The Greatest Battle in History
By Jeremy Noble
Rodric Braithwaite knows Moscow well. As a diplomat he served here from 1963 to 1966, and he was the British Ambassador from 1988 to 1992. He also knows the language well, having studied Russian at Cambridge in 1952-5 and at Oxford in 1972-3. It is important to mention these facts at the outset because it is his familiarity with the city and with the Russian language which allows him to write this history of the Battle of Moscow, with an authority and fluency that few Western (and perhaps few Russian) historians can match.
He makes the case convincingly that what he is writing about is a battle almost without equal in history: “By one measure – the number of people involved – the Battle of Moscow was the greatest battle of the Second World War, and therefore the greatest battle in history. More than seven million officers and men from both sides took part… The Battle of Moscow swirled over a territory the size of France, and lasted for six months from September 1941 to April 1942. The Soviet Union lost more people in this one battle – 926,000 soldiers killed, to say nothing of the wounded – than the British lost in the whole of the First World War. Their casualties in this one battle were greater than the combined casualties of the British and Americans in the whole of the Second World War. This was the horrendous price they paid for inflicting on the Wehrmacht the first real defeat it had ever suffered.”
Braithwaite makes the comparison with two other attempts at an invasion of Russia: “The Poles in 1612, the French in 1812, and the Germans in 1941 all travelled along the same route to Moscow. On all three occasions the Russians stood and fought at Smolensk, and in 1812 and 1941 they stood at Borodino. The German army in 1941 was almost as dependent on horses as Napoleon’s army, and took a lot longer to get to Moscow.”
He is particularly good when it comes to ‘setting the scene;’ he tells us what was playing at the Bolshoi Theatre on New Year’s Eve 1940 (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar Saltan and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake). He tells us about the purges of a few years earlier in 1937 and 1938 which had killed millions of people, and affected almost every family in the Soviet Union. He brings into his story not only Stalin, his generals and the major players, but also many ordinary Muscovites who have their own story to tell: schoolboys, nurses, ambulance drivers.
He takes us right back to the founding of Moscow, nearly 900 years ago, in order to be able to make the reader understand how the city came to be developed in such a “higgledy-piggledy” fashion. He shows how the city moved progressively outwards in concentric rings, which, in their original form, were bounded by, first paling fences, then the stone walls of a kremlin (fortress), and finally metamorphosed into the clogged- up ring roads we know and love today.
Roads played an all-important role in the Battle of Moscow, for it was along the Mozhaisk, Leningrad and Volokolamsk Highways that the Germans were stopped, within sight of the city.
That they were stopped at all is not very much to the credit of Stalin, who comes out of this story with much less of a reputation as the architect of victory; quite unlike the ‘official’ history still found in textbooks in Russian schools. Braithwaite shows how Stalin, on the eve of war, even as three million Germans and their panzer divisions were massed on the border, refused to accept the evidence that was obvious to all but himself. How close Stalin came to disaster, and the awfulness of his monomania, is one of the many reasons for reading this book.
Stalin was saved because, for all the suffering he had imposed upon his citizens, they preferred to stand and fight the Germans to the last man standing, than to become citizens of the Third Reich. When it came to it, Russia was saved by the sheer millions of peasants who sacrificed themselves for Mother Russia. It was ever thus.
Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War
Profile Books, London, 2006
1233 roubles, available at Biblio Globus, 6/3 Myasnitskaya, Bldg I; metro Lubyanka.
Jeremy Noble was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He is the author of A Century of Russian Ballet.