The greatest battle of all
Moscow 1941: a city and its people at war
Rodric Braithwaite Profile Books, 4
Not so long ago, in the years between 1941 and 1945, Britain and Stalin's Soviet Union were united in a popular alliance against Nazi Germany. The surviving traces of that special relationship in popular memory may have something to do with the fact that books about our wartime ally, many based on the newly opened Soviet archives, have been received with such enthusiasm. Rodric Braithwaite's Moscow 1941 joins Antony Beevor's excellent Stalingrad and Catherine Merridale's spectacular Ivan's War to create an extraordinary trio of wartime stories which reveal much that was ignored or largely unknown during the cold war.
Indeed, many readers may find themselves more familiar with the schoolbook story of Napoleon's lightning invasion of Russia in 1812 than with Hitler's less speedy attack in 1941. Braithwaite starts his book with a map to show how the two invasions, 129 years apart, followed exactly the same route - from Warsaw to Minsk to Smolensk - and concluded with the Russians taking a stand at Borodino (now Mozhaisk), close to Moscow. For the Russians, the "Patriotic War" of 1812 merged seamlessly into the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941 to become the subject of endless myth and legend. In the postwar years, Stalin himself was reluctant to pay much attention to the Battle of Moscow; it reminded him of the moment when his entire regime was under terminal threat.
When Hitler launched his attack on the Soviet Union on Sunday 22 June 1941, foreign diplomats in Moscow assumed that the country would not be able to hold out for more than four or five weeks - or so Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador, had told Britain's war cabinet the previous week. Yet six months later the Russians were still holding grimly on, at a terrible price. During the battle for Moscow itself, from September 1941 to April 1942, the Russians lost nearly a million men, with endless new recruits pitched into the city's defences like so many sandbags filling a breached dyke. Braithwaite suggests that this was the greatest battle in history, involving more than seven million men from both sides. Russian casualties were larger than the combined figure for the British and Americans in the whole of the war, and when the Germans eventually fell back from Moscow it was by no means the end of the struggle. Great battles were still to take place at Stalingrad in 1942, at Kursk in 1943, and for Berlin in 1945. Leningrad was under siege for 900 days. Yet the defeat of Hitler's Wehrmacht outside Mos-cow made subsequent victory possible.
Braithwaite is an old-fashioned Russophile, a scholar-diplomat steeped in Russian history and literature who had the good fortune to be Britain's ambassador in Moscow at another significant point in world affairs, as the cold war began to lose its icy grip in the late 1980s. His new book is not quite in the same league as those of Beevor and Merridale - his command of his material is less secure and his prose is sometimes pedestrian. Yet he is able to escape from diplomacy to provide a real taste of people's history, coupling his own encyclopaedic knowledge of Moscow with material gleaned in interviews with aged survivors of those terrible years. His harsh judgement of the Soviet regime is softened by his affection for the ordinary Russians who fought back with resolution as their history and culture req uired them to do. He allows them to tell their stories of comradeship, inventiveness, hunger and horror.
The real crisis for Stalin's regime, and the heart of Braithwaite's book, occurred in October 1941, with the Germans at the gates of the city and a total breakdown of law and order inside. Stalin remained behind, but much of the government transferred to Kuibyshev on the Volga. People who should have known better, such as senior party officials and factory managers, made their own way out of town, often stopped and lynched by their workers. Suddenly people began praising Hitler openly and criticising Stalin. Years of pent-up resentment came to the sur-face. Eventually the authorities awoke from their slumber and reasserted order, with the customary brutality of the Soviet state. Even political prisoners held in the Lubyanka were transferred to Kuibyshev for execution.
One useful source that Braithwaite plunders to good effect is the memoirs of David Ortenberg, the Jewish editor of the army newspaper, Krasnaya Zveda, who played a crucial (and courageous) role as an intermediary between the local government of Moscow and the troops. Talented and fearless writers were recruited to accompany the soldiers and report from the front line. Previous editors had disappeared during the purges, but Ortenberg was told that his appointment had been approved by Stalin.
Not that this was any guarantee of safety. Whereas generals found wanting during Brit-ain's war could be swapped or exiled to India, in Stalin's Russia they were usually shot, their wives as well, although sometimes they were able to commit suicide first. The purges that had decimated the senior ranks of the Soviet officer corps in the late 1930s had eased off by 1941, but fighting what was perceived as the internal enemy as well as the external foe continued throughout the period of the German invasion, and in some cases into the postwar years. Braithwaite's book evokes a picture of a recent world that now seems far older than even the times of Ivan the Terrible.
Richard Gott is the author, with Martin Gilbert, of "The Appeasers" (Phoenix Press)