By August 1941, the German Army Group Center took Smolensk. On September 27, the GKO issued the disastrous ‘Directive to Organize a Strategic Defense’.1 Because of this confusing, incompetent directive, thirty-seven divisions near Vyazma and twenty-five divisions near Bryansk were encircled. In the region to the west of Moscow the Red Army lost almost a million servicemen, of whom 673,000 were taken prisoner.
Panic in Moscow
On October 2, the Germans began Operation Typhoon, their advance on Moscow.2 Viktor Kravchenko, a witness to this event who later defected to the West, remembered the widespread alarm of those days: ‘Day and night smoke belched from the chimneys of the NKVD, the Supreme Court, the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, various other institutions and Party headquarters. Our leaders were hastily destroying records, wiping out the clues to their decades of official crimes. The government, evidently under orders from the top, was covering up its traces. The first snows of October were sooty with burnt paper.’3 Another witness, an African-American who worked in Moscow, also recalled: ‘Many Communist party members were throwing away their party credentials, some tearing them up and stuffing the pieces down the toilet, others simply tossing their party tickets with their names and pictures rubbed out, into the street. I saw scores of these passes strewn along sidewalks.’4
Nikolai Sbytov, head of the Air Force Fighter Command, remembered that during those days he was the only professional military commander in Moscow.5 On October 5, his fighters noticed a German tank column within about fifty kilometers of the capital. Sbytov reported this threat to brigade Commissar Konstantin Telegin, a member of the Military Council of the Moscow District. Instead of ordering a bombardment of the column as Sbytov recommended, Telegin apparently reported Sbytov to the UOO, because suddenly Abakumov telephoned Sbytov and ordered him to come immediately to NKVD headquarters. There Abakumov interrogated Sbytov in the presence of Merkulov and Aleksandr Avseevich, head of the UOO department responsible for the air force. Abakumov was convinced that the tank sighting was false and that Sbytov was guilty of disseminating rumors aimed at starting a panic in Moscow, but he could not order Sbytov’s arrest without Stalin’s approval. Fortunately, Stalin believed Sbytov, and the GKO approved an attack on the very real column of German tanks.
Abakumov stayed in Moscow during the entire October crisis. However, after the war, Ivan Serov, one of his main enemies, accused him of planning a cowardly escape from Moscow.6
The Nazi troops were so close to Moscow that on October 15, 1941, the GKO ordered the evacuation of the main commissariats, including the NKVD, and foreign legations to Kuibyshev (currently, Samara) on the Volga River.7 All important buildings were mined and the UOO camouflaged buildings in the Kremlin.
The next day the Germans reached the suburbs of Moscow and fearful chaos set in. A subsequent report stated: ‘On October 16–18, according to incomplete data, 779 leading administrators from 438 industrial facilities fled.’8 Approximately two million Muscovites left the city on foot. Kravchenko recalled that on October 16:
The most hysterical rumors spread everywhere. It was said that a coup d’état had occurred in the Kremlin, that Stalin was under arrest, that the Germans were already… on the edge of the city… Crowds surged from street to street, then back again in sudden waves of panic.
Already riots and looting had begun. Stores and warehouses were being emptied by frenzied mobs…
At Sovnarkom headquarters… high officials rounded up the younger women employees for a drunken debauch that went on for hours. In hundreds of other government offices people behaved as if the end of the world had come. Aerial bombardment and rumors whipped the panic into frenzy.9
Another witness, the writer Arkadii Perventsev, a Communist, wrote: ‘If the Germans had known what was going on in Moscow, 500 of their paratroopers could have taken over Moscow.’10 The Germans bombarded Moscow five or six times a day, and the bombings continued through November.11
At the October 19 GKO meeting, Beria advised: ‘We should leave Moscow or they will strangle us like chickens.’12 Stalin strongly objected. Still, he ordered all Politburo members, except Malenkov and Beria, to move to Kuibyshev. Later he ordered Molotov and Mikoyan to come back. The GKO appointed Major General Kouzma Sinilov, former commander of the NKVD Border Guard Troops of the Murmansk Military District, as military commandant of Moscow.13 General Sinilov’s measures were harsh. Kravchenko remembered: ‘The military tribunals worked around the clock. Though many thousands were arrested and shot, it was not terror which quenched the panic. It was the news… that the Germans were withdrawing under blows from the newly arrived Siberian and Far Eastern troops.’14
On November 7, 1941, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin ordered a traditional military parade at Red Square in Moscow. It was organized cautiously, in secrecy, and was an important statement of resistance at a time when Hitler had planned his own victorious parade in Moscow. 28,500 men, 140 cannons, 160 tanks, and 232 vehicles took part in the parade. Additionally, there were military parades in the cities of Kuibyshev, where the main governmental organizations and foreign diplomats had been evacuated, and Voronezh, where many Ukrainian organizations had been evacuated from Kiev.
