the control of the Wehrmacht.[12]

The oblast’ population at the beginning of the occupation saw the fight against the invaders as a lost cause, as one saboteur from the city of Sklov’ in the north reported in September 1941: “The collective farmers do not believe in our victory. This view is only strengthened by the deserters. I have seen for myself how our soldiers in battle have voluntarily surrendered to German soldiers.”[13] He also reported that the farmers felt that the Soviet authorities had abandoned them to the mercy of the Nazi occupiers. This collapse of faith in the Soviet government and military is reflected in a report from a Nazi commander dated August 18, 1941: “The attitude of the population everywhere into the areas of Mogilev, Orsha, and Witebsk is marked by a friendliness to the Germans. A rejection of the Bolshevik rule is viewable everywhere, overwhelmingly, in any event, out of economic and social concerns.”[14]

Collaboration with the Nazi Occupation

In order to understand the level of collaboration among the inhabitants of Mogilevskaya Oblast’, it is necessary to examine statistics from both sides of the war. According to Soviet statistics, in September 1939, less than two years before the invasion, 792 people in the capital of Mogilev worked in the government apparatus.[15] This number likely does not include the number of NKVD agents. According to numbers from the occupation regime, in 1943 approximately 800-2,500 people were working for the occupation in the city.[16] According to the memoirs of the leader of the underground resistance, the number of people working for the Nazis was much larger than the number of resistance fighters in the city, and the total number of people living in the city of Mogilev could not have been higher than 40,000, having shrunk as a result of flight and deportations.[17] This was common in most large cities. In the city of Bobruisk, 1,000 people typically worked for the occupation regime at any given time.[18] Before the war, only 191 people in the same city were employed by the Soviet government.[19]

This does not mean that all those working for the occupation regime did so out of political motivation or voluntarily. In their memoirs, resistance leaders in Mogilev describe frequent collaboration with the resistance among local members of the occupation regime. One German officer at the end of 1942 described the workers as “lazy,” “uninterested,” “cowardly,” and “afraid that Soviet power will hold them accountable for their actions.”[20] Prisoners of war were forced to work. In November 1941, for instance, as hunger and cold ravaged the ranks of Soviet POWs at a prison camp, an officer came and offered the prisoners work as police or government employees. “Those who refused faced death by hunger.”[21]

In Mogilev, 500 men served as police officers in the security organ “Ordnungsdienst“.[22] Every district under the control of the Heersgruppe Mitte, the Wehrmacht section that occupied the region, had four to six reserve units of Ordnungsdienst with sixty men in each unit, meaning that in Belarus’ twenty-one pre-war regions, 5,040 to 6,300 men likely served as police for the Nazi occupation in Mogilevskaya Oblast’.[23] The Ordnungsdienst also recruited among the other occupied territories and frequently deployed troops outside their native regions; one Cossack Ordnungsdienst division, for example, existed in Mogilev.[24]

 Many collaborators voluntarily carried out their duties, however. Xonya Epshteyn’s memoirs tell of many people who chose to work as police officers for the occupation regime in order to rob the rest of the inhabitants and the Jewish community in particular. Epshteyn describes a local officer named Shaitanov: “He did everything to live up to his name (“Shaitan” means “devil” in Tartar). Everything that he managed to steal in the villages he took home to (the village of) Stai. His home was filled with sacks of sugar, flour, salt, and crates of matches and tobacco.”[25] After the adult Jewish males in Epshteyn’s community were killed in the autumn of 1941, the police began to “storm into homes and demand gold and diamonds…they would search and rummage through the home, take the best clothing—this continued every day.”[26]

The memoirs of the partisan Agadjanyan also reveal this police plundering. At one point, while hiding from the occupation authorities, he stopped in a house owned by a family with a son in the occupation police and asked the mother if he could stay the night. “At the door rose a tall husky man with a dumb face wearing a new coat made from dog fur of factory quality…it wasn’t difficult to guess that the woman’s son was in the police.”[27]

Many police enthusiastically targeted the Jewish community: Agadjanyan writes that one police officer, upon noticing his Armenian features, stopped him and said, “You’re a Jew! I should shoot you…I recognize Jews immediately. You aren’t allowed on the street!” Agadjanyan was held until he could prove his Armenian ethnicity.[28] Many police were also certain of a Nazi victory on the eastern front. Agadjanyan recalls one instance in the village of Tudorovok, where a police officer frequently announced that the Wehrmacht had already taken Moscow and Sevastopol’ and threatened Agadjanyan with arrest when he objected to the officer’s claims.[29]

