Military history

Disaster Beats Its Wings


June is a special month all over northern Europe. In European Russia and Ukraine, it is magical. Winter’s bitter dark and ice are barely even memories, spring’s mud and rain forgiven. Kiev’s famous chestnut trees come into bloom, and so do Moscow’s lilacs, Yalta’s Judas trees. It is the month of the peony and the green willow; the month, in the north, of the white nights. Midsummer night fell on a Saturday in 1941. In Sevastopol, the home of the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet, it was, as naval officer Evseev remarked in his diary, ‘a wonderful Crimean evening’. That Saturday, ‘all the streets and boulevards in the city were lit. The white houses were bathed in light, the clubs and theatres beckoned the sailors on shore leave to come inside. There were crowds of sailors and local people, dressed in white, packing the city’s streets and parks. As always, the famous Primorsky boulevard was full of people out for a stroll. Music was playing. There were jokes and happy laughter everywhere on the evening before the holiday.’1 A week before, the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, had insisted that rumours of Germany’s intention to break its pact with Moscow and launch an attack on the Soviet Union were completely without foundation.2 The temptation to believe him must have been overwhelming.

One source of all the light across the city’s twin harbours that night was the Upper Inkerman lighthouse. With its help, the German planes could navigate their way unerringly towards the port.3 They came from the east, flying low out of the steppe, their route a great arc across Soviet space. They knew their targets in advance: the fleet, the warehouses, the anti-aircraft guns. Soon the Black Sea reflected new lights from the shore: incandescent trails and flares, searchlights, the evil glow of a landscape on fire. ‘Are those planes ours?’ someone asked Evseev as the sailors scrambled into boats to get back to their ships. ‘It must be another exercise.’ But his neighbour had been taking careful stock. ‘Our anti-aircraft batteries are firing live rounds,’ he said. ‘And those bombs don’t look at all like dummies.’ ‘So we’re at war, then?’ said a third. ‘But with whom?’4

Hundreds of miles to the north, along the new border in formerly Polish land, Red Army men were winding down for their free day on Sunday. Those who could get local leave had gone off to town, to cosmopolitan Lvov or Minsk, to get a decent meal and forget their worries. Colonel-General D. G. Pavlov, the commander-in-chief of the western special military district, was at the theatre. A comedy called The Wedding at Malinovka was playing to a full house at the officers’ club in the Belorussian capital.5 The good commander did not allow his enjoyment of the play to be disrupted by the news, brought by his intelligence chief, Colonel Blokhin, that German troops along the border appeared to be preparing for action. There were even some reports, Blokhin whispered, of shelling. ‘It can’t be true,’ Pavlov replied, and pointed at the stage. It was time to get back to the play.6 The whole army, in fact, was under orders to keep calm. Kamenshchikov, an officer in the western air defence force, was accompanied to the theatre that night by his wife, son and father. They had come up from their home in Stalingrad that week for a short summer break.7 They also watched their play through to the end and then returned to his quarters for supper and bed.

At nine o’clock that evening, while Pavlov was still at the play, a German sapper called Alfred Liskow stole across the Soviet lines. Liskow was one of the few German internationalists that Soviet troops would ever meet. Before his call-up in 1939, he had worked in a furniture factory in the Bavarian town of Kolberg, which is where he had become acquainted with the works of Marx and Lenin. That night he came to warn his proletarian brothers of their imminent danger. He told his Soviet captors that German artillery units along the border had orders to start shelling targets on the Soviet side within the next few hours. At first light, he continued, ‘rafts, boats and pontoons’ would be thrown across the Bug, the marshy river that divided German-occupied Poland from the Soviet sector to the east.8 The attack on the Soviet Union was poised to begin with devastating force. Information of the same kind was relayed by deserters elsewhere on the land frontier. It was not news to the political leadership in Moscow. British and even Soviet intelligence had been warning of this plan for weeks, but Stalin had chosen to ignore the tales, and border troops had made no preparation for an imminent attack. As far as they were concerned, the deserters that night looked like provocateurs. One, a German from Berlin, was shot on that basis. Liskow himself was still under interrogation when mortars started ripping through the dark.9

It was Kamenshchikov’s wife who woke him. Perhaps it was her inexperience, she said, but she had never heard so many planes flying above a town at night. Her husband assured her that what she was hearing were manoeuvres. There had been lots of exercises lately. All the same he threw a coat over his shoulders and stepped outside to take a closer look. He knew at once that this was real war. The very air was different; humming, shattered, thick with sour black smoke. The town’s main railway line was picked out by a rope of flame. Even the horizon had begun to redden, but its glow, to the west, was not the approaching dawn. Acting without orders, Kamenshchikov went to the airfield and took a plane up to meet the invaders at once, which is why, exceptionally among the hundreds of machines that were parked in neat formations as usual that night, his was brought down over the Bialystok marshes and not destroyed on the ground.10 By midday on 22 June, the Soviets had lost 1,200 planes. In Kamenshchikov’s own western district alone, 528 had been blown up like fairground targets by the German guns.11

Unlike Kamenshchikov, Colonel-General Pavlov had never even gone to bed. There had been an awkward briefing with a few staff officers straight after the play and then, at one in the morning, he had been called to front headquarters for a telephone conversation. The man at the other end of the line in Moscow was the Soviet Defence Commissar, Semen Konstantinovich Timoshenko.12 He was calling to check the situation of the border troops. ‘Well,’ he began, ‘how is it where you are – quiet?’ Pavlov replied that there had been very considerable German activity at the front line, including a build-up of motorcycle regiments and special forces. ‘Just try to worry less and don’t panic,’ Timoshenko replied. ‘Get the staff together anyway this morning, because something unpleasant may happen, perhaps, but don’t rise to any provocation. If there is a specific provocation, ring me.’13

Pavlov later recollected that he spent the next two hours with his senior officers. One by one they reported on their troops, on the dismal problem of supplies and on their lack of readiness for battle. Some units had been dispersed on exercises, others needed stocks of fuel or ammunition, and all were more or less paralyzed by inadequate or poorly organized transport. The railways were still running to peacetime schedules, and almost every front-line regiment was short of motor vehicles. The army could not even requisition trucks, for there were almost no civilian vehicles in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Pavlov and his men were still busy with these questions at 3.30 a. m., the moment scheduled for the German land assault. Coincidentally, it was also the time when Timoshenko rang again. ‘He asked me what was new,’ Pavlov recalled. ‘I told him that the situation had not changed.’14 By then, a dozen cities in the borderlands had been engulfed in flames.

The Luftwaffe had flown high into Soviet territory earlier that night. At dawn they swept westwards to bomb a string of strategic cities, including Bialystok, Kiev, Brest, Grodno, Rovno and Kovno, as well as the Baltic ports of Tallinn and Riga. The land attack, the core of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, began just as the eastern sky began to lighten. At 3.15 a.m. on 22 June, the Soviet border guards in charge of the bridge over the river Bug at Koden were summoned by their German counterparts to discuss ‘important matters’. When they obediently appeared, they were machine-gunned by the advance guard of a German assault party. Arriving at the railway bridge at Brest, German sappers tore the crude explosives from its central pier and waved their men across.15 By 5.30 a. m., which, on Moscow time, was when the German Ambassador, von Schulenburg, delivered his declaration of war to Molotov, Pavlov’s command was under attack from thirteen infantry and five tank divisions, together with artillery and airborne cover.

Shock led to misreporting and confusion. Grodno was under such heavy air attack that the commander of the Soviet 3rd Army, Kuznetsov, had barricaded himself in a basement well before first light. But other messages talked of calm for a few hours more, and even, in the case of Golubev’s 10th Army, of a successful repulse of the German troops. By 7 o’clock, some officers were starting to report that they had lost contact with their men, that whole units had simply disappeared. As Pavlov would later tell his interrogators, ‘Kuznetsov informed me, with a tremble in his throat, that the only thing that was left of the 56th rifle division was its number.’16 The men may have been dead or captured, or, like those of the 85th division, they may simply have fled towards the south. Radio and telephone links were broken, messages and orders were not getting through. The answer was to send a trusted deputy to take control. That morning, Pavlov assigned Lieutenant-General Ivan Vasilevich Boldin to the 10th Army’s headquarters in the border town of Bialystok. He was to fly there straight away from Minsk.

