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Stalin’s Long Shadow

Gameplay Effects of Stalin’s Purges in Thunder in The East

By Alan Emrich

When the Soviet player is “tossed the keys” to the USSR by Stalin at the beginning of the Barbarossa scenario, matters are far from satisfactory. German Armies are lunging over the border, and a long summer of likely Soviet wrong-footed military disasters awaits. Still, no matter how bad the Soviet player thought the present situation was (coming to grips with the innate limitations of Soviet military doctrine), Stalin has left deep, still-healing scars afflicting matters in the form of his prior military and political purges. Here is an ETO view of the effects and duration of these wounds.

The Purges, The Red Army, and Soviet HQs

Among Stalin’s military purges, peering darkly through the Soviet records of this period, historians estimate that approximately 70% of the Army, 80% of the Air Force, and 90% of the Navy officers were purged (i.e., killed or “retired” into internal exile) engendering an atmosphere of Reign of Terror paranoia.

The hasty replacements for those purged were not selected foremost for their fighting prowess or command skills but for their loyalty to Stalin and the Communist Party under his leadership. When Barbarossa was launched, this new broom of untested Soviet officers would be called upon to match the veteran German armed forces at their zenith. Hitler remarked that with one good kick, “the whole rotten structure” of the Soviet Union would come crashing down.

But before examining the Red Army’s purge effects, some doctrinal matters must be considered. Let us begin with the notion that the “coin of the realm” among USSR Ground units in 1941 was the 8-4 Raised Rifle Infantry Army unit. It is effective on offense, and on defense, it is difficult to muster an overwhelming attack against. Once the USSR player has built a “wall” of mostly 8-4 Infantry units from north to south, the Axis’ glory days pummeling the Russian Army up and down the line are numbered.

Some challenges confront the Soviet player trying to assemble that multitude of 8-4s (other than the ongoing crisis of the attacking Germans!). First, they require 3 Personnel Points each and, when raised from scratch, this must occur over three turns – they are not cheap in terms of manpower. Second, they are Large units, so only one can be stacked in a hex – other armies, especially the Germans, are much more efficient about concentrating combat power when needed at critical places and times. Third, they are Leg units, so they are often found “pinned” during their Special Movement Phase – this means more reliance on keeping some of these 8-4s off the front lines (where they are most desperately needed!) and moving them among the Reserves. Fourth, they are backed by HQ markers with only a 6-hex range when defending and a 4-hex range in Offensive Mode. So, attacking with the extra HQ shift required to really harm the enemy (blowing entire units away and tearing a hole in their line) is not usually an option; instead, steady attrition of an enemy step here and there along the line over time is more the Soviet Way of War, particularly at this early juncture. (Playtesters refer to 3:2 and 2:1 attacks as “Soviet odds,” as they are frequently made more in the hope of inflicting some Axis attrition rather than gaining ground.)

How Red Can The Army Get?

Accepting that the Soviet player needs a line solidly packed with 8-4 Infantry units to control things – i.e., blunting the enemy’s advances and dealing effective counterattacks – then making more 8-4s proves a logical winning strategy. Unfortunately, this is where a confluence of the Soviet initial frontier deployment and the Red Army purges converge like gaping jaws to bite the Soviet player in the butt.

First, the Soviet Ground units on their western border (i.e., facing the Axis) were largely a collection of 2-step Armies (4-5-4s) and 1-step Untried Rifle Corps (?-4) units. Those are fine for covering the frontier with units and their ZOCs, but that is not a solid wall of 8-4s! The Germans will cut through these “broken down Armies” (i.e., each as a 1x 4-5-4 + 1x ?-4) defending the border like a hot knife through butter. Few Soviet units will escape the initial enemy onslaught. Consider for a moment this “spread out, defensive” deployment along the western frontier is indicative that Stalin still trusted Hitler (despite repeated warnings of Germany’s impending attack).