Xonya Epshteyn notes that police officers frequently referred to him and his family with the anti-Semitic Russian term zhid, instead of evrei, the standard Russian noun to refer to a Jewish person. Once, as a police officer was robbing his family, he said, “Since when do zhidynot have gold?”[30] Epshteyn’s memoirs also contain one instance that illustrates the unspeakable cruelty of some occupation police toward Jews. Epshteyn’s father, a cobbler, was killed by occupation forces during a massacre of Jewish adult males, afterwards stripping the boots from the body. The next day, Epshteyn was sitting in his father’s store when policemen arrived with a pair of boots. Epshteyn recognized them as his father’s immediately: “I would have recognized those boots out of a thousand pairs.” The police demanded that Epshteyn clean them. When Epshteyn refused, the policemen beat him, then terrorized and robbed his family.[31]

The position of the village elders (starosta) in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ is also a difficult subject when considering the functioning of the occupation apparatus. According to Agadjanyan, the village elder in Tudorovka helped the villagers hide their cattle from occupation raids, gave partisans weapons, and eventually joined the partisan movement itself.[32] Yet other village elders collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. Epshteyn was a friend of the son of the village elder before the war and often was a guest at his house, yet the elder helped SS troops beat and execute Epshteyn’s relatives on December 11, 1941.[33]

The whole system of occupation forced the oblast’ population to choose between collaboration or resistance, leading to the destruction of friendships and communities. Former neighbors were forced to kill one another. In his memoirs, Xonya Epshteyn recalls that twice during his time with the partisan brigades, his unit took a prewar classmate prisoner after a battle. The first begged for mercy when Epshteyn recognized him, claiming that he was forced into the position and had to support his mother. The townspeople from his village, however, said he was the most vicious officer in the garrison with “hands up to his elbows in blood.” The second, Epshteyn recalls, “had been a guest at our house many times and my mother had fed him delicious Jewish treats!” Epshteyn asked him: “How did you end up with the police?” The friend answered: “Like everyone else.” Both acquaintances were executed after a tribunal. [34] The occupation even tore families in half. One starosta helped Agadjanyan and then explained to him his situation: “Don’t think, friend, that I willfully work for the Germans…three of my sons are at the front. But I am forced to work for those who are fighting against my children.”[35]

One individual in Epshteyn’s memoirs completes the picture of the often stunning contradictions that emerged in the new system of collaboration. Before the war a man named Sharoiko lived in the area, a Red Army lieutenant, military academy graduate, and tank commander who taught at an elementary school. He was considered a local hero and example for children in light of his achievements in the Soviet armed forces. Yet as soon as the Wehrmacht reached Epshteyn’s region, Sharoiko joined the police and became the local police’s most brutal persecutor of the Jewish community. Everyone grew to fear him as he tirelessly hunted down Jews in hiding, who he then dragged to the local ghetto and executed in front of the remaining Jews. When Sharoiko was captured by Epshteyn’s partisan brigade, he showed no remorse, sneering at Epshteyn while calling him a “little Zhid.”[36]

Those serving the occupation apparatus were not, however, protected from abuse by the Nazi occupiers, who often treated them poorly, as one incident in Agadjanyan’s memoirs illustrates. When he was staying in the village of Starie Chemodany, he heard that “at the Shkolovskii commandant’s office our village elder was beaten so badly with a belt that he was barely alive when he was taken home.” Agadjanyan asked with irony: “How does one beat svoikh (one’s own)?” and got the reply, “One’s own—that’s Germans. All the rest of the apes subject themselves to them and fulfill their commands and orders.”[37]

These examples support the assertion of Dieter Pohl when he writes that:

it is obvious that politics often didn’t play an important role: only a small portion of the police or those who had family members who suffered under Stalin were very pro-German. More than anything else the police hoped to receive more material benefits than the rest of the population or further on, protection from deportation to Germany. Police received a variety of benefits and promotion was possible.[38]

The Development of the Partisan Movement

Partisan brigades were formed in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ at the beginning of the invasion, composed of Red Army soldiers, Communist Party members, and/or the local destruction battalions formed by the NKVD immediately after the beginning of the invasion to sabotage the German advance.[39] Attempting to discern how many partisans were fighting at this point in the war is a clear example of the difficulties in obtaining a clear picture of the partisan movement in general. Volchok claims that “in the summer and autumn of 1941 forty partisan units already existed.”[40] According to one document from the Belarusian Interior Department, dated July 15, 1941, two weeks before the seizure of Mogilev by Nazi forces, 4,000 people were serving in destruction battalions meant to fight the invaders.[41] This number is either a pripiski (Soviet vernacular for exaggerated official data) or shows how high the desertion rates were for Soviet forces at the beginning of the war. A report from the head of the Oblast’ Communist Party states that in late summer of 1941, nineteen partisan divisions with around 1,400 individuals existed in the oblast’.[42] In any case, the forests quickly became the centers of the partisan movement.