In Moscow it was a very cold, snowy day. Stalin was standing on Lenin’s Mausoleum in a fur cap with the earflaps turned down and knotted in front, while Marshal Semyon Budennyi inspected the parade. In a speech that was transmitted on the radio, Stalin said, in particular: ‘The German-Fascist aggressors are facing a catastrophe. Currently, hunger and poverty are rampant in Germany, and during the first four months of the war Germany lost four and a half million soldiers… The German invaders are down to their last resources… A few months more—half a year, maybe a year—and Hitler’s Germany will explode due to its own crimes.’15
If Stalin believed what he said, he was completely out of touch with reality. The troops standing in front of the Mausoleum were skeptical. Mark Ivanikhin, one of the few participants in the parade who survived the war, recalled in 2010: ‘I was only eighteen, without any military experience, but even I understood that it wouldn’t be possible to push the Germans out in such a short period of time.’16 In the United States, the Soviet documentary Moscow Strikes Back, which featured Stalin’s speech, was among four winners for Best Documentary at the 15th Annual Academy Awards in 1942. It also won the National Board of Review Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best War Fact Film. American audiences did not know that due to the bad weather Stalin’s speech in the documentary was not filmed during the parade, but afterwards, in one of the Kremlin palaces, where Stalin repeated his speech in front of cameras.17
The fierce Soviet defense, combined with a crumbling German supply line, finally halted the German advance on November 21, 1941.18 The German troops were stopped only 40 miles from Moscow. After regrouping, the Red Army began advancing west on December 5. Amazingly, Berlin received information about the chaos in Moscow much later, and then only from the intelligence services of other countries.19 In the Soviet Union, discussing what happened in Moscow in October 1941 was taboo until the first detailed description was published in 1995.20
Incredibly, the sentencing and execution of ‘political enemies’ continued in Moscow through October 1941.21 A huge group of Latvian military leaders, arrested in Latvia in May–June 1941 (plus one who was arrested earlier), were sentenced to death in July 1941 as members of an anti-Soviet plot; they were executed en masse on October 16, 1941, during the height of the frenzy of fear (Appendix I, see http://www.smershbook.com). On the same day, the wives of Tukhachevsky, Uborevich, and some other executed Soviet officials were also shot. On October 28, Ulrikh and six members of the Military Collegium left Moscow for Chkalov (currently Orenburg), where the main part of the Military Collegium’s staff had moved in August, but on December 19, Ulrikh was back and the Collegium continued its work in Moscow.
Ironically, the fate of the generals arrested as members of Rychagov’s ‘plot’ was decided precisely when the need for experienced officers was the greatest. On the night of October 15, 1941, the prisoners in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison were transferred to prisons in Kuibyshev and Saratov. Three days later Beria ordered, with Stalin’s approval, the execution without trial of Rychagov, his wife, 18 other ‘plotters’, and an additional five prisoners, including Mikhail Kedrov, the Old Bolshevik who was the first OO head.22 A team of executioners arrived from Moscow, and on October 28 most of the prisoners were shot near the village of Barbysh, not far from Kuibyshev. The others were shot a few days later in Saratov.