Second, the effect of Stalin’s purges is making matters worse in the search for the desired wall of 8-4s needed to blunt the Blitzkrieg. ETO has a per-turn cap of only two 3-step units (e.g., 8-4s) that can be raised from 2-step units (e.g., 4-5-4s) during this crucial early war period. Only two per turn! The thrust of this purge-induced scramble for effective Soviet war-fighting officers is that the Soviets open Barbarossa with many nice, fat 8-4s in their interior and few on the frontier in contact with the enemy. As those rear area 8-4s entrain to join the fray, they are still few enough for the Axis to deal with, and replacing their single-step losses up to full-strength 8-4s is problematic at the rate of only two per turn. This purge effect lasted until the Spring of ’42, when it was lifted, and the Soviets could create all the 8-4s they desired (with whatever was left of their manpower after its grievous losses the previous year).

Wait! They’re Here Early, and We’re Not Ready!

The effects of Stalin’s purges are more pronounced in an East First situation – when the Axis opens with Limited War versus the Soviets, leaving the Allied Faction at peace (and appeasement). After all, the Russians will be thrown into war in 1940 instead of 1941, and missing a year’s worth of rebuilding the officer corps and studying the new German Art of (Mobile) War(fare) shows the purges’ scars as fresher and more impactful. The simple ETO rule change for East First is that when participating in Limited War, USSR Guards unit promotions occur on the 1st Week of each Season instead of each Month (as is done during Total War).

Stalin’s purges greatly affected the USSR’s mechanized forces’ scramble to modernize, as we all have experienced playing Thunder in The East. The transition from the Early to Late War Mechanized units while dealing with the onset of Total War is profound. However, during Limited War, with the world having little experience to learn from regarding the Blitzkrieg!, the Soviets will find themselves at a larger disadvantage against it. The Soviet’s Limited War order of battle for Mech units is to carry on fighting with the Early War Mech Corps units, buying them out of their Force Pool (for their normal cost of 1 EP + 1 FP each). Unfortunately for the Soviets, they are pitting 1-step Mech units against German Panzer Corps units, which have two steps each (three if you count their KorpsGruppe remnant), which means the Axis will find it cheaper to keep their forces fielded and up to strength (and consuming less fuel compared to the Soviets’ constantly rebuilding 1-step units from scratch).

However, it is not as if the USSR will learn nothing from locking horns with the (fewer, 1940 version) German Panzer Corps units. For each underequipped Soviet Motorized Corps unit hiding among the beefier Mech units in their Draw Pool, there is a “Trained” Motorized-to-Mech unit upgrade awaiting it. On the 1st Week of each Month, one Early War Motorized Corps revealed on the map can be trained to its upgraded unit: a 1-[5] becomes a 4-2-[5], a 2-[5] becomes a 6-3-[5], and a 3-[5] trains to an 8-4-[5]. Unlike a Guards unit promotion, the bad news is training is not free; it costs ½ EP + ½ FP. This added cost represents a considerable investment in that single-step unit. On the upside, however, its immediate increase in strength on the map is considerable (for as long as that unit resides on the map to keep fighting, of course). Even if that trained unit is removed from the map and is mixed back into the Draw Pool, it will improve the overall quality of the units there and, hopefully, might be drawn again for a repeat performance.

Thanks to Stalin’s purges and the ensuing scramble to reorganize the Red Army, the education of its fighting forces still proves an expensive endeavor paid for at the cost of the many resources needed to replace combat losses.

The Red Air Force

The most glaring effect of Stalin’s purges (and his other personal interferences) on the Red Air Force was encouraging its 1930s incarnation to achieve civilian flying records rather than develop fighting prowess. When the purges of the Red Air Force occurred, in ETO game terms, the whole of the VVS (Russia’s Air Force) was moved to the Flown box, and each Soviet Air unit was flipped to its Damaged side. The recovery rate from this purge-induced disaster is one Air unit per Month (commencing in September ’39). By the time of Barbarossa, the VVS was a mixture of Available and Flown (but now, at least, undamaged!) Air units. Of course, this mattered little as the German’s Sneak Attack would send them all to the Soviet Destroyed box. Still, if the Russo-German war opens differently, the condition of the post-purges VVS is accurately accounted for.