At the beginning of the war the okruzhentsi, a Russian term for soldiers cut off from their defeated units, lived in the local forests. Epshteyn explains that, “The police tried several times to organize expeditions into the forest to find and destroy them, but they were always unsuccessful: the okruzhentsi were experienced fighters.”[43] The occupiers recognized the danger of these Soviet troops and tried to pay the population to help catch them: “Every policeman or village elder who gave a German commander an okruzhentsi received as payment 5 German marks, or 50 rubles.”[44] The Soviet soldiers in the forests, together with local loyal communists and members of the aforementioned destruction battalions, formed the partisan movement and served as the core of the partisan units. The many remaining local members of the NKVD, provided partisans with training in sabotage and guerrilla warfare.[45]

In mid-1942, as contacts with the Red Army headquarters increased, the Soviet central government introduced a plan to centralize the partisan command while placing the control of the partisan movement in the hands of party functionaries.[46] At the same time, special divisions were formed in partisan brigades to maintain discipline, prevent desertion, and persecute individuals collaborating with the occupation regime in partisan-controlled areas (these special divisions can be compared to the role of the NKVD and commissars in the Red Army).[47] By summer of 1943, every partisan unit in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ had this special division, which served to introduce strict discipline to hinder the widespread theft, drunkenness, and random violence against the general population by the partisans and to ban the arbitrary beating and shooting of civilians.[48]

Xonya Epshteyn managed to hide in a ghetto and later escape to the forests as the rest of his Jewish community was massacred in the spring of 1942. When he joined the partisan movement in the summer of 1942, the partisans had not only managed to connect with the urban resistance movement and the Soviet government, but had received their first planeload of supplies from Moscow.[49] Large portions of the oblast’s territory between the major cities began to fall under partisan control. Agadjanyan writes that, “By the end of May 1942, on the left bank of the river of Soja, patriots had already completely liberated 100 villages from the enemy… in the heart of enemy territory people were already beginning to live by Soviet laws.”[50]

This is reflected in documents from the occupation government itself; the partisan movement by mid-1942 was able to seriously interfere with the daily workings of the occupation regime, especially in rural areas. One official complained in a letter to the field commander in Mogilev that partisans had made tax collection too dangerous and occupation government officials had not been paid in months. He requested more funds from the central governing body while noting, “From the 17 Volost (sub-districts) of the region, work is carried out in only one central Volost, and then only part-time.”[51] Epshteyn notes:

a patriotic spirit arose among the inhabitants, and despite losses, the partisan movement continued to grow. And if earlier the Germans had thought they could manage the fight with the partisans with only small guard units and the police, by the end of 1942 they understood that their strength was not enough and began to send regular units from the front.[52]

Indeed, the staff of General von Schenckendorff wrote in a report dated May 25, 1942, “In the area between Bobruisk and Mogilev the partisans are conducting operations that constitute a serious threat…the corridor between Bobruisk and Mogilev is the site of almost daily attacks on Wehrmacht automobiles.”[53] An order from the general written one month later noted that cattle could be seized in regions under partisan control only when the “economic supervisor receives the necessary heavy protection. Small teams are not equipped to handle that task.” He ordered that “seizure of cattle in agricultural raions shall be carried out under military protection. Thus this order extends to the seizure of all other forms of agricultural production…insofar that they are located in raions in which it is impossible to function according to plan.”[54]

The Nazi occupiers began to react with new tactics: blockades of forests, spy planes, and a much more radical approach, the complete destruction of blockaded villages. Soldiers and police began a new policy of killing multiple inhabitants for the death of one soldier.[55] Wehrmacht units, police battalions, and SS units carried out a series of brutal operations code-named “Bamberg” in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ in June 1942 in the area between the two major cities of Mogilev and Bobruisk. The operation frequently involved the massacre and burning of entire villages. In military reports, the number of “killed enemies” greatly outnumbered the number of weapons seized during the operation, indicating many of the “enemies” were unarmed civilians.[56] This operation reached its peak on June 15, 1942, when SS units and police battalions massacred 2,000 inhabitants of the village of Borkii. These operations were so bloody that even members of the Wehrmacht command began to criticize the tactics.[57]

