Biographies & Memoirs


War: The Bungling Genius 1941–1942


Optimism and Breakdown

Stalin had retired when Zhukov called Kuntsevo. “Who’s calling?” the sleepy voice of the NKGB general answered.

“Zhukov. Chief of Staff. Please connect me to Comrade Stalin. It’s urgent.”

“What, right now? Comrade Stalin’s sleeping.”

“Wake him immediately,” Zhukov told the duty officer. “The Germans are bombing our cities.”

There was a silence. Zhukov waited for what seemed like an eternity. He was not the only one trying to report the invasion to Stalin, but the generals remained as petrified of their own leader as they were of the Germans. At 4:17 a.m. (Russian time) the Black Sea command called Zhukov at the Defence Commissariat to report a swarm of bombers. At 4:30 a.m. the Western Front was on the line, at 4:40, the Baltic was under attack. Around the same time, Admiral Kuznetsov was telephoned by his Sebastopol commander: the German bombing had started. Kuznetsov immediately phoned the Kremlin where he encountered the bureaucratic narrow-mindedness that is so characteristic of tyrannies. It was meant to be a secret that Stalin lived at Kuntsevo, so the officer replied:

“Comrade Stalin is not here and I don’t know where he is.”

“I have an exceedingly important message which I must immediately relay to Comrade Stalin personally . . .”

“I can’t help you in any way,” he replied and hung up, so Kuznetsov called Timoshenko who, deluged with such calls, was afraid to inform Stalin. Kuznetsov tried all the numbers he had for Stalin but to no avail, so he called the Kremlin again.

“I request you to inform Comrade Stalin that German planes are bombing Sebastopol. This is war!”

“I shall report it to the proper person.” A few minutes later, the Admiral discovered who “the proper person” was: flabby, quiet-spoken Malenkov called, asking in “a dissatisfied, irritated voice”: “Do you understand what you’re reporting?”

Even as German bombers strafed Kiev and Sebastopol and as their troops crossed the borders, Stalin’s courtiers were still trying to bully away reality. Malenkov rang off and called Sebastopol to check the story.

Timoshenko was not alone in his office: Mekhlis, “the Shark,” spent the night with the generals. Like Malenkov, he was determined that there would be no invasion that night. When the head of anti-aircraft artillery, Voronov, hurried in to report, Timoshenko was so nervous that he handed him a notebook and absurdly “told me to present my report in writing” so that if they were all arrested for treason, he would be responsible for his crimes. Mekhlis sidled up behind him and read over his shoulder to check that he was writing exactly what he had said. Then Mekhlis made him sign it. Timoshenko ordered anti-aircraft forces not to respond: Voronov realized “he did not believe the war had begun.”

Timoshenko was called by the Deputy Commander of the Western Special Military District, Boldin, who frantically reported that the Germans were advancing. Timoshenko ordered him not to react.

“What do you mean?” shouted Boldin. “Our troops are retreating, towns are in flames, people are dying . . .”

“Joseph Vissarionovich believes this could be a provocation by some German generals.” Timoshenko’s instinct was to persuade someone else to break the news to Stalin. He asked Budyonny: “The Germans are bombing Sebastopol. Should I or shouldn’t I tell Stalin?”

“Inform him immediately!”

“You call him,” beseeched Timoshenko. “I’m afraid.”

“No, you call him,” retorted Budyonny. “You’re Defence Commissar!” Finally, Budyonny agreed and started calling Kuntsevo. Timoshenko, who could not spread this task widely enough, ordered Zhukov to telephone Stalin too.

Zhukov was still waiting on the line to Kuntsevo as Stalin was roused. Three minutes later, he came to the phone. Zhukov reported and asked permission to counter-attack. There was silence. He could just hear Stalin breathing.

“Did you understand me?” asked Zhukov. “Comrade Stalin?” He could still only hear heavy breathing. Then Stalin spoke: “Bring Timoshenko to the Kremlin. Tell Poskrebyshev to summon the Politburo.” Mikoyan and the Politburo were already being rung:

“It’s war!” Now Budyonny reached Stalin at the dacha and added that Riga was being bombed as well. Stalin called Poskrebyshev, who was sleeping in his study: “The bombing’s started.”182

Stalin sped into town: he had banned the Politburo from staying in their dachas so they were already there. Stalin rode up in the lift to the second floor, hurried along the red-carpeted corridors with their wooden panelling and snapped at Poskrebyshev as he walked into his office: “Get the others here now.” Zhukov claimed the Politburo assembled at 4:30 a.m. but Molotov thought it was earlier. However, Stalin’s office logbook shows the meeting started at 5:45 a.m. just over an hour after the full German attack. Molotov, who lived in the same building, not far from Stalin’s flat, arrived first, swiftly joined by Beria, Timoshenko, Zhukov and Mekhlis.

Stalin did not collapse: Mikoyan thought he was “subdued.” Zhukov noticed he was “pale” and “bewildered” sitting at the green baize table, “a pipe in his hand.” Voronov thought him “depressed and nervy,” but he was in command of his office at least. Outside the fronts were in anarchy. But here, Chadaev, the Sovnarkom assistant, remembered that Stalin “spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, occasionally his voice broke down. When he had finished, everybody was silent for some time and so was he.” But amazingly, he still persisted in the idea that the war might be “a provocation by the German officers,” convinced that Hitler might have a Tukhachevsky among the high command of the Wehrmacht. “Hitler simply does not know about it.” Stalin would not order resistance until he had heard from Berlin.