On February 13, 1942, the OSO sentenced to death the rest of ‘Rychagov’s plotters’ and a few other ‘military plotters and spies’, including Ivan Sergeev, former Munitions Commissar, and three of his deputies, as well as a number of other industrial managers and designers arrested in May–June 1941. They had appeared two weeks earlier on Beria’s execution list of 46 people, on which Stalin wrote in blue pencil: ‘Shoot to death all those listed. J. Stalin.’23 This was the last time Beria provided Stalin with such a list. The listed were executed on February 23, 1942 (Appendix I, see http://www.smershbook.com). Now all the Rychagov-connected ‘plotters’ were dead, and their family members were sentenced to many years of imprisonment in labor camps or exile in Central Asia.
Although the counteroffensive had started, many Red Army detachments that fought near Moscow experienced serious problems. Field OOs and Abakumov personally informed Beria about numerous problems.
In November 1941, the just-formed 1st Shock Army began its successful attack against German troops. On December 9, Abakumov reported to Beria: ‘Bad organization of rear services hampers the fast advancement of the 1st [Shock] Army [at the Western Front]. Sometimes servicemen do not receive hot food for 5–6 days… On November 25, the 18th Ski Battalion did not have food at all… The army does not have the necessary number of vehicles. For instance, the 71st Rifle Brigade has only 20 trucks instead of 162.’24
In general, losses in the military equipment were enormous. By July 9, 1941, the Red Army lost 11,700 tanks, and by the end of 1941, it lost 6.29 million rifles and 11,000 planes.25 But the real problem was not even the losses, but the devil-may-care attitude of Soviet servicemen to the military equipment. In February 1942, the OO head of the above-mentioned 1st Shock Army reported to Beria:
From December 1, 1941 to January 20, 1942, total of 77 tanks were lost. Of them, 33 were destroyed by the enemy, 4 tanks drowned while crossing rivers and in swamps, and 42 tanks were disabled due to mechanical problems…
From November 20  to January 21, 1942, 230 vehicles were lost. Of them, 70 trucks were lost or abandoned, 91 trucks were disabled due to mechanical problems, and the enemy destroyed 69 vehicles…
Of the total number of 363 tanks taken from the enemy no tanks were repaired, and of 1,882 [enemy] vehicles only 59 have been repaired and are used now.26
In fact, the situation with vehicles was catastrophic. Of 272,600 that the Red Army had before the war and 206,000 that were taken for the army from civilian organizations, 271,400 were lost in battles before August 1941.27 This considerably restricted the speed and efficiency of the Soviet offense.
There were other problems. The OO of the 20th Army of the same Western Front reported to Abakumov: ‘Even during the defense… communication between the army detachments is frequently broken. As a rule, after the telephone connection has disrupted, radio transmitters are rarely used. Our men do not like transmitters and do not know how to use them… All detachments have good radio transmitters, but in insufficient numbers. There is a lack of radio operators, and some of them are poorly trained.’28
Soon the Western Allies helped to solve these and other problems. Two weeks before the frenzied confusion in Moscow, on October 1, 1941, the First Moscow Protocol of the lend-lease aid program was signed by American, British and Soviet representatives.29In fact, the first British convoy arrived in the northern Russian port of Archangel even before that, on August 31. It delivered British Valentine and Mathilda medium-sized tanks, American Bantam jeeps and Studebaker US6 trucks that Britain had received from the United States. In the summer of 1942, Studebaker trucks and radio transmitters reached the Red Army on a massive scale. Overall, the Soviets received about 400,000 Studebaker and other trucks, 422,000 field telephones, and 35,800 radio transmitters.30The Red Army servicemen called the trucks ‘Studery’, and those vehicles, along with the American military jeeps known as ‘Willis’, became icons of Allied aid.
Despite all the setbacks, the Red Army continued its counteroffensive until April 1942, pushing the German Army Group Center 175 miles west of Moscow.
Combat Losses, End of 1941–Early 1942
In general, Soviet combat losses from the autumn of 1941 through the spring of 1942 were enormous. The situation near Leningrad (currently St. Petersburg) is a good example.