Xonya Epshteyn and his unit saw the results of these operations in Ukval’skii forest:

The forest was, without exaggerating, covered with bodies and not simply those of dead partisans: the Germans, it turned out, had burned down all of the villages surrounding the forest, and those villagers who were not able to escape the fires died in the woods—they were simply mowed down, the forest had been combed with machine guns. The village of Gaenka was especially hard hit: 58 villagers were killed, the majority of whom were children.[58]

The German journalists Ernst Klee and Willi Dressen gathered statements from eyewitnesses to the massacres. They reported that there was a clear strategy of destruction of entire villages across the oblast’ and systematic destruction of any evidence that pointed to the atrocities.[59]

Some members of the partisan movement also sought collective revenge against those perceived as guilty for the anti-partisan campaigns. The commander of the first division of the brigade “Zvezda” burned down 57 houses in the village of Gulidovka in the east of the oblast’ in August 1942 as revenge for the killing of his lover. He was later executed by the partisans for his crimes. Under the pretense that “all Belarusians are traitors,” another partisan commander of Russian heritage went on a rampage that was investigated by the head of the communist party in Mogilevskaya Oblast’.[60] Collective revenge became a large enough problem that the Secretary of the Belarusian Communist party wrote to all oblast’ partisan commanders in early 1943:

The central committee of the BCP can no longer tolerate the destructive practice of the burning of entire villages with the justification of retaliation against a few police in the villages or in order to deprive the Germans of the possibility of lodging there. For that reason the villages of Vydryca, Dolgoe with 250 houses and several others were burned down. Additionally we have numerous documents detailing the killing of civilians, rape of women and the plundering of the populace…We have reports that the burning of villages were the result of commands from the operation center (for the region of Klicev).[61]

During this period, the number of partisan fighters increased greatly. Calculating exact numbers is difficult, as different numbers exist in different sources. Two partisan officers from the region assert in a post-war essay that 55,454 partisans served in brigades in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ during the war in 109 units that formed 24 brigades.[62] According to another document discussing the partisans’ arsenal, 21,205 partisans were serving in the oblast’ on October 1, 1943. If we assume that both numbers are true, almost 2/3 of the partisans joined the movement after eastern Belarus again became front lines in September 1943.[63] It could be the case that the officers took reserves into account, while the second document does not. Numbers may have been pushed up in some cases by forced recruitment. At least one unit was practicing forced recruitment in autumn of 1942, though the unit allowed the recruits to return home, where many either deserted or joined the occupation police. [64]

Because of the nature of the movement, “The partisans had a loose organizational structure: they were able to take in almost anyone who wished to join their ranks, or at least anyone with weapons.”[65] Because of this, fears of double agents were widespread. According to partisan reports, the Nazis had set up dozens of special schools, including several locally, to train anti-partisan spies to infiltrate the brigades.

These fears led the Oblast’ Head of Special Divisions in October 1943 to issue a command placing former collaborators who were joining the partisan movement under surveillance and ordering that anyone who had “enthusiastically” collaborated and persecuted the resistance should be tried and shot (the order was supposed to be burned by all those who read it).[66] These fears of spies and agents strained the relations between partisans and Jews. There were stories and written reports of Jews who, blackmailed by the Nazi occupiers, posed as refugees and attempted to poison partisan brigades. Yet it is impossible to tell if these stories are true or an example of widespread anti-Semitism. [67]

Xonya Epshteyn writes that the relations between partisans and Jews were strained because there were rumors that “an idiotic order from Moscow existed that didn’t allow partisan units to take Jews” and there were cases when “partisan commanders even shot Jews who fled to them.” The reason for the order was Soviet fears that Jews who left partisan units would be quickly caught by Germans and under torture could give away the locations of partisan bases.[68] Regardless, the majority of commanders in his experience ignored the rumors of this order, and several other Jews served alongside Epshteyn in his unit during the war.[69]

The partisan movement was a diverse and highly decorated military contingent. Thousands of women and soldiers from different republics of the USSR served in the brigades during the war. Oblast’ partisans received 3,000 medals for bravery in World War II.[70] At least one “Hero of the Soviet Union,” the highest military award possible for service during the war, was awarded to a local partisan commander.[71]