“That scoundrel Ribbentrop tricked us,” he said to Mikoyan several times, still not blaming Hitler. Stalin ordered Molotov: “We have to call the German Embassy immediately.” Molotov called from Stalin’s desk, laden with telephones, and stammered, “Tell him to come.” Schulenburg had already contacted Molotov’s office, asking to see the Foreign Commissar. “I started from Stalin’s office upstairs to my own office” which took about three minutes. Schulenburg, accompanied by Hilger, arrived in the office overlooking Ivan the Terrible’s church for the second time that night—and the last time in his career. The summery Kremlin was bathed in the first light and fragrant with the acacias and roses of the Alexandrovsky Gardens.183

Schulenburg read out the telegram that had arrived at 3 a.m. Berlin time: the concentrations of Soviet forces had forced the Reich to take military “counter measures.” He finished. Molotov’s face twitched with disbelief and anger. Finally, he stammered: “Is this supposed to be a declaration of war?” Schulenburg could not speak either: he shrugged sadly.

Molotov’s anger overcame his shock: “The message I have just been given couldn’t mean anything but a declaration of war since German troops have already crossed the border and Soviet cities like Odessa, Kiev and Minsk have been bombed by German aircraft for an hour and a half.” Molotov was shouting now. This was “a breach of confidence unprecedented in history.” Now Germany had unleashed a terrible war. “Surely we haven’t deserved that.” There was nothing more to say: Count von der Schulenburg, who would be executed by Hitler for his part in the July 1944 plot, shook hands and departed, passing limousines rolling into the Kremlin bearing generals. Molotov rushed to Stalin’s office where he announced: “Germany’s declared war on us.”

Stalin subsided into his chair, “lost in thought.” The silence was “long and pregnant.” Stalin “looked tired, worn out,” recalled Chadaev. “His pock-marked face was drawn and haggard.” This, recalled Zhukov, “was the only time I saw Stalin depressed.” Then he roused himself with a wildly optimistic slogan: “The enemy will be beaten all along the line”— and he turned to the generals: “What do you recommend?”

Zhukov suggested that the frontier districts must “hold up” the Germans—

“Annihilate,” interrupted Timoshenko, “not ‘hold up.’ ”

“Issue a directive,” said Stalin, still under the spell of his grand delusion. “Do not cross the border.” Timoshenko, not Stalin, signed the series of directives that were issued throughout the morning. Chadaev noticed the mood improve: “on that first day of war, everyone was . . . quite optimistic.”

Yet despite everything, Stalin persisted in clinging on to shards of his shattered illusion: he said he hoped to settle things diplomatically. No one dared contradict this absurdity except Molotov, his comrade since 1912 who was one of the last who could openly argue with him.

“No!” replied Molotov emphatically. It was war and “nothing could be done about it.” The scale of the invasion and Molotov’s stark insistence managed to shake the reality into Stalin.

When Dmitrov, the Comintern leader, arrived, the outer office was a hive of activity, with Poskrebyshev, Mekhlis (in uniform again), Marshal Timoshenko, and Admiral Kuznetsov at work—and Beria “giving orders on the phone.” Inside, he noticed Stalin’s “striking calmness, resoluteness, confidence...” “They fell on us, without making any claims, making a vile attack like bandits,” Stalin told Dmitrov. The “bandits” had the advantage of total surprise. The Soviet front line had been overwhelmed. Stalin’s armies were strongest in the south. However, while the Germans thrust towards Leningrad and the Ukraine, Hitler’s strongest army group was meant to take Moscow. Army Group Centre’s two pincers shattered the Soviet Western Front, under Colonel-General Pavlov whose counter-attack was tossed aside as the Panzers charged towards Minsk and the road to Moscow.

Stalin reacted with a steady stream of orders that admittedly bore little relation to the disaster at the front: nonetheless, Beria, Malenkov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich and Voroshilov came, went and returned to the Little Corner throughout the morning so that by midday, all of them had been there at least twice, Beria thrice. Mekhlis was one of the first to arrive, Kulik came later. The Vozhd ordered Kaganovich to prepare the trains to remove factories and 20 million people from the front— nothing was to fall into German hands. Mikoyan was to supply the armies.

Stalin retained minute control over everything, from the size and shape of bayonets to the Pravda headlines and who wrote the articles, losing neither his jealousy of others’ glory nor his flawless instinct for self-preservation. When General Koniev received several mentions in the newspapers during the first week, Stalin found the time to telephone the editor and snap: “You’ve printed enough on Koniev.” When the same editor asked if he could publish one writer whom Stalin had savagely denounced before the war, he replied: “You may print. Comrade Adveenko has atoned.” Meanwhile he himself deliberately disappeared from the public eye. His appearances on the front page of Pravda fell dramatically. Amazingly, the USSR possessed no Supreme Command: at nine that morning, Stalin created an early version, the Stavka. Naturally, the decree named Stalin as Commander-in-Chief but he crossed it out and put Timoshenko’s name instead.

Everyone agreed that the government had to announce the war. Mikoyan and the others proposed Stalin should do it but he refused: “Let Molotov speak.” After all, Molotov had signed the treaty with Ribbentrop. The entourage disagreed—surely the people would not understand why they were not hearing from the Premier. Stalin insisted that he would speak another time. “He didn’t want to be first to speak,” said Molotov. “He needed a clear picture . . . He couldn’t respond like an automaton to everything . . . He was a human being after all.”