Whatever doubts he may have had, Boldin learned the truth that afternoon. His light aircraft came under German fire before he even reached the border, and when he landed on a dirt strip outside Bialystok someone told him that parachutists had been sighted coming down nearby. The atmosphere, as he recalled later, was ‘incredibly hot and the air smelt of burning’. His main feeling, as he climbed into the one truck that the army had been able to requisition, was one of shock, of helplessness. The truck made slow progress through the bewildered lines of refugees. Most people were on foot, heading anywhere to get away from the noise and searing flames, but then came a small motorcade, led by a smart new ZIS-101. ‘The broad leaves of an aspidistra were protruding from one of the windows,’ Boldin observed. ‘It was the car of some local top official. Inside were two women and two children.’ Boldin looked at the group with undisguised disgust, suggesting tartly that they might have ditched the plant to make space for another human being. But as the women turned away in shame, a plane dipped low above the road and there were three cracks of machine-gun fire. Boldin managed to jump aside in time, although his driver was killed. In the ZIS-101 the women, the children and the driver were all dead. As Boldin recollected, ‘Only the evergreen leaves of the aspidistra were still sticking out of the window.’17

It would be evening before Boldin made contact with the 10th Army. Like all the frightened refugees, it had retreated from Bialystok that very day. Its new headquarters were in the birch woods to the east and consisted of two tents with a table and chairs. A shaken General Golubev told Boldin that all his divisions had sustained terrible losses. His light tanks, the elderly T-26s, had proved themselves good ‘only for firing at sparrows’. The Luftwaffe had targeted the army’s fuel dumps, aircraft and anti-aircraft guns. His men, he said, were fighting ‘like heroes’, but they were powerless against an enemy like this. The 10th Army, effectively, had been wiped out.18

The news was reported to Minsk as soon as a radio could be made to work. Pavlov would also learn that night that the 3rd Army had abandoned Grodno. Reports from Brest suggested that this city, too, was not likely to hold. The Germans had known exactly where to target their artillery and air strikes, beginning with the army’s command centres and then aiming for railways and factories.19 Pavlov responded with a stream of orders that read like a propaganda script. This was the Red Army, and it was not meant to retreat. Accordingly, the general ordered men he could not see or even contact to mount a bold counter-attack. The aim, as ever, was to push the Germans back behind the frontier and defeat them on their own soil.20 Weeks later, with his life in the balance, Pavlov would tell his interrogators that he was still thinking strategically at that stage, confident that Brest could be held and the tide of attack turned. But Boldin, who was ordered to mount an offensive on 23 June with forces that were either dead or hopelessly dispersed, considered that Pavlov was merely covering his back. He was rapping out the orders, Boldin thought, just to show Moscow that something was really being done. The culture of the purge, of empty gestures, lies and fear, was still alive and well.

It was to Boldin’s credit that he tried to organize the remnants of the 10th Army to fight on 23 June. Within a few hours, their supplies of fuel and ammunition ran out. The two planes that they sent to Minsk begging for help were soon shot down. Like thousands of other Soviet troops, they were encircled in the tongue of Soviet territory that would become famous as the Bialystok pocket, surrounded by German forces and cut off from their comrades and supplies. Boldin was lucky. He headed east towards Smolensk with a ragtag following of uniformed refugees. After nearly seven weeks of retreat and sporadic fighting in the woods the general and 1,654 of his men were reunited with the main Red Army.21 Pavlov, meanwhile, had been arrested, questioned, scapegoated for cowardice and shot. Eight other senior officers, all of whom had been as helpless in the face of Germany’s attack that June, died with him. As the State Defence Committee noted on 16 July, the men were considered to be guilty of ‘lack of resolve, panic-mongering, disgraceful cowardice … and fleeing in terror in the face of an impudent enemy’.22 Failure in this war, whatever its cause, would be blamed on the moral bankruptcy of individuals like this. No one would mention the war plans that had no chance of succeeding, the untrained armies or the breakdown of morale. They would not point out, either, that this was a war that, at first, Stalin had not permitted anyone to fight.


David Samoilov, the poet and future front-line soldier, described the shock everyone felt in those few days. ‘We were all expecting war,’ he wrote later. ‘But we were not expecting that war.’ As the fortress city of Brest began to burn and the garrison in charge of nearby Kobrin fled into the Pripet marshes, the people of Moscow, more than a whole day’s train ride to the east, relied on little more than rumour. The news did not become official till just after noon. In those days, important radio announcements were broadcast in the public squares. Soon, indeed, the possession of a radio for private use would be outlawed altogether.23 So people heard the news that Sunday as a crowd, standing in the midday sunshine with their faces turned towards the tin throats of loudspeakers. ‘Today, at four o’clock,’ the voice of their foreign minister, Molotov, announced, ‘without any declaration of war, and without any claims being made on the Soviet Union, German troops attacked our country.’ It was an outrage, but the speaker did not reveal the full scale of the disaster. The crowds were told that there were now ‘more than two hundred dead’. It would be many years before they learned how great an understatement that had been. But the essence of the message was quite clear. ‘The government calls on you, men and women citizens of the Soviet Union, to rally even more closely around the glorious Bolshevik party,’ Molotov went on, ‘around the Soviet government and our great leader, Comrade Stalin. Our cause is just. The enemy will be smashed. Victory will be ours.’24

Every account of the war goes on to talk about the surge of patriotism that these words produced. War veterans remember their proud indignation still. ‘I was a boy, fifteen years old,’ one told me. ‘I had lived my whole life in a Siberian village. I’d never even seen Moscow. But still it came from somewhere, that patriotism. I knew that I would volunteer straight away.’25 In every city in the land the would-be heroes stepped forward to fight. The scenes, again, were reminiscent of an epic film. The war that volunteers imagined they would have to wage was an illusion too. The men’s words, certainly, read like a 1930s script. ‘I lived through German rule in the Ukraine in 1918 and 1919,’ a gnarled collective farmer from Kursk province told the crowd. ‘We will not work for landlords and noblemen. We’ll drive that bloodstained Hitler out bag and baggage. I declare myself mobilized and ask to be sent to the front to destroy the German bandits.’26 ‘The workers feel a profound patriotism,’ a secret police report agreed. ‘There have been significant numbers of applications to join the army from young people from the cities and the farms.’27 But the state did not leave anything to chance. Extra officers were drafted into the secret police that very night, and suspected counter-revolutionaries, including hundreds of foreign nationals, were arrested at once.28

The tight security was justified, for Stalin’s people had cause to be angry and to demand real facts. In his announcement, Molotov had reminded them that just a few hours earlier Germany had been the Soviet Union’s ally in a pact, ‘the terms of which were scrupulously observed by the Soviet Union’. It was a deal with fascism that the Soviet people had been doubting for two years. Now came the news of unprovoked attack. The natural response, apart from shock, was scepticism. Veterans of the civil war remembered the daily reports and public debates of that time and complained that they were getting no hard news. Many assumed – correctly – that the truth was much blacker than they were permitted to know.29 At the same time, other people, dazzled by the pre-war myth, believed the rumours that Germany was in retreat, that Warsaw had already fallen, that Ribbentrop had shot himself and that the Red Army was heading for Berlin.30 The fictions blossomed round the silence of one man. Stalin himself did not address the people until 3 July.

The truth about the people’s mood in that first week is still hard to unravel from the web of propaganda. No one, not even the NKVD, could measure the relative strengths of patriotism and panic, anger and mistrust. No one could predict what the crowds would do. One fear, that there would be a run on stocks of food and fuel, proved accurate. Police agents were posted around the capital to prevent looting. One of these remembered his watch on a macaroni factory in the Sokolniki district, a three-day vigil that ended in a violent confrontation with local people, including his own cousin. ‘I told him that I would shoot if he did not leave,’ the old policeman said. ‘I can still remember the look in his eyes. It was necessary and it was my job. I would have shot him without hesitating.’31The country might have dissolved into civil war, but most reports from the first night described relative calm. Rubbing their eyes as the dawn broke, police informers scribbled down the good news first. Perhaps they even believed it.

