Destruction battalions

Destruction battalions
Active from 24 June 1941 to 1954
Country Soviet Union Soviet Union
Type Paramilitary
Role Internal security
Size ca 328,000
Part of NKVD, Soviet Armed Forces
Motto(s) If the Enemy Does Not Surrender, He Will Be Annihilated.
March The Internationale
Anniversaries 24 June

Operation Barbarossa

Dmitrii Kramarchuk
Mikhail Pasternak

Destruction battalions,[nb 1] colloquially istrebitels (истребители, "destroyers", "exterminators") abbreviated: istrebki (Russian), strybki (Ukrainian)[1][2] were paramilitary units under the control of NKVD in the western Soviet Union, which performed tasks of internal security in the Eastern Front (World War II) and after it.


As Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, a state of war was declared in the western regions of the country and in the annexed Baltic states.[3] Vladimir Tributs the Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Union issued an order on 24 June 1941 warning of the paralysing actions of enemy paratrooper squads aided by the "capitalist-kulak" portions of the populations, which allegedly had a large number of weapons that had not been turned in. The officers ordered the strengthening of defences of headquarters, army units and communications.[3][4] Attacking "bandits" were to be shot on the spot. The struggle against saboteurs was the responsibility of the border guard units subordinate to the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union).[3]


The battalions were created in the territories near the front line during Operation Barbarossa, with the missions of securing the Red Army rear, assuring the operation of strategically important enterprises and destroying the valuable property that could not be evacuated.[3][5] The units received authority to summarily execute any suspicious person. Basically the tasks accounted for the implementation of a scorched earth policy.[3]

The destruction battalion have no mercy for our enemies – bandits and other fascist cankers. They shall be not just destroyed, but sent directly under the ground, where is their right place.

In every village and settlement, the destruction battalion has a number of tasks more besides of straight breaking the enemy. With the bolshevist grimness, everybody who imparts provocational rumours or generates panic, must be expiscated. Everybody, who directly or indirectly helps enemy, must be found out and exterminated.

What is the Destruction battalion and what are its tasks.[6]


The destruction battalions were formally voluntary while actually a number of troops were forcibly recruited. They were augmented by personnel considered ideologically solid, like members of Komsomol and kolkhoz managers.[7] There were no other requirements, so the ranks were socially varied, including a significant proportion of felons.[3] The battalions were commanded by head managers of the regional committee level.[7] The Chief-of-Staff of Moscow was Dmitrii Kramarchuk.[8]

During July 1941, a total of 1,755 destruction battalions were created, across all territories near the frontline, comprising about 328,000 personnel.[9][10]

During July–August 1941 in the Belorussian SSR, chiefly in Vitebsk, Homel, Polesia, Mohylew oblasts, 78 such battalions were created, comprising more than 13,000 personnel. Part of these were later transformed into Belarusian partisans.[11][12]

The battalions were also formed in the newly annexed territories of Karelo-Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, East Poland, Galicia, and Bessarabia. Immediately after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, combat squads were formed.[13][14] Following the orders of the NKVD, night watch squads were created in areas with large concentrations of the Forest Brothers. As firearms were not provided the nightwatchmen equipped themselves with sticks. On June 25, 1941 the first squads received fire arms from the reserves of the former paramilitary organisations and through self-armament.[15][16][17][18]


The fight against Anti-Soviet partisans and the implementation of the scorched earth tactics were accompanied by terror against the civilian population, which was treated as supporters or shelterers of Forest Brothers. The destruction battalions burnt down farms and some small boroughs.[3] In turn, the members of the extermination battalions were at risk of repressions by the anti-Soviet partisans.[19][20]


See also: Kautla massacre

Thousands of people including a large proportion of women and children were killed, while dozens of villages, schools and public buildings were burned to the ground. A school boy, Tullio Lindsaa, had all bones in his hands broken then was bayoneted for hoisting the flag of Estonia. Mauricius Parts, son of the Estonian War of Independence veteran Karl Parts, was doused in acid. In August 1941, all residents of the village of Viru-Kabala were killed including a two-year-old child and a six-day-old infant. A partisan war broke out in response to the atrocities of the destruction battalions, with tens of thousands of men forming the Forest Brothers to protect the local population from these battalions. Occasionally, the battalions burned people alive.[21] The destruction battalions murdered 1,850 people in Estonia. Almost all of them were partisans or unarmed civilians.[22]

Another example of the destruction battalions' actions is the Kautla massacre, where twenty civilians were murdered and tens of farms destroyed. Many of the people were killed after torture. The low toll of human deaths in comparison with the number of burned farms is due to the Erna long-range reconnaissance group breaking the Red Army blockade on the area, allowing many civilians to escape.[23][24]

Western Ukraine

In 1944-1945, in Western Ukraine, participation in destruction battalions in rural areas were often sole self-defense of local Polish population against armed Ukrainian nationalists, which committed atrocities against Poles.[25]