Molotov, who still regarded himself as a political journalist, immediately set to work on the announcement but Stalin dominated the drafting for he possessed the gift of distilling complex ideas into the simple and stirring phrases that henceforth characterized his war speeches. At midday, Molotov drove to the Central Telegraph Office on Gorky Street, just up from the Kremlin. He mastered his stammer and delivered the famous speech in his flat but quavering voice: “Our cause is just. The enemy will be crushed. Victory will be ours.”

When Molotov returned, Stalin walked up to his office to congratulate him: “Well, you sounded a bit flustered but the speech went well.” Molotov needed praise: he was much vainer than he looked. Just then the vertushka rang: it was Timoshenko reporting on the chaos of the frontier where the commanders, especially Pavlov on the vital Western Front that covered Minsk and the road to Moscow, had lost contact with their troops. Stalin fulminated about how “unexpected attack is very important in war. It gives the initiative to the attackers . . . You must strictly prevent . . . any panic. Call the commanders, clear the situation and report . . . How long will you need? Two hours, well not more . . . How is the situation with Pavlov?” But Pavlov, bearing the brunt of the German attack, “has no connection with the staff of his armies . . .”

Attended by Molotov, Malenkov and Beria, the threesome who were to spend most of the war in the Little Corner, Stalin gradually learned of the startling German successes and the Soviet collapse. During that first week, Beria, master of the Special Department, the Osobyi Otdel, the secret police in every military unit responsible for hunting down traitors, met Stalin fifteen times while Mekhlis, political boss of the army, virtually resided in the Little Corner: terror was Stalin’s solution to defeat. But these two, along with Civil War cronies like Voroshilov and Kulik, were little comfort when Timoshenko reported that almost a thousand planes had been eliminated on the ground by the end of the day.

“Surely the German air force didn’t manage to reach every single airfield?” Stalin asked pathetically.

“Unfortunately it did.” But it was the disaster of Pavlov’s Western Front that reduced Stalin to wild, if impotent, fury: “This is a monstrous crime. Those responsible must lose their heads.”

Stalin abruptly ordered his most trusted cronies to travel to the fronts and find out what was happening. When they hesitated, Stalin shouted: “Immediately.” Chief of Staff Zhukov headed for the South-Western Front but asked who would run things in his absence.

“Don’t waste time,” scoffed Stalin. “We’ll manage somehow.” Malenkov and Budyonny, a strange coupling, the bloodless bureaucrat and the swashbuckling Cossack, flew to Briansk; Kulik to the Western Front.

The whirlwind almost consumed them: in a series of semi-farcical fiascos, all were lucky to escape with their lives. Meanwhile, in the Little Corner, Stalin’s hours were as inconsistent as the performance of his armies. Stalin and Beria were the last two to leave at 4:45 that afternoon, having been up since dawn. They still believed their counter-offensives would throw the battle onto enemy territory. They must have grabbed some sleep but Stalin was back in the office at 3:20 on the morning of 23 June to meet Molotov, Mekhlis and Beria until the early hours. By the 25th, faced with the free fall of the fronts, Stalin was spending the whole night, from 1:00 to 5:50 a.m., in the office in a state of rising outrage as one by one his special envoys disappeared into the cataclysm.

“That good-for-nothing Kulik needs a kick in the arse,” he said.1

Only Zhukov, brutal, courageous and energetic, managed to counter-attack on the South-Western Front, brandishing the Stalinist ruthlessness that distinguished him throughout the war: “Arrest immediately,” reads one of his typical orders to the Special Departments about retreating officers. “And bring them to trial urgently as traitors and cowards.”2

The boozy buffoon Marshal Kulik, whose war was to be a chronicle of tragicomical blunders, outfitted himself in a pilot’s fetching leathers, cap and goggles and arrived on the Western Front like a Stalinist Biggles on the evening of 23 June. Bewildered by the rout of the Tenth Army, he was cut off, surrounded and almost captured. He had to escape in fancy dress. “The behaviour of Marshal Kulik was incomprehensible,” the regimental Commissar denounced Kulik to Mekhlis. “He ordered everyone to take off their regalia, throw out documents and then change into peasant garb,” a disguise he was more than capable of carrying off. Burning his marshal’s uniform (and his Biggles outfit), “he proposed to throw away our arms and he told me personally to throw away my medals and documents . . . Kulik rode on a horse-drawn cart along the very road just taken by German tanks...”3 The Western Front itself was disintegrating. Ailing Marshal Shaposhnikov collapsed from the strain. Headquarters lost him too.

Like a game of hide-and-seek, in which more and more children are sent to find the ones hiding, Stalin sent Voroshilov to find Kulik and Shaposhnikov. On 26 June, the “First Marshal” arrived in Mogilev on a special train but was unable to find either the Western Front or the two marshals. Eventually his adjutant came upon a pitiful sight that looked more like a “gypsy encampment” than a headquarters and espied Shaposhnikov on the ground covered by a coat, looking very dead. Then he saw Pavlov, the commander, lying alone beneath a tree eating kasha out of a mess-tin in the pouring rain which he did not seem to have noticed. Shaposhnikov stirred. The adjutant realized he was alive and introduced himself. Shaposhnikov, wincing with pain, thanked God that Voroshilov had come and started to shave. Pavlov, who had now finished his kasha, was dazed and desperate: “I’m done for!”

Voroshilov descended on the camp with an explosion of threats, while sending his adjutant to hunt for Kulik. Then the two marshals retired to the special train to decide what to do about poor Pavlov. Voroshilov ordered dinner: a cook brought in ham, bread and tea, a repast that evidently disappointed the Marshal because he became furious, screaming for his cook, Comrade Franz, who emerged and stood to attention. Voroshilov demanded to know how he dared serve such a meal for two marshals.

