Biographies & Memoirs


“Can You Hold Moscow?”

Stalin controlled every aspect of the battle, keeping a list of men and tanks in his little leather notebook. “Are they hiding guns from me again?” he asked Voronov. As early as 3 August, he had secretly ordered the creation of a special tank reserve for Moscow: these tanks were “to be given to nobody,” he specified. But visitors were amazed “by Zhukov’s tone”: he spoke to Stalin “in sharp commanding tones as if he was the superior officer and Stalin accepted this.”1

Again and again, he raised the intensity of cruelty. It was perhaps now that he marked the passage in d’Abernon that claimed that the Germans were more afraid of their officers than of the enemy. First he unleashed his “scorched earth” policy “to destroy and burn to ashes all populated areas in the German rear to a depth of 40–60 kms from the front line.” Beria, Mekhlis and the rising head of the Special Departments, Abakumov, reported every week on the arrests and shootings of Soviet troops: for example, Beria wrote to Mekhlis during the Battle of Moscow to report that 638,112 men had been detained in the rear since the start of the war, with 82,865 arrested, while Abakumov reported to Stalin that in one week, his Special Departments arrested 1,189 and shot 505 deserters. Now on the front near Moscow, Bulganin’s “interceptor battalions,” set up to terrorise cowards, arrested 23,064 “deserters” in just three days.2 There is a myth that the only time Stalin ceased the war against his own people was during 1941 and 1942; but during that period, 994,000 servicemen were condemned, and 157,000 shot, more than fifteen divisions.3

Beria was also liquidating old prisoners: on 13 October, Poskrebyshev’s wife, the once effervescent Bronka, was shot, an event, like the murder of the Svanidzes, that could only have happened on Stalin’s order. As they moved back, the NKVD tossed grenades into their own prisons or transferred prisoners to the interior. On 3 October, Beria liquidated 157 “celebrity” prisoners such as Kameneva, Trotsky’s sister and Kamenev’s widow, in Medvedev Forest near Orel. On the 28th, Beria ordered the shooting of another twenty-five, including the ex–air-force commander, Rychagov, who had answered back to Stalin about the “flying coffins.” The 4,905 unfortunates on death row were despatched within eight days.4

On the streets of Moscow, the chains of Stalinist control were snapped by the fear of the German armies. Law broke down. By 14 October, food shops were being looted; empty apartments burgled. Refugees clogged the streets, harassed by gangs of desperadoes. The smoke of bonfires hung over the city as officials burned papers. At Kursk Station, “a crush of women, children and old people filled the square. The cold was piercing. Children were weeping” but the masses waited “patiently and submissively.” A hundred soldiers joined arms to hold back the mob. Some commissariats and the families of most officials were evacuated to Kuibyshev. AA guns illuminated the sky while the half-deserted Kremlin was blacked out and weirdly camouflaged: a huge canvas painted with the façades of a row of houses, a veritable Potemkin village, had been hoisted up over the walls facing the river.

Beria, Malenkov and Kaganovich, according to Stalin’s bodyguards, “lost their self-control,” encouraging the popular flight. “We shall be shot down like partridges,” Beria told one meeting, advocating the swift abandonment of Moscow. These magnates advised Stalin to evacuate to Kuibyshev. Beria summoned Sudoplatov, his expert on “Special Tasks,” to his Lubianka office where he was sitting with Malenkov, and ordered him to dynamite all the main buildings, from the Kaganovich Metro to the football stadium. On the night of the 15th, Beria made things worse, calling a meeting of the local Party leaders in his office in the bomb-proof basement at 2 Dzerzhinsky Street, and announcing: “The connection with the front is broken.” He ordered them to “evacuate everyone who’s unable to defend Moscow. Distribute food to the inhabitants.” There were riots at factories because the workers could not get in since the buildings were mined. Molotov told ambassadors that they would be immediately evacuated.5

Stalin himself presented an air of solitary inscrutability, revealing his plans to no one, while the magnates prepared for evacuation. As the air raids on Moscow intensified, Stalin climbed up onto the sunroof at Kuntsevo and watched the dogfights. Once some shrapnel fell near him as he watched from his garden and Vlasik handed him the warm fragments. Vasily Stalin arrived one night to visit his father. When a German plane passed over the house, the guards did not open fire since they did not want to draw attention to Stalin’s residence.

“Cowards!” shouted Vasily, firing the guns himself.