The destruction battalions were restored after the retreat of German forces in the newly annexed areas to the Soviet Union. In 1945–46 they were renamed to narodnaya zaschita (people's defence), because of the notoriety their old name had gained in 1941. They were formed from local volunteers, from the most variable layers of the rural communities. They were tasked to guard, secure and support with arms all activities, directives and orders of the Soviet power, which the population could have sabotaged, intentionally avoided or directly resisted.[26]

The primary task of the destruction battalions was the fight against the armed resistance movement. This included terrorising the actual or potential supporters of Forest Brothers among the civilian population, participation in active combat, organisation of ambush and secret guard posts, reconnaissance and search patrols. The passive operations included guard and watch-keeping duties, convoy of detainees and arrested individuals as well as guarding cargo.[26]

The destroyers guarded systematically institutions of power and economic objects in the rural areas. In a post-war situation where the factual state power in a rural municipality lay with the Soviet police, the Militsiya, the destroyers constituted a force which guaranteed the implementation of the Soviet policies. A typical task was to force the farmers to fulfil public forestry, peat extraction and road construction obligations. No measures of coercion policy were implemented in the rural communities, which were not carried out or supervised by armed destroyers. They also fought against crime, both independently and as an additional force to the Militsiya.[26]

The destruction battalions were great in size, but they never became the efficient and active armed force which they were expected to become in order to rapidly eradicate the Forest Brothers. Despite the primarily passive role of the destroyers in the fight against the resistance movement, they provided invaluable assistance to the active participants in this fight, state security institutions and internal troops. As local people the destroyers spoke the language, knew the people, landscape and circumstances, knowledge which was inadequate among the NKVD and internal troops. The destruction battalions were also very useful as an auxiliary force. The organisation was eventually dismissed in 1954.[26]

Legal appraisal

In 2002 the Riigikogu (Parliament of Estonia) declared that the destruction battalions in the annexed Baltic states were a collaborators' organisation, which assisted the implementation of the criminal policy of the Soviet regime, and was thus a criminal organisation.[26][27] At the same time, the destroyers cannot be accused of crimes against humanity in corpore, because of the legal principles of the individual character of guilt and responsibility.[26]


See also

Footnotes and references

  1. Russian: Истребительные батальоны, Ukrainian: Винищувальні батальйони, Belarusian: Zniszczalnyja batalëny, Знішчальныя батальёны, Estonian: hävituspataljonid, Lithuanian: Naikintojų batalionai
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Indrek Paavle, Peeter Kaasik (2006). "Destruction battalions in Estonia in 1941". In Toomas Hiio; Meelis Maripuu; Indrek Paavle. Estonia 1940–1945: Reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity. Tallinn. pp. 469–493.
  3. Karel Cornelis Berkhoff, Harvest of despair
  4. Central Committee of the CP, CPC of the Soviet Union (29 June 1941). "Concerning the mobilisation of the entire people of the Soviet Union to fight against the enemy".
  5. Tartu Kommunist, July 22, 1941.
  6. 1 2 ОРГАНИЗАЦИЯ ИСТРЕБИТЕЛЬНЫХ БАТАЛЬОНОВ И ИХ БОЕВАЯ ДЕЯТЕЛЬНОСТЬ. [Organisation of destruction battalions and their activities] In Russian. NKVD of Ukrainian SSR 1941.
  8. Роль и задачи войск НКВД в годы Великой Отечественной войны.
  9. Милиция в годы Великой Отечественной Войны.
  11. Жыве імя легендарнага камбрыга.
  13. A Documentary history of Communism in Russia.
  15. Stalin, the Russians, and their war by M. J. Broekmeyer, Rosalind.
  16. истребительные батальоны.
  17. Estonia in 1939–1944.
  18. 1940–1992. Soviet era and the restoration of independence.
  19. Наталля Рыбак, Метады і сродкі ліквідацыі акаўскіх і постакаўскіх фарміраванняў у заходніх абласцях Беларусі ў 1944–1954 гг.
  20. Mart Laar, War in the woods, The Compass Press, Washington, 1992, p. 10
  21. Eesti rahva kannatuste aasta. Tallinn, 1996, p. 234.
  22. Jüri Liim: Kautla lahingud
  23. Mart Laar: Tavaline stalinism, printed in Postimees 16 August 2007
  24. Na rubieży: ogólnopolskie seminarium historii kresów wschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej polskiej, Issues 57-64 (Stowarzyszenie Upamie̜tnienia Ofiar Zbrodni Ukraińskich Nacjonalistow) 2002, p.35
  25. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Tiit Noormets, Valdur Ohmann (2009). "Soviet destruction battalions in Estonia in 1944–1954". In: Hiio, T; Maripuu, M; Paavle, I. Estonia since 1944: Reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, pp. 265–68.
  26. Okupatsioonirežiimi kuritegudest Eestis [On Crimes of the Occupational Regime in Estonia] Riigi Teataja from 18 June 2002
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