The Development of the Urban Underground Resistance

Immediately following the invasion, underground resistance groups began to form in the cities of Mogilevskaya Oblast’. It is unclear exactly how many of these groups existed, but one document from the Communist Party’s youth group in April 1943 names 97 known groups in ten raions; at their peak, likely well over 100 resistance groups functioned in towns and cities across the oblast’.[72] The typical tactics of these groups included posting anti-occupation placards, distributing antifascist literature, manufacturing fake identification, gathering food and medicine for Soviet prisoners of war, liberating prisoners, and sabotaging infrastructure.[73]

In the capital of Mogilev, the “Red Army Support Committee” was active from 1941 through 1943. By autumn of 1942, the movement included forty different groups with more than 400 people; at its peak some 1,000 Mogilevites were involved.[74] The fascists offered 40,000 marks (unclear if this is occupation marks or marks from Germany, as the latter were much more valuable) for the disclosure of a single member of this effective committee.[75] This bounty was apparently effective, as the head of the group, Mette, noted that the biggest danger during the occupation was not the police itself, but “traitors and provocateurs.”[76] The committee used rather extreme tactics to remain covert: they used the Typhus ward in Mogilev’s hospital as a base of operation, and children frequently moved important documents and information.[77]

The most important task of the resistance, as Mette explained, was “to correctly inform Soviet citizens about the situation on the front and unmask the fascist propaganda.”[78] The committee converted a house at the edge of the city into a publishing center for anti-occupation propaganda. Here, resistance members were able to receive broadcasts and orders from the Soviet government via radio. A printing press was also built in the house, and underground newspapers were published, among them the “official” oblast’ underground newspaper, Za Rodinu (For the Motherland), alongside important announcements and orders from Moscow.[79] The committee also printed antifascist propaganda in German and distributed it among members of the military occupation.[80] Za Rodinu existed alongside fifteen other underground resistance newspapers that were printed across Mogilevskaya Oblast’ throughout the occupation.[81]

The resistance movement in oblast’ cities and rural partisans collaborated with each other in operations and exchanged weapons and information. Police officers sometimes collaborated with the resistance and became important sources of weapons and information, and in at least one case, an entire garrison of recruits.[82] In the capital city of Mogilev, many resistance groups operated in factories and were able to acquire important materials and sabotage the functioning of the occupation regime.

Intelligence efforts were mixed. One report from the Mogilevskaya Partisan Committee in September 1943 complained that the intelligence-gathering was uncoordinated and in one case, an intelligence-gatherer had been mistakenly killed by partisans under the pretense that he was a spy.[83] In another case, intelligence on local German units turned out to be not only false, but about units that did not exist, leading the committee to demand immediate reform of the intelligence-gathering system.[84]

Sabotage of railways was one of the most important tasks of the resistance.[85] Railways ran across Mogilevskaya Oblast’ to the heart of the USSR, transporting manpower and materials to the front. The documents of one group, known as “For Soviet Belarus,” describe a series of attacks between June and October 1942 on railway lines. A single attack sometimes caused hundreds of Nazi casualties, the destruction of dozens of wagons, and the cessation of rail transport for up to 36 hours.[86] Several members of partisan units that specifically attacked railway transportation during the war assert that during the course of the war, the resistance movement destroyed more than 1,800 troop trains and 1,800 locomotives.[87]

These numbers highlight an interesting issue that develops when researching Soviet history during the Second World War. These numbers are surely grossly exaggerated, as is apparently common with partisan claims of railway attacks. Musial notes that “partisans very frequently exaggerated the numbers by reports of attacks against trains” and cites in his study several examples of partisan commanders being caught by their superiors grossly exaggerating or completely falsifying data. [88]

Furthermore, Gerlach notes that falsifying casualty numbers in the Wehrmacht would have been nearly impossible, because they had to be sent through to the appropriate authorities who could cross-reference the numbers. He calculates that a total of 6,000 to 7,000 German soldiers and officers were killed by partisans, making the claims by Mogilevskaya Oblast’ partisans that 1,800 troop trains (five to six soldiers per train) were destroyed in one single oblast’ in a period of several months seem absurd.[89] Partisan numbers, reprinted by Soviet historians, claim that over 460,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were killed.

The Soviet Union, as Musial notes, encouraged this exaggeration:

It is noticeable that the numbers of enemy casualties are higher the more high-ranking the author is in the hierarchy. It is a specific element of the Soviet bureaucracy and reporting that official reports more closely correspond with the expectations of superiors than with reality.[90]

This in no way diminishes the importance of these railway attacks, which were extraordinarily important in the fight against the Nazi occupiers, disrupting supply lines and preventing troop movements.