Stalin came out: “Did he hit anything?” he asked.

“No, he didn’t.”

“Winner of the Voroshilov Marksman Prize,” he said drily. But the stress was telling on him: no one could believe how much he had aged. Stalin was now a “short man with a tired haggard face . . . his eyes had lost their old steadiness, his voice lacked assurance.” Khrushchev was appalled to see this “bag of bones.” When Andreyev and his daughter Natasha walked around the freezing Kremlin, they saw Stalin strolling up and down beside the battlements, quite alone and, as usual, under-dressed, with no gloves on and his face blue with the chill. In his spare moments, he kept reading history: it was now that he scribbled on a new biography of Ivan the Terrible: “teacher teacher” and then: “We shall overcome!” His moods swung between Spartan grit and hysterical rantings. Koniev was amazed to receive a call in which Stalin cried:

“Comrade Stalin’s not a traitor. Comrade Stalin’s an honourable man; his only mistake was that he trusted too much in cavalrymen.” He was harassed by constant “sightings” of Nazi parachutists landing in the middle of Moscow: “Parachutist? How many? A company?” Stalin was barking into the phone when one general arrived to report. “And who saw them? Did you see them? And where did they land? You’re insane . . . I tell you I don’t believe it. The next thing you’ll be telling me is that they have already landed on your office!” He slammed down the phone. “For several hours now they’ve been tormenting me with wails about German parachutists. They won’t let me work. Blabbermouths!” 6

Stalin’s staff prepared for his departure, without actually checking with him. The dachas were dynamited. A special train was prepared, standing in a hidden siding, packed with belongings from his houses such as his beloved library. Four American Douglas DC-3 aeroplanes stood ready.

At the end of 15 October, Stalin ordered his guards to drive him out to Kuntsevo, which had been closed down and mined. The commandant told him he could not go in but Stalin ordered: “Clear the mines in two or three hours, stoke the stove in the little house and I’ll work there.”

The next morning, he headed into the Kremlin earlier than usual. On the way, this worshipper of order was amazed to see mobs looting the shops along his route. His guards claimed that he ordered the car to stop on Smolensk Square, where he was surrounded by a crowd who asked rather pertinent questions such as: “When will the Soviet Army stop the enemy?”

“That day’s near,” he replied before driving on to the Kremlin.7

At 8 a.m., Mikoyan, who had been working as usual until six in the morning, was woken up and summoned. At nine, the magnates gathered in Stalin’s flat to debate the great decision of the war. Stalin proposed to evacuate the whole government to Kuibyshev, to order the army to defend the capital and keep the Germans fighting until he could throw in his reserves. Molotov and Mikoyan were ordered to manage the evacuation, with Kaganovich providing the trains. Stalin proposed that all the Politburo leave that day and, he added sensationally, “I will leave tomorrow morning.”

“Why do we have to leave today if you’re leaving tomorrow?” Mikoyan indignantly asked Stalin. “We can also go tomorrow. Shcherbakov and Beria shouldn’t leave until they’ve organized the underground resistance. I’m staying and I’ll go tomorrow with you.” Stalin agreed. Molotov and Mikoyan began to brief the commissars: the Foreign Commissariat was called at 11 a.m. and ordered to report to Kazan Station at once. In the lift from Stalin’s office, Kaganovich said to Mikoyan: “Listen, when you leave, please tell me so I don’t get left behind.” As the leaders rushed in and out of Stalin’s office, their families were given just an hour’s notice to evacuate the city.197

At 7 p.m. the next day, Ashken Mikoyan and the three younger Mikoyanchiks, along with President Kalinin and other top families, boarded the CC train. In the heavily guarded station, women in fur coats stood chatting with their well-dressed children amid the steam of the trains while soldiers carefully loaded crates marked “handle with care— crystal.” Poskrebyshev sobbed as he put three-year-old Natasha on the train with her nanny, unaware that her mother, Bronka, had been executed three days earlier. He promised to visit his daughter as soon as possible— and hurried back to Stalin. As he waited, Valentin Berezhkov, Molotov’s interpreter, noticed that the puddles of melted snow were freezing. The German Panzers could advance again.