On 24 June, two state security officers in Moscow submitted a summary of the popular mood in the capital to their superior, counter-intelligence chief V. S. Abakumov. In general, they noted, the city’s working people had responded admirably, offering to work extra shifts and volunteering to train for civil defence. ‘We will put up with any hardships,’ one man declared, ‘to help our Red Army ensure that the Soviet people utterly destroys the fascists.’ ‘We must be firmly organized and observe the strictest steadfastness and discipline,’ another pronounced. ‘Our indignation has no limits,’ affirmed a printworker. ‘Hitler has violated the sacred borders of the first socialist country in the world … We will win because there is no power in the world that can vanquish a people who have risen up in patriotic war.’32 The same reactions were recorded in provincial centres, including the city of Kursk. The Communist Party there called an emergency meeting at midnight on 22 June. Unusually, ran its report, the members all turned up on time. ‘The feeling of unlimited love for their motherland, for the party and for Stalin, and the people’s deep outrage and hatred of bestial fascism were reflected in every speech the members made.’33

This was the most important theme for everyone that June. The patriotic declarations read like excerpts from a script, but the emotions that lay behind them were powerful and real. Twenty years of meretricious talk, of communist jargon, had furnished Soviet patriots with an impressive stock of wooden phrases. The younger generation knew no other language for this kind of thing. At the moment of greatest shock, it was natural that people would fall back on the sentences they had been trained to use, the notions of Stalinist collectivism and service. The crisis of the next few months would test the credibility of the official line, but it would also show how many people were prepared to risk their lives, to die, for their country and its future. ‘Anti-Soviet behaviour,’ wrote Moscow’s Comrade Zhigalov after his visit to the city’s Paris Commune factory on 26 June, ‘is non-existent.’34

If he had stepped outside the party cells and strongholds of the ethnic Russian working class, however, his report might have sounded an alarm. In Moscow, the secret police were particularly interested in the views of citizens with German names. ‘Soviet power wasn’t elected by the will of the people,’ a Muscovite named Kyun observed. ‘And now the people will have their say.’ ‘The peasants will greet the news of the war with joy,’ a woman called Mauritz allegedly remarked. ‘It will free them from the Bolsheviks and the collective farms they hate so much. Russia may be strong, but it isn’t a problem for Germany.’35 These comments were collected partly as a prelude to that night’s arrests, but they were not uncommon anywhere. Beyond the cities, talk of this kind was likely to be overheard among older people, especially those who resented not just the collective farms but godlessness as well.36 And then there was the problem of hostility to Russian rule itself. There were good communists in every republic of the Soviet Union, and there were enemies of fascism, too, and patriots who could not tolerate invasion. But although volunteers came forward almost everywhere to fight, there were also some who held back, quietly, considering the possibilities that the turn of events might bring. Even in remoter places, such as Georgia, that were not under immediate threat, there was a sense that Moscow’s crisis might, perhaps, prove to be someone else’s opportunity.37

Meanwhile, the mass of the loyal Soviet public threw themselves into a surge of volunteering. In Kursk province, 7,200 people applied for front-line military service in the first month of hostilities.38 In Moscow, where recruitment centres were jammed around the clock, more than 3,500 applications were received in the first thirty-six hours.39 People attended crisis meetings at their factories, they heard the patriotic speeches as a group, and then, also in groups, they trooped off to local recruiting stations, like boy scouts, to volunteer. The eager patriots were not exclusively male. Women – the reports always call them girls – also appeared, also in groups. They made a strange impression as potential troops. ‘They looked at my manicure and my little hat,’ a woman veteran recalled. ‘They said they wouldn’t last if I was going to the front.’ Such women were sometimes accepted for a training scheme, often as nurses, but most were talked into enrolling as blood donors and staying at home.40 Either way, the whole process took place in an atmosphere of trance. Few of the early volunteers had much idea what they were signing up to do.

People who did were often cynical about it all. Onlookers with direct experience of army life doubted that public fervour would change anything on the front line. ‘Our leaders seem to think they’ll conquer the German people through agitation,’ a veteran of the tsarist army remarked. ‘But it won’t work at all. There’s a lot of discontent in the Red Army.’41 Reservists could be doubtful about taking arms again. That June, there were reports of suicide among young people liable for service at the front, and several cases of deliberate self-mutilation were recorded by Moscow’s police.42 As the initial shock of Molotov’s announcement faded, too, the patriotic trance began to lose its grip. ‘I’ll only volunteer for mobilization when they mobilize everyone,’ a komsomol in Kursk was heard deciding with his friends. A rumour had just reached him that Kiev and Minsk were under fire. Though this was true, no one was supposed to believe it. The official disclaimers tempted cynics to despair. Clerks in government offices could be paralyzed by fear, while many more, resignedly awaiting the arrival of the German troops, stayed home and found their solace through a haze of drink.43

The trance soon faded for the new recruits as well. The Red Army had not changed overnight, and nor had its recruitment and supply structures. Prewar contingency plans for mobilization had allowed three days for organizing the call-up of those liable for immediate front-line service. In the panic that midsummer, these guidelines were scrapped and the Supreme Soviet called for the process to be completed in twenty-four hours. The chaos this produced would last until the following spring.44 More immediately, the mass movement of troops became acutely dangerous in the front-line regions, up to 200 kilometres into Soviet territory, that the Luftwaffe already controlled. ‘The normal mobilization of remaining soldiers… was impossible,’ a report on the 8th Army, based in the north-west, noted, ‘because most of the border divisions had lost their mobilization bases.’45

Safe for a while behind the lines that summer afternoon, the volunteers of Moscow also found the army unprepared. Photographs of the recruitment process show crowds of young men and women pressed together round some junior officer’s desk, waving their passports and pushing their mates aside like shoppers on the first day of a sale. The propaganda image suggests young men squaring up for immediate combat, as if they were ready to grab the nearest German by the scruff and throw him out of Russia straight away. The truth was that raw volunteers – unlike reservists – would need to be assessed, equipped and trained for some weeks before they faced their first fascist. Their experience that day, after the first moments of glory and resolve, was usually prosaic. The officer in charge gave them a glance to weed the hopeless cases from the healthy young. Then came a quick check of their documents, and then, for those who made the grade, a long wait. At this stage, as the veterans attest, there were not even medical examinations.

There were no barracks, food or transport, either. Most recruitment stations were set up in local schools. When the suitable applicants had been selected and their papers stamped they were in the army. They were no longer free. But there was nowhere warm or dry for them to go to either, and the authorities had not thought to lay on food or entertainment while they waited. In Moscow they crowded into classrooms, they spilled into the streets and they gathered on the platforms of the Belorussian station as if they hoped for trains to take them to the front. By the time the party’s reporter arrived at the station to check on this last group most had been there for several days. There were no beds, so they slept on the floor. Some had brought bread or biscuits with them, others had nothing at all to eat, but somehow they had all found a supply of vodka.46 The same fate had befallen reservists from the capital. The city was thronged with groups of men, several hundred at a time, just sitting, waiting, talking, drinking and reflecting on their fate. ‘A good many volunteers have a drunken appearance,’ the police primly observed.47 It was traditional, of course, but this was war.

In places nearer to the front the new recruits waited less long, drank less vodka and indulged their illusions not at all. Misha Volkov worked in Kiev’s fast-growing metal industry. A married man with a small child, his main concern for years had been his fragile health. He suffered from a heart condition that his own taut nerves made worse, but his illness had not been serious enough to excuse him from military service years before, and he was recalled in the first round of mobilization that summer. On 24 June, he and a group of fellow junior officers were ordered to join a unit in Lvov. Volkov was so anxious to get on with his new task that he did not even spend a last night at home with his wife and daughter. The memory of his hasty departure for the barracks would haunt him for five years.

As Volkov worried himself to sleep in a strange bed on his first night in uniform, Lvov was burning. The local NKVD, in preparation for their own retreat, spent their night murdering the inmates of its crowded jails.48 Volkov knew none of this. His problem would be getting there. His call-up papers included a pass that paid his train fare, but there were no special carriages or requisitioned seats. Like everyone else, he had to fight to get a place on the first train that looked as if it might make the twelve-hour journey west. Here was another piece of Stalinist logic: no means of getting to Lvov was guaranteed, but failure to appear on time would count as desertion. The result, as always, was a desperate scrum. Volkov somehow managed to shove a dozen other conscripts aside. He hauled himself up the iron steps of a carriage, clutching at the folds of someone else’s coat. But then he tripped. His boot slipped and he fell hard. He would have injured his back on the rails, he wrote to his wife, if another man had not already slumped across them, softening his fall. ‘It was my first incident,’ he wrote. It was a fitting prelude to the journey in the overcrowded train. ‘On the way,’ he went on, ‘we passed columns of refugees from Lvov and other cities in western Ukraine. They told us that there was street fighting in Lvov and that life in the city had come to a standstill.’

