While Molotov sat beside Stalin in the Little Corner, Zhdanov ruled beleaguered Leningrad like a mini-Stalin. But Stalin now turned his fury onto the commanders of the city of Lenin.191 By 21 August 1941, a German north-easterly thrust almost cut off Leningrad’s link with the rest of Russia. Voroshilov, now sixty, took command alongside Zhdanov. Both men had much to prove but as Leningrad was gradually enveloped, they struggled to keep Stalin’s confidence.
Day by day, the Germans tightened their grip and Stalin smelt defeatism. In a stream of dictated anxiety, he accused them of failing to grasp “this fatal danger. Stavka cannot agree with the mood of doom, and impossibility of taking strong measures and conversations about how everything possible has been done and it’s impossible to do any more...”1 Then Stalin heard that Voroshilov, replaying his glory days of Tsaritsyn in 1918, was planning to raise morale by electing officers—but this time the outraged War Commissar was not Trotsky.
“Immediately stop the elections because it will paralyse the army and elect impotent leaders,” ordered Stalin, together with Molotov and Mikoyan. “We need all-powerful leaders. It will spread like a disease. This isn’t Vologda—this is the second city of the country!” He added: “We ask Voroshilov and Zhdanov to inform us about operations. They have not done so yet. That’s a pity.”
“All’s clear,” replied Leningrad. “Goodbye Comrade Stalin. That helps. Great gratitude!”2
Zhdanov took control of every facet of Leningrad life, declaring famously: “the enemy is at the gates.” Now plump, asthmatic and exhausted, always chain-smoking his Belomor cigarettes, clad in an olive-green belted tunic, pistol in holster, Zhdanov ran the front from the third floor of the right wing of the Smolny Institute from an office hung with pictures of Stalin, Marx and Engels. His long table was covered in red baize just as Stalin’s was in green. His desk was set with Urals stone, a present from some Leningrad factory. He drank tea, like Stalin, from a glass held in a silver holder, chewing sugar lumps and, like him, slept on his office divan. He wrote the newspaper editorials, personally allocated every volt of electricity, threatened “panic-mongers” with instant death, and shared command of the front.3
Voroshilov meanwhile displayed the admirable courage that he had shown at Tsaritsyn. When he appeared at the front at Ivanovskoye, the soldiers watched as the First Marshal pranced around under heavy shellfire:
“That’s him! Voroshilov! Klim!” gasped the soldiers. “Look how he stands as if he grew out of the earth!” A few miles away, the Marshal came upon some troops who had broken under a German attack. He stopped his staff car, pulled out his pistol and led the troops against the Germans to the shout of “Hurrah!” The old cavalryman could buckle his swash but was unable to stabilize the front.4
Stalin was unmoved by the heroic ineptitude of this beau sabreur . His warmth towards Zhdanov was cooling fast. When the Leningraders referred respectfully to their boss as “Andrei Alexandrovich,” Stalin answered icily: “Andrei Alexandrovich? Now which Andrei Alexandrovich do you mean?” The terrified agreement to his own orders did not help matters: “If you don’t agree,” he told Zhdanov, “say it straight.” But he also showed his sarcastic irritation, scribbling in his red pencil: “You didn’t answer the proposal. You didn’t answer? Why not? . . . Is it understood? When do you begin the attack? We demand an immediate answer in two words: “Yes” will mean a positive answer and swift implementation and “No” will mean a negative. Answer yes or no. Stalin.” Nonetheless he resisted any attempt to dismiss Zhdanov even though he was staggering under the burden of Leningrad’s plight. 5
On the 21st, Stalin, realizing the desperate situation, ordered Molotov and Malenkov, armed with his full authority, to descend on Leningrad and designate a scapegoat, marking Zhdanov’s fall from grace. “To Voroshilov, Malenkov, Zhdanov . . . Leningrad Front thinks of only one thing: any way to retreat . . . Isn’t it time you got rid of these heroes of retreat?”6 But they also had a bigger unspoken mission: should Leningrad be abandoned?