Zhukov resolved to hold the line. But he could sense the panic at the top. He was convinced he could save Moscow, he told a visiting editor, “but are THEY, there?” he asked, meaning Stalin in the Kremlin.8

That evening, the leaders arrived in an eerily deserted Kremlin. As one commissar entered his apartment, Stalin appeared from his bedroom, smoking and pacing, in his old tunic and baggy, booted trousers. They noticed that the bookcases were empty, books all loaded onto the train. No one sat down. Then Stalin stopped pacing. “What’s the situation like in Moscow?” The magnates remained silent but a junior commissar spoke up: the Metro was not running, the bakeries were closed. The factories thought the government had fled. Half of them had not been paid. Workers believed the boss of the State Bank had run off with the money.

“Well, it’s not so bad. I thought it would be worse.” Stalin ordered the money be flown back from Gorky. Shcherbakov and Pronin, Moscow’s Party chief and Mayor, must restore order and broadcast the fact that Moscow would be held to the last drop of blood: Stalin remained in the Kremlin. The leaders headed out into the town: Mikoyan appeared before five thousand restless, unpaid workers at the Stalin Automobile Works. But the panic continued: stragglers and thieves patrolled the streets. Even the British Embassy across the Moskva from the Kremlin was looted, its guards having fled. Demolition units mined Moscow’s sixteen bridges.9

Stalin hesitated for two long days. No one knows his exact movements but he no longer appeared in his office. At the height of the legendary struggle for Moscow, the Supremo actually dossed down in his greatcoat on a mattress in the subterranean halls of the Metro, not unlike an omnipotent tramp. Stalin’s working arrangements reveal the dire lack of preparation for war. There were frequent air raids but there were no bunkers at either the Kremlin or Kuntsevo. While Kaganovich supervised the urgent construction of bunkers precisely modelled on Stalin’s study, the Supremo moved to work in the only proper command post available, the air defence HQ in the town house at 33 Kirov Street (Myasnitskaya Street), where he had a bedroom. During air raids, he descended by elevator to work in the Kirov Metro Station (now Chistye Prudy) until, on 28 October, a bomb fell in the courtyard of the house. Then Stalin started to work permanently in the station, where he also slept.

In the Metro, he bunked in a specially constructed compartment that was sealed off from the running trains by plywood panels. Many of his staff slept on ordinary subway trains parked in the station, while the General Staff worked in the Belorusski Metro Station. Offices, desks and sleeping compartments divided up this subterranean headquarters deep under Kirov Street. Passing trains caused pages to fly so they were pinned to desks. After working all day in his subterranean offices, Stalin would finally stagger over to his sleeping compartment in the early hours. Vlasik and his bodyguards stood on guard around this flimsy refuge and probably slept across the doors like squires guarding a medieval king. A staff colonel, Sergei Shtemenko, an efficient, charismatic Cossack of thirty-four, with a lush black moustache, worked closely with Stalin and sometimes they simply “bunked together,” sleeping in their greatcoats on mattresses in the office. It is hard to imagine any of the other warlords living in such a way but Stalin was accustomed to dossing down like the young revolutionary he once was.10

On 17 October Shcherbakov made his radio broadcast to restore morale in Moscow. It had little effect as the streets were clogged with gangs of deserters and refugees piling their belongings onto carts. Stalin was still debating whether to leave Moscow but the moment finally arrived, probably late on the evening of the 18th, when he had to make this decision. Air Force General Golovanov remembered seeing Stalin depressed and undecided. “What shall we do?” he kept repeating. “What shall we do?”

At the most world-shattering moment of his career, Stalin discussed the decision with generals and commissars, bodyguards and servants, and of course he read his history. He was reading the biography, published in 1941, of Kutuzov—who had abandoned Moscow. “Until the last minute,” he underlined heavily, “no one knew what Kutuzov intended to do.” Back in Stalin’s apartment, Valechka in her white apron was cheerfully serving him and the magnates their dinner. When some of them seemed to lean towards evacuation, Stalin’s eyes fell on his “ever-smiling” mistress.

“Valentina Vasilevna,” Stalin asked her suddenly. “Are you preparing to leave Moscow?”

“Comrade Stalin,” she replied in peasant idiom, “Moscow is our Mother, our home. It should be defended.”

“That’s how Muscovites talk!” Stalin told the Politburo.

Svetlana also seemed to discourage the abandonment of Moscow when she wrote from Kuibyshev: “Dear Papa, my precious joy, hello . . . Papa, why do the Germans keep creeping nearer all the time? When are they going to get it in the neck as they deserve? After all, we can’t go on surrendering all our industrial towns to them.”