“Why’ve you sliced the ham? Do people cut ham this way? In a god-damn inn, they serve better ham!” Voroshilov summoned Pavlov, berating him for his failures. In another of those moments that reveal the importance of personal vendetta, he reminded Pavlov that he had once complained to Stalin about him. Pavlov fell to his knees, begged for forgiveness and kissed the Marshal’s boots. Voroshilov returned to Moscow. 4

At dawn on 4 July, Mekhlis arrested Pavlov for treason: “We ask you to confirm arrest and prosecution,” Mekhlis reported. Stalin welcomed it “as one of the true ways to improve the health of the Front.” Under torture, Pavlov implicated General Meretskov who was immediately arrested too. Before Pavlov’s “trial,” Poskrebyshev brought Stalin the “[Draft] Sentence.” Seeing that it contained the traditional inventions, Stalin told Poskrebyshev: “I approve the sentence but tell Ulrikh to get rid of all that rubbish about ‘conspiratorial activity.’ The case shouldn’t drag out. No appeal. And then inform the fronts so that they know that defeatists will be punished without mercy.” Mikoyan (and presumably the rest of the Politburo) approved of the sentence and still did so thirty years later when he wrote his memoirs: “It was a pity to lose him but it was justified.” On 22 July, the four commanding officers of the Western Front were shot. So many telegrams flooded in asking permission to shoot traitors, they blocked up the wires in Mekhlis’s office. That day, he told them to sentence and shoot their own traitors.5

Stalin was absorbing the scale of the catastrophe. The fronts were out of control: the Nazis were approaching Minsk, the air force decimated, thirty divisions shattered. On the 26th, Stalin urgently recalled Zhukov from the South-Western Front: the Chief of Staff found Timoshenko and General Vatutin standing to attention before Stalin, their “eyes red from lack of sleep.” Stalin ordered: “Put your heads together and tell me what can be done.”184 He gave them forty minutes to propose new lines of defence.6

Yet even in these frantic times, Stalin remembered his own family. On 25 June, Stalin was meeting with Timoshenko to discuss a “situation that was extremely serious on all fronts” when the Defence Commissar plucked up the courage to ask if Yakov Djugashvili, the Leader’s oldest son by his first marriage who had always disappointed him and whom he had treated callously, should be sent to the front, as he requested. Stifling his anger, Stalin replied, “Some, to put it mildly, inordinately zealous officials are always trying too hard to please their superiors. I don’t include you in that number but I advise you never to ask me questions like that again.” Stalin said nothing else about it but later, he checked that the boys, Yakov and Artyom, both artillerymen, were to be sent to the front line. After Vasily threw a goodbye party, Yakov’s wife, Julia, saw off her beloved Yasha in her red dress, which she later believed was cursed.

One night during the first ten days of the war, Stalin called Zhenya Alliluyeva whom he had cut ever since her remarriage. Visiting Kuntsevo, she had “never seen Joseph so crushed.” He asked her to take Svetlana and the children to the dacha in Sochi and then gave her a stunningly honest précis of the war situation that shocked her since the propaganda was still claiming that the heroic Red Army was about to crush the Fascist invader: “The war will be long. Lots of blood will be shed . . . Please take Svetlana southwards.” It was a mark of Zhenya’s force of personality, the very thing that made her so attractive and irritating, that she refused. She must accompany her husband. Stalin was “upset and angry.” He never saw Zhenya again.

Instead Anna Redens shepherded Svetlana, Alexandra Nakashidze, Vasily’s wife Galina, Yakov’s daughter Gulia as well as her own sons to the dacha in Sochi where they remained until the front approached there. 7

On 28 June, the Germans, who had penetrated three hundred miles into Soviet territory, closed the net on the encirclement of 400,000 troops— and took the capital of Belorussia, Minsk. As scraps of this information reached the Little Corner during a long session from mid-afternoon until 2:40 a.m., Stalin was beside himself. After a few hours’ sleep, he visited the Defence Commissariat to find out more, probably accompanied by Molotov, Malenkov and Budyonny. The fall of Minsk would open the road to Smolensk and Moscow, but such was the rout that Timoshenko again lost contact with the armies. This infuriated Stalin who arrived back at the Little Corner at 7:35 p.m. While Timoshenko and Zhukov came and went with worsening news, Beria and Mikoyan arrived to join their comrades in an emergency Politburo. After midnight, Stalin called Timoshenko for some concrete news from Belorussia: there was none. This was the final straw.185 Stalin stormed out of the office. Poskrebyshev and Chadaev watched Stalin, Molotov and Beria getting into their Packard outside.

“The Germans have obviously taken Minsk,” said Poskrebyshev.

Minutes later, the Five pulled up at the Defence Commissariat. Stalin led his men into Timoshenko’s office and announced that he wanted to acquaint himself personally with the reports from the front. Zhukov was about to leave but Timoshenko gestured for him to stay. The Five gathered around the operations map.

“What’s happening at Minsk?” asked Stalin.

“I’m not yet able to report on that,” replied Timoshenko.

“It’s your duty to have the facts clearly before you at all times and keep us up to date,” said Stalin. “At present, you’re simply afraid to tell us the truth.” At this, the fearless Zhukov interjected rudely: “Comrade Stalin, have we permission to get on with our work?”