Volkov and his friends soon came under bombardment, but ‘I was lucky again, because I’m still alive.’ When he arrived in Lvov, a city now in complete chaos, he discovered that the unit he was meant to join had fled. Again he faced a troubling dilemma. There was no sign of his commanding officer, but if he did not report for duty he would count as a deserter once again. He lingered in Lvov for three more days, but still no orders came. The street fighting was never far away, the shops were empty and the nights macabre. The locals, many of whom were patriots for a free western Ukraine, were as likely to spit in a Soviet soldier’s face as they were to offer him directions, let alone a meal. At last Volkov decided to leave, taking the twenty men who seemed to be in his command. There was no one to help with advice or supplies. None of the men had even seen a map, for these counted as secret documents back then. All the recruits could do was set out for the east, braving the constant shelling and machine-gun fire. ‘We walked without a break for forty-eight hours,’ Volkov told his wife. ‘There was nothing to eat, and we were very thirsty. We walked through ravines and woods, through mud, we fell into potholes. Ten people got left behind on the way; they didn’t have the strength to go on.’ A hundred miles later, the remnants of his group arrived at Tarnopol and joined up with their main unit at last. ‘When I remember this,’ he wrote, ‘I still can’t understand where I got the strength from, where I found the stamina, especially since I’d had no time to toughen up.’49

Volkov’s letter was written when he was safely reunited with the Red Army. For him, the story of those panic-stricken weeks ended quite well. But he knew how complete the insecurity had been. That June, he would not have been able to guess whether Lvov was the last stronghold the Germans held, or conversely, if it were true, as the leaflets dropped from German planes announced, that Moscow had fallen and Stalin was dead. His walk through the woods and hills of western Ukraine was a last act of faith. As a Jew, he may have known what kind of reception he would have met in German hands. To remain in Lvov, he may have guessed, would mean capture and certain death. Other soldiers at the front, including tens of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, chose to surrender to the invaders rather than plunging eastwards through the wild. Still others simply picked up their greatcoats and their heavy packs and walked back home. The choices of those first few days were lonelier than any they had ever made.

The turning point, for many, came on 3 July. On that day Stalin finally addressed the Soviet people, reading from a script and pausing frequently, as if distressed, to drink from a glass at his elbow. The speech itself, beginning with its famous address to Soviet citizens as ‘brothers and sisters, friends’, was a calculated break with communist formality and a watershed in Stalin’s relationship with his people. As a recent Russian history of the time affirms, it was a crucial moment for morale. ‘Although Stalin admitted that the country was in mortal danger,’ writes O. V. Druzhba, ‘this was better than the untamed fear of leaderlessness and betrayal.’50

One of the few outsiders to witness it all was Alexander Werth, a journalist who was based in Moscow to report for the Sunday Times. In his great history of the war, written from notes that he made inside Russia, he described Stalin’s performance as ‘extraordinary’. Its effect, he considered, ‘addressed to a nervous, and often frightened and bewildered people, was very important. Until then, there had been something artificial in the adulation of Stalin; his name was associated not only with the stupendous effort of the Five Year Plans, but also with the ruthless methods employed in the collectivisation campaign and, worse still, with the terror of the purges. The Soviet people now felt that they had a leader to look to.’51

The speech was indeed shrewd, admitting to the country’s mortal crisis without breathing a word about the panic at the front. Stalin did not spell out the extent of the German advance, but he conceded that the enemy was ‘wicked and perfidious … heavily armed with tanks and artillery’. There was also a deft admission of unpreparedness. ‘Soviet troops had not been fully mobilized,’ the people learned, ‘and had not been moved to the frontier’ when ‘Fascist Germany unexpectedly and perfidiously violated the 1939 non-aggression pact’. Such crumbs seem to have satisfied some members of an audience that hungered for real news. ‘The Leader did not remain silent about the fact that our troops have had to retreat,’ a Moscow plastics worker commented. ‘He does not hide the difficulties that lie ahead for his people. After this speech I want to work even harder. It has mobilized me for great deeds.’ The call for volunteers to train for civil defence, as well as the injunction to tireless effort in the factories, seemed to inspire thousands of people and make them take heart. Others, encouraged by Stalin’s assurance that the enemy would not prevail, declared that they were leaving for the front at once. ‘If our leader says that victory is certain, it means that we will win.’52

The reports of improved morale and collective determination far outweigh those that describe dissension. For millions, Stalin’s speech was the real start of patriotic struggle. Without their dedication and their faith, the war might have been lost within a year. But there were others who could not be soothed with slogans and fine words; the speech did not allay suspicion everywhere. Werth might not have known it – and he certainly could not have reported the fact – but Stalin’s speech was met with bitter laughter in some quarters, even in the capital. People had learned to read between the lines whenever an official spoke. Now some of them gave in to their worst fears. ‘All this talk about mobilizing the people and organizing civil defence just goes to show that the situation at the front is absolutely hopeless,’ said one Moscow engineer. ‘It’s clear that the Germans will take Moscow soon and Soviet power will not hold out.’ ‘It’s too late to start talking about volunteers now,’ a woman muttered to friends in her office. ‘The Germans are practically in Moscow already.’ ‘Some kind of collapse is inescapable,’ another office worker said. ‘Everything that we have been building for twenty-five years has turned out to be a chimera. The collapse is obvious from Stalin’s speech, in his desperate summons to the colours.’53

The leader’s words made even less impact in villages where people still distrusted Soviet power. In Kursk province, for instance, there were peasants who resented the order to dig tank traps and defence trenches. ‘Shoot me if you like,’ an angry woman told local police, ‘but I’m not digging any trenches. The only people who need trenches are the communists and Jews. Let them dig them for themselves. Your power is coming to an end and we’re not going to work for you.’54 ‘A war has started and people are going to get killed,’ a man told fellow villagers at their meeting. ‘I personally am not opposed to Soviet power, but I hate communists.’55 ‘Your war isn’t anything to do with me,’ another told the party men. ‘Let the communists fight.’56 Collectivization was one focus for this opposition to Soviet power, political repression another. ‘It’s a good thing Hitler has invaded the Soviet Union,’ a dinner lady whose husband was in prison commented that July. ‘They’ll have to let the prisoners out.’57 Such views were amplified, in different ways, among members of the non-Russian ethnic groups.

The greatest test of Stalin’s speech, however, was the reaction in the Red Army itself. Official histories and memoirs published under Soviet power agree that many saw it as the first true ray of hope. ‘It is hard to describe the enormous enthusiasm and patriotic uplift’ with which the speech was met, recalled front-line General I. I. Fedyuninsky. ‘We suddenly seemed to feel much stronger. Where circumstances permitted, short meetings would be held by the army units.’58 These meetings, sometimes the first thatpolitrukshad dared to call, provided an opportunity to discuss the gravity of the attack at last. Instead of lies and silences, the men now learned what kind of effort each of them would have to make if the invaders were to be driven from Soviet soil. War that had been unreal until that point, like a play that had suddenly deviated from its script, now became serious, the fear as well as sacrifice more valid. In his war novel The Living and the Dead, Konstantin Simonov recalled the men’s response. ‘Stalin did not describe the situation as tragic,’ he has a wounded soldier muse. ‘The truth he told was a bitter truth, but at last it was uttered, and people felt that they stood more firmly on the ground.’ The speech, wrote Simonov, left its audience with ‘a tense expectation of change for the better’.59

Accounts like this, from Soviet times, reflect the sense of awe that the catastrophe inspired. Stalin, like Churchill in Britain at the same time, understood and responded to the emotional intensity of the moment. But the leader’s strong words did not impress everyone. The ‘bitter truth’ that Stalin told was far from accurate. It was true, as he said, that thousands of troops were ‘fighting heroically’, but it was also true that tens of thousands more were missing or captured, striking out towards their homes or waiting in depots for transport to take them anywhere at all. Nor could the leader’s speech help people stranded in the mosquito-haunted marsh. Among these was a politruk called Nikolai Moskvin.