Stalin called Zhukov and asked him: “Are we certain we can hold Moscow? I ask you this with pain in my heart. Speak the truth, like a Bolshevik.”198 Zhukov replied that it could be held. “It’s encouraging you’re so certain.”11

Stalin ordered the guards to take him out to his “faraway” dacha at Semyonovskoe, which was further from the fighting than Kuntsevo. Beria replied in Georgian that this too was dynamited. But Stalin angrily insisted on going. Once he was there, he found the commandant packing up the last belongings.

“What sort of removals are going on here?” he asked gruffly.

“We’re preparing, Comrade Stalin, for the evacuation to Kuibyshev.” Stalin may also have ordered his driver to take him to the special train that was parked under close guard at the Abelmanovsky junction, normally used for storing wooden sleepers. One source in Stalin’s office recounted how he walked alongside the train. Mikoyan and Molotov do not mention it, and even a hint of Stalin near a train would have caused panic, but it was the sort of melodramatic scene that Stalin would have relished. If it happened, the image of this tiny, thin figure “with his tired haggard face” in its tattered army greatcoat and boots, strolling along the almost deserted but heavily guarded siding through the steam of the ever-ready locomotive is as emotionally potent as it was to be historically decisive. For Stalin ordered the commandants of his dacha to stop loading: “No evacuation. We’ll stay here until victory,” he ordered, “calmly but firmly.”

When he got back to the Kremlin, he gathered his guards and told them: “I’m not leaving Moscow. You’ll stay here with me.” He ordered Kaganovich to cancel the special train.12 The Stalinist system allowed the magnates, who swung between defeatism and defiance, to pursue their own policies until Stalin himself spoke. Then his word was law. On the “damp dank” evening of the 18 October, the team in charge of defending the city were gathered at Beria’s office where the Georgian “tried to convince us that Moscow must be abandoned. He considered,” wrote one of those present, “that we have to withdraw behind the Volga. With what are we going to defend Moscow? We have nothing . . . They’ll smother us all here.” Malenkov agreed with him. Molotov, to his credit, “muttered objections.” The others “remained silent.” Beria was said to be the main advocate of withdrawal though he became the scapegoat for everything unsavoury that happened under Stalin. The alcoholic Moscow boss Shcherbakov wanted to withdraw too and it seems that he lost his composure: afterwards, “in a state of terror,” he asked Beria what would happen if Stalin found out.

On the 19th at 3:40 in the afternoon, Stalin summoned his magnates and generals to the Little Corner. Stalin “stepped up to the table and said: ‘The situation is known to all of you. Should we defend Moscow?’ ” No one answered. The silence was “gloomy.” Stalin waited, then said: “If you don’t want to speak, I shall ask each of you to give his opinion.”

He started with Molotov, who stuck to his opinion: “We must defend Moscow.” Everyone, including Beria and Malenkov, gave the same answer. Beria had converted to Stalin’s view, as his son admitted: “My father would never have acted as he did if he had not known . . . [and] anticipated [Stalin’s] reactions.”

“If you go, Moscow will be lost,” Beria declared. Shcherbakov was one of those who sounded doubtful.

“Your attitude can be explained in two ways,” said Stalin. “Either you’re good-for-nothings and traitors or idiots. I prefer to regard you as idiots.” Then he expressed his opinion and asked Poskrebyshev to bring in the generals. When Telegin and the commander of Moscow, NKVD General Artemev, arrived, Stalin was pacing tensely up and down the narrow carpet, smoking his pipe. “The faces of those present,” recalled Commissar Telegin, “revealed that a stormy discussion had just taken place and that feeling was still running high. Turning to us without a greeting,” Stalin asked: “What’s the situation in Moscow?”

“Alarming,” reported Artemev.

“What do you suggest?” snapped Stalin.

“A state of siege” should be declared in Moscow, answered Artemev.

“Correct!” and Stalin ordered his “best clerk,” Malenkov, to draft it. When Malenkov read out his verbose decree, Stalin became so irritated that he rushed up and “literally snatched the sheets of paper from him.” Then he briskly dictated his decree to Shcherbakov, ordering “the shooting on the spot” of suspected offenders.

Stalin brought up the divisions to defend Moscow, naming many of them from memory, then calling their commanders directly. The NKVD was unleashed onto the streets, executing deserters and even concierges who had tried to leave. The decision to stay and fight had been made. The presence of Stalin in Moscow, said the Comintern leader Dmitrov, was “worth a good-sized army.” Stalin was refreshed by the end of the uncertainty: when a commissar phoned in from the front to discuss evacuation eastwards, Stalin interrupted him: “Find out, do your comrades have spades?”