“Are we perhaps in your way?” sneered Beria, who must have been shocked to see Stalin addressed in such a way. The meeting now degenerated into a row between Zhukov and Beria, with a bristling Stalin standing in the middle.

“You know that the situation on all fronts is critical. The front commanders await instructions and it’s better if we do it ourselves,” replied Zhukov.

“We too are capable of giving orders,” shouted Beria.

“If you think you can, do it!” retorted Zhukov.

“If the Party tells us to, we will.”

“So wait until it tells you to. As things are, we’ve been told to do the job.” Zhukov appealed to Stalin: “Excuse my outspokenness, Comrade Stalin, we shall certainly get it worked out. Then we’ll come to the Kremlin and report.” Zhukov was implying that the generals might be more competent than the Politburo.

Stalin, who had been quiet up to this point, could no longer contain his fury: “You’re making a crass mistake trying to draw a line between yourselves and us . . . We must all be thinking how to help the fronts.” Stalin, in Mikoyan’s words, now “erupted”: “What is General Headquarters? What sort of Chief of Staff is it who since the first day of the war has no connection with his troops, represents nobody, and commands nobody?”

The granite-faced Zhukov collapsed under this barrage and burst into tears, “sobbing like a woman” and “ran out into another room.” Molotov followed him. One of the harshest Bolsheviks comforted one of the most severe soldiers of that bloody century: did Molotov offer a handkerchief or put a hand on Zhukov’s shoulder? Five minutes later, that incongruous duo returned. Zhukov was “quiet but his eyes were moist.”

“We were all depressed,” admitted Mikoyan. Stalin suggested that Voroshilov or someone else be despatched to make contact with the Belorussian front. “Stalin was very depressed.” Then he looked at his comrades.

“There we are then,” said Stalin. “Let them get it sorted out themselves first. Let’s go, comrades.” Stalin led the way out of the office. As they climbed into the cars outside, Stalin uttered his first words of truth since the war began: “Everything’s lost. I give up. Lenin founded our state and we’ve fucked it up.” Stalin cursed all the way to Kuntsevo. “Lenin left us a great heritage and we his successors have shitted it all up . . .” Even when they had arrived at the house, Molotov remembered him swearing, “ ‘We fucked it up!’ The ‘we’ was meant to include all of us!” Stalin said he could no longer be the Leader. He resigned. At Kuntsevo, Molotov “tried to cheer him up.” They left the broken Stalin sulking at the dacha.186

Mikoyan was not impressed with this performance. On the way home, he discussed it with Molotov, whom he disliked but trusted: they knew Stalin as well as anyone. “We were struck by this statement of Stalin’s. What now, is everything irrevocably lost? We thought he said it for effect.” They were right that Stalin was partly performing but “he was a human being too,” in Molotov’s words. The fall of Minsk jolted Stalin, who lost face in front of his comrades and generals. This was the gravest crisis of his career.

The next day, they discovered it was not merely “for effect.” At midday, when Stalin usually arrived at the Kremlin, he did not come. He did not appear later in the day. The vacuum of power was palpable: the titan who, in fourteen-hour marathons, decided every tiny detail left a gaping hole. When Stalin’s phone rang, Poskrebyshev responded.

“Comrade Stalin’s not here and I don’t know when he will be.” When Mekhlis tried to ring Stalin at Kuntsevo, there was no reply. “I don’t understand it,” sighed Poskrebyshev. By the end of the day, Stalin’s chef de cabinet was saying: “Comrade Stalin is not here and is unlikely to be here.”

“Has he gone to the front?” asked young Chadaev.

“Why do you keep bothering me? I’ve told you he isn’t here and won’t be here.”

Stalin “had shut himself away from everybody, was receiving nobody and was not answering the phone.” Molotov told Mikoyan and the others that “Stalin had been in such a state of prostration for the last two days that he was not interested in anything, didn’t show any initiative and was in a bad way.” Stalin could not sleep. He did not even bother to undress but simply wandered around the dacha. At one point, he opened the door of the guardhouse where Vlasik’s deputy, Major-General Rumiantsev, leapt to attention, but Stalin did not say a word and just returned to his room. He later told Poskrebyshev, he had the taste of wormwood in his mouth. Yet Stalin had read his history: he knew that Ivan the Terrible, his “teacher,” had also withdrawn from power to test the loyalty of hisboyars.

The Soviet boyars were alarmed but the experienced ones sensed danger. Molotov was careful not to sign any documents. As the Germans advanced, the government was paralysed for two long days.

“You’ve no idea what it’s like here,” Malenkov told Khrushchev.

On the evening of the 30th, Chadaev returned to the office to get Stalin’s signature as Premier but there was still no sign of him: “He wasn’t here yesterday either.”

“No, he wasn’t here yesterday either,” Poskrebyshev replied, without a trace of sarcasm. But something had to be done. The new boy, Voznesensky, appeared at Poskrebyshev’s desk like all the others. When Chadaev asked him to sign the documents, he refused and called Stalin himself but “No reply from the dacha.” So he called upstairs to Molotov who suggested meeting later but gave no clue that he was already closeted with Beria, Malenkov and Voroshilov, arranging what to do. Now the dynamic Beria devised a new super-war cabinet, an ultra-Politburo with a tiny membership and sweeping powers, chaired by Stalin, if he would accept it, and containing Molotov, Voroshilov, Malenkov and himself: three Old Bolsheviks and two ascendant meteors. The exclusion of many of the magnates was a triumph for Beria and Malenkov, who were not even full Politburo members.

