Review: Moscow 1941 – A City and its People at War, by Rodric Braithwaite
It took place 70 years ago and was arguably the greatest battle of the Second World War. So maintains Rodric Braithwaite in this book about the battle of Moscow, which began in September 1941 and continued until spring the following year, when the Red Army finally managed to push back the German invaders who had nearly captured the Soviet capital.
The case he makes is a strong one. More than seven million people on both sides took part. The battle stretched over a territory the size of France and lasted for six months. The Soviet Union lost more people in this one battle – 926,000 soldiers killed – than the British lost in the whole of the First World War. Their casualties were greater than those of the British and Americans combined throughout the entire Second World War. The Battle of Moscow, along with that of Stalingrad, spelt the end of German expansion in the east.
This is a book about that tremendous but often overlooked battle. It follows the course of military events but as its title indicates it is not primarily about strategy and tactics. Rather it takes a look at the effect the war had on the people of Moscow and on their everyday life – which, understandably, ceased to be “everyday” in the usual sense of the term.
Muscovites dig in
Evacuation and mobilisation were major elements of the Muscovites’ wartime experience. Key industries and government institutions, their equipment, workers and personnel were transported out of the city to safer regions hundreds of kilometres away. For those who remained, everything revolved around mobilising for defence – spending the night on fire-watch duty, digging trenches and establishing defensive positions in concentric circles around the city, volunteering or being recruited for quickly assembled units of the armed forces, which, after pitifully brief training sessions, were sent off to face the enemy at the gates of Moscow.
Braithwaite readily acknowledges that the one-party system had a certain advantage when it came to mass mobilisation. The Party had its cells in housing blocks, factories and offices. It was everywhere. Mobilisation of masses of people for political purposes was part of that system. People were used to it, so the experience became an administrative convenience, enabling the regime to mobilise the population of Moscow “far more effectively than would have been possible under a more liberal system”.
A taste of the tension, terror
Nevertheless, there were problems. In the middle of October there were a couple of days of panic. The Germans were about to enter Moscow. Defeatism spread and near riots occurred in some factories when rumours (sometimes true) spread about managers abandoning their posts and fleeing the city. At the front not everything went according to plan. As in every war there could be terrible mistakes costing human lives, chaos, despair and often desertion. Extremely harsh measures were adopted and soldiers who retreated, even when forced to by German superiority, could face the firing squad.
What makes Braithwaite’s account particularly interesting is his eye for details that capture the atmosphere of Moscow during the months of battle. After the trains filled with evacuees had left, he notes, the streets were filled with the howling of abandoned dogs. It was so cold and there was so little heating during the winter that the few students still at university faced frozen inkwells. The trams had a white strip painted at the back so that the driver of the following tram could see ahead during the blackout, but the dark was broken anyway by the flashes from the overhead lines.
The theatre of war
There are also detailed accounts of significant political events, notably the meticulous practical and security preparations undertaken before Stalin gave a broadcast speech to a specially assembled audience in the Mayakovsky metro station on 6 November, the eve of the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the planning and bold execution of the traditional anniversary parade through Red Square the following day, even as the Germans were poised to take the city. Braithwaite acknowledges that the latter in particular was a great boost to morale.
Background, contextual issues are not neglected – the disastrous failure to counter the early advance of the Germans following their invasion in June 1941, the role and use of Russian patriotism to generate support for the war effort, and the inescapable tragedies of war, which left and still leave their mark on Soviet and post-Soviet society. Two-thirds of the Soviet wartime dead have no known graves.
Death by numbers
For every Briton or American who died in the war, the Japanese lost seven people, the Germans 20 and the Soviets 85. Eighty per cent of the fighting in the Second World War took place on the eastern front. “Some would dispute the precise figures,” says Rodric Braithwaite. “About the order of magnitude there can be no doubt. No wonder the Russians believe that it was they who won the war.”
Buy the book
Moscow 1941 – A City and its People at War
By Rodric Braithwaite
Paperback, illustrated, 446 pages
Profile Books, 2007, GBP 9.99