The Collapse of the Occupation Regime

By the spring of 1943, the battle had turned against the fascist occupiers. The inhabitants had expelled the collaborating village elders and destroyed the local occupation governments in many towns; only the capitals of raions were under occupation control. The Nazis were only able to spread their propaganda by plane in most cases.[91] The partisans had divided the entire oblast’ and assigned each brigade an area to use for obtaining provisions.[92] With the help of local resistance fighters, Soviet air power began bombing the city of Mogilev in May 1943.[93]

The occupiers could no longer win new support for their regime. An incident in Tserikovskii raion demonstrates this: one SS officer traveled to villages around the raion and attempted to form an anti-partisan self-defense organization called the “Fighters of the East.” He offered inhabitants who possessed weapons to join and receive “estates with large portions of land.” No one voluntarily joined. The officer forced all the inhabitants of villages to gather together and then offered them weapons to protect against the partisans. Every male signed up to participate, took a rifle, and then immediately joined the partisan movement instead.[94]

By September 1943, the Red Army had reached the northern border of Mogilevskaya Oblast’. The occupation forces responded by beginning an evacuation of Belarusian civilians from the front lines, including the city of Mogilev, which led to mass death among the fleeing civilian population.[95] By the end of August 1944, the Nazi occupation had been driven out.[96]


The partisan and underground movements began immediately after the occupation started, and the majority of the population had begun to side with the resistance by the end of the spring of 1942. Oblast’ territory under partisan control increased continuously from this point on. The resistance was initially a homegrown movement undertaken by citizens, not as a proxy of the Soviet Union; only later did the Red Army begin to exercise more influence over it.[97]

The partisans faced a formidable foe, not only in the Nazi army, but also in the occupation regime. This regime won over a large portion of the population, either through coercion, anti-Soviet feelings, or by offering the collaborators the chance to rob the rest of the citizenry. The pre-war Soviet statistics regarding government employment and statistics from the occupation regime show a larger number of citizens collaborating with the Nazis than with the Soviet Union, and this remains a subject that should be examined further.

The partisan movement in Mogilevskaya Oblast’ was not perfect, however, and the traditional Soviet portrayal of the partisans was often based on exaggerated data and political myth. The behavior of partisan movements, in their plundering and revenge attacks against the civilians of the oblast’, sometimes resembled the policies of the occupiers, albeit on a smaller scale. Attempting to obtain a clear picture of the size and behavior of the partisan forces is difficult in the cloud of exaggerated numbers and statistics.

The physical damage done to the occupation government may have been greatly exaggerated in reports and Soviet historiography, but the partisan movement was remarkably successful as a modern insurgency movement. Although the partisans were not strong enough to take major cities, large swaths of the region fell generally under their control less than a year after the initial invasion. The movement created fear among the Nazi occupation commanders, leading them to avoid leaving the cities to plunder the oblast’. Also, the propaganda of the underground movements continuously reminded the population that resistance to the occupation existed. Thousands of locals willingly lived in unimaginable conditions in the vast forests, and others risked their lives every day in the heavily occupied cities. Their contributions to the Soviet victory in the region and on the eastern front are incalculable.

Works Cited

Agadzhanyan, Vagan. Dorogi Partizanskie (Minsk: “Belarus'”, 1979).

Epshteyn, Х. Privet, Tyozka ili Pic’mo K Praprapravnuku (Khar’kov: Ukraine, 2008).

Gerlach, Christian. Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Belaruß 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg: HIS Verlag, 2000).

Khramovich, G. Zarevo nad Sozhem (Minsk: “Belarus'”, 1971).

Klee, Ernst. Dreßen, Willi. „Gott mit Uns”: Der Deutsche Vernichtungskrieg im Osten 1939-1945 (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1989).

Volchok, G. I. Oborona Mogileva Letom 1941 Goda (Mogilev: Mogilev State University, 2003).

Mette, К Ju. Vernost’. (“Belarus'”: Minsk, 1989) Mogilevskaya Oblast’ statisktiko-ekonomicheskii Spravochnik Ed. Levkovich, L and Katsman, F. (Mogilev, 1940).

Müller, Norbert. Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in der UdSSR: Dokumente (Köln: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1980).

Musial, Bogdan. Sowjetische partisanen 1941-1944: Mythos und Wirklichkeit. (Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 2009).

Pohl, Dieter. Die Herrschaft der Wehrmacht. Deutsche Militärbesatzung und einheimische Bevölkerung in der Sowjetunion, 1941–1944. (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008).