Once this was fixed, Molotov called Mikoyan, who was talking to Voznesensky, and the Politburo gathered. The magnates had never been so powerful: these manoeuvres most resembled the intrigues just after Stalin’s stroke twelve years later, for this was the only real opportunity they had to overthrow Stalin since the revelation of Lenin’s damning Testament almost twenty years earlier. Molotov told them about Stalin’s breakdown but Mikoyan replied that even if the Vozhd was incapacitated, “the very name Stalin was a great force for rousing the morale of the people.” But bumptious Voznesensky made what ultimately proved to be a fatal mistake: “Vyacheslav!” he hailed Molotov. “You go ahead and we’ll follow you!” Molotov must have blanched at this deadly suggestion and turned to Beria187 who proposed his State Defence Committee. They decided to go out to Kuntsevo.

When they arrived, they cautiously stepped into the gloomy, dark-green house, shrouded in pinewoods, and were shown into the little dining room. There, sitting nervously in an armchair, was a “thinner...haggard... gloomy” Stalin. When he saw the seven or so Politburo members entering, Stalin “turned to stone.” In one account, Stalin greeted them with more depressed ramblings: “Great Lenin’s no more . . . If only he could see us now. See those to whom he entrusted the fate of his country . . . I am inundated with letters from Soviet people, rightly rebuking us . . . Maybe some among you wouldn’t mind putting the blame on me.” Then, he looked at them searchingly and asked: “Why’ve you come?”

Stalin “looked alert, somewhat strange,” recalled Mikoyan, “and his question was no less strange. Actually he should have summoned us himself. I had no doubt: he decided we had arrived to arrest him.” Beria watched Stalin’s face carefully. “It was obvious,” he later told his wife, “Stalin expected anything could happen, even the worst.”

The magnates were frightened too: Beria later teased Mikoyan for hiding behind the others. Molotov, who was the most senior and therefore the most exposed to Stalin’s vengeance, stepped forward.

“Thank you for your frankness,” said Molotov, according to a possibly secondary source, “but I tell you here and now that if some idiot tried to turn me against you, I’d see him damned. We’re asking you to come back to work . . .”

“Yes but think about it,” answered Stalin. “Can I live up to people’s hopes anymore? Can I lead the country to final victory? There may be more deserving candidates.”

“I believe I shall be voicing the unanimous opinion,” interjected Voroshilov. “There’s none more worthy.”

Pravilno! Right!” repeated the magnates. Molotov told Stalin that Malenkov and Beria proposed to form a State Defence Committee.

“With whom at its head?” Stalin asked.

“You, Comrade Stalin.” Stalin’s relief was palpable: “the tension left his face”—but he did not say anything for a while, then: “Well . . .”

Beria took a step and said: “You, Comrade Stalin, will be the head” and he listed the members.

Stalin noted Mikoyan and Voznesensky had been excluded but Beria suggested they should run the government. The pragmatic Mikoyan, knowing that his responsibilities for army supply were relevant, asked to be a special representative. Stalin assigned industries—Malenkov took over aeroplanes; Molotov, tanks; Voznesensky, armaments. Stalin was back in power.

So had Stalin really suffered a nervous breakdown or was this simply a performance? Nothing was ever straightforward with this adept political actor. The breakdown was real enough: he was depressed and exhausted. It was not out of character: he had suffered similar moments on Nadya’s death and during the Finnish War. His collapse was an understandable reaction to his failure to read Hitler, a mistake which could not be hidden from his courtiers who had repeatedly heard him insist there would be no invasion in 1941. But that was only the first part of this disaster: the military collapse had revealed the damage that Stalin had done and his ineptitude as commander. The Emperor had no clothes. Only a dictator who had killed any possible challengers could have survived it. In any other system, this would have brought about a change of government but no such change was available here.

Yet Molotov and Mikoyan were right: it was also “for effect.” The withdrawal from power was a well-tried pose, successfully employed from Achilles and Alexander the Great to Ivan. Stalin’s retreat allowed him to be effectively re-elected by the Politburo, with the added benefit of drawing a line under the bungles up to that point. These had been forgiven: “Stalin enjoyed our support again,” Mikoyan wrote pointedly. So it was both a breakdown and a political restoration.

“We were witnesses to Stalin’s moments of weakness,” said Beria afterwards. “Joseph Vissarionovich will never forgive that move of ours.” Mikoyan had been right to hide.

Next afternoon, Stalin reappeared in the office, “a new man” committed to play the role of warlord for which he believed himself specially qualified. On 1 July, the newspapers announced that Stalin was the Chairman of the State Defence Committee, the GKO. Soon afterwards he sent Timoshenko to command the Western Front defending Moscow: on 19 July, Stalin became Commissar of Defence and, on 8 August, Supreme Commander-in-Chief: henceforth, the generals called him Verkhovnyi, Supremo. On 16 July, he restored the dual command of political commissars that the army so hated, abolished after Finland: the commissars, led by Mekhlis, were to conduct “ceaseless struggles against cowards, panic-mongers and deserters” but these overweening amateurs often took actual command, like their master. “The Defence Commissariat,” said Khrushchev, “was like a kennel of mad dogs with Kulik and Mekhlis.”188 Meanwhile Stalin reunited the security forces, the NKVD and NKGB, under Beria. On 3 July, Stalin spoke to the people in a new voice, as a Russian national leader.