Their journey itself was an adventure: they flew to Cherepovets where they took a special train westward but suddenly the train could go no further and stopped at the little station of Mga, twenty-five miles east of the city. The magnates could see a German bombing raid up ahead but they did not realize this was the beginning of the German advance that would encircle Leningrad only two days later: Mga had been the last way in. Molotov and Malenkov were unsure what to do. They walked along the tracks towards Leningrad until they found a suburban trolleybus which they boarded like commuters. They were met further up the line by an armoured train.
They found Zhdanov just about holding things together, but comforting himself with drink and struggling against his asthma. Zhdanov was never the strongest of Stalin’s men: “a bit spineless,” thought Molotov. Alcohol became the one flaw in this perfect Stalinist. He was now close to collapse, admitting openly to Stalin that he had at one point lost his nerve, panicked during the bombardment and hidden, drinking, in the Smolny bunker. But the very confession helped keep Stalin’s favour. He worked like a man possessed but his health never recovered.
Malenkov enjoyed spreading the story of Zhdanov’s alcoholic cowardice while boasting that he never reported it to Stalin, which is hard to believe. Zhdanov got on well with Molotov but had despised Malenkov since the late thirties. It was he who had coined the nickname for that fat, eunuch-like bureaucrat: “Malanya.” The mutual hatred of these two noble scions of the provincial intelligentsia would seethe until it ended in a massacre. Malenkov probably proposed Zhdanov’s arrest but Beria, knowing Stalin’s fondness for “the Pianist,” said this was no time for courtmartialling Politburo members. Molotov agreed: “Zhdanov was a good comrade” but he was “very dejected.”
Apart from hunting scapegoats, Stalin’s plenipotentiaries hardly improved matters: “I fear,” Stalin wrote hysterically to Molotov and Malenkov, “Leningrad will be lost through imbecilic folly, and all Leningrad risks encirclement. What are Popov [front commander] and Voroshilov doing? They don’t even tell us of the measures they’re taking against the danger. They’re busy looking for new lines of retreat. As far as I can see, this is their only purpose . . . This is pure peasant fatalism ... What people! I can’t understand anything. Don’t you think someone’s opening the road to the Germans in this important direction? On purpose? What’s this man Popov? What’s Voroshilov doing? How’s he helping Leningrad? I write about this because I’m disturbed by the lack of activity of Leningrad’s commander . . . return to Moscow. Don’t be late. Stalin.”7
On their return, the emissaries advised Stalin to scrap Voroshilov’s North-Western Axis and sack the First Marshal who spent “all his time in the trenches.” Meanwhile Schlüsselberg, the fortress on the Neva, and Mga, fell. Voroshilov did not tell Moscow, and when Stalin discovered these prevarications, he was outraged.
“We’re so indignant about your conduct,” he told Voroshilov and Zhdanov. “You tell us only of losses but no word of measures to save towns . . . and the loss of Schlüsselberg? What’ll be the end of our losses? Have you decided to surrender Leningrad?”8
On 8 September, Stalin summoned Zhukov to his flat where he was dining with his usual companions—Molotov, Malenkov and the Moscow boss, Alexander Shcherbakov.192
“Where will you be off to now?” Stalin asked casually.
“Back to the front,” replied Zhukov.
“The one you consider most necessary.”
“Then go to Leningrad at once . . . The situation is almost hopeless there . . .” and he handed Zhukov a note to Voroshilov that read: “Hand over command to Zhukov and fly to Moscow immediately.” Stalin scrawled to Zhdanov: “Today Voroshilov’s recalled!” 9
Zhukov took command at Leningrad’s Smolny headquarters, combining professionalism with draconian ruthlessness, shouting at the staff: “Don’t you understand that if Antonov’s division doesn’t occupy the line . . . the Germans’ll break into the city? And then I’ll have you shot in front of the Smolny as a traitor.” Zhdanov, standing beside his new partner in command, frowned: he disapproved of swearing.
