May 9, 2022

The Soviets Celebrate Victory Day

The Soviets Celebrate Victory Day

May 9, 1945. The Soviet Union celebrates Victory Day after Germany’s surrender brings an end to World War II in Europe.


Cold Open

It’s June 21st, 1941 near Poland’s eastern border, nine months into World War II.

Under the cover of night, German soldier Alfred Liskow flees his military unit and heads for Soviet territory. A communist sympathizer, Alfred is determined to warn the Soviets that a German invasion of the Soviet Union is imminent. So he bounds toward a nearby river that separates Poland from Ukraine.

Without hesitation, Alfred jumps into the water and swims toward the Soviet Union.

On the other side, he emerges dripping wet and exhausted but still takes off in a run. Soon, he sees a flashlight shining in the distance. As Alfred hurries toward the light, he finds himself mere feet away from a pair of Soviet soldiers.

Spotting Alfred’s German uniform, the soldiers reach for their guns.

Immediately, Alfred raises his hands in surrender and issues a series of protestations in German. Cautiously, the soldiers grab Alfred by the arms and march him to their truck.

Almost two years prior, Adolf Hitler launched his invasion of Poland and plunged the world into war. And since conflict’s inception, the Soviet Union has flirted with the idea of joining the Axis powers. But, unbeknownst to the Soviets, Hitler has been planning to enact a “war of annihilation” on the Soviet Union, a plan the German dictator will set into motion during the summer of 1941.

Alfred Liskow’s warning will come too late for the Soviets. Throughout the Germans’ invasion, the Soviet Union will suffer heavy casualties and numerous defeats. But contrary to the Nazis’ expectations, the Soviets will not collapse under the pressure. Instead, four years after their entry into the war, the Red Army will descend on Berlin victorious, bringing the war in Europe to an end on what will come to be known as Victory Day on May 9th, 1945.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is May 9th, 1945: The Soviets Celebrate Victory Day.

Act One: The Soviet Union Enters WWII

It’s 11:05 AM on November 12th, 1940 at a Berlin train station, a little over a year since the start of World War II.

As a train pulls into the station, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov grabs his belongings and mentally prepares himself for the long day of negotiations ahead. Molotov’s been sent here to discuss a potential alliance between the Soviet Union and Germany.

Last year, Britain declared war on Germany for their invasion of Poland. And since then, two opposing military alliances have formed: the British-led Allies and the German-led Axis powers. So far, the Soviet Union has not joined either camp.

But, today, Molotov hopes that will change. At the request of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Molotov is in Berlin today to negotiate the terms for the Soviet Union to become the fourth Axis power, joining Germany, Italy, and Japan.

As Molotov walks inside the train station, he sees it’s adorned with Soviet flags. And he smiles as an orchestra inside the station begins playing the Soviet Union’s national anthem.

Among the fanfare, Molotov spots Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Foreign affairs. After a brief breakfast, the two dignitaries begin talks.

Negotiations continue for two days. And, at Molotov’s final meeting with Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister presents a draft of Germany’s terms for the Soviets’ entry into the Axis powers.

Armed with Germany’s list of proposals, Molotov returns to Moscow. But, the Germans’ terms don’t satisfy Stalin’s desire for territory in Eastern Europe.

So, eleven days after the negotiations, the Soviets offer a counterproposal. But, enraged by Stalin’s growing territorial ambitions, Hitler labels the Soviet dictator “a cold-blooded blackmailer” who must be “brought to his knees,”. Germany never responds to the Soviets’ proposal. Instead, Hitler signs a secret directive authorizing the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Unaware of Hitler’s plans, the Soviet Union will attempt to preserve peaceful relations with Germany. Stalin will continue to push for the powers to come to an agreement on their entry into the Axis. But Germany will remain unresponsive until June 22nd, 1941 when German troops descend on the Soviet Union, launching the largest military invasion in history.


It’s December 28th, 1941 in the Soviet city of Leningrad, six months after the Germans first invaded the Soviet Union.

Inside her home, eleven-year-old Tanya Savicheva opens a small notebook and prepares to record the tragic reality that has become her life.

Three months ago, Axis troops formed a ring around Leningrad, cutting off all roads to the city and beginning a siege. Conditions have grown grim. The German Air Force intentionally targeted civilian food supplies, power plants, and water treatment facilities. Deaths now near 100,000 a month, mostly from starvation. The only food currently available to Leningrad citizens is 125 grams of bread a day, and half of it consists of sawdust. With city transport out of service and temperatures below zero, even the walk to the bread line has proved an enormous task for the city’s exhausted civilians, many of whom collapse and die in the streets.

