- Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War
- Alfred A. Knopf, 398 pp.
An Account of the Greatest Invasion
The 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote mystically that “Russia is not to be understood with the mind.” Winston Spencer Churchill put it more flatly: Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. One American still recalls arriving in Moscow for the first time in 1962, and realizing that several years of Russian studies had not prepared him for grim Soviet reality. Even today it is difficult for a Westerner to comprehend Russia. George W. Bush has never repeated his claim that in 2001 he was able to get “a sense of the soul” of Vladimir Putin.
Fortunately for those who want to understand Russia better, many Russian people have become willing to tell their stories, and many Russian archives have opened up to outsiders in the years since Soviet rule ended. Rodric Braithwaite has interviewed a broad range of Muscovites, and drawn on both archives and a wealth of published works, to produce his admirable new book, Moscow 1941.
Braithwaite’s focus in this, his second work on Russia, is on the Soviet capital in the year that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with an army of three million men. The capture of Moscow was one of the Wehrmacht’s main goals. If it is difficult for us to understand Russia, it is still more difficult to grasp the overall dimensions of Hitler’s great invasion, and of Russia’s ultimately successful response. As Braithwaite brings out, there was much tragedy and blood and foolhardiness, love and cruelty and devotion, on both sides.
Hitler and Stalin had reached agreement, two years before the German invasion, on dividing up the independent republics that lay between them. Germany then invaded Poland in September 1939, precipitating world war–but not with the Soviet Union. When Germany conquered most of Poland Stalin took, as agreed earlier, the eastern parts. People have always wondered whether Stalin anticipated that Hitler would, despite their pact, sometime strike east into the USSR. Certainly Stalin saw the need to strengthen Soviet defenses–and to rebuild the Soviet officer corps which he himself had decimated in the recent purges.
One of the most interesting parts of Braithwaite’s book is what he tells us about Konstantin Rokossovski, a general who had been purged. This was one of a number of younger officers from the Tsarist army who had joined the Soviets after the Bolshevik revolution. There were more reasons than his change of allegiance for him to be distrusted. Rokossovski was not a Russian, but a Pole, and his family belonged to the minor gentry. He was arrested in 1937 by Stalin’s secret police, and they beat him savagely–he lost eight teeth–but did not kill him. In 1940 he was released from prison and, wondrously, promoted to major general. Stalin had killed off so many generals that there was a serious lack of qualified commanders. He needed Rokossovski, who ended World War II in command of Soviet forces in northern Germany and was thereafter made a Marshal. He died a peaceful death in 1968; his memoirs were published in 2002; Braithwaite interviewed his daughter and grandson, who furnished new details about the general’s experiences.
It has long been known that a number of Soviet agents abroad, including Anthony Blunt in London and Richard Sorge in Tokyo, reported clear indications in early 1941 that Hitler was preparing to invade the USSR. Stalin did not want to believe it; by that June, as Braithwaite says, his wishful thinking “had become a catastrophic obsession.”
The Wehrmacht began the invasion of the Soviet Union at midnight, June 21-22, 1941. The force of three million men was far larger–six times, Braithwaite says; some others make it four times larger–than Napoleon’s Grande Armée, that had invaded Russia on June 24, 1812. In 1812, the French initially outnumbered the Russian defenders. In 1941 the Soviet armed forces totaled around five million and so were larger than the German, but many units were far to the east.
Napoleon collided with the Russian winter after he had begun to pull out of Russia. The winter cold and the enemy’s attacks destroyed almost all his army. Was Hitler not worried about running into winter in Russia? Not as much as he should have been. Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht would have launched the invasion perhaps three weeks earlier, if it had not been called on to invade Yugoslavia and Greece after a pro-British regime unexpectedly came to power in Belgrade. (Braithwaite does not discuss this, but it bears on the question of whether there was any chance Hitler’s invasion might succeed.)
Moscow 1941 gives us a good sense of what it was like to be living in the Soviet capital that year, as spring turned into sweet June. In some ways, Braithwaite says, it felt almost like a huge village. Stalin had famously announced in 1935 that “Life is getting better, comrades,” but the purges of the last several years had been horrendous. Now, people hoped the regime of terror might be easing. They lived in small and crowded apartments, those who were not favored apparatchiki, but there were many concerts and new films to divert them–though the films were heavy on propaganda–and ballroom dancing was all the rage.
A number of the people whom Braithwaite interviewed were young school and university graduates in 1941. As a couple of them indicated, they were not totally unprepared to take part in a war. Yelena Volkova, who was to become a nurse, recalled that in her early teens she had learned elementary nursing, and how to fire a rifle and machine gun, and even how to fly a glider. One could join the organization that provided the training, Osoaviakhim, at 14, and millions of young people did so, not always voluntarily.
Muscovites were shocked to hear, on the morning of June 22, that their country had been invaded. The first authoritative statement was read on the radio at noon that day, not by Stalin but by Vyacheslav Molotov, the Politburo member who had signed the pact with Germany that was now, suddenly, just dust. Perhaps, as our author suggests, Stalin wanted Molotov to take some of the heat over that. By the following day Stalin had set up a general headquarters, and over the following week he and the generals tried to bring order into a scene of military chaos. The Soviet army was reeling back. In the first three weeks of the invasion the Western Front alone–there were three Soviet fronts–lost almost five thousand tanks and twice that many guns, and 341,000 soldiers. Front and division commanders lost contact with subordinate units. The new Soviet tanks that were coming into service were better than the German machines they faced–but they lacked radios.
After a week of almost nonstop work Stalin took himself off to his suburban dacha, apparently exhausted. For a week there was no word from the dictator, and no decisions were being made. The members of the Politburo finally called on him, together, and Stalin said “Why have you come?” Apparently he feared they had come to arrest him. But they needed him, and he came back to the Kremlin.
There was a day of panic in Moscow in mid-October, but that autumn was all in all a time when Russians showed their toughness. Generals as well as junior officers were shot for cowardice, without the formality of a court-martial. There were many cases of great courage. Stalin appealed to the people on a basis not of ideology but of old-fashioned Russian patriotism, and most responded positively. Civilians in Moscow volunteered by the hundreds of thousands, and many were sent west with little or no training to try to slow, if they could not stop, the invaders. Many Moscow university students who had gone to fight the invader were set to work digging antitank ditches which were easily outflanked by the Germans; most of the young volunteers died.
The Wehrmacht had still not reached Moscow–but it was in the city’s distant outskirts–when the cold intensified. At the end of November German soldiers had still not received winter overcoats although the temperature reached 40 below zero (Centigrade–which equates with 40 below, Fahrenheit). Automatic weapons and vehicle transmissions began to freeze. And it turned out that the tremendous losses suffered by the Soviet army had not exhausted Soviet manpower. New divisions began to arrive from Siberia. Moscow did not fall. The next spring, Stalin announced that 1942 would be the year of final German defeat. He was of course wrong; three more years of bitter fighting lay ahead.
This is one of the best recent books on modern Russia. Another is Stalin and the Court of The Red Tsar, by another Englishman, Simon Sebag Montefiore. A third is Gulag: A History, by an American, Anne Applebaum. Also worth reading is Rodric Braithwaite’s first book, Across the Moscow River. This is a memoir of his service as British ambassador at Moscow in 1988-1992, the years when Communism ended, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to build a better and more humane society, and Boris Yeltsin rose to power.