The crestfallen Voroshilov addressed his staff: “Goodbye comrades,” he said. “Stavka’s recalled me back.” He paused. “That’s what an old man like me deserves. This isn’t the Civil War. Now we have to fight differently . . . But don’t doubt for a minute that we’ll smash the Fascist scum!”10
Back in Moscow, Stalin admitted, “We might have to abandon ‘Peter.’ ” But Zhukov stiffened resistance to the German attack and then counter-attacked.11 Zhdanov, working closely with Zhukov, now showed his steel, complaining that his “tribunals are being inactive against spreaders of false and provocative rumours . . . The Special Departments should arrange trials of provocateurs and rumour-mongers. The public should know how we regard these bastards.”12 Whatever Stalin suggested was put into action.193 On 13 November, Stalin told him that the Germans were constructing strongholds in the cellars of ordinary homes: “People’s Commissar of Defence Comrade Stalin gives the following instructions,” wrote Zhdanov. “When moving forward don’t try to capture one or other point but . . . burn to ashes these populated areas. So the German staffs and units will be buried . . . Toss away any sentiment and destroy all populated areas you meet on your way!”13
Zhukov and Zhdanov succeeded in making the storming of Leningrad very costly for the Germans. Hitler hesitated, cancelled the assault and ordered instead that Leningrad be starved into submission and then razed to the ground: the 900-day siege of the city had begun. Zhdanov had not lost the habit of writing Stalin personal letters with a fine ink pen: “The main cause of our failure was the weak performance of our infantry . . . We remembered what you told us during the Finnish War” but “our people have a bad habit of not finishing things and analysing them—and then running in different directions . . . Today we’re working strongly to change our style of attack . . . The worst is that the hunger is spreading.” 14
There were 2.2 million people trapped in Leningrad. That December alone, 53,000 died and there would be many more to follow. People dropped dead in the streets, in their beds, whole families died one by one. There were too many bodies and everyone was too weak to bury them. Cannibalism flourished: it was not rare to find a body lying in the hall of an apartment block with thighs and breasts carved off. Between the start of the siege and July 1942, it is estimated that a million people died in Leningrad.
Zhdanov, assisted by his respected Second Secretary, Alexei Kuznetsov, won back Stalin’s respect and that of the Leningraders. They gradually became heroes as they shared the plight of their citizens, personally living on a full military ration of a pound of bread a day plus a bowl of meat or fish soup and some kasha. While hundreds of thousands were dying in the streets, the leaders worked day and night. Kuznetsov, a tall, gangly young man with a long handsome face, kept Leningrad together during Zhdanov’s moments of weakness, touring the trenches accompanied by his little son. Stalin himself praised Kuznetsov: “The Motherland won’t forget you!” he wrote.
In November, they ordered the building of the “Road of Life” across the ice of Lake Ladoga which became the city’s only channel for the supply of food. During the famine, Zhdanov assigned food supplies in such detail that, at one point, he was the only man allowed to replace a lost ration card. He sometimes displayed flashes of human decency: when dysentery broke out in a school, he suspected the staff of stealing the children’s food and sent in a general who reported that the children were taking the food in jars to their families—but he did not stop them.
“I’d have done the same thing,” Zhdanov admitted and ordered the evacuation of the children. After the war, Zhdanov was quoted as saying that “people died like flies” but “history would never have forgiven me had I given up Leningrad.”15
Still Stalin became furious when Zhdanov showed dangerous independence: “Do you imagine Leningrad under Zhdanov is not situated in the USSR but is somewhere on an island in the middle of the Pacific?”
“We admit our mistake,” replied Zhdanov, who then reported a problem with the operations on Lake Ladoga which he blamed on the “cowardice and betrayal” of the commanders of the 80th Division. “We send a demand to let us . . . shoot the chief of 80th Frolov and his commissar Ivanov . . . The Council needs to fight panic and cowardice even among officers.”
“Frolov and Ivanov should be shot and tell the media,” replied Stalin.
“Understood. All will be done.”