The famine has already begun to ravage Tanya’s family. Earlier today, Tanya’s sister Zhenya died in the arms of her other sister Nina, succumbing to exhaustion and malnutrition exacerbated by her long shifts at the munitions factory and commitment to donating blood.

Tanya fights back tears as she flips to a blank page in her notebook. In large, childlike handwriting, Tanya logs her sister’s death in simple terms, writing “Zhenya died on December 28th at 12 noon, 1941.”

One month after Zhenya’s death, Tanya’s grandmother dies of heart failure after losing a third of her body weight due to starvation. At her grandmother’s insistence, Tanya’s family postpones her burial so they can keep her ration card until the end of the month. Again, Tanya opens her diary and pencils in the tragedy: “Grandma died on the 25th of January at 3 o'clock, 1942.”

The following month, Tanya’s sister Nina disappears. Failing to ever hear from her again, Tanya and her family assume she’s dead. The next month, Tanya’s brother dies. One month later, Tanya logs the death of her favorite uncle. And, the following month, she notes the death of a second uncle.

Three days later, Tanya’s mother dies. Tanya again opens her notebook to record a family member’s death: “Mama on May 13th at 7:30 in the morning, 1942.” 

Savichevas are dead. Soon, Tanya is sent to an orphanage where she becomes one of 140 children rescued from Leningrad and brought to another village. But the deeply-malnourished Tanya never recovers her health. Two years after her mother’s death, Tanya dies from intestinal tuberculosis.

By its end, the Germans’ two-and-a-half-year blockade at Leningrad will become the most lethal siege in history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million soldiers and civilians. The economic destruction and human loss in Leningrad will exceed the war’s bloodiest battles, surpassing even the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tanya’s diary will eventually be used during the Nuremberg Trials as evidence of the Nazis’ war crimes.

But, six months after the siege’s end, the Soviets on the Eastern Front turn the tide of the war with the Red Army and the Allies at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Act Two: Moving Toward Victory

It’s the early morning of November 11th, 1942 at the Barrikady Gun Factory in Stalingrad.

Inside, Soviet troops shuffle to their assigned positions. Private Milya Rozenberg heads to his station in the factory’s basement, machine gun in hand. As Milya walks through the crumbling building, he takes care to avoid the pile of corpses strewn around him.

Four months ago, the German army launched a large-scale offensive on Stalingrad, an important industrial center and transport hub for the Soviets. Aerial bombing and a ground siege has ravaged the city and pinned the Soviets against the bank of the Volga River. There, they fought tooth and nail to hold their line, making a final stand at the Barrikady Gun Factory.

But the chance of a Soviet victory seems slim. Aircrafts have struggled to drop supplies onto the Soviets’ small foothold. Most fall in the river or behind German lines. The dwindling food supply has forced the Soviets to live off one cracker a day. And at night, they've begun collecting corpses, searching the bodies for any leftover food and ammunition.

This morning, Milya stares at one of the piles of corpses near his station. In the morning’s eerie silence, he wonders if today will be the day he too dies.

But soon, the deafening thunder of artillery fire breaks Milya out of his contemplation. The ground trembles beneath his feet as the barrage becomes the strongest he's ever experienced.

Soon, another Soviet soldier runs toward Milya’s station in the basement with a chilling report: the Germans have destroyed their neighboring divisions and now have them surrounded. Milya accepts this information with a solemn nod.

Cut off from reinforcements and supplies, Milya’s division fights in isolation for over a week. Milya will later describe the intensity of the fight, saying, “We were hungry and lice-ridden, but in the frenzy there came a point when I pitied no one, not even myself... We fought savagely for every brick in every wall.”

Against the odds, Milya and his comrades resist all assaults on their foothold. And, after eight days, Milya and his division launch a counteroffensive, targeting the poorly-armed Romanian soldiers on the Germans’ flanks. Eventually, the Soviets break through their defenses and encircle the Germans.

By the time German reinforcements arrive in December, the Soviets’ position is too strong to be overtaken. And on February 2nd, 1943, exhausted and humiliated, the Germans surrender.

In the end, the Battle of Stalingrad will become the deadliest battle of World War II. In total, two million will die.