“Comrades, citizens,” he began conventionally, his voice low, his breathing audible across the radio waves of the Imperium, along with his sips of water and the clink of his glass. “Brothers and sisters! Warriors of the army and the fleet! I call upon you, my friends.” This was a patriotic war but patriotism stiffened by terror: “Cowards, deserters, panic-mongers” would be crushed in a “merciless struggle.” 8 A couple of nights later, Stalin and Kalinin walked out of the Kremlin at 2 a.m. under heavy guard, commanded by Vlasik, and entered Lenin’s Mausoleum to bid goodbye to the mummy of their late leader before it set off by secret sealed train to Siberia.9

Stalin’s new resolve hardly improved the plight of the fronts. Within three weeks of war, Russia had lost around 2,000,000 men, 3,500 tanks, and over 6,000 aircraft. On 10 July, the German Panzers renewed their advance on the gateway to Moscow, Smolensk, which fell six days later. The Germans broke through to take another 300,000 Red Army prisoners and capture 3,000 guns and 3,000 tanks—but Timoshenko’s hard fighting temporarily sapped their momentum. Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to regroup at the end of July. As he pressed his advance, in the south towards Kiev, and in the north towards Leningrad, Hitler had won astounding victories, yet none of Barbarossa’s objectives—Moscow, Leningrad and the Donets Basin—had fallen. The Soviet army had not been obliterated. While German generals begged him to throw their Panzers against Moscow, Hitler, perhaps recalling Napoleon’s empty conquest, wanted to seize the oil and grain of the south. Instead he compromised with a new strategy, “Moscow and Ukraine.”

The new Stalin even took some lip from the Politburo. Just after the fall of Smolensk, Stalin summoned Zhukov and Timoshenko to the dacha, where they found him wearing an old tunic, pacing, pipe unlit, always a sign of trouble, accompanied by some of the Politburo. “The Politburo has discussed dismissing Timoshenko...What do you think of that?” Timoshenko said nothing but Zhukov objected.

“I rather think he’s right,” said old Kalinin who had barely disagreed with Stalin since 1930. Stalin “unhurriedly lit the pipe and eyed the Politburo.”

“What if we agree with Comrade Zhukov?” he asked.

“You’re right, Comrade Stalin,” they replied in one voice. But Zhukov did not always get his way.10

Faced with the threat of more giant encirclements in the south, Stalin devised draconian measures to terrorize his men into fighting. In the first week, he approved NKGB Order No. 246 that stipulated the destruction of the families of men who were captured, and now he made this public in his notorious Order No. 270. He ordered it to be signed by Molotov, Budyonny, Voroshilov and Zhukov, even though some of them were not present, but it was, after all, a traditional method of Bolshevik rule.11 These measures ruined the lives of millions of innocent soldiers and their families, including Stalin’s own.189

On 16 July, in one of the encirclements, this one at Vitebsk, an artillery lieutenant of the 14th Howitzer Regiment of the 14th Armoured Division, found himself overrun by German forces. Feeling himself special, he did not withdraw: “I am Stalin’s son and I won’t allow my battery to retreat,” but nor did he honourably commit suicide. On 19 July, Berlin announced that, among the teeming mass of Soviet prisoners, was Yakov Djugashvili. Zhdanov sent Stalin a sealed package that contained a photograph of Yakov that his father examined closely, tormented by the thought of his weak son breaking and betraying him. For the second time in Yakov’s life, Stalin cursed that his own son could not kill himself: “The fool—he couldn’t even shoot himself!” he muttered to Vasily. Stalin was immediately suspicious of Yakov’s wife Julia. “Don’t say anything to Yasha’s wife for the time being,” Stalin told Svetlana. Soon afterwards, under Order No. 270, Julia was arrested. Her three-year-old daughter Gulia did not see her mother for two years. Yet we now know how Stalin fretted about Yakov’s fate and how he mulled over it for the rest of his life.

He quickly banned Vasily from flying on active missions: “One prisoner’s more than enough for me!” But he was irritated when the “Crown Prince” (as Svetlana called Vasily) phoned to ask for more pocket money for a new uniform and more food:

“1. As far as I know [wrote Stalin] the rations in the air force are quite sufficient. 2. A special uniform for Stalin’s son is not on the agenda.”12

Around the time of Yakov’s capture, Stalin made his first approach to Hitler. He and Molotov ordered Beria to sound out the Bulgarian Ambassador, Ivan Stamenov. Beria gave the job to the assassination/intelligence specialist Sudoplatov, who told the story in his semi-reliable memoirs: his instructions were to ask why Germany had violated the Pact, on what conditions Hitler would end the war, and whether he would be satisfied with the Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova and the Baltics, a second Brest-Litovsk? Beria told Sudoplatov this was to win time. Sudoplatov met Stamenov at Beria’s favourite Georgian restaurant, Aragvi, on 25 July but the Bulgarian never passed on the message to Berlin, saying:

“Even if you retreat to the Urals, you’ll still win in the end.”13

Meanwhile the German advance in the south was inexorable: the Panzer pincers of Army Group South, under Guderian and Kleist, swung round Kiev to encircle General Kirponos’s South-Western Front with hundreds of thousands more men. It was obvious that Kiev would have to be abandoned but on 29 July, Stalin summoned Zhukov to discuss all fronts. Poskrebyshev ominously said the meeting would not begin until Mekhlis had arrived. When “the gloomy demon” appeared with Beria and Malenkov, the Chief of Staff predicted, under the Medusan glare of this grim trio, that the Germans would crush the South-Western Front before turning back to Moscow. Mekhlis interrupted to ask, threateningly, how Zhukov knew so much about the German plans.

