The Washington Post
Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at Warby Rodric Braithwaite
In 1941 close to one million Russian soldiers died defending Moscow from German invasion–more causalities than that of the United States and Britain during all of World War II. Many of these soldiers were in fact not soldiers at all, but instead ordinary people who took up arms to defend their city. Students dropped their books for guns; released prisoners… See more details below
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In 1941 close to one million Russian soldiers died defending Moscow from German invasion–more causalities than that of the United States and Britain during all of World War II. Many of these soldiers were in fact not soldiers at all, but instead ordinary people who took up arms to defend their city. Students dropped their books for guns; released prisoners exchanged their freedom for battle; and women fought alongside men on the bloody, mud-covered frozen road to Moscow. By the time the United States entered the war the Germans were already retreating and a decisive victory had been won for the Allies.
With extensive research into the lives of soldiers, politicians, writers, artists, workers, and children, Rodric Braithwaite creates a richly detailed narrative that captures this crucial moment. Moscow 1941 is a dramatic, unforgettable portrait of an often overlooked battle that changed the world.
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The Shaping of the City
By one measure—the number of people involved—the Battle of Moscow was the greatest battle in the Second World War, and therefore the greatest battle in history. More than seven million officers and men from both sides took part, compared with the four million who fought at Stalingrad in 1942, the two at Kursk in 1943, the three and a half in the battle for Berlin in 1945. This was a scale never matched in the fighting in Western Europe and Africa. The Battle of Moscow swirled over a territory the size of France, and lasted for six months, from September 1941 to April 1942. The Soviet Union lost more people in this one battle—926,000 soldiers killed, to say nothing of the wounded—than the British lost in the whole of the First World War. Their casualties in this one battle were greater than the combined casualties of the British and the Americans in the whole of the Second World War. This was the horrendous price they paid for inflicting on the Wehrmacht the first real defeat it had ever suffered. They fought the Germans to a standstill, bled them white, and hurled them back hundreds of miles from the very walls of their capital. The Wehrmacht went on to win more dazzling victories on the plains of Southern Russia in the summer of 1942. But in their hearts many Germans already knew that, if the Battle of Moscow was not the beginning of the end, it was most certainly the end of the beginning.
Even today, Moscow—strangled by traffic, poisoned by the exhalations of decrepit factories, disfigured by the exuberant constructions of a vulgar and rampant capitalism—is a city which throbs with power. The focus and symbol of that power is still, as it always has been, the fortress of the Kremlin, the magnificent and awe-inspiring central point of an imperial city. Russia may now be bereft of empire, but the overwhelming aura of the Kremlin remains. The successors of the Tsars and the Bolsheviks still rule the country from behind the great walls of red brick that surround the offices, the grand palaces, and the glittering churches bearing the golden crosses of Russia’s ancient Orthodox faith. Above the churches and the palaces, even today, the high towers of the fortress are crowned with the great red stars of illuminated glass, the symbols of a ruthless regime under whose banners the men and women of the Soviet Union held and then destroyed the German invader in the greatest war in history.
Beyond the Kremlin walls Moscow seems to be a rambling chaos of churches and monasteries, now once again crowned with golden cupolas which glow in the sunset, of great palaces and public buildings, of Stalinist fantasies, of drab offices and slums from the 1960s and 1970s, of exuberant post-Soviet kitsch. This is the city which has given Europe some of its greatest science, painting, music and literature. This is the city where Pushkin and Dostoevsky were born and where Tolstoy and Chekhov spent much of their working lives. Far more than the coldly formal city which Peter the Great built for himself amid the marshes of the Baltic Sea, Moscow is the core and the essence of Russia itself, sprawling, huge, unmanageable, a country both of Europe and apart from it. Moscow is a city which fascinates and obsesses the citizen and the stranger alike. Without Moscow European culture as we know it would look very different.
Beneath all its apparent chaos Moscow, like Vienna, is shaped by a simple logic, the logic of defence. Like Vienna, the core of Moscow is a defensive fortress on the bank of a river, protected by concentric lines of fortification, and joined to the outside world by great highways radiating to all the points of the compass. The course of the Battle of Moscow in 1941 was determined by the city’s geographical position and climate, by the network of roads of which it was the centre, and by the shape of the city itself as it developed through the centuries in response to the actions of powerful men (see map of Central Moscow in 1941).
