World War II may have been fought by many nations worldwide, but it was on the cold plains of Soviet Russia that the German advance was finally halted.
As the eventual winners of the Cold War, our view of history was the one that was imposed upon the world, and the West essentially got to write its perception of World War II. A consequence of this is that America's importance to the war effort is often overstated, and Russia's contribution to the war effort is often consigned to an unfairly brief footnote in history. We owe Hitler a great deal of thanks for abandoning his bid for Britain, and we also owe equal appreciation to the Russian people, on whose vast expanses of land the German Army finally faltered. It is no accident that the lion's share of the Lend-Lease program's aid remaining after aid to Britain went to Soviet forces, because strategists knew that if Russia fell, Hitler would have access to large food, steel, and particularly oil reserves, and Hitler would be hard-pressed to be stopped in his quest for world domination. Here, a video clip shows President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the Lend-Lease Act.
The Russian War Effort
While Lend-Lease provided valuable assistance to Russian resistance against Germany, it is a mistake to overestimate the function and effect of Lend-Lease. The aircraft pictured at top is a Curtiss P-40 Hawk, and it was effectively obsolete by the beginning of the war. It is a representative example of much of the aid that countries received: obsolete pieces of equipment like old Enfield rifles and Chrysler trucks designed to fill the gap while countries brought their war machines up to production capacity. So, while American aid to Russia certainly helped them transport equipment and train their soldiers, it did not win the war for them.
The Massive Eastern Front
World War II was the bloodiest war in history. About 60 million people died during the course of the war, and many of these deaths were of civilians within combat zones. Russia carried many of these deaths, and the scale of battles within the Russian landscape was almost incomprehensible in relative comparison to the confined fighting on the Western Front of Hitler's Fortress Europe. For example, the Battle of Kursk, occurring in July and August 1943, was a Soviet Victory, but the Red Army lost over 200,000 soldiers during the campaign. This proved to be more than half of the total number of American soldiers killed during the entire course of the war! The cost of repelling the Germans out of the Russian homeland produced some extreme hardships, and Russia lost at least 8 million and as many as 20 million soldiers and civilians during the course of the war. Most combat losses incurred were during Operation Barbarossa, the codename for the German campaign which intended to destroy the Red Army.
It was only the total war concept of World War II (driven by the obsessive campaign of Adolf Hitler) that could give fundamentally differing democratic and communist governments the impetus to unite against a common enemy. The value of human life was an important tenet of democratic values, while Stalin championed everything as belonging to the state. If something slowed down the war effort against Germany, Stalin was not averse to killing or jailing in order to make things happen correctly. When Stalin became aware that the city of Stalingrad was going to be besieged, he refused to allow the civilian population to leave, believing that an empty city would not be defended as heartily. Perhaps, however, the evil of communism was the only way to counter the greater evil of the Nazi regime. Many Allied leaders expressed distaste with the Soviets, and even before the war was over, "Operation Paperclip" was encouraging Allied soldiers to rapidly seize German intelligence, science, and research before their Soviet allies could make use of it.
However Russia was perceived during World War II, their contribution to making the world a safer place cannot be ignored. Soviet citizens and soldiers (at times, there was little difference between the two) bore the brunt of what the German Wehrmacht could throw at them from the years of 1941-1945. For each massive defeat, however, Soviet forces continued to withdraw from German advances and preserve their strength for the winters, when they could hold the German advance and improve production in an attempt to marshal more forces. Their patience paid off, especially under the leadership of competent generals like Zhukov. Hundreds of Soviet divisions appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and once the Siege of Stalingrad was broken, the momentum of the conflict was forever in the Allies' favor. After this point, Russian troops joined the British and Americans in a race to Berlin. Pictured is a coin commemorating the events along the Volga at Stalingrad, which occurred in the Russian city now called Volgagrad.