Popov, F. О. Bor’ba Mogilyovichan Protiv Nemetsko-Fashistik Okkupantov. (Mogilev: Belarus’, 1958).

Shauro, V. F. Ed. Zapozhdenie I Razvitie Partizanskovo Dvizheniya v Pervyi Period Voiny: Ijun’ 1941 – Noyabp’ 1942 g Vol. 1 of Vsenarodnoe Partizanskoe Dvizhenie Beloryssii v Gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny: Ijun’1941 – Ijul’ 1944 gg. Dokumenty I Materialy. (Minsk: “Belarus”, 1967-1983).

Ed. Gavrilov, I. I. , ed.  Soldatami Byli Vse. (Minsk: “Belarus'”, 1972).

Voistrov, D. F. V Goretskom Redkoles’e. (Minsk:”Belarus'”,1986).

Volchok, G. I. Zapozhdenie I Razvitie Partizanskovo Dvizheniya v Mogilevskoi Oblasti v Godi Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny (1941 – 1944 gg.). (Mogilev: Mogilev State University).



[1] The first of these Soviet-era memoirs is from 1971, a full thirty years after the beginning of the war in the Soviet Union. The dates that the fighters’ memoirs and partisan movement document collections began to appear correspond exactly with the post-Khrushchev period, as Brezhnev sought to create a cult of the Second World War to unite the Soviet Union. Immediately following the war, Stalin was hostile toward the writing of memoirs by veterans and discouraged research into the course of the war; for more, see Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
[2] Bogdan Musial, Sowjetische partisanen 1941-1944: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 2009), p. 20.

[3] Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Belaruß 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg: HIS Verlag, 2000), p. 23.

[4] G. I. Volchok, Oborona Mogileva Letom 1941 Goda (Mogilev: Mogilev State University, 2003), p. 8. (all translations from German and Russian performed by the author).

[5] For statistics regarding the industrialization of the Oblast’, see Mogilevskaya Oblast’ statisktiko-ekonomicheskii Spravochnik. Ed. L Levkovich and F. Katsman, (Mogilev, 1940) .

[6] Х Epshteyn, Privet, Tyozka ili Pic’mo K Praprapravnuku (Khar’kov: Ukraine, 2008), p. 12-13.

[7] Vagan Agadzhanyan, Dorogi Partizanskie. («Belarus’»: Minsk, 1979) , p. 6-7.

[8]Epshteyn p. 12-13.

[9]Volchok, Oborona Mogileva p. 6-7.


[11]Ibid p. 9-30.

[12]F. О. Popov, Bor’ba Mogilyovichan Protiv Nemetsko-Fashistik Okkupantov. (Mogilev: Belarus’, 1958), p. 30.

[13] Report from the head of the operative group in the paion of Sklov, Igor Slepcov, 8.10.1941, and additional report from 11.10.1941. in Musial 44.

[14] Armeeoberkommando 9, Abt. Ic, 18.08.1941, in ibid p. 45.

[15]Mogilevskoye Oblastnoyе Upravlenie Narodnovokhozyaistvennovo Uchyota. Mogilevskaya Oblast’ statisktiko-ekonomicheskii Spravochnik. Ed. Levkovich, L and Katsman, F., (Mogilev, 1940), p. 83.

[16] Gerlach p. 199. Unfortunately, Gerlach does not explain this quite wide estimate, but is worth noting that the numbers are significantly greater than those said to have worked for the Soviet government.

[17] Ibid., p. 419.

[18] Ibid., p. 199.

[19]Mogilevskoye oblastnoyе Upravlenie p. 89.

[20]Oberst Herrose, „Bericht über die Ernährungslage der Zivilbevölkerung in Orscha und Mogilew” 28.11.1942 in Gerlach p. 201.

[21] G. Khramovich, Zarevo nad Sozhem. («Belarus’»: Minsk, 1971),  p. 34.

[22] Gerlach p. 205.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. p. 207.

[25] Epshteyn p. 18.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Agadzhanyan p. 39.

[28] Ibid., p. 36-37.

[29] Ibid., p. 57.

[30] Epshteyn p. 21, 25.

[31] Ibid., p. 20-21.

[32] Agadzhanyan p. 59.

[33] Epshteyn p. 62-4, 23-4.

[34] Ibid., p. 62-3.

[35] Agadzhanyan p. 43.

[36] Epshteyn p. 27-28.

[37] Ibid., p. 45.

[38] Pohl p. 175.

[39] See Musial’s chapter entitled “Vernichtungsbattalione” in Partisanen: Mythos und Wirklichkeit.