Moskvin’s war had begun with the same fine words and lofty hopes as any loyal citizen’s, words written in the collective national trance. ‘I profoundly believe in the rightness of our cause,’ he wrote in his diary on 22 June. ‘I love my motherland, I will defend it to the last ounce of my strength, and I will not begrudge my life for my people.’ That night he kissed his family goodbye as they joined the long convoy of evacuees. He did not think they would be separated long. Two days later, he was with his regiment and preparing to defend Belorussia. But disturbing rumours of loss – 850 planes and 900 tanks – soon began filtering east, and the shrewd politruk already guessed that these estimates might prove to be low. ‘Who tells the truth in wartime?’ he wondered. Moskvin began to weigh the odds. ‘We’ll win for sure,’ he still believed. ‘But the cost will be colossal.’ Ten days later, on 4 July, the truth had dawned. ‘Our situation is very bad,’ he wrote in despair. ‘How could it have turned out that we, preparing to fight on enemy soil, absolutely failed to consider that we might have to mount some kind of defence? Something was up with the doctrine of our armed forces.’60

Moskvin’s main job was to maintain morale. After a short delay, he received a transcript of Stalin’s speech with instructions to read it to the men. But by this stage his regiment had little time for meetings. ‘No time to write,’ the politruk noted on 15 July. ‘It is possible that we are not completely defeated yet, but the situation is extremely difficult … The enemy’s aviation is destroying absolutely everything. The roads are littered with the bodies of our soldiers and the civilian population. Towns and villages are burning. The Germans are everywhere – in front, behind, and on our flank.’ A couple of new recruits from western Ukraine were calling on the men to surrender their arms. Their situation seemed hopeless enough. By 23 July, the regiment had been encircled. ‘What am I to say to the boys?’ Moskvin asked in a scribbled note. ‘We keep retreating. How can I get their approval? How? Am I to say that comrade Stalin is with us? That Napoleon was ruined and that Hitler and his generals will find their graves with us? … It seems that I didn’t do a good job of convincing them,’ he added the next day. The previous evening, after his pep talk to the men, thirteen of them had slipped away into the forest.61


The Red Army collapsed in the first weeks of the war. This is no criticism of its individual troops; it is a statement about bureaucratic rule, coercion, lies, fear and mismanagement. The problems were not new, nor were they unfamiliar. Transport, for instance, which was identified by nearly every frontline officer as the reason why retreat turned into rout that June, was like a running sore for units based along the Soviet border. ‘It is absolutely unknown to us where and when we will receive the motorized transport we need for newly mobilized units,’ the commander of an infantry division in the 4th Army had written on 12 March 1941. That same month, another report found no unit with more than four fifths of the required transport strength. Even then, spare parts, fuel and tyres remained impossible to guarantee.62 Four months later, when the crippled armies of the western region needed transport to bring fresh reserves up to the front, they found themselves short by at least one third of the required strength.63

Gabriel Temkin, a Jewish refugee from Hitler who would later fight in the Red Army, witnessed the impact of the transport shortage from his lodging near Bialystok. The soldiers he saw on their way to the front that first week made a depressing spectacle: ‘Some in trucks, many on foot, their outdated rifles hanging loosely over their shoulders. Their uniforms worn out, covered with dust, not a smile on their mostly despondent, emaciated faces with sunken cheeks. Equally miserable,’ he added, ‘were the small trucks pullingthe vehicles with ammunition, food and personal belongings.’64 The men’s morale was desperately low. It was a matter of poor leadership, inadequate training and lack of faith in their own cause, but the long marches and even longer bivouacs, sometimes in the open air, made the whole nightmare worse. ‘Sometimes,’ Fedyuninsky wrote of the retreating armies, ‘bottlenecks were formed by troops, artillery, motor vehicles and field kitchens, and then the Nazi planes had the time of their life … Often our troops could not dig in, simply because they did not have the simplest implements. Occasionally trenches had to be dug with helmets, since there were no spades …’65

Red Army soldiers receiving their supply of shells before battle, 1941

Other equipment was in short supply as well. The Germans genuinely feared Soviet bayonets, and troops were encouraged to use them for that reason. The problem was, for many, that they had no other choice. That June, soldiers in Belorussia and Ukraine ran out of cartridges and bullets. Anastas Mikoyan recalled his government’s surprise when it learned that the army had run out of rifles, too. ‘We thought we surely had enough for the whole army,’ he wrote in his memoir. ‘But it turned out that a portion of our divisions had been assembled according to peacetime norms. Divisions that had been equipped with adequate numbers of rifles for wartime conditions held on to them, but they were all close to the front. When the Germans crossed the frontier and began to advance, these weapons ended up in the territory they controlled or else the Germans simply captured them. As a result, reservists going to the front ended up with no rifles at all.’66 Retreating troops also abandoned all the things they could not carry, which included wounded men as well as Maxim guns.

The Red Army had been restructured in the last few months of peace. The debacle in Finland had provoked an initial programme of reforms, but it was the fall of France in 1940 that inspired the General Staff to focus on their preparations for land-based attack. If they should happen to be faced with a massive strike from German planes and tanks, they reasoned, their strategy should now incorporate the deployment of large anti-tank artillery brigades in support of the infantry. The huge formations must have looked impressive, but when the attack came in 1941 they were good for little more than show. The front line would soon be so broad that the best the large armoured brigades could do was to huddle in their deep consolidated rows, unable to predict or respond to the movements of an enemy whose measure they had yet to take. Infantry divisions faced German tanks without the consistent support of their artillery. Since their air cover had also been utterly destroyed, many soldiers concluded that the back-breaking effort of Soviet industry in the 1930s, the pride of Stalin’s revolution, was now as good as wasted, lost. Soviet troops had been expecting to enjoy the science-fiction spectacle of their own machines in battle. Instead, they watched as the horizon filled with the fruits of German modernity. A new word – ‘tank fright’ – was soon coined by the General Staff to describe the conscripts’ terrified response.67

The story might have been quite different. Soviet tanks should have been world-beaters. Many had been tested during the civil war in Spain in 1936, and some designs had been refined as a result. The heavy KV model, named after Kliment Voroshilov, was a redoubtable machine, almost impervious to German fire at this stage in the war. It would, indeed, provide the model for the Germans’ own ‘Tiger’ in 1943. The lighter, more manoeuvrable T-34 eventually proved itself the best field tank in the Second World War, but at this stage the Red Army still had more of the older BT light tanks in service, as well as the obsolescent T-26 and T-28s. These machines were old, and few had been reliably maintained. The KV had a tendency to break down anyway, but every model suffered from a shortage of spare parts, to say nothing of skilled mechanical attention. In 1941, nearly three quarters of the Soviet Union’s 23,000 tanks were thought to need rebuilding or capital repairs. They would not make it to the workshops that summer. More Soviet tanks were lost in 1941 through breakdown than through German fire, and overall the Soviets lost six tanks to every German one.68

The same story could be repeated for artillery in 1941. The Red Army was well-equipped, but its sclerotic command structures deprived it of flexibility in field conditions. There were never enough men with the right skills to operate complex equipment, but the inexperienced officers who commanded them were also unlikely to give them much chance to learn for themselves. Heavy guns of every kind were hoarded by officers for whom men might be cheap but new equipment was too valuable to lose.69 Men, too, were easier to move. Tractors were sometimes used to drag the heaviest equipment into place, but horses were the main source of draught power. In 1941, the Red Army still used the civil-war tachanka, a three-horse cart, to draw some of its lighter guns to the front line. But the horses were slaughtered with the men in 1941, and though the June grass had been sweet, forage for the survivors was soon running low. Supplies of food were a problem along the entire front. Horses and men grew thinner at the same accelerated pace.