“What, Comrade Stalin?”

“Do they have spades?” The Commissar asked in the background if they had spades.

“What kind of spades, Comrade Stalin—ordinary ones or digging tools?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, we’ve got spades! What shall we do with them?”

“Tell your comrades,” replied Stalin calmly, “to take their spades and dig their own graves. We won’t leave Moscow. They won’t leave either . . .”

Even now Stalin’s courtiers bickered among themselves: Stalin ordered Molotov to travel down to Kuibyshev to check on Voznesensky, who was running the government there.

“Let Mikoyan come with me,” said Molotov.

“I’m not your tail,” Mikoyan shouted, “am I?”

“Why don’t you go too?” suggested Stalin. Five days later Stalin recalled them.13

The Panzers were still advancing on the frozen snow and threatening to encircle Moscow. Zhukov had no reserves left. Having lost three million of his soldiers since June, Stalin’s notebook was virtually empty. Like a despotic shopkeeper, assisted by his fat accountant son, Stalin jealously guarded his secret reserves while Malenkov sat beside him, keeping tally. When Stalin asked one general what would save the capital, he replied, “Reserves.”

“Any idiot,” snapped Stalin, “could defend the city with reserves.” Stalin generously gave him fifteen tanks, at which Malenkov observed that this was all they had left. Amazingly, in just a few months, the vast military resources of this endless empire had been reduced to fifteen tanks in a notebook. In Berlin, the Reich Press Office declared that “Russia was finished,” but Stalin’s iron husbandry of his reserves, coupled with Zhukov’s brilliant and brutal fighting, was telling on the Germans whose machines were beginning to suffer from the mud and ice while their men were freezing and exhausted. They again halted to prepare for a final push, convinced that Stalin’s resources were exhausted. But there was a page in the notebook that they had forgotten.

Stalin’s Far Eastern Army, 700,000 strong, guarded against Japan, but in late September, Richard Sorge, the spy Stalin called a brothel-keeper, reported that Japan would not attack Russia. On 12 October, Stalin discussed this with his Far Eastern satraps who then confirmed Tokyo’s lack of hostile intentions from local intelligence. Kaganovich arranged non-stop trains that, within days and hours, rushed 400,000 fresh troops, 1,000 tanks and 1,000 planes across the Eurasian wastes, in one of the most decisive logistical miracles of the war. The last train left on the 17th and these secret legions began to mass behind Moscow.14

Stalin moved into his new Kremlin bunker, an exact replica of the Little Corner, even down to the wood panelling, though its long corridors resembled nothing so much as a “railway sleeping car. To the right was a row of doors” with “a heavy security guard.” The officers waited in “one of the sleeping compartments to the left” until Poskrebyshev appeared and led them into a “spacious brightly lit room with a big desk in the corner” where they came up on the pacing Stalin, usually accompanied by his Chief of Staff, the ailing gentleman officer, Marshal Shaposhnikov.

Just younger than Stalin, with his thinning hair centre-parted and a tired, yellow face with Tartar cheekbones, Shaposhnikov seemed “propelled by some special act of Voodooism as he looked quite dead (at least 3 months gone) and must, even when alive, have been very very old,” according to a British diplomat. Shaposhnikov called everyone golubchik, dear fellow, and Stalin was charmed by the gentility of this Tsarist colonel. When some generals had not reported one day, Stalin angrily asked Shaposhnikov if he had punished them. Oh yes, retorted Shaposhnikov: he had given them a “severe reprimand.”

This did not impress Stalin: “For a soldier that’s no punishment!” But Shaposhnikov patiently explained “the old military tradition that if the Chief of Staff reprimands [an officer], the guilty party must offer his resignation.” Stalin could only chuckle at this old-worldliness. But Shaposhnikov was a survivor: he had attacked Tukhachevsky in the twenties, served as his judge in 1937 and even denounced a cook saboteur for over-salting the meat. He never signed anything without checking first. In Stalin’s presence, he was “without an opinion.” While he never renounced his views, he never objected to being overruled. He was the only general Stalin called by his name and patronymic, the only one allowed to smoke199 in his office.15

The war had truly reached the Kremlin, which was now peppered by bomb craters. Mikoyan was knocked down by a bomb. On 28 October, Malenkov was working at Old Square when Stalin called him to the Kremlin: he had no sooner left than a German bomb destroyed the building. “I saved your life,” Stalin told him.