The countryside around Moscow—the Podmoskovie—undulates gently and undramatically across an endless sandy plain. The Moscow River and its tributaries wind across it, a place of fishermen and holidaymakers, of swimmers and sunbathers in times of peace, but an obstacle in time of war. The countryside has been partly cleared for agriculture. But even today, thick forests of silver birch and black pine still cover much of the land, dark and impenetrable except along the roads or paths that have been hacked through them. It is a landscape which does not impose itself on the observer. It has nothing of the wild grandeur of the Alps or the cultivated beauty of England or Italy. But it speaks to the deepest emotions of the Russian people: emotions which are captured, even for the foreigner, by Russia’s landscape artists of the nineteenth century.
Napoleon’s veterans complained as they marched across these endless plains that the heat was as bad as it had been in Egypt. The dust cast up by the marching men and vehicles was so thick that the sun was sometimes reduced to a dim red disk and drums had to be sounded at the head of every battalion to prevent the rear from losing its way. The dust killed Napoleon’s horses and draft animals in their tens of thousands, and ground and clogged the engines of Hitler’s tanks and lorries until they seized up.
The winters are as cold as the summers are hot. The snow starts in October or November and continues until April or May. The average temperature in December, January and February hovers around minus ten degrees centigrade. It can fall below minus forty degrees, but even that is manageable if your house is heated and you are properly dressed: for centuries people spent most of the winter indoors, asleep on their stoves. But the roads are hard once the frost takes hold, and if you have the right kind of transport you can move fairly freely.
The worst time of all is the moment when autumn gives way to winter and winter gives way to spring. This is the time that Russians call the rasputitsa, the “time when roads dissolve,” when the ground becomes waterlogged in the rain and the slush, and all but the most modern roads become a quagmire to any large number of men and vehicles. It was the mud, not the winter, which brought the armies of Napoleon and Hitler to a halt.
Small wooden villages and towns—Moscow and Tver (which the Communists renamed Kalinin), Tula and Zvenigorod, Mozhaisk and Volokolamsk, towns which were all to see bloody fighting in the autumn of 1941—began to appear in these forests a thousand years ago. Almost every town had its own prince and, like Moscow, its own fortified kremlin. The princes were mostly related to one another, and to the ancient ruling family of Kiev—the reason, no doubt, why their tiny internecine wars were so vicious.
The men who founded Moscow in the twelfth century chose its position on a river ford because it was convenient both for trading and for defence against its princely neighbours, against outlaw rebels, against Tatars, Poles and Frenchmen. The fort which became the Kremlin originally consisted of no more than a dry moat and a palisade with wooden blockhouses, protected on the Southern side by the Moscow River itself. East of the fortress there grew up a settlement for traders and artisans. The open space between them became the Red (meaning “beautiful” in old Russian) Square. The Southern bank of the river—the Zamoskvorechie, “Beyond the Moscow River”—was flat, marshy, and unfortified. The Tatar horsemen who from time to time swept this far North to exact tribute and to carry off slaves would camp on this plain while they awaited payment. Sometimes they cut the process short by sacking the city and burning it to the ground.
The first ring of fortifications encompassed the market outside the Kremlin walls, the Kitaigorod. Later fortifications were razed as the need for them passed, and replaced by ring roads: the Boulevard Ring, the Garden Ring, the Earthen Wall. In 1900 an outer ring was constructed to carry the railway round the city; and in 1962 an orbital road—the Moscow Ring Motorway—was built to provide a similar facility for motor vehicles.
Apart from the cartwheel pattern imposed by the concentric system of defences, Moscow grew higgledy-piggledy. There were few planning rules beyond a requirement to leave occasional broad gaps as firebreaks between the houses. Even the great highways which led to the outside world degenerated into narrow and sometimes winding streets once they entered the city. The boulevards which are such a feature of Moscow today began to appear only at the end of the eighteenth century. The Boulevard Ring has retained much of its charm, but the Garden Ring is now a polluted and sclerotic battleground for modern foreign cars and ancient wheezing lorries.
It was along the great highways that Moscow’s rulers set out to bring the neighbouring principalities under their sway, the first step by which Moscow was transformed from a minor settlement in a forest to the capital of an immense empire. The highways radiate outwards from the Kremlin, the spokes in the cartwheel. To the Northwest, one highway—now called the Leningrad Highway—led to Tver and on to the Free Republic of Novgorod, and in time as far as Peter the Great’s new capital of St. Petersburg. To the Northeast, a highway led to Yaroslavl and onwards to Russia’s first maritime trading routes through Archangel to Western Europe. To the South lay the roads through Tula and Kashira, along which the Tatars came in their search for tribute. To the East the Vladimir Highway led towards the minerals and furs of Siberia and the Urals, a road known to the people as the “Vladimirka,” the “Trakt.” Along it generations of criminals and political prisoners trudged painfully towards exile or worse in the Tsarist times. They were followed in the late autumn of 1941 by miserable conscripts on their way to their training camps, and refugees from a city apparently about to fall to the enemy.
