The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II
by Andrew Nagorski
Simon and Schuster, 366 pp., $27.00
Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War
by Rodric Braithwaite
Knopf, 398 pp., $30.00
Hitler invaded the Soviet Union at 0400 hours on June 22, 1941. By June 23, the Wehrmacht had destroyed the entire Soviet air force. By June 26, the Soviet commander of the Western front had lost radio contact with Moscow. By June 28, German troops had entered Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus. And on the morning of June 29—just a week into the invasion—Stalin failed to appear in the Kremlin.
Until that moment Stalin, though stunned by the attack, had appeared to be more or less in control. He had not yet made a public statement—Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, was the one assigned to announce the invasion to the Soviet people—and Khrushchev later said he had looked, throughout that period, like “a different Stalin, a bag of bones in a grey tunic.” Still, he had been stable enough to order the rapid evacuation of the western regions of the country, once his generals convinced him that the invasion really was something more than a diabolical provocation.
But the fall of Minsk, less than a week after the start of the war, seems to have left him in despair. “Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up,” he told his entourage, before disappearing to his dacha. When he failed to show up in Moscow the next day, the Politburo members tried to call him. “Comrade Stalin’s not here and is unlikely to be here,” his secretary responded. He didn’t appear the day after that either.
Worried, the Politburo met in secret, and determined to approach Stalin themselves. Nervously, they made their way to his “Blizny” or “Nearby” dacha, in a wooded area outside of Moscow. Anastas Mikoyan, one of Stalin’s inner circle, later described the scene:
We found him in an armchair in the small dining room. He looked up and said, “What have you come here for?” He had the strangest look on his face, and the question itself was pretty strange too….
Mikoyan implies, and others have since asserted, that Stalin assumed they were coming to kill him. He was wrong: they had decided to set up a committee that could make rapid decisions during the war, bypassing the rest of the government, and they had come to tell Stalin that they wanted him to be its leader. Stalin, wrote Mikoyan, “looked surprised, but made no objection.” If there was a low point in Stalin’s career, surely it was this moment. He believed that the war might be lost—and that his hitherto docile subordinates were about to murder him as a result.
Four and a half months later, on November 7, 1941, the world would see a different Stalin: standing on a tribune beside Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, defiantly marking the anniversary of the October Revolution with the traditional parade. The Germans were, at that precise moment, only a few dozen miles away, and their …