But, the loss of life won’t be in vain. The Soviets’ victory at Stalingrad will shock the Axis Powers and turn the tide of World War II. Soon, the Germans will begin a retreat back to Berlin. And it’s there that the Red Army will wage their final offensive, an attack designed to crush Nazi Germany once and for all.


It’s April 20th, 1945 in Berlin, the day of Adolf Hitler’s 56th birthday.

Inside her apartment building, twenty-nine-year-old Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel huddles in the building’s cellar alongside her young daughter and neighbors as explosions rock Berlin.

For months, an Allied victory has seemed increasingly inevitable. Still, Hitler has refused to surrender. Instead, the German Führer has begun drafting previously-exempt Germans into the war effort.

Ready to force a surrender, Stalin unleashed over 2.5 million soldiers, 7,500 aircraft, and over 6000 tanks on the German capital. Today, after breaking through the German lines around the city, the Soviets began their artillery barrage.

Dorothea clutches her trembling daughter as the explosions grow incessant. She curses Hitler for bringing the fight back to their doorstep.

For days, the battle in Berlin rages on as the Soviet and German troops fight street by street for control of the city. The Soviets’ sights are set on Hitler’s chancellery in the city’s center where the German leader has stayed in his underground bunker for the last three months.

But, before the Soviets reach him, Hitler commits suicide. His death spells the end for Nazi Germany. And within two days, fighting in Berlin ceases. Before long, vans with loudspeakers populate the streets of Berlin, ordering Germans to cease all resistance.

The Soviets’ victory at the Battle of Berlin will mark the end of World War II in Europe.

But few Soviets will be able to forget the war’s enormous cost. Over the course of World War II, the Soviet Union will lose over 20 million of its citizens, nearly a third of the war’s total casualties and fifty times the number of American losses.

This unparalleled cost will remain a point of resentment for the Soviets, many of whom will accuse the United States of intentionally delaying their Normandy invasion to force the Soviets to bear the brunt of the war’s devastation. Soon, lingering distrust coupled with tense post-war negotiations will rupture the uneasy alliance between the Soviet Union and United States, setting the stage for a fifty-year Cold War.

Act Three: Victory Day

It’s May 9th, 2021 in Moscow’s Red Square, eighty years after the Soviet Union entered World War II.

Thousands of Russian soldiers and cheering civilians fill the square for Moscow’s Victory Day celebration. Atop a stage in the middle of the square stands Russian President Vladimir Putin. The square’s crowd falls silent as Putin approaches the stage’s lectern.

Since Moscow’s first Victory Day celebration on May 9th, 1945, the event has become an annual occurrence. But, over the last few decades, the celebration has taken on a new political significance as an event indicative of Russia’s complicated relationship with the West.

In 2005, dozens of foreign leaders attended Moscow’s parade, including U.S. President George W. Bush. Today, amid rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the President of Tajikistan is the only foreign dignitary in attendance. But, the absence of Western leaders doesn’t seem to perturb Putin.

As Putin begins his annual address, he proceeds in standard fashion; he thanks Russia’s veterans, before recalling the sacrifices of the Soviets, and the Red Army’s heroism, during World War II.

Then, Putin glances at the script before him and reads the next sentence: “At the most difficult moments in the war, during decisive battles that determined the result of the struggle against fascism, our people were united.”

But, as Putin comes to the word ‘united,’ the Russian president makes an impromptu edit. On the spot, he switches out the word “united” for the word “alone,” declaring that the Soviets were “alone in their toilsome, heroic, and sacrificial path to victory.”

The official transcript of Putin’s speech made publicly available earlier will reveal the president’s spontaneous departure from his prepared address. His improvisation will highlight the deepening post-Cold War rift between Russia and the West. The alteration will send the heads of political analysts spinning; headlines will decry Putin’s shunning of the West; and Russians will accuse Putin of using a day of remembrance for his own political purposes: an agenda that will become clear less than one year later when Russian troops invade Ukraine in Europe’s biggest military mobilization since World War II.

Soon, reports will circulate that Putin will not just celebrate victory over the Germans of May of 2022. Speculation will swirl that the Russian president will use Victory Day as a deadline for military achievement in Ukraine; a testament to the extent to which the symbolic power of the date endures in Russian imagination; and a reminder of how strained Russia’s relationship with the West has become in the eight decades since the Soviets’ inaugural Victory Day on May 9th, 1945.


Next on History Daily. May 10th, 1994. Nelson Mandela is sworn in as South Africa’s first Black president.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.