Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

Seweryn Bialer’s selection of Soviet military memoirs makes fascinating reading. It is in fact a model of editing: the Introduction, the linking passages, the notes, are just what they should be: informative, accurate, and relevant. The days when histories of the Soviet-German conflict could be written only from German sources are long past. During the last twelve years, countless articles and books, by generals and by historians, have poured from Soviet presses. Needless to say, some of the material is slanted, but largely in familiar ways: all generals seek to prove that they were responsible for successful battles, and that failures were due to someone else or to circumstances beyond their control.

In the Soviet Union, there are, of course, other circumstances to be taken into account. The role of the Party, for instance, can be presented only in one way, the official way. Only those political figures who have fallen out of favor can be criticized. Zhukov’s part in the war was almost ignored in anything published between 1957 and 1964. Marshal Yeremenko praised Khrushchev’s military role, and therefore his own inflated claims could not be deflated until after 1964. These and other biases are dealt with by Bialer, and he rightly concludes that there is nevertheless plenty of good, usable material.

The success that this volume undoubtedly deserves must also be attributed to the fascination of the events themselves. The first part deals with the impact of Stalin’s purge of the military before World War II as seen by its survivors. The purge had effects which showed themselves all too clearly at the outbreak of war. Because of the loss of a high proportion of trained military (and to some extent also specialist-technical) manpower, staff and regimental appointments in 1941 were often held by junior and inexperienced men, and the commanders of the three principal fronts when the Germans attacked, Generals F. Kuznetzov, D. Pavlov, and Kirponos, were, by all accounts, worthy second-raters, promoted rapidly through no fault or talent of their own to replace the brilliant generals who had been slaughtered on Stalin’s orders. The three deputy commissars of defense, Kulik, Mekhlis, and Shchadenko, were loud-mouthed nonentities who played a sinister role in the Purge.

The second important effect of the Purge was on the minds of those who had not been arrested: in both the military and the industrial field it paralyzed initiative and disrupted mutual confidence and working arrangements between staff officers, designers, officials. Nor was it possible to organize fuel dumps, minefields, even guerrilla bases, in the event a retreat was necessary; this would be “defeatism and panic-mongering,” perhaps a capital offense.

The crisis of June 1941 seems fantastic in retrospect. The Germans were concentrating their forces, and evidence of imminent attack was accumulating. Not only the Soviet military and naval attachés in Berlin, not only Soviet agents, but also German deserters and Soviet soldiers on the frontier provided information which Stalin rejected. But suggestions for the most elementary precautions were ignored by Stalin, and those who made them were rebuked for panic-mongering and for falling victim to “provocation.” It is an incredible fact that Soviet divisional and corps commanders had either a few minutes’ warning of the German attack or none at all, that troops were asleep in barracks, planes lined up unprotected on vulnerable airfields, mobilization had not been ordered, many officers and men were on leave. What did Stalin think was happening?

Here we see another effect of the Terror. His political cronies would tell him nothing he did not want to hear. His military experts, in all probability, diluted intelligence reports for fear of the despot’s displeasure, and indeed there is some evidence of this. Stalin’s wishful thinking was thus insufficiently disturbed. Above all he would not allow any step to be taken—such as a more effective deployment of forces, or even partial mobilization—which might “provoke” the Nazis. His immediate reaction to the invasion seems to have been to hope against hope that some German generals had acted on their own initiative, so that for some hours there was hesitation even to allow counter-attacks. At first no one dared to announce that war had begun. One of the accounts in the Bialer collection tells us how, after bombs had been falling for several hours, the loudspeakers in a border town were broadcasting Radio-Moscow’s news bulletin, about some factory overfulfilling the plan by so many percent; and this was followed by the usual morning physical exercise program!

How did the forces compare? How important was the advantage gained by surprise, which was achieved with Stalin’s wholehearted if wrongheaded collaboration? Bialer considers the numbers of troops on both sides to have been about equal, though the Russians had more tanks and aircraft, although he points out that most of these were obsolete and no match for those of the Germans. On troop numbers a contrary view is expressed in Zhukov’s memoirs published in Moscow (although not in the excerpts that are under review); and surely the divisions available to the Russian commanders were much smaller than the German divisions and not at full strength anyway. But the differences in quality and experience of staffs, in equipment, in communications, in mobility, were immense. Poor General D. Pavlov and his staff were shot by Stalin for their failure, but if Napoleon or Suvorov had commanded these Russian divisions, with this equipment and personnel, surely there would have been a shattering defeat all the same. Zhukov in his (Russian) memoirs suggests that, had the Soviet government called up the reserves and incorporated them in the units deployed at the frontier, the only effect might have been to increase still further the number of prisoners, a view which implies that even a week’s warning would hardly have saved the armies in the threatened zones, even with reinforcements. Indeed, failure to mobilize had the (unintended) effect of preserving manpower reserves.


The tragic catastrophe at Kiev in September 1941 is vividly portrayed in the extract from the memoirs of Marshal Bagramyan. Then a Major-General, Bagramyan was among the few who were able to get away. The unfortunate General Kirponos, well knowing that only immediate retreat could save his armies, was ordered to stay put until too late, and was killed in the débâcle. It is perhaps a little unfair of the editor to reproach Kirponos for lack of moral courage in meekly obeying, and so dooming his soldiers to destruction. Perhaps he did “fear Stalin more than the enemy,” but a commander whose request to be allowed to retreat is rejected has no alternative but to obey. Incidentally, in view of the superiority of the Germans in mobility, armament and aircraft on the open Ukrainian plain, one wonders how much of his army could have been saved even if Stalin had issued the right orders a few days sooner.