The other fatal logistical problem that summer was radio communication. Again, the difficulty came as no surprise. Poor field communications had dogged the Soviet army in the Finnish campaign, but plans to provide equipment and train new operators had not yet been fulfilled. The Red Army relied on wire far more than radio. The system was inflexible and centralized. Tank drivers, for instance, were seldom in contact with their comrades or even their commanding officers on the battlefield. The radio operators that did work at the front had not been adequately trained. As a former SS officer recalled after the war, the Soviets ‘used only simple codes and we nearly always were able to intercept and decode their radio messages without any difficulty. Thus we obtained quick information on the front situation, and frequently also on Russian intentions; sometimes I received such reports from our monitoring stations earlier than the situation reports of our own combat troops.’70 In 1941, some units were not even using code. At Uman that summer, vital messages from staff officers in the 6th Army were conveyed in clear text. ‘What else are we supposed to do,’ a lieutenant enquired, ‘when they want everything sent without delay?’71

Finally, there was little prospect of help for weak and injured soldiers at this stage. The suddenness of the German attack pre-empted plans to move hospitals and medical supplies away from the front line. Then transport difficulties strangled their retreat. By 1 July 1941, the South-Western Front could call on just 15 per cent of its planned medical facilities. In the Tarnopol garrison hospital, which would have been the first point of call for Volkov and his tired crew, more than 5,000 wounded and exhausted men were crowded into facilities intended for 200 people within five days of the first attack.72 On 30 June, a report marked ‘absolutely secret’ catalogued the losses of one week. ‘In the course of military action none of the sanitary establishments located in the western parts of Belorussia was mobilized,’ it began. ‘As a result, the [Western] Front lacked 32 surgical and 12 infection hospitals, 16 corps hospitals, 13 evacuation points, 7 administrative centres for evacuation, 3 motorized sanitary companies … and other medical facilities.’73 It added that the equipment, drugs and other supplies that these facilities controlled had been destroyed in the bombing and fires. The staff, too, frequently, were dead.

Artillery moving into firing position, Southern Front, 1942

The Wehrmacht also rolled into the Russian steppe with more horses than tanks. In a few weeks, its supply lines had begun to stretch and thin across the unimaginable miles. The invader was not always invincible that June. At times, Soviet troops found German infantry without transport or air cover. Fascists, they discovered, could panic just as easily as komsomols in the right conditions. But in those early days the Wehrmacht enjoyed support from a portion of the local population. It was not yet on ancient Russian or even long-held Soviet soil. Civilians in cities like Lvov had been baiting Red Army troops for months. ‘The Germans are coming, and they’ll get you,’ they whispered in the narrow streets of the Galician town.74 Now soldiers from the same background, as well as the thousands who despaired of resisting Germany’s advance, turned tail, surrendered or fled the front line. By July, the reports were already piling up of soldiers who drew swastikas on their clothes, refused to fire on Germans and talked admiringly of Hitler.75

Desertion rates were so high that no one could be sure of the numbers, let alone the breakdown of culprits by ethnic group. In three days at the end of June, NKVD special troops behind the lines on the South-Western Front caught nearly 700 soldiers on the run. Elsewhere, 5,000 men were caught fleeing one of the catastrophic battles of those first few days. But it probably was true that soldiers from the western regions were the most likely to disappear. They were anxious for their families, for theirs were the first homes the Germans overran that year. And some of them deserted because they saw no reason to die for Soviet power. Four thousand ‘westerners’ had fled the 26th Army by 6 July, and in one unit eighty men had refused their orders to fire.76 By 12 August, the army’s political administration considered the situation to be so dangerous that citizens of the western territories – Ukraine, Belorussia – and also the three Baltic states were specifically barred from the membership of new tank crews.77

All this translated into murderous confusion in the field. Neither Red Army men nor officers had expected this war. No battle followed a thoughtful preconceived plan. The men resented their officers, mistrusted their orders and suspected that some of their own comrades were traitors waiting to desert. If they had paused to consider their reasons for fighting, they would probably have found that fear – of their officers, of the unknown and of secret police as much as of the German invaders – played a large part. Then came their rage against the entire world. At the front, lofty ideas of other kinds seldom survived for long. But these same men were expected to go on fighting, without hope, day after day. The 117th rifle division of the 21st Army, for instance, retreated and then fought repeatedly for weeks. By 6 July, it had reached the town of Zhlobin on the Dnepr river. There it fought one of the first engagements in the defence of Kiev, a doomed campaign that would cost the 21st Army alone, on the most conservative estimates, well over 1,000 lives each day.78 The battle lasted for eight hours. At the end of it Zhlobin itself had fallen and the remnants of the division had withdrawn to the Dnepr’s eastern bank.

Before their retreat, the men had succeeded in destroying Zhlobin’s bridge, buying more time for the next day, and they had also blown up eight enemy tanks. But their morale was low. They were exhausted, hungry, sleepless, already haunted by all that they had seen. Many were injured. The next day, as usual, they faced combat again. Their officers had no plan other than head-on attack. As on the previous day, and every day, they threw men at the German tanks. The men’s only morale-booster was their unanimous roar, the terrifying ‘Hoorah!’ that struck real fear into their enemy. Apart from that, few soldiers had any weapon more effective than an 1890s rifle and a bayonet. Even Molotov cocktails were hard to obtain, since Moscow had yet to sign the order that would soon have women stuffing glass bottles with wicks at a rate of 120,000 a day.79 At this stage, lacking bottles or bombs to throw, soldiers had only their bare hands. Wave after wave they ran in to attack, for hours, always amid the din of German shelling, screaming, and the crunch of steel on bone.

It was a style of warfare – hopeless and head-on attack – that ground entire divisions to dust. It sickened the men involved, especially where they had endured weeks of it already. Ten communists at Zhlobin threw their party cards away as soon as the firing started. At least one other man shot himself in the leg in an attempt to escape from combat altogether. A soldier said to be Georgian tried to kill the commanding officer by firing on the troops as they attacked. A Volga German was thought to have gone over to the enemy as soon as he could slip away. But the real renegades made their escape with more style. Two senior officers ran twenty miles to get away from the front line as the dawn broke, while the commander who had ordered the first antiaircraft attack ‘got in his car and left’ as soon as the operation had begun. To date, the report of the day added, none had been punished because the local military judge, reared in the hard school of purging and lies, refused to investigate anything unless he had sufficient papers on his desk.80

Even the Germans were surprised by the level of chaos. It was as if the entire population, soldiers and civilians, had run wild. Whenever the Wehrmacht captured a place where supplies of food and consumables were held, they could expect looting to start. In one town several women and children were crushed to death by the mob as it swept towards the army warehouse. ‘If a man could not carry a bag of sugar,’ the German army’s observer reported, ‘he simply cut it apart and poured half of its contents on to the floor, carrying home the rest.’ The citizens of Pukhovichi plundered half the military supplies in their town in a single day, taking, as their new masters observed, ‘an average per family of 200 kilos of sugar, 200 kilos of fats, almost 350 kilos of grits, and then a quantity of fish, individual rations, and vegetable oils … The population had not seen such opulence for a long time.’ The Red Army itself joined in at Bobruisk. ‘The only difference,’ wrote the German reporter, ‘was that while the inhabitants were plundering the shops, the soldiers were looting the homes of the inhabitants.’81

The Stalinist regime of the late 1930s met its nemesis in Ukraine and Belorussia in those early months. Eventually, its near collapse led to a rethinking of policy and leadership, to changes in the way war would be waged and people ruled. But one tool in its armoury would prove essential for the duration. On 15 July, Lev Mekhlis issued a directive to the army of political workers at the front. It was the prelude to an order, signed the following day, that reinstated the political commissars in all their pre-1940 authority. Morale, the report tacitly admitted, had collapsed entirely. The politruks had failed to convince their men that this war could be won, or even, perhaps, that there was any point in fighting on at all. And yet, Mekhlis insisted, these were the soldiers whose task was ‘to decide by force of arms whether the Soviet people would be free or become the slaves of German princes and barons’.