But it was the roads to the West that had the greatest strategic significance in Russia’s modern history: the Volokolamsk Highway, the Mozhaisk Highway, and the Minsk Highway which leads to the fortress city of Smolensk, to the Polish frontier and on to Warsaw. It was along the Mozhaisk Highway that the Poles and the French marched to capture Moscow in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, and it was along the last few miles of the Mozhaisk Highway that the Germans made their final desperate bid to break into the city in December 1941.
For centuries the Mozhaisk Highway entered Moscow through the Arbat, the name both of a street and of a quarter of the city, a place of craftsmen, artists and intellectuals until the middle of the twentieth century. The vanguard of Napoleon’s army, a party of Württemberg Hussars under Marshal Murat, passed along the Arbat on their way to the Kremlin. It was here that Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov planned to assassinate Napoleon himself. Stalin used to drive along the Arbat on his way to the Kremlin from his dacha—the “Nearby Dacha”—off the Mozhaisk Highway just outside the old city limits.
These ring roads within Moscow itself—the Boulevard Ring, the Garden Ring, the Earthen Wall, the Railway Ring; these great highways—the Leningrad Highway, the Volokolamsk Highway, the Mozhaisk Highway; the rivers, the towns and the villages of the Podmoskovie; the Moscow River itself—all these shaped the Battle of Moscow in 1941, as they had shaped so much of Moscow’s earlier history.
The face of this great city has been fashioned above all by the varying and often dubious taste of its rulers, from its founder Yuri Dolgoruki through a series of despots—Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Stalin—to the sometimes bizarre caprices of Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of post-Communist Moscow. Until well into the twentieth century, Moscow was a city built above all of wood. The grand buildings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would have a facing of stucco. But the wooden framework was almost always there behind the façade; and this was the main reason why the domestic quarters of Moscow, and of most other Russian towns, burned down so regularly. When war came in 1941, the fear of a conflagration forced the authorities to mobilise much of the population of the city into a most effective, if brutally simple, system of fire-fighting.
Moscow’s Kremlin and the churches and monasteries within its walls were rebuilt more durably of stone and brick in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the time Richard Chancellor visited it in 1553, Moscow was already twice the size of London. But, he thought, “it is very rude, and standeth without all order. Their houses are all of timber very dangerous for fire. There is a faire Castle, the walles whereof are of bricke, and very high: they say they are eighteene foote thicke, but I do not believe it.” Ivan the Terrible captured the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1552 and chose a singular, almost grotesque, new style for St. Basil’s, the cathedral he built on Red Square to commemorate the victory. At this time, too, six great walled monasteries were built in a ring around the city, defensive bastions to break up the assault of Moscow’s enemies before they reached the walls of the Kremlin. Pre-revolutionary Moscow was dominated by its religious buildings: nine cathedrals, fifteen monasteries, ten convents, nearly three hundred Orthodox churches and another forty churches for the dissident Old Believers.
Moscow ceased to be the capital of Russia in 1712, when Peter the Great moved the government to his new city of St. Petersburg on the Baltic. But as the decades passed, some of the richer citizens built themselves neo-classical town houses with something of a European elegance and the city began to acquire an overlay of Enlightenment taste. When the French entered Moscow on 14 September 1812, after the bloody Battle of Borodino on 7 September, which they still perversely regard as a victory, one of their number was “seized with astonishment and delight. Although I had expected to see a wooden city, I found, on the contrary, almost all the houses to be of brick and in the most elegant and modern style. The homes of private persons are like palaces and everything was rich and wonderful.”
By then the city was almost empty: the people of Moscow had fled along the Eastern and Northern highways. “As far as the eye could see the entire Moscow road was covered with lines of carriages and people on foot fleeing from the unhappy capital. They jostled and overtook one another, and hurried, driven by fear, in carriages, cabriolets, droshkies, and carts. Everyone carried what he could. All faces were dusty and tearstained.” The same scenes, on the same roads, at almost the same time of year, were to be repeated one hundred and twenty-nine years later as the Germans approached the Soviet capital.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Meet the Author
Rodric Braithwaite was British ambassador to Moscow during the critical years of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the failed coup of August 1991, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin. With his long experience of Russia, on good personal terms with Mikhail Gorbachev, he was in a privileged position close to the center of Russia's changing relationship with the West. Rodric Braithwaite was based in Moscow from September 1988 to May 1992. He retains business and educational interests in Russia.
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