“Don’t waste time,” said Stalin. “Every moment’s dear. The enemy concentrates power against Moscow. All other fronts have the chance to counter-attack. Seize the moment!”16
Zhdanov ended his handwritten reply: “We’re waiting the start of the German defeat outside Moscow. Be healthy!” Then he added this: “PS: I’ve become as ferocious as a dog!”17194
Hitler switched his Panzers to Operation Typhoon, the grand offensive against Moscow, designed to deliver the knockout blow to Soviet Russia. Guderian’s Panzers surprised and then outflanked the Briansk Front just as Stalin welcomed Lord Beaverbrook, the puckish Canadian press baron and member of the British War Cabinet, and Averell Harriman, the handsome lantern-jawed railway heir and American envoy, who had come to negotiate military aid to keep Russia in the war.
The two plutocrats observed Stalin play the gracious host while facing catastrophe. “Stalin was very restless, walking about and smoking continuously and appeared to both of us to be under an intense strain,” recalled Beaverbrook. As always, Stalin swung between rudeness and charm, sketching wolves on his notepad one moment, and then tossing aside an unopened letter from Churchill to exclaim: “The paucity of your offers clearly shows you want to see the Soviet Union defeated.” He was “sallow, tired, pock-marked . . . almost emaciated.”
By 1 October, the Moscow front was collapsing just as Stalin laid on a lavish banquet in the Great Kremlin Palace. At 7:30 p.m., the hundred guests chattered loudly in the eighteenth-century Catherine Hall, with its chairs and divans covered in the monograms of Catherine the Great, green silk wallpaper, and the old portraits in their golden frames. Just before eight, the Russian guests began to glance anxiously at the high, gilded door and on the hour, silence fell as Stalin, in a tunic that “seemed to hang off his wasted frame,” walked slowly down the line.
At dinner, he placed himself between the tycoons, with Molotov in his accustomed seat opposite him and, down the table, Voroshilov and Mikoyan, who henceforth negotiated the Western aid.195 As the waiters unleashed upon the guests a barrage of hors d’oeuvres, caviar, soup, and fish, suckling pig, chicken and game, ice cream and cakes, washed down with champagne, vodka, wine and Armenian brandy, Stalin toasted victory before Molotov took up the baton. There were thirty-two toasts before the night was done. When Stalin enjoyed a toast, he would clap his hands before drinking to it but he happily talked on while others were speaking. He “drank continuously from a small glass (liqueur),” wrote Beaverbrook, who recorded everything with the avidity of one of hisDaily Express columnists. “He ate well and even heartily,” nibbling caviar off his knife, without bread and butter. Stalin and Beaverbrook, two mercurial rogues, jousted mischievously. Pointing at President Kalinin, Beaverbrook, who had heard about his taste for ballerinas, asked if the old man had a mistress. “He’s too old,” chuckled Stalin. “Do you?”
Stalin then led the way, with hands behind his back, to the cinema where he intently watched two movies, drinking champagne and laughing. Even though it was already 1:30 a.m., the omnipotent insomniac suggested a third movie but Beaverbrook was too tired. As the Westerners departed, the Germans broke through towards Moscow.18
On 3 October, Guderian took Orel, 125 miles behind the supposed Russian front line. Yeremenko’s Briansk and Budyonny’s Reserve Fronts were smashed: 665,000 Russians surrounded. On the 4th, Stalin lost contact with the shattered Western Front under Koniev, leaving a twelve-mile hole in Moscow’s defences. Early on the 5th, the Moscow air commander, Sbytov, reported the almost incredible news that a long column of German tanks was heading for Moscow along the Ukhnovo highway, 100 kilometres from the Kremlin. A second reconnaissance plane confirmed the same sight. “Very well,” Stalin told the Moscow Commissar Telegin. “Act decisively and energetically . . . mobilize every available resource to hold the enemy . . .”