The bracing, epic formula behind these words might well have given heart to the people back at home, and also to the new recruits still training in their camps, but at the front, for now, the words had a hollow, even an insulting, ring. It was a mistake to tell soldiers, as Mekhlis prescribed, that Hitler’s blitzkrieg had failed and that the best divisions of his army were already defeated. And then came the depressing part on tactics, formulaic nonsense borrowed from the sloganeering days of civil war. ‘Teach all personnel how to rush into attack,’ the order continued. ‘Teach them implacable hatred and rage against the enemy, ardently to crush the fascist cur, to grind his face into the earth, to be prepared to fight to the last drop of their blood for every inch of Soviet soil. Tell them that tanks are not frightening for a brave and experienced soldier. Tell them that abandoning their posts without a direct order is a crime.’82 The words were hollow that summer, but they pointed to one of the ways that this war was conceived and fought, the war in soldiers’ minds and in the hopes of their civilian families. By saturating public discourse with simple, much-repeated formulas, the government forged new resolve to replace the lost innocence of 1938. It also helped to exclude all the other words, the panic-stricken, angry ones, that might have crowded into people’s conversations. On 19 July, a further order called for the mass recruitment of political officers to replace the hundreds who had been lost since 22 June.83

There never was a moment when the propaganda effort flagged. Red Army troops were presented, effectively, with two wars simultaneously. The first, the one that they alone could know, was the war of the battlefield, the screaming war of shells and smoke, the shameful one of terror and retreat. But the other war, whose shape was crafted by writers, was the one that propaganda created. Soldiers and civilians alike could learn about it in newspapers, the most popular of which, Red Star, was read aloud to small groups at the front. Serving troops also saw film shows that included newsreel, some of which, because it was carefully staged, could seem more vivid than their own fragmented memories of combat. Fighting might seem to take place outside real time, in terrifying moments that later defied recall, but Stalin’s official war unfolded with an epic certainty, in regular and well-planned episodes.

Soldiers near Leningrad receiving a consignment of books and paper, 1942

In all, over 1,000 writers and artists joined the campaign to report the front, 400 of whom would die in the fighting.84 Their work was controlled by yet another new body, the Sovinformburo. This monitored everything from Pravda to the news-sheets that soldiers were given at the front. Each captured or disabled German tank and plane was recorded, often with a photograph, but the blank space where Soviet losses should have been, padded with slogans and even short verse, was noticed by newspaper readers everywhere.85The trouble was that no one could get to the censors’ offices to find out more. Security was so tight that even full-time members of the Sovinformburo’s staff sometimes discovered that their passes were not valid for its central building.86 Inside, trusted officials combed draft front-line reports for ideological mistakes, correcting even punctuation that might not conform to the official line. The famous correspondent Ilya Ehrenburg nearly resigned in protest at the pettifogging rules. When an editor changed the word ‘victories’, meaning real successes at the front, to ‘progress’ in an article he saw, the future voice of Stalin’s propaganda war declared that it was all a waste of time. ‘We spend so long on corrections,’ he complained, ‘that we lose the whole day, all our creative time.’87

One victory, or maybe piece of progress, that the Sovinformburo chalked up for Red Army troops that summer was the battle of Smolensk. The losses were devastating – 300,000 prisoners captured and 3,000 more tanks lost – but the Soviet papers remained silent about these. They focused on the fact that the Germans had been held up in their advance on Moscow.88 It was at this moment, too, that a desperate Red Army deployed its most impressive weapon for the first time. So secret that it had no real name until the troops gave it the feminine ‘Katyusha’, the BM-13-16 multiple rocket launcher and its descendants proved that Soviet designers could produce hardware to rival any in the world. ‘We first tried out this superb weapon at Rudnya, near Smolensk,’ remembered Marshal Yeremenko. ‘In the afternoon of 15 July the earth shook with the unusual explosion of jet mines. Like red-tailed comets, the mines were hurled into the air … The effect of the simultaneous explosion of dozens of these mines was terrific. The Germans fled in panic; and even our own troops … who for reasons of secrecy had not been warned that this new weapon would be used, rushed back from the front line.’89 Katyushas were quite inefficient for their range, consuming prodigious quantities of propellant to hurl rocket mines less than ten miles at this stage in the war, but the gratifying sight of German soldiers running from the field gave Stalin’s propagandists something they could really write about.


‘The retreat has caused blind panic,’ the head of the Belorussian Communist Party, Ponomarenko, wrote to Stalin on 3 September. To make things worse, ‘the soldiers are tired to death, even sleeping under artillery fire … At the first bombardment, the formations collapse, many just run away to the woods, the whole area of woodland in the front-line region is full of refugees like this. Many throw away their weapons and go home. They regard the possibility of being surrounded extremely anxiously.’90 This frank report would translate for secret police into a case of collective ‘betrayal of the motherland’, but moralistic talk was wasted on the leaderless and lost. Millions of men that summer were simply encircled, trapped. Others, with little training and scant knowledge of their companions, let alone the foibles of their equipment, were thrown into battle against an enemy that was still, until the first snow fell, as confident as it had been when it marched into Paris thirteen months before. The ones who simply made for home were the most natural of all. ‘In June 1941 our unit was surrounded by some German troops near the town of Belaya Tserkov,’ an ex-soldier explained. ‘The politruk mustered the remaining troops and ordered us to leave the encirclement in groups. I and two other soldiers from our unit … changed into civilian clothes and decided to go home where we used to live. We took this decision,’ he explained, ‘because, according to rumour, the German troops moving up towards us had advanced far away to the east.’91

The Germans themselves were unprepared for the number of prisoners they took. By the end of 1941, at a conservative estimate, they held between 2 and 3 million Red Army troops. No thought had been given to these men’s accommodation, for their lives, in Nazi thinking, had never been worth a plan. As the Wehrmacht swept eastward, many of its prisoners were herded into their own former barracks or prisons; others squatted in the open air, enclosed by nothing more protective than barbed wire. The shock that June was so severe that it took time for the tales of atrocity to circulate, the stories of Jews and communists singled out for torture and illegal execution, the tales of beatings, hunger, crude sadism and collective slow death. In the first few days of the war, Red Army soldiers simply gave up when they found themselves surrounded and outgunned.

On 22 June, the Supreme Soviet granted the army power to punish deserters. That day, provision was made for the establishment of three-man military tribunals. These would operate at the front and in all other areas affected by the war. Tribunals had the right to order death sentences if they chose, although a clause in their regulations asked them to inform Moscow by telegraph when they did. If they failed to receive a reply within seventy-two hours, the sentence could be carried out without appeal, and any other punishments they ordered, some of which amounted to death sentences by other means, could be imposed directly.92 These powers were comprehensive enough, but in practice commanders often acted on their own. On 14 July, Mekhlis received a note from his deputy on the South-Western Front that complained of the excessive use of the death penalty within an army desperately short of men. As always, lurid examples were attached. In one case, a lieutenant had shot two leaderless Red Army men and a woman who had come to his unit to beg for food.93

Reports like this changed nothing at the front. Few officers knew their men well, and none could have known all of them, so rapidly did whole units dissolve and new ones form. Pavlov’s execution, and others like it, proved that the penalty for an officer’s failure was either a fascist bullet or one from NKVD troops. Foot soldiers were coerced because their commanders in turn feared for their skins. Cruelty became a way of life. In August 1941, the officers’ vulnerability to punishment was emphasized again. Order no. 270, which Stalin himself signed, was never published at the time, but its contents were widely disseminated, read out at meetings that the front-line politruks were forced to call. It followed the surrender, on a single day, of 100,000 men. The victims at Uman had little choice, since, unlike Boldin, they were encircled on the open steppe and not in woods and marshes where soldiers could hide. But with its customary moralism, Moscow judged them disgraceful and cowardly. Henceforth, its order stated, any officer or political officer who removed his distinguishing marks in battle, retreated to the rear or gave himself up as a prisoner would count as a malicious deserter. Officers who tried to desert could be shot in the field by their superiors. Even reluctance to lead from the front could count as desertion if this suited the authorities on the spot.94

The order’s other provision was that the families of malicious deserters would now be liable to arrest. This was a cruel notion, although in its essence it was not entirely new. For years, deserters’ families had been punished by the withholding of pensions and other material rights, but the threat of prison was an awesome one in a system where everything, even a child’s schooling, depended on a family’s collective honour in official eyes. The order came to mean that anyone whose corpse was lost – which tens of thousands were, shot down over rivers and marshes, blown to pieces or gnawed away by rats – counted as a deserter for the army’s purposes. To go missing in action was a dishonourable fate. That first summer, however, there were plenty of men who shrugged off rules like this. As Nikolai Moskvin observed after his own thirteen troops disappeared, ‘I’ve talked to our commander. He’s warned the rest about responsibility. He’s told them that there is a list, we have a list, of all their relatives. But the truth is that lots of these boys come from places the fascists have already taken. They don’t care about addresses any more.’95

Moskvin shot his first deserter on 15 July. The soldier came from western Ukraine. Three weeks of shelling, marching, sleeplessness and terror had brought the man to breaking point, and maybe it made little odds what pretext he chose at the time. His crime was to urge all his comrades to surrender, or at least to hold their fire. He then confronted Moskvin. ‘He made a salute to, I suppose, Hitler, shouldered his rifle and walked off towards the scrub,’ Moskvin wrote. It was too much for one of the other Ukrainians in the group. ‘Red Army private Shulyak brought him down with a bullet in the back,’ the politruk went on. The dying man swore at his former comrades from the dust. ‘They’ll kill the lot of you,’ he said. ‘And you, you bloodstained commissar, they’ll hang you first.’ Moskvin did not hesitate. He raised his Nagan revolver and shot the victim in front of the whole company. ‘The boys understood,’ he wrote. ‘A dog’s death for a dog.’