One day, Stalin insisted that he wanted to witness an artillery barrage against German positions. Beria, in attendance, was very anxious that he would be blamed if something went wrong. Stalin’s car and bodyguards set off down the Volokolamsk highway towards the front but as they were approaching the fighting, Vlasik refused to let them proceed any further. Stalin had to watch the explosions from a distance. Then a tank splashed his limousine, which sent his bodyguards into palpitations. Beria forced Stalin to change cars and go home. Yet Stalin had regained some spirit: he even let Svetlana visit him for a couple of days but then gruffly ignored her in the bunker, cursing the privileges of the “damned caste” of the élite in Kuibyshev. More importantly, the great actor-manager now devised a scene of reckless but inspired showmanship.16

On 30 October, Stalin suddenly asked General Artemev: “How are we going to have the military parade?”

There could be no parade, answered Artemev. The Germans were less than fifty miles away. Molotov and Beria thought he was joking. But Stalin calmly ignored them: “A parade will be held on 7th November . . . I’ll see to it personally. If there’s an air raid during the parade and there are dead and wounded, they must be quickly removed and the parade allowed to go on. A newsreel should be made and distributed throughout the country. I’ll make a speech . . . What do you think?”

“But what about the risk?” mused Molotov. “Though I admit the political response . . . would be enormous.”

“So it’s decided!”

Artemev asked when the parade should begin. “See to it that no one knows, not even I,” said Stalin, “until the last hour.” A week later, German spies might have glimpsed the odd sight of Muscovites, supervised by Chekists, collecting chairs from the Bolshoi Theatre and carrying them down the stairs to the Mayakovsky Metro. That evening, the magnates caught the elevator down into Mayakovsky Station where they found a train parked on one side, with its doors open. There were tables inside with sandwiches and soft drinks. After these refreshments, they took their seats on those theatrical chairs. Then, in a slightly vaudevillian touch, Stalin, accompanied by Molotov, Mikoyan, Beria, Kaganovich and Malenkov, assembled at the next station, and caught the subway to Mayakovsky. They took their places on the Politburo rostrum to wild applause. Levitan the newsreader broadcast the programme from a radio-station carriage. The NKVD Ensemble played the songs of Dunaevsky and Alexandrov. Kozlovsky sang. Stalin spoke for half an hour in a tone of inspiring calm, warning: “If they want a war of extermination, they shall have one.” Afterwards, General Artemev approached Stalin: the parade was set for 8 a.m. Even the officers involved were not to know the full details until 2 a.m.

Just before eight o’clock, in a snowstorm and with biting winds that preserved them from German air attack, Stalin led the Politburo up the steps to the Mausoleum, just like old times—except it was earlier and everyone was extremely nervous. Beria and Malenkov ordered their wizard of Special Tasks, Sudoplatov, to report to them on the Mausoleum if the Germans attacked. The public favourite at parades, Budyonny, sabre drawn on a white stallion, rode out from the Spassky Gate, saluted and then mounted to review the parade. The tanks, including the T34s, the outstanding machine of the war, and troops paraded in columns, U-turned at St. Basil’s, then headed up Gorky Street to the front.

There was a tense moment when a heavy Kliment Voroshilov tank stopped abruptly and turned in the wrong direction, followed by another. Since they were all fully armed, and since Stalin was watching this blunder carefully, Artemev ordered his subordinates to investigate at once. Having caught up with the tanks, their crews were interrogated and innocently revealed that the first tank had simply received a message that another tank was in trouble; following their training the other tanks had gone to its aid. When Artemev reported this on the Mausoleum, the potentates were so relieved that they laughed: no one was punished. Stalin spoke shortly about the patriotic struggle of the Russia of Suvorov, Kutuzov and Alexander Nevsky. The Motherland was in peril but defiant. Appropriately, that very night, the Russian freeze really set in.17

On 13 November, Stalin called Zhukov to plan the counter-attacks to put the German attacks off balance. Zhukov and Commissar Bulganin felt that their resources were so low they could not attack but Stalin insisted. “What forces are we to use?” asked Zhukov.

“Consider it settled!” Stalin rang off but immediately telephoned Bulganin: “You and Zhukov’re giving yourselves airs. But we’ll put a stop to that.”

