The title Hero of the Soviet Union (Russian: Герой Советского Союза) was the highest distinction in the Soviet Union, awarded personally or collectively for heroic feats in service to the Soviet state and society.
The award was established on May 5, 1934, by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union. The first recipients of the title originally received only the Order of Lenin, the highest Soviet award, along with certificate (грамота, gramota) describing the heroic deed from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Because the Order of Lenin could be awarded for deeds not qualifying for the title of hero, and to distinguish heroes from other Order of Lenin holders, the Gold Star medal was introduced on August 1, 1939. Earlier heroes were retroactively eligible for these items.
A hero could be awarded the title again for a subsequent heroic feat with an additional Gold Star medal and certificate. An additional Order of Lenin was not given until 1973. The practice of awarding the title multiple times was abolished by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in 1988 during perestroika.
Many foreign citizens were awarded the title.
The title was also given posthumously, though often without the actual Gold Star medal given.
The title could be revoked only by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.
Marshal Georgy Zhukov (center) wearing three Hero of the Soviet Union medals and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky (right) wearing two
The total number of persons who were awarded this title is 12,755 (twenty people have been stripped of this title due to various circumstances). The great majority of them received it during World War II (11,635 Heroes of the Soviet Union, 101 twice Heroes, 3 thrice Heroes, and 2 four-time Heroes). Sixty-five people were awarded the title for actions related to the First Afghan War, which lasted from 1979 until 1989.
In addition, 101 people received the award twice. A second award entitled the recipient to have a bronze bust of his or her likeness with a commemorative inscription erected in his or her hometown.
Two famous Soviet fighter pilots, Aleksandr Pokryshkin and Ivan Kozhedub were three times Heroes of the Soviet Union. A third award entitled the recipient to have his/her bronze bust erected on a columnar pedestal in Moscow, near the Palace of the Soviets, but the Palace was never built.
After his release from serving a 20-year sentence in a Mexican prison for the assassination of Leon Trotsky, Ramon Mercader moved to the Soviet Union in 1961 and was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal from the then head of the KGB Alexander Shelepin.
The only individuals to receive the title four times were Marshal Georgy Zhukov and Leonid Brezhnev. The original statute of the Hero of the Soviet Union, however, did not provide for a fourth title; its provisions allowed for a maximum of three awards regardless of later deeds. Both Zhukov and Brezhnev received their fourth titles under controversial circumstances contrary to the statute, which remained largely unchanged until the award was abolished in 1991. Zhukov was awarded a fourth time "for his large accomplishments" on the occasion of his 60th birthday on December 1, 1956. There is some speculation that Zhukov's fourth Hero medal was for his participation in the arrest of Beria in 1953, but this was not entered in the records. Brezhnev's four awards further eroded the prestige of the award because they were birthday gifts, on the occasions of his 60th, 70th, 72nd and 75th birthdays. Such practices halted in 1988 due to a decision of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, which formally ended it.
By the 1970s, the award had been somewhat devalued. Important political and military persons had been awarded on the occasions of their anniversaries rather than for any immediate heroic activity.
All Soviet cosmonauts, starting from Yuri Gagarin, as well as foreign citizens who participated in Soviet cosmic program as cosmonauts, received Hero award for each flight (but no more than twice).
Apart from individuals, the title was also awarded to twelve cities (Hero City) as well as the fortress of Brest (Hero-Fortress) for collective heroism during the War.
Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov – A Soviet naval officer and People's Commissar of State for the Navy during World War II. Also Commander in Chief and Flag Officer of the Soviet Navy, made Fleet Admiral in July 1945 and Fleet Admiral of the Soviet Union in July 1955 and again (posthumously) in 1988 due to his wartime and postwar roles in the Navy.
Nikolai Kuznetsov – intelligence officer responsible for the kidnappings and assassinations of several high-ranking Nazis.
Lydia Litvyak – World War II fighter pilot and the world's top female ace, posthumously awarded.
Alexander Matrosov posthumously awarded for blocking an enemy machine-gun with his own body.
Ivan Sidorenko – One of the top snipers of World War II, with over 500 kills. Was also a highly regarded sniper trainer.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko – Prolific female sniper in the Red Army's 25th Rifle Division, credited with 309 kills before retirement. She also became the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. President when Franklin Roosevelt welcomed her at the White House.
Natalya Meklin Female Bomber pilot in Great Patriotic war. She completed 980 missions during the war as a Soviet Air Force officer.
Hazi Aslanov – Major General of armored troops during World War II; participated in the 1944 Soviet offensives in Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic countries.
Ivan Baghramian – military commander; took part in the great 1944 Soviet offensive in Belarus and Lithuania (Operation Bagration).
Konstantin Rokossovsky – Marshal of the Soviet Union, Commander of the First Belorussian Front, Marshal of Poland and Polish Minister of National Defense, Deputy Minister of Defense and Commander of the Transcaucasian Military District, Chief Inspector of the Soviet Ministry of Defense.
Ziya Bunyadov – Ziya Bunyadov was awarded the Soviet Union's highest military honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union, for his action in the battle over Pilitsa bridge in Poland on January 14, 1945, resulting in 100 enemy fatalities and 45 enemy prisoners taken. He received his second award while being in the Shtrafbat, a Soviet penal battalion.
Three times awarded
Ivan Kozhedub – highly decorated World War II fighter pilot; is considered the World War II Allied "Ace of Aces" with 62 victories, more than any other Allied pilot of the 1939-1945 war.
Semyon Budyonny – Military Commander, 1st Cavalry Army in the Civil War and later of the Army Cavalry Commands, also Marshal of the Soviet Union and from 1937 to 1940, Commanding Officer, Moscow Military District.
Four times awarded
Georgy Zhukov — Military commander and politician credited with many of the most significant Soviet victories of World War II, Commander of the First Belorussian Front and Marshal of the Soviet Union.
^Rokossovsky held Polish citizenship while serving as Polish Defense Minister. This would technically make him the only "foreign citizen" to hold multiple titles of Hero of the Soviet Union, but it should be noted that he was awarded the titles while a Soviet citizen.