The hero city's dark days

Moscow 1941
July 7, 2006

Stalin panicked and feared arrest before the Nazi troops closed in on Moscow. With good reason, says Catherine Andreyev

Moscow 1941 is an outstanding book. It is extremely readable and incorporates much new material into its account of how the Second World War was experienced in Moscow while shedding light on the war in the Soviet Union as a whole. Surprisingly, Moscow's war has been a neglected subject.

The heroic defence of Stalingrad is better known, and the siege of Leningrad has received attention from both historians and novelists.

Moscow, by contrast, has been neglected, perhaps because the situation there was a little less heroic and did not show the Soviet leadership in a good light. Although other Soviet cities were given hero status immediately after the end of the war, Moscow became a "hero city" only in 1965, and the Museum of the Defence of Moscow was created only in 1995.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite was the British ambassador in Moscow from 1988 to 1992 and knows the city well. He has used official sources and accounts of the war published by the main political and military personalities, who since 1991 have been able to reveal many aspects they could not have discussed earlier. He supplements these sources with interviews, letters and diaries from a wide variety of other "ordinary"

people. The interplay between official accounts and the grassroots is very effective. In the 60 years since the war's end, some of those interviewed may have improved their stories and highlighted their own role in some particular wartime episode, but taken together these accounts provide a fascinating insight not only into the war but also into Soviet society.

Braithwaite certainly understands Russian history and Soviet politics, but he is also familiar with Russian culture. During the war, Russians turned to the work of Tolstoy for his view of conflict and his understanding of human reactions towards war, and later Vasili Grossman and Konstantin Simonov chronicled the war in literature. Braithwaite therefore has the ability to bring Russia and the Russians to life in a way that few histories manage to do.

The social reality in Moscow was complex. He writes: "Moscow was still a city of first and second-generation peasants, people who had flooded into the capital in search of jobs and careers. They had not forgotten the horrors of collectivisation and famine. Some hoped that the war would come and sweep away the hated collective farms... But the genuine enthusiasm which had fuelled the revolution 24 years earlier was still there despite the horrors which had succeeded it."

The German invasion of the Soviet Union added further layers of complexity.

The armed forces had endured a great deal from the so-called Tukhachevsky purge in 1937, when up to 80 per cent of senior officers had been removed from their positions. The lack of trust exhibited by the political leadership arguably had continued in other aspects of the armed forces. The Finnish war of 1939-40 had demonstrated the woeful state of the Soviet Union's armed forces - deficient in leadership, morale and equipment.

Although great efforts were now made, the situation was far from satisfactory on the eve of the invasion.

In 1941, Stalin did not believe either that Hitler might be contemplating war or the explicit warnings he received on the eve of the invasion. Soviet commanders who took initiatives to respond to German troop movements on the border were likely to be accused of provoking the situation and punished.

The net result was that the Soviet Union was caught completely unprepared on June 22 and the majority of its airforce was on the ground, awaiting an inspection, and thus a good target for the Luftwaffe.

Braithwaite illustrates just how disorganised the Soviet authorities were at this time. Stalin demanded to know what was happening, but the commanders had lost contact with their troops. "The generals and their political masters had only the sketchiest idea of what was happening at the front, and little conception of the extent of the catastrophe." Stalin appears to have succumbed to nervous strain and withdrawn to his dacha.

There he was visited by the members of the Politburo on June 30 and seems to have feared that he would be arrested by them. What exactly happened is still not clear,but, given the very mixed responses of the population to the war and the Soviet regime, such a fear would not have been unwarranted.

This last incident is well known, but Braithwaite also discusses the panic of October 16, 1941, which is largely undocumented. At this time, the fear was that the Germans might break through at any moment, and so plans were made for evacuating the city. A bunker was built in Kuibyshev for Stalin. On October 16, "a sinister snow was falling, but the flakes that fluttered down were black, not white. They were the ashes of papers being burned in one office after another." Some Muscovites left, while others took matters into their own hands. "Workers from Factory 219 attacked a group of six cars travelling along the Highway of the Enthusiasts, dragged out the passengers, beat them up, threw their possessions into the road and hurled their vehicles into a nearby ravine."

The journalist Nikolai Verbitski recorded his fury in his diary: "Who gave the order to close the factories? To pay off the workers? Who was behind the whole muddle, the mass flight, the looting, the confusion in everyone's minds?... Everyone is boiling with indignation, talking out loud, shouting that they have been betrayed." Three days later, on October 19, Stalin stated that Moscow should not be abandoned, and the atmosphere began to change.

When the war broke out, the NKVD tried to assess the popular mood, and did not find the task easy. It was clear that there was considerable criticism of the Government and that this was expressed with "freedom, force and perspicacity". As the news of the desperate situation on the front began to filter back, so the questions began to be more insistent. "Why was the Army surrendering one Russian city after another? Was it that the peasant soldiers were unwilling to fight for the regime that had destroyed their way of life?" Despite heavy Soviet government propaganda, attitudes to the Germans were complicated. Not everyone saw them as aggressors. On May Day 1942, Stalin referred to the "placidity and indifference" towards the enemy that had existed in the first months of the war. These feelings, he claimed, had now been replaced by hatred as "the enemy had revealed the depth of his barbarism." To counter disaffection at the front, Order no.

0 was read to all troops in August 1941. "Those who deserted should be shot on the spot, and their families arrested. Commanders who failed to direct their soldiers effectively in battle should be demoted or reduced to the ranks, and replaced by NCOs or soldiers who had distinguished themselves in action."

These attitudes continued throughout the war. They contributed to General Vlasov's decision, while in German captivity, to try to lead an anti-Stalinist Liberation Army. Vlasov had been one of the Soviet heroes of the battle for Moscow, but he knew he could not go back there, even though his captivity could be attributed to the fact that the Second Shock Army on the Volkhov front had not received the support it required to withstand the German attack.

The battle for Moscow was, arguably, one of the most important of the Second World War. It put paid to the myth of German invincibility. Once the Wehrmacht got bogged down in Russia, the whole strategy of the blitzkrieg was in ruins. The scale of casualties in the Soviet Union has been the subject of endless dispute. The chaos in the initial stages of the war meant that proper records were not kept.

In spite of red tape, inefficiency, lack of food and fuel, the battle for Moscow united Russians and created a cement that held Soviet society together after the war - in stark contrast to today's Russia. Braithwaite's book will be of great interest to those familiar with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Front but also to those with less specialist interests.

Although he wisely does not embark on speculation or consider the wider resonances of his research, his account could be read with profit by anyone tempted to generalise about the effects of military attack and the civilian response to invasion.

Catherine Andreyev is lecturer in modern European history, Oxford University.

Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War

Author - Rodric Braithwaite
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 446
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 86197 759 X

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