Afterwards Bulganin ran into Zhukov’s office: “Well, I got it really hard this time!” he said.

The counter-attacks were subsumed in the grinding German offensive of 15 November, the last push to take Moscow. The Germans broke through. Again Stalin asked Zhukov: could he hold Moscow?

“We’ll hold Moscow without doubt. But we’ve got to have at least two more armies and no fewer than two hundred tanks.” Stalin delivered the armies “but for the time being, we don’t have any tanks.” Zhukov fought the Germans to a standstill on 5 December, having lost 155,000 men in twenty days. Effectively, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg had failed. On 6 December, Stalin delivered three new armies to Zhukov and ordered a grand counter-offensive on the four nearest fronts.18 The next day, Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor.19

Zhukov drove the Germans back two hundred miles. Yet even in such a desperate battle, the generals never forgot Stalin’s imperial vanity: just as Mekhlis had tried to win victory on Stalin’s birthday in Finland, so now Zhukov and Bulganin ordered Golubev, commander of the Tenth Army: “Tomorrow will be the birthday of Stalin. Try to mark this day by the capture of Balabanovo. To include this message in our report to Stalin, inform us of its fulfillment not later than 7 p.m. 21 December.” The Battle of Moscow was Stalin’s first victory, but a limited one. However, he was immediately dangerously over-optimistic, telling the visiting British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden: “The Russians have already been in Berlin twice and will be a third time.”200 It would take millions more dead and almost four years to reach Berlin. Zhukov was so exhausted that, even when Stalin telephoned, his adjutants had to tell him: “Zhukov is asleep and we can’t wake him.”

“Don’t wake him up until he wakes himself,” answered the Supremo benevolently. “Let him sleep.”20

On 5 January, the over-confident Supremo gathered Zhukov and the generals to hear the plan for a massive offensive from Leningrad to the Black Sea to capitalize on the German defeat before Moscow.

“Who wishes to speak?” asked Stalin. Zhukov criticised the offensive, saying the army needed more men and tanks. Voznesensky was against it too, saying he could not supply the necessary tanks. Stalin insisted on the offensive, at which Malenkov and Beria attacked Voznesensky for “always finding insuperable and unforeseen” objections. “On that,” said Stalin, “we’ll conclude the meeting.” In Stalin’s anteroom, old Shaposhnikov tried to console Zhukov: “You argued in vain. These issues had been decided beforehand by the Supremo . . .”

“Then why was our opinion solicited?”

“I don’t know, dear fellow.”21

The intelligent and indefatigable Beria, now forty-three, proved a voracious empire-builder in running the war, but he delivered the tanks and guns Stalin needed. Beria was keen to win points off Voznesensky, whom he loathed, and he soon outstripped Molotov and the older generation. No industry was too complex or too vast for Beria to master: he was in many ways not only the Himmler of Stalin’s entourage but also the Speer, another architect. He used the most colourful threats he could muster, asking his subordinates: “Do you care about seeing the sun rise and fall every day? Be careful!”

In early January 1942, at his flat, Stalin consulted this top industrial troika, Beria, Malenkov and Mikoyan, about the armaments shortage.

“What’s the problem?” exclaimed Stalin. Beria produced a diagram that showed how Voznesensky was failing to produce enough guns. “And what should be done?”

“I don’t know, Comrade Stalin,” replied Beria artfully. Stalin immediately gave him control of this vital industry.

“Comrade Stalin, I don’t know whether I can manage it . . . I’m inexperienced in this sort of thing . . .”

“It’s not experience that’s needed here but a strong organizer . . . Use prisoners for labour.”

The railways remained impossible to run, even by the energetic and bellowing Kaganovich. When one commissar, Baibakov, reported to Kaganovich, “the Locomotive” jumped up and shook him by the lapels. Beria reported Kaganovich’s table-thumping tempers to Stalin: “The railways deteriorate because [Kaganovich] won’t listen to advice . . . he just answers with hysterics.” Kaganovich was criticised for mismanaging the evacuations of industry and, twice, sacked “for being unable to cope with work under wartime conditions” but he was soon back.

Molotov fared no better at running tank production. “How’s [Molotov] managing?” Stalin asked Beria, again accompanied by Malenkov and Mikoyan.

“He has no communication with the factories, doesn’t manage them properly . . . and holds endless meetings . . .” replied Beria, who added tanks to his empire. Molotov lost the tanks but gained the world. 22

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