Whatever tales he had to tell the men, however, Moskvin’s own confidence was gone. At the end of July, his unit was shattered in a German attack. Moskvin himself was injured. His companions could not transport him, so he and two other men were left to wait for rescue in the woods. No help arrived, and they convinced themselves that their mates had forgotten them. In fact, most of the regiment was dead, betrayed by a deserter in their ranks a few hours after they had left their wounded. ‘I am on the verge of a complete moral collapse,’ Moskvin wrote on 4 August. His wounds were painful and he was afraid of gangrene. ‘We got lost,’ he went on, ‘because we did not have maps. It seems we didn’t have maps in this war any more than we had aeroplanes.’ The two lads slept beside him, but he could not rest. ‘I feel guilty because I am helpless and because I know that I should pull myself together,’ the politruk despaired. Communist Party faith was supposed to make him a hero, but instead, ‘I just don’t have the strength.’

The woods where Moskvin lay were not far from a village in the region of Smolensk. After three days, during which, as he slept, someone had found the time to steal his small arms, a group of peasants rescued him. Moskvin would learn later that his rescuers had also discussed the possibility of betraying the group to the German police. The decision to hide the three may have been clinched by the thought that reasonably healthy men could help at harvest time. Moskvin described the work he put in when the beets and potatoes had grown large enough to lift. He had to keep his mouth shut when the peasants told him that they had dissolved their collective farm and no longer worked to Soviet rules. He had to tolerate the hard work and the mud, the crude delight in Stalin’s discomfort, the speculative hope for change. ‘Not everything works the way it was described in the books we had to study,’ the politruk scribbled one night. These villages, he wrote, were nothing like the buzzing, cultured towns that everyone had been so proud of in that other universe, the peacetime one. Perhaps, he pondered, even Soviet power could not have changed the village, the primeval world, that he was now coming to know. Moskvin had been at war less than two months. It was still summer, and the woods were green, but he had lost touch with the certainties of Soviet life.

Notes – 3 Disaster Beats Its Wings

1 Evseev’s memoir is cited in P. N. Knyshevskii et al., Skrytaya pravda voiny: 1941 god. Neizvestnye dokumenty (Moscow, 1992), pp. 330–1.

2 John Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad (London, 1975), p. 92.

3 Ibid., p. 112.

4 Knyshevskii, p. 331.

5 Erickson, Stalingrad, p. 104.

6 Werth, p. 150.

7 Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva (RGALI), 1710/3/49, 8.

8 Rossiya XX vek: Dokumenty. 1941 god v 2 knigakh, vol. 2 (Moscow, 1998), p. 422.

9 Erickson, Stalingrad, p. 106.

10 RGALI, 1710/3/49, 9.

11 Erickson, Stalingrad, pp. 118–9.

12 Timoshenko replaced the vain and inept Voroshilov after the Finnish debacle in May 1940.

13 Pavlov’s testimony at his interrogation on 7 July, reprinted in 1941 god, pp. 455–68.

14 Ibid., p. 456.

15 Erickson, Stalingrad, p. 116.

16 1941 god, p. 459.

17 Cited in Werth, pp. 152–3.

18 Ibid., pp. 153–4.

19 Pavlov’s testimony in 1941 god, p. 459.

20 Werth, p. 157; Stalin’s Generals, p. 49.

21 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2(2), p. 58 (text of order 270, where Boldin is singled out for praise).

22 1941 god, pp. 472–3.

23 Werth, p. 181.

24 1941 god, pp. 434–5.

25 Interview with Shevelev, Kursk, July 2003.

26 Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv obshchestvenno-politicheskoi istorii kurskoi oblasti (GAOPIKO), 1/1/2636, 40–2.

27 Moskva voennaya, p. 49.

28 Ibid., p. 43.

29 Druzhba, p. 302.

30 RGASPI, 17/125/44, 70, 72.

31 Mikhail Ivanovich, interview, Moscow province, April 2001.

32 Moskva voennaya, p. 51.

33 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2636, 41.

34 RGASPI, 17/125/44, 69.

35 Moskva voennaya, p. 52.

36 Detwiler (Ed.), vol. 19, D-036, pp. 3–4.

37 The story of one small and doomed nationalist group was related to me in a series of interviews in Tbilisi, September 2002.

38 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2636, 43.

39 Moskva voennaya, p. 53.

40 RGASPI, 17/125/44, 69–71.

41 Moskva voennaya, p. 52.

42 Ibid., pp. 53–5.

43 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2636, 51–2.

44 Knyshevskii, p. 59.

45 Ibid., pp. 60–1.

46 RGASPI, 17/125/44, 71–3.

47 Moskva voennaya, p. 55.

48 They shot them all. When the Germans took the city, the bodies were exposed in the prison yards for local people to see. It was an effective propaganda move that turned an already anti-Soviet city even more strongly against Stalin.

49 RGASPI-M, 33/1/360, 10–11.

50 Druzhba, p. 21.

51 Werth, p. 165.

52 Comments reported in Moskva voennaya, p. 68.

53 Ibid., p. 69.

54 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2638, 30.

55 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2807, 9.

56 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2636, 50–1.

57 GAOPIKO, 1/1/2807, 9.

58 Werth, p. 149.

59 Ibid., pp. 166–7.

60 GASO, R1500/1/1, 2–3.

61 Ibid., 6.

62 Knyshevskii, pp. 14–16.

63 Report to Mekhlis, July 1941. Cited in Knyshevskii, p. 66.

64 Temkin, p. 38.

65 Cited in Werth, p. 148.

66 1941 god, p. 499.

67 Erickson, Stalingrad, p. 162.

68 Zaloga and Ness, p. 69.

69 Knyshevskii, p. 204.

70 Detwiler (Ed.), vol. 19, C-058, pp. 18–19.

71 ‘O boevykh deistviyakh 6 armii pri vykhode is okruzheniya’, Voenno-istoricheskii arkhiv, 7 (22), 2001, p. 109.

72 M. V. Mirskii, Obyazany zhizn’yu (Moscow, 1991), p. 19.

73 Knyshevskii, p. 65.

74 Erickson, Stalingrad, p. 121.

75 Knyshevskii, p. 266.

76 Ibid., pp. 264–5.

77 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 6, p. 61. Also barred were soldiers who had escaped encirclement ‘in small groups or singly’.

78 Krivosheev, p. 114.

79 1941 god, p. 469. The mass production of the crude missiles was ordered by secret order no. 631 of the GKO.

80 Knyshevskii, pp. 104–6.

81 Detwiler (Ed.), vol. 19, p. 123.

82 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 6, pp. 42–3 (order no. 081).

83 Ibid., p. 47 (no. 085).

84 Vstrechi s proshlym, 1988, no. 6, p. 443.

85 RGASPI, 17/125/87, 1.

86 RGASPI, 17/125/47, 47.

87 RGASPI, 17/125/47, 23.

88 Werth’s account of the battle is largely positive, describing it as the first Soviet victory of the war. For a different view, see Beevor, Stalingrad, pp. 28–9.

89 Cited in Werth, p. 172; Knyshevskii, p. 203.

90 Druzhba, p. 20.

91 Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941–44 (Houndmills, 2000), p. 26.

92 Knyshevskii, p. 55.

93 Ibid., p. 304.

94 Velikaya otechestvennaya, vol. 2, part 2, pp. 58–60.

95 GASO, R1500/1/1, 6.

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