By September 1941, Army Group North had encircled Leningrad and the 900-day siege of Leningrad had begun. On June 25, 1941, Finland started the ‘Continuation War’, trying to get back the part of the country lost to the Soviets in 1940, and the Finns were also shelling Leningrad. Nikolai Nikoulin, whose unit fought at the Sinyavin Heights not far from Leningrad during the winter of 1941–1942, described what the servicemen witnessed in the spring of 1942:
Piles of corpses at the railroad looked like small hills of snow, and only the bodies that were on the top were visible. Later in the spring, when the snow melted, the whole picture became exposed, down to the bottom.
On the ground there were bodies dressed in summer outfits, in soldier’s blouses and boots. These were the victims of the autumn 1941 battles.
On top of them, there were layers of bodies of marines in peacoats and wide black trousers.
On top of the marines lay the bodies of soldiers from Siberia, dressed in sheepskin coats and Russian felt boots [valenki], who were killed in January– February 1942.
On top of them, there was a layer of bodies of political officers dressed in quilted jackets and hats made of fabric; such hats were distributed in Leningrad during the blockade.
In the next layer, the bodies were dressed in greatcoats and white camouflage gear; some had helmets, while others did not. These were the corpses of soldiers of many divisions that attacked the railroad during the first months of 1942.31
Hendrick Viers, who defended this railroad on the German side and whom Nikoulin met in the 1990s, told him about the combat in January 1942: ‘At the early dawn, a crowd of Red Army soldiers used to attack us. They repeated the attacks up to eight times a day. The first wave of soldiers was armed, but the second was frequently unarmed, and very few could reach the road.’32
Contemporary St. Petersburg officials do not seem to care about those who perished. At the beginning of 2009, the remains of more than 180,000 soldiers killed in the autumn of 1941 still lay in the forest at the Sinyavin Heights. Instead of burying the remains, in 2008 the city administration used this territory as a dump.33
1. Mikhail Khodorenok and Boris Nevzorov, ‘Chernyi oktyabr’ 41-go. Pod Vyaz’moi i Bryanskom Krasnaya Armiya poteryala sotni tysyach boitsov,’ Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie 20 (June 21–27, 2002), 5 (in Russian); details in L. Lopukhovsky, 1941. Vyazemskaya katastrofa (Moscow: Eksmo–Press, 2008) (in Russian).
2. Details in Yu. A, Zhuk, Neizvestnye stranitsy bitvy za Moskvu. Krakh Operatsii ‘Taifun’ (Moscow: Khranitel’, 2007) (in Russian).
3. Victor Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom: The Personal and Political Life of a Soviet Official (New York: Charles Scribbner’s Sons, 1946), 374.
4. Robert Robinson with Jonathan Slevin, Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union (Washington, DC: Acropolis Books Ltd., 1988), 161.
5. From the memoir of N. A. Sbytov. Document No. I-34, in Moskva voennaya, 1941–1945: memuary i arkhivnye dokumenty, edited by K. I. Bukov, M. M. Gorinov, and A. N. Ponomarev, 83–86 (Moscow: Mosgorarkhiv, 1995) (in Russian).
6. Serov’s letter to Stalin, dated February 8, 1948. Document No. 29, in Nikita Petrov, Pervyi predsedatel’ KGB Ivan Serov (Moscow: Materik, 2005), 268–73 (in Russian).
7. GKO Order No. 801ss, dated October 15, 1941. Document No. II-34, in Moskva voennaya, 365–6.
8. Report of K. R. Sinilov, dated August 9, 1942. Document No. III-37, in ibid., 550.
9. Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom, 375–6.
10. Arkadii Perventsev, ‘Iskhod [iz ‘dnevnikov pisatelya opervykh dnyakh Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny],’ Moskva, no. 1 (2005), 192–222 (in Russian).