[40], G. I. Volchok, Zapozhdenie I Razvitie Partizanskovo Dvizheniya v Mogilevskoi Oblasti v Godi Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny (1941 – 1944 gg.) (Mogilev: Mogilev State University). http://region.mogilev.by/ru/node/8300. p. 5.

[41] Spravka Narkom Vnutrennikh Del BCCP Ob Organizatsii Istrebitel’nykh Batal’onov V Respublike Po Postoyanniyu Na 15 Iyulia 1941 Goda. In: Vsenarodnoe Partizanskoe Dvizhenie, p. 71.

[42] Musial p. 51.

[43] Epshteyn p. 18.

[44]Agadzhanyan p. 40.

[45] Musial p. 54.

[46] Ibid., p. 158.

[47] Ibid 236.

[48] Ibid 248.

[49] Mette p. 73, Volchok p. 8.

[50] Agadzhanyan p. 159.

[51] Dokladnaya Zapiska Nachal’nika Bepezinskovo Raoina Polevoi Komendature Gordoa Mogileva. 3 June 1942. In: Vsenarodnoe Partizanskoe Dvizhenie, p. 185.

[52] Epshteyn p. 46.

[53] Der kommandierende General der Sicherheitstruppen und Befehlshaber im Heersgebiete Mitte (Ia) an das Oberkommando des Heeres am 25.05.1942, Musial p. 95.

[54] Anweisung des Befehlhabers. In: Norbert Müller. Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in der UdSSR: Dokumente (Köln: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1980), p. 233.

[55] Agadzhanyan p. 32.

[56] Gerlach p. 919.

[57] Pohl p. 287.

[58] Epshteyn p. 46-47, 49.

[59] Ernst Klee and Willi Dressen, „Gott mit Uns”: Der Deutsche Vernichtungskrieg im Osten 1939-1945 (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1989) p. 186-196.

[60] Musial p. 360.

[61] Ibid., p. 362.

[62] Gavrilov, I. I. Soldatami. p. 371-2.

[63] Musial p. 277.

[64] Musial p. 324.

[65] Volchok p. 7.

[66] Musial p. 268.

[67] Ibid., p. 242.

[68] Epshteyn p. 38.

[69] Ibid p. 39.

[70] Voronenkov p. 22.

[71] Gavrilov p. 372.

[72] Iz Dokladnoi Zapiski Upolnomochennovo TSK LKCMB Po Mogilevskoi Oblasti. I. A. Matyl’. 12 April 1943. In: Vsenarodnoe Partizanskoe, Document №177 — p. 272

[73] К Ju. Mette, Vernost’ (Belarus’: Minsk, 1989) , p. 80, 86, 108, 143.

[74] K Ju Mette, Soldatami Byli Vse Ed. Gavrilov, I. I. (Minsk: Belarus’, 1972), p. 383.

[75] Ibid p. 389.

[76] Mette p. 391.

[77] Mette, Vernost’. p. 212.

[78] Ibid., p. 127.

[79] Mette, Vernost’. p. 37-9.

[80]Mette, Soldatami. p. 887.

[81] Gavrilov. Soldatami. p. 371.

[82] Khramovich p. 46.

[83] Musial p. 234-5.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Popov p. 8, Mette p. 104-118.

[86] Deyatel’nosti Otryada Na Zheleznodopozhnykh Kommunikaysiyakh S 25 Iyunya Po 20 Oktyabpya 1942 Goda. In: Vsenarodnoe Patizanskoe. p. 552-553.

[87] Gavrilov p. 371, 373.

[88] Musial p. 112, 293.

[89] Gerlach p. 865-66.

[90] Musial p. 292.

[91] Khramovich p. 52.

[92] Musial p. 282.

[93] Zhivopistseva, Aza Nikolaevna. Soldatami. p. 490.

[94] G Khramovich, Zarevo nad Sozhem (Minsk: Belarus’, 1971), p. 57-58.

[95] Musial p. 298.

[96] D. F. Voistrov, V Goretskom Redkoles’e (“Belarus'”: Minsk, 1986), p 140.

[97] This attempt by Soviet power to assimilate the Partisan movement into the existing power apparatus continued on into the post-war period, According to Epshteyn, all partisan adults who fought at least two and a half years in the war were given positions of power in Oblast government after the war (Epshteyn 76).

About the Author

Luke Rodeheffer

Luke Rodeheffer is a senior at Lewis and Clark College, where he studies Russian and History. He plans to pursue research after graduation through Fulbright in Eastern Europe and later graduate studies in History in Germany.

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