While the Allies slowly (and the Axis quickly) developed quality military aircraft designs, Soviet military aircraft designs languished. Granted, the USSR built lots of its inferior design airplanes, as players are familiar with upon examining the Barbarossa scenario in Thunder in The East. We have all experienced the long timeframe involved in upgrading the VVS as its gradual quality design improvements slowly enter play.

Another aspect of Stalin’s purges is that the USSR Air Force remains Hindered. Small Nation Air Forces do not really have the industrial infrastructure to support their Air Forces. Italy is an economic paradox (having some brilliant designs but low production of new planes, spare parts, and fuel – i.e., they are low on domestic EPs and get their FPs from abroad). The Soviet Union, however, has lots of EPs, FPs, and a generally large industrial base – so why is their Air Force Hindered and never really recovers from that? Stalin’s purges of the officers and the resulting lack of initiative to innovate, produce, and perform were big reasons.

So, affected by Stalin’s purges, players will note that the VVS perseveres with many Stalin Event cards featuring his personal directives. People in the VVS showing initiative and independent thinking were purged; thus, Stalin must personally meddle to put his Air Force on the right path. Of course, those who survived (i.e., remained in the VVS after the purges) and those newly promoted during the war were loyal. However, they were not the right team to un-hinder the USSR’s Air Force and stuff it full of superior airplane designs and efficient ground crews.

The Red Navy

When using the ETO naval system, players will notice the creaking old Soviet Naval units are markedly inferior to the Axis forces at sea they would confront. Again, Stalin personally interceded on building new, bigger, better ships to carry his destiny of Communist expansion. Many resources were spent in 1939 and 1940 building enormous capital ships (that were only to be scrapped to help meet the existential crisis of the Axis invasion of 1941). Had the Soviets managed to complete these ships (and hold their Naval Bases), then the Red Navy, as a mix of old and new, would have been far more effective in supporting the war effort in the Baltic and Black Seas.

With that, the Soviets do have a Naval HQ marker. Still, as players experience the history of scrapping all those lovely new ships that would have come online over the next couple of years… well, without them, there is little need to consider building that very expensive Naval HQ. The short version of the USSR Naval Story is, “The Stalin giveth, and the Stalin taketh away.”

Another Matter

Soviet foreign policy is another matter and one warranting a full discussion. Suffice it to say, for now, that politically Stalin’s communist state was an international pariah, so there is little wonder why they worked with Hitler’s Germany (another rising pariah state) as their list of potential Soviet partners was slim.

Ultimately, the Soviet player must endure these inherited and systemic weaknesses, overcoming them to achieve front-line stability and win the war based on Russian endurance. Of necessity, the Soviets must play the long game; the enemy has built their forces to thrive in chaos, and the Soviets have built theirs to thrive in order.

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Gerald Johnson
Gerald Johnson
Nov 10, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Small additions to the rules have removed some of the exceptions in the past. No more worry about have two 8-4s next to one another when starting Barbarossa. Playing multiple ETO games will have options to attack the USSR earlier or later.


General Secretary of the Socialist Unitary Party of the DDR Honecker,

Your point is well taken but Alan has alluded to it in the body of his essay, above.

"The thrust of this purge-induced scramble for effective Soviet war-fighting officers is that the Soviets open Barbarossa with many nice, fat 8-4s in their interior and few on the frontier in contact with the enemy" for one instance.

This also spills into the early-war Mech units and Guard promotion sub-systems if war comes even earlier to the Soviets.

In short, there are MANY moving parts and turning gears within ETO sub-systems that represent real-world realities...or for even for more fun, what-if realities.

To be sure, 8-4's do represent simply more stuff…


Erich Honecker
Erich Honecker
Nov 10, 2023
Rated 1 out of 5 stars.

That's a pure bad take on topic, to say least. Red Army's problems were generally of rapid increase in size, sure purges did add some hurt but they were never the main problem.

Other political takes such as "Stalin trusted Hitler" are even worse, just like from 80's western history books. Definitely someone should've done his homework better.

To be honest, I do agree with gameplay/balance/authenticity of SU in game, but reasoning behind it is completely botched.

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