“What about Kiev?” asked Stalin. Zhukov proposed abandoning it.

“Why talk nonsense?” bawled Stalin.

“If you think the Chief of Staff talks nonsense, then I request you relieve me of my post and send me to the front,” Zhukov shouted back.

“Who gave you the right to speak to Comrade Stalin like that?” snarled Mekhlis.

“Don’t get heated,” said Stalin to Zhukov, but “since you mentioned it, we’ll get by without you.” Zhukov gathered his maps and left the room, only to be summoned back forty minutes later to be told that he was relieved as Chief of Staff, a blessing in disguise, which allowed this fighting general to return to his natural habitat. Stalin soothed him: “Calm down, calm down.” Shaposhnikov was recalled as Chief of Staff. Stalin knew he was ailing but “we’ll help him.” Zhukov asked to leave but Stalin invited him for tea: Stalin was drawn to Zhukov. The unfolding disaster around Kiev soon proved the wisdom of his “nonsense.” 14

The Panzer claws were closing around the South-Western Axis, commanded by Marshal Budyonny and Khrushchev who begged to be allowed to withdraw. Stalin was informed by the NKVD that Khrushchev was going to surrender Kiev and rang to threaten him. “You should be ashamed of yourself ! . . . What’s the matter with you? [You have] given up half of Ukraine. You’re ready to give up the other half too . . . Do whatever it takes. If not . . . we’ll make short work of you!” In the alternation of roaring panic and becalmed anxiety that are the moods of a rout, Khrushchev found Budyonny drinking brandy with the front’s Operations chief, Bagramian, and affectionately telling him he should be shot.

On 11 September, with time running out, Budyonny, who was both braver and more competent than most of the “cavalrymen,” knew he might be dismissed or even arrested but he now insisted to Stalin that “delay [will] lead to losses in men and a huge quantity of equipment.” Stalin dismissed him next day. Appointing Timoshenko to the front, Stalin gave him a quaint gift of two pipes marked with a deer to symbolize his transfer from north to south, a rare gesture.

“You take command,” Budyonny told Timoshenko at the front. “But let’s call Stalin together and tell him to retreat from Kiev. We’re real Marshals and they’ll believe us.”

“I don’t want to put my head in the noose,” replied Timoshenko. Two days later, Kleist and Guderian’s Panzer Groups One and Two linked up at 18:20 hours a hundred miles east of Kiev, sealing five entire Soviet armies in a giant encirclement, the rotten fruit of Stalin’s obstinacy: 452,720 men were captured. By the 18th, Kiev had fallen. Stalin’s nerves held: “Plug the hole,” he ordered Shaposhnikov. “Quickly!” 15

Stalin and Beria stepped up both the repression and the redemption. More “lucky stiffs” were released to help the war effort. “There aren’t any people on whom one can rely,” Stalin murmured during one meeting on air defence at which the aircraft designer Yakovlev spoke up: “Comrade Stalin, it’s already more than a month since Balandin, our Deputy People’s Commissar, was arrested. We don’t know what he was arrested for but we can’t conceive he was an Enemy. He is needed . . . We ask you to examine his case.”

“Yes,” replied Stalin, “he’s already been in prison for forty days but he’s confessed nothing. Perhaps he’s not guilty of anything.” The next day, Balandin, “with hollow cheeks and shaven head” appeared for work “as though nothing had happened.” Beria and Mikoyan requested the freeing of Vannikov, arrested for arguing about artillery with Kulik. He was brought straight from his cell to Stalin who apologized, admitting that Vannikov had been right, and then promoted him to high office.

There was a certain awkwardness when the “lucky stiffs” met their torturers. Broad-faced, fair-haired General Meretskov, arrested during the first weeks of the war, had been horribly tortured by the debonair Merkulov, “the Theoretician,” with whom he had been friends before his arrest. As one of his interrogators later testified: “Brutal continuous torture was applied to Meretskov by high-ranking officials . . . he was beaten with rubber rods” until he was covered in blood. Now he was cleaned up and brought to Merkulov but Meretskov told his torturer that they could no longer be friends, a conversation unique to this strange time: “Vsevolod Nikolaievich, we used to meet on informal terms but I’m afraid of you now.” Merkulov smiled. Minutes later, in full uniform, General Meretskov reported for his next assignment to Stalin:

“Hello, Comrade Meretskov? How are you feeling?”

Beria also redoubled the Terror.16 As the NKVD retreated, the prisoners were not all released—even though Stalin had every opportunity to do so. Those “German spies” who had been so close to Stalin, Maria and Alyosha Svanidze, had been in prison since December 1937. Stalin remembered Alyosha who, as he himself told Mikoyan, “was sentenced to death. I ordered Merkulov to tell him before execution that if he asks the Central Committee for forgiveness, he will be pardoned.” But Svanidze proudly replied that he was innocent so “I can’t ask for pardon.” He spat in Merkulov’s face: “That’s my answer to him,” he cried. On 20 August 1941, he was shot. A few days later, at Kuntsevo, Stalin turned to Mikoyan: “Want to hear about Alyosha?”

“What?” Mikoyan, who had adored Svanidze, hoped he would be released. But Stalin matter-of-factly announced his death.

“He wouldn’t apologize. Such noble pride!” mused Stalin.

“When was this?” asked Mikoyan.

“He was shot just recently.” Maria Svanidze, who had so worshipped Stalin, was, with Alyosha’s sister, Mariko,190 shot the following year.17

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