The Kiev episode is at least strategically and tactically understandable. More puzzling is the disaster that followed it, the encirclement around Vyazma of almost all the regular forces defending the distant approaches to Moscow. These forces were drawn up with most of an army group, the Rezervnyi Front, and were in the rear of the Western group commanded by Konev. An attack was expected. How did it come about that both Army groups were caught in the net, and communications between the armies and with Moscow broke down so completely? Konev’s explanation of his failure (lack of mobility, of ammunition, of tanks) is duly cited in the volume. Zhukov tells how he was hastily recalled from Leningrad to deal with this emergency. Headquarters in Moscow, unaware of the scale of the German breakthrough, at first refused to believe reports from Soviet pilots that a large German armored column was on the highway far behind the two defending Army groups, at a time when literally no regular divisions stood between this column and Moscow. Moscow was saved in the nick of time; and this tense period is well described in several of the translated extracts.

The Soviet losses in 1941 must have included most of the troops, tanks, and planes in existence at the outbreak of the war, almost all the artillery, supply dumps, and much of the ammunition. Furthermore, in spite of the evacuation of some key plants and personnel, serious difficulties stood in the way of organizing the production of armaments. It is understandable that Hitler was so sure that his enemy was finished. It was a truly fantastic achievement to have succeeded by the end of 1942 to outproduce Germany. This was made possible by a ruthless concentration of all resources for war, with appalling hardships for civilians. A similar ruthlessness, or even an excess of it, was used to maintain discipline in front and rear, amid defeats and sufferings far worse than those which had caused the downfall of the Tsarist regime. This is, of course, not to deny the great importance of patriotic fervor. The descendants of the serfs who had stood and died at Borodino in 1812 stood and died in front of Moscow again in 1941.

There is much on Stalin in Bialer’s collection, as well as on the relations between the generals and various political commissars. It seems clear that most of the generals tended to regard Stalin with respect and awe. Zhukov, himself a tough and ruthless commander, appears patently sincere in his description of his dealings with the generalissimo, and it is erroneous to see in his memoirs an essay in restalinization. After his dreadful blindness on the eve of the war, Stalin did recover his nerve and exercise supreme direction with firmness, while he seems to have been more willing than Hitler to listen to professional advice. It is indeed absurd to ascribe, in the Khrushchev manner, all defeats to Stalin’s bungling and all victories to anonymous headquarters or the general staff.


To some extent the record has been set straight. Stalin did make grave errors, but also took correct decisions and imposed them. A Soviet professor once said to me, after expressing himself bitterly on Stalin’s crimes: “But you know what our military situation was. Would we have survived without both terroristic discipline and semi-religious faith in that man?” It is a point of view which should be taken seriously, whatever Stalin’s own contribution to the military débâcle of 1941. However, the most recent Soviet writing is affected by the refusal to allow discussion of the Stalin terror and its consequences, and this seems to unbalance the picture.

An extremely expensive error seems to have contributed to the last of the major disasters suffered by the Red Army, the collapse of the southern front in the summer of 1942 after an ill-judged attack on Kharkov. There has been little published on this episode, which is treated only briefly in the many volumes of the official history of the war. Zhukov speaks of a basic misreading of German strategic intentions, which caused the Soviet reserves to be placed much too far north, and claims that Stalin acted contrary to his advice in ordering an attack.

What emerges in any analysis of the two big Soviet victories in the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad is the extraordinary will-power and restraint which enabled the Soviet command, in a critical situation when there were desperate calls for reinforcements from the front line, to collect reserves and use them for a major attack, instead of committing them in the defensive battle. Maneuvering in front of Moscow was doubtless facilitated by the excellent communications network there, but the preparation of the Stalingrad offensive, in the mud and with no roads and few railways, was an aweinspiring achievement of transport and supply.

The battle of Kursk-Belgorod is sometimes described as the last great “conventional” battle, with vast numbers of tanks engaged on both sides. It was also the last battle in which the Germans attempted to gain strategic initiative. The skill with which the Soviet command dealt with the situation and the quality of their equipment, contrasted strikingly with the first year of the war. Lend-lease probably made its most significant contribution to Soviet mobility, since the weak automobile industry could not supply enough trucks. After Kursk, German defeat was certain and Soviet superiority overwhelming, and so the dramatic impact of the story inevitably lessens. However, the immense pride of those who, like Chuikov and his men, fought their way from the Volga to Berlin is quite understandable. So is the impact of the war, with its huge losses, disasters, triumphs, on the minds of all who lived through those years. It must still affect the outlook of Soviet leaders toward Germany.

Bialer has also included extracts concerned with other matters of interest, from the Finnish war of 1939-40 to the meetings with Western generals after the armistice. Perhaps the only criticism, and this of the publishers and not of the editor, is that on the dust-cover the words “Stalin and his generals” are printed upon a photograph of the late dictator with Mikoyan and Kaganovich, which is rather like accompanying the caption “Napoleon and his marshals” with a picture of Talleyrand and Josephine.

Zhukov’s memoirs have been published in Moscow and they are being translated in England. Some extracts from the memoirs, which had been published in Soviet military journals and thus held to be “in the public domain,” have been rushed into print with a sensible commentary by Harrison Salisbury. The motive, the publishers make much point in announcing, is to teach the Russians a lesson, to cure them of pirating Western works and to encourage them to join the copyright convention. A laudable aim, no doubt, but the chief sufferer may be the British publisher of the full version! The present volume includes Zhukov’s comments on the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin, and is naturally of great interest, but of interest to whom? The specialist will surely await the full version, with its maps, photographs, and additional footnotes, while it may be doubted that other readers will really want to know that “the Kashira sector was reinforced with the 112th Tank Division under Colonel A. L. Getman.”

This Issue

September 25, 1969