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EDIT: text in bold was added later to not suggest that this practice was common.

I'd known from stories told by my Grandmother and other people of Her age, that after entering pre-war Polish territories, some Soviet soldiers plundered everything, but what they liked most were handwatches. This was what they wanted at first. I think this is a good source. Few weeks ago I was talking with a person who lived in Polish Silesia. She said they did not plunder anything from common people (they stole some furniture from a town hall and machines from local factory), did not rape women, but took all watches.

This is a picture of two Soviet soldiers putting a flag on the Reichstag in Berlin.

This was redrawn, as on the original picture the soldier (quite high rank, I think) had watches on both hands:

This correction suggests that Red Army knew the problem and could be somewhat ashamed.

Why were some Soviet soldiers so fond of handwatches? Why were they Soviet most desired booty?

I can see three reasons, first: there were no watches in the USSR (why?), secondly: just because it was easy to bear, third: this was some kind of fashion.

Please note: I don't want in any way suggest that this practice was common in all occupied territories and by every soldier. I believe that soldiers who died fighting Nazis were mostly good people.

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Okay, this won't be the only reason maybe, but I am sure they took them partly for themselves, and to sell them at home on the black market. The soviet economy wasn't at the shape to produce nice and luxurious, well made watches, so they took it. Their industry was focused for heavy industry after the first world war. –  CsBalazsHungary Jun 26 '13 at 13:21
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@MarkCWallace I haven't put photos as they are copyrighted (BTW the first one should be with one watch). I have problems to upload myself, would you be so kind to change the first photo too? (if you're sure it does not violate copyrights) –  Voitcus Jun 26 '13 at 13:38
    
i believe this en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… is the modified picture you were looking for. –  franklin Jun 27 '13 at 0:16
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I wish to applaud Voitcus for being aware and respectful of copyright. These pictures should not be embedded here. For the story behind the picture, info about the photographer, and the nature of its copyright, go here. –  Eugene Seidel Jun 27 '13 at 8:16
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The comments section is not a discussion board. Please use "The Time Machine" for extended discussions: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/1560/the-time-machine –  ihtkwot Jul 17 '13 at 12:59

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Basically, you've given the answer yourself in the question: handwatches were a very rare thing in Soviet Russia at the time and it is small wonder that they became the soldiers' favourite trophy, especially since handwatches were highly portable and could be kept by the soldier himself.

As to why handwatches were so rare in Russia - well, that was a special case of the exclusive focus of Soviet industry on military and dual-purpose hardware. This was a conscious decision, made by Stalin and laid into the cornerstone of the Five-Year Plans (especially the first one).

In other words: this was a deliberate choice by Stalin of guns over not only butter, but also over decent bread, so to speak. He was preparing full-steam for large-scale war - as early as 1928 (!) - at the conscious expense of the citizens' level of living.

This was debated at the 14th Communist Party Congress in 1925 during which Zinoviev and Sokolnikov proposed a more gradual development of Soviet industry, focusing on "light industry" and presumably a greater focus on consumer goods. Stalin however accused Zinoviev of being an imperialist agent bent on promoting the Dawes Plan and duly carried the day since he already had the party machine behind him.

Sokolnikov, shuffled from Finance Minister into an array of second-tier jobs tried to fight a read-guard action against Stalin's approach:

He told the Fifteenth Party Congress, in December 1927, that a two to three year plan should be tried before a five year plan. He again reminded the delegates that a real plan must rest on an agricultural base and must take care of the people's welfare. He predicted problems, especially in terms of consumer deprivation. (source)

So one sees the handwatches were just the tip of the iceberg. Interestingly, wikipedia has a special article on this - Consumer goods in the Soviet Union which makes for interesting reading. One quote:

The First Five-Year plan caused the closure of all artisan methods of consumer goods production, such as small private factories and workshops. In the mid-1930s, these methods of production were allowed to return on a small scale.