11. During the first six months of war, there were 141 German air strikes on Moscow, and 2,196 Muscovites were killed, while 5,512 were wounded. Many buildings were completely or partially destroyed in the center of Moscow, including the Bolshoi and Jewish theaters and Moscow University. Details in Moskva voennaya, 409–67.
12. An excerpt from the memoirs of V. P. Pronin, chair of Moscow Council, in ibid., 725.
13. GKO Order No. 813, dated October 19, 1941. Document No. I-55, in ibid., 124–5. Sinilov remained the commandant of Moscow until June 1953, when he participated in Beria’s unsuccessful putsch.
14. Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom, 377. From October 20 until December 13, 1941, 121,955 people were arrested in Moscow. Of these, 23,937 were released, 4,741 were sentenced by military tribunals to imprisonment and 357 to death, while 15 were executed on the spot; the rest were tried later. Aleksandr Beznasyuk and Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev, Tribunal. Arbat, 37 (Dela i lyudi)(Moscow: Terra, 2006), 12 (in Russian).
15. Text of the speech at http://www.sovmusic.ru/text.php?fname=st_71141, retrieved September 6, 2011.
16. Interview with Mark Ivanikhin in Vitalii Yaroshevsky, ‘Mark i katyushi,’ Novaya gazeta, no. 41, April 19, 2010 (in Russian), http://www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/041/22.html, retrieved September 6, 2011.
17. Recollections by Fyodor Kiselev, the crew head, in Vladimir Batshev, ‘7 noyabrya 1941,’ Lebed.com, no. 509, December 3, 2006 (in Russian), http://www.lebed.com/2006/art4815.htm, retrieved September 6, 2011.
18. Details in M. Yu. Myagkov, Vermakht u vorot Moskvy, 1941–1942 (Moscow: RAN, 1999) (in Russian).
19. Lev Bezymensky, Bitva za Moskvu. Proval operatsii ‘Taifun’ (Moscow: Yauza, 2007), 188 (in Russian).
20. Moskva voennaya, 81–128.
21. Vitalii Shentalinsky, Donos na Sokrata (Moscow: Formica-S, 2001), 325–82 (in Russian).
22. Beria’s instruction No. 2756/B, dated October 18, 1941. Document No. 617, in Organy gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti, 2 (2), 215–6; also Document Nos. 650 and 675, in ibid., 260–1 and 305.
23. Stalin’s resolution on the first page of the list at http://stalin.memo.ru/images/t378-196.jpg, retrieved September 6, 2011.
24. From Abakumov’s report, dated December 9, 1941, in Boris Syromyatnikov, ‘Neotsennyonnyi vklad,’ Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, December 1, 2006, http://nvo.ng.ru/spforces/2006-12-01/7_vklad.html, retrieved September 6, 2011.
25. Mark Solonin, 23 iyunya:”Den’ M” (Moscow: Yauza-Eksmo, 2007), 411-20 (in Russian)
26. Report of Captain Berezkin, head of the OO of the 1st Shock Army, dated February 14, 1942. Quoted in Yurii Veremeev, Krasnaya Armiya v nachale Vtoroi mirovoi (Moscow: Eksmo-Algoritm, 2010), 91–93 (in Russian).
27. B. V. Sokolov, ‘The Role of Lend-Lease in Soviet Military Efforts, 1941–1945,’ Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 7, no. 3 (September 1994), 567–86.
28. Quoted in Syromyatnikov, ‘Neotsennyonnyi vklad.’
29. Details in Albert L. Weeks, Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend-Lease Aid to the U.S.S.R. in World War II (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004).
30. V. F. Vorsin, ‘Motor Vehicle Transport Deliveries Through “Lend-Lease”,’ Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 10, no. 2 (June 1997), 153–75.
31. N. N. Nikoulin, Vospominaniya o voine (St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha, 2008), 55–56 (in Russian).
32. Ibid., 67.
33. Dmitrii Steshin, ‘Svalka na kostyakh geroev,’ Komsomol’skaya pravda, January 27, 2009 (in Russian), http://kp.ru/daily/24233/433433/, retrieved September 6, 2011.