Simultaneously, Stalin’s entourage tried to crush this news as they had tried to deny the German invasion. “Look,” Beria threatened Telegin, “do you take every bit of nonsense as the truth? You’ve evidently received information from panic-mongers and provocateurs!” Minutes later, poor Colonel Sbytov ran into Telegin’s office, “pale and trembling.” Beria had ordered him to report at once to the feared chief of the Special Department, Victor Abakumov, who threatened Sbytov and his pilots with arrest for “cowardice and panic-mongering.” When a third plane confirmed that all three fronts had collapsed, the hyenas were called off.19
Stalin telephoned Zhukov in Leningrad: “I’ve only got one request. Can you get on a plane and come to Moscow?”
“I request to fly at dawn.”
“We await you in Moscow.”
“I’ll be there.”
“All the best,” said Stalin. Meanwhile he sent Voroshilov to find the fronts and learn what he could.20
At dusk on 7 October, Vlasik sped Zhukov straight to the Kremlin flat where Stalin, suffering from flu, was chatting to Beria. Probably “unaware of my arrival,” in Zhukov’s words, Stalin was ordering Beria to “use his ‘Organ’ to sound out the possibilities of making a separate peace with Germany, given the critical situation . . .” Stalin was probing German resolve but there was no moment when Hitler was less likely to make peace than when Moscow seemed to be falling.196 Beria is said to have arranged a second probe, either using a Bulgarian “banker” or the Ambassador again but with no results.
Without a wisp of small talk, Stalin ordered Zhukov to fly to Koniev’s and Budyonny’s fronts. Stalin needed a scapegoat, wondering if Koniev was a “traitor.”21 Heading into the whirlwind, Zhukov found the dazed commanders of the Western Front, the tough, shaven-headed Koniev and the Commissar, Bulganin, in a desolate room barely lit by candles. Bulganin had just spoken to Stalin but could not tell him anything “because we ourselves don’t know.” At 2:30 a.m. on the 8th, Zhukov called Stalin, who was still ill: “The main danger now is that the roads into Moscow are virtually undefended.” And the reserves? Stalin asked.
“What do you intend to do?”
“I will go to Budyonny . . .”
“And do you know where his headquarters are?” Stalin inquired.
“No . . . I’ll look for him . . .”
Stalin despatched Molotov and Malenkov into this cauldron to take control—and assign blame. Such was the havoc that Zhukov could not find Budyonny. At Maloyaroslavets, he found a small town completely deserted except for a chauffeur asleep in a jeep who turned out to be Budyonny’s driver. The Marshal was inside the district Soviet, trying to find his own armies on his map. The two cavalrymen embraced warmly. Budyonny had saved Zhukov from arrest during the Terror, but now he was confused and exhausted. The next morning, Stalin ordered Zhukov to return to the Western Front headquarters north of Mozhaisk and take command.
There he found Molotov, Malenkov, Voroshilov and Bulganin indulging in an ugly hunt for the scapegoat: a stand-up row broke out between Koniev and Voroshilov about who had ordered what withdrawal. Koniev’s life hung in the balance when Voroshilov shrieked that he was “a traitor.” He was supported by Nikolai Bulganin, that blond and goatee-bearded ex-Chekist who had been Mayor of Moscow and boss of the State Bank. This apparently affable womanizer, who cultivated an aristocratic elegance but was nicknamed “the Plumber” by Beria because of his work on the Moscow sewers, was deftly ambitious and suavely ruthless: he wanted Koniev shot, perhaps to save his own skin.
Stalin phoned to order Koniev’s arrest but Zhukov persuaded the Supremo that he needed Koniev as his deputy: “If Moscow falls,” Stalin threatened, “both your heads’ll roll . . . Organize the Western Front quickly and act!” Two days later, Molotov telephoned and threatened to shoot Zhukov if he did not stop the retreat. If Molotov could do any better, he was welcome to try, retorted Zhukov. Molotov hung up.
Zhukov stiffened the resistance though he possessed only 90,000 men to defend Moscow. He fought for time, with the fray reaching unprecedented frenzies of savagery. By the 18th, Kalinin had fallen to the north and Kaluga to the south and there were Panzers on the battlefield of Borodino. Snow fell, then thawed, stirring up a boggy quagmire which temporarily halted the Germans. Both sides fought heroically, tank helm to tank helm, like two giants wrestling in a sea of mud.22