Returning to watches, I found a Russian blog post which deals extensively with Soviet watches (for example, during 1930-1935 there was just one factory (bought wholesale from a bankrupt US enterprise) in the whole SU, making 50,000 units per year, distributed to cadres - everybody else just had to make do somehow) and with trophies. It points out that trophy watches were not always appropriated by the soldiers acting on their own. Often, the commanders would hand out watches acts for exceptional bravery and these were, the story goes, often prized more than medals.

The blog also claims that a Selza warehouse was taken by the Soviet troops in Berlin with 17,000 watches. Perhaps the watches in the picture were from there. (I was not able to find independent corroboration for the Selza claim).

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Thank you Felix –  Voitcus Jun 27 '13 at 7:19
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The comments section is not a discussion board. Please take discussions to "The Time Machine" chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/1560/the-time-machine –  ihtkwot Jul 17 '13 at 12:58

The assumption that the object in the soldier's right wrist is a watch is not entirely safe; for all we know it's a wrist worn compass, and more specifically an Adrianov compass. Adrianov compasses were pretty common with Red Army soldiers, and they would have been worn on the right wrist. From a distance, a soldier wearing a compass would look like wearing two watches.

Yevgeny Khaldei (the photographer) had a history of manipulating his photographs for a variety of reasons (aesthetics and propaganda being the obvious ones). In fact, the removal of the watch or compass is not the only alteration; the smoke in the background was added later. Unfortunately, Khaldei refused to comment on the alterations, and we can't be absolutely certain for his intentions.

Furthermore, the iconic photograph may not even depict an actual historic moment. Michael Griffin, in the "The Great War Photographs: Constructing Myths of History and Photojournalism" chapter of Picturing the Past: Media, History, and Photography argues that the photograph was orchestrated by Khaldei who had carried the large flag with him to Berlin, hoping to create a photograph similar to the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima one.

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Nice point about the possibility of a compass, but we do know for certain it's a watch. Here is the testimony (in Russian) of Khaldei's daughter: test.fakty.ua/… She confirms there were two watches and says one was scrubbed out manually. –  Felix Goldberg Jul 14 '13 at 9:12
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@Felix Goldberg there are plenty of sources and discussions in the Internet which claim it was a compass. The man on the photo is an officer and all officers had a hand compass, they carried it either in a special officer's map-case (which had special holder for a compass) or on the hand (which was common). In the map-case it looked like this: 90.img.avito.st/640x480/339541790.jpg –  Anixx Jul 14 '13 at 9:58
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@FelixGoldberg I don't think we'll ever know for sure if it was actually a looted watch, a compass, or the fellow in the photograph enjoyed wearing two watches (hey, stranger things have happened). Nevertheless, I think it's safe to assume that the object was scrubbed out to avoid giving the perception of looting, whatever the object was. –  Yannis Rizos Jul 14 '13 at 15:40
    
The comments section is not a discussion board. Please take discussions to "The Time Machine." That is what it is there for: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/1560/the-time-machine –  ihtkwot Jul 17 '13 at 13:01

I thought it was worth adding to the existing answers the following quote from Richard Evans' The Third Reich at War.

It indicates that while portability must have been a factor when stealing watches and other small valuables, there was certainly a functioning system allowing Soviet soldiers to send larger goods home.

Ordinary Soviet soldiers helped themselves to whatever they could find, irrespective of the military regulations. Food was the most important: soldiers plundered German military stores, broke into wine cellars and drank themselves into insensibility, and sent food parcels back to their families in enormous quantities. Officers took rare books, paintings, hunting rifles, typewriters, bicycles, bedding, clothes, shoes, musical instruments, and especially radios, a much-prized rarity back home. All of them stole wristwatches. At the railhead in Kursk, the monthly total of parcels arriving from soldiers in Germany jumped from 300 in January 1945 to 50,000 in April. By mid-May 1945, some 20,000 railway wagons of loot were waiting to be unloaded or sent on to their destinations.

The image of the Kursk rail junction struggling to cope with the scale of the booty is quite arresting.

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