October 2006

Elizabeth Kiem

nonfiction

Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by Rodric Braithwaite

In the popular summation of the Second World War, the Battle of Moscow has long been treated as an “also fought” -- a military event that failed to measure up to the devastation of Stalingrad or the triumph of Berlin. For those who reckon they have a good sense of the episode, Rodric Braithwaite has added a whole new dimension. His absorbing book, Moscow 1941, is as cinematic as it is readable, a literary “home-movie” of history in the making.

Solidly founded on the incontrovertible grandeur of his subject (seven million soldiers, 200,000 civilian volunteers, two million evacuees on 70,000 trains, close to 100 air raids with a few full-dress parades on Red Square defying them), Braithwaite’s account is even stronger on anecdote and oddity.

Much like the Mass Observers who strove to capture the big picture of war-time Britain from small glimpses of public behavior, Braithwaite studies the German advance on Moscow through the prevalence of small phenomena: in the first two days after war was declared 100 new patriotic songs were composed and 40 speculators arrested; librarians kept “barracks regimes” in the main branch, and the city’s landmark buildings were painted with camouflage stripes; more than 200 babies were born in the Metro stations used as air raid shelters; and on the day that Stalin declared the city under siege, Muscovites could either attend one of the fifteen films playing at cinemas across the city or flee from one of a handful of her railroad stations -- as did the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who spent the day on a platform at the Kazan station, “a sewing machine in one hand and a child’s potty in the other.”

As a former British ambassador to Russia, Braithwaite is naturally inclined to compare the war efforts of Moscow and London. It is not just the experience of prolonged air raids or the stalwart response to deprivation that the two had in common, but also the shared history of an intimate public mobilization experience: “Students, workers, dancers, actors and musicians volunteered together with their teachers and bosses,” he writes. “It was like Britain in 1914, and as in Britain those who volunteered together too often died together.”

But unlike Britain in 1914 or in 1941, the population that fought to defend the Soviet Union rallied to preserve a regime that had recently traumatized its people with famine and terror. It was also a regime that decimated its armed forces with purges just years before the war started. The heroics of the RAF have the defense of an empire and way of life as their context, the resilience of the Red Army and Moscow’s famous narodnoe opolchenie, do not.

This is where Braithwaite’s account is so valuable. By turning to the memories of Muscovites, ordinary and extraordinary, Moscow 1941 reminds us that Russians embraced the war to justify their sufferings, not to escape them. Far from slavish devotion to the Motherland, Moscow’s surge of patriotism came from the cultural elite of one of Europe’s most educated and accomplished capitals. Braithwaite draws heavily from the writings of Vasilli Grossman and Kirill Simonov and the wartime memoirs of film stars Lidia Smirnova and Marina Ladynina. Other lead characters include bandleader Leonid Utesev, author Aleksei Tolstoi, and Lenin’s master embalmer, Ilya Zembarsky. Braithwaite’s Moscow is a place where prima ballerinas don asbestos gloves to pluck incendiary bombs from the roof of the Bolshoi and renowned pianists are annihilated with their platoons a hundred miles from the conservatory. Supplementing the book’s exhaustive bibliography is a filmography of 30 wartime favorites. It’s a familiarity that bolsters the book’s authenticity, but also says much about the author’s objectivity.

Indeed, critics in Britain where Moscow 1941 was first published have rightly noted its ease with the propaganda of the day. In his emphasis on the universal and egalitarian nature of Moscow’s defense Braithwaite risks casting himself as an apologist or a naïf and it’s hard to say which, in this day and age, is more egregious.

For one thing, Stalin comes off well in this version. Braithwaite ignores neither the purges that preceded the war and claimed 15 out of 16 army commanders nor Stalin’s famous moment of paralysis when the Germans first invaded, but he nevertheless concludes that the German defeat owes more to Stalin’s exhortive authority than to Hitler’s grave miscalculation. The perfect soundbite for this script is Stalin’s query to the panicked General who suggested that the military brass should move east of Moscow in light of the German advance: “Comrade Stepanov, ask them if they have any spades,” responded Stalin, “tell your comrades to take their spades and dig themselves some graves. The Stavka’s not leaving Moscow.”

If Braithwaite has chosen to adopt some of the more successful tropes of Soviet propaganda, it is not for lack of contrary material. Braithwaite is no naïf and his history of the six-month battle of Moscow is full of the deprivation and desperation that has never been a stranger to that city. Knowing only too well the price that Russians paid for victory, his message, like that of the many veterans he interviewed to write his book, is that “victory was an enduring monument” in an otherwise shattered landscape. He should be applauded for erecting another on the battle-strewn shelves of war’s libraries.

Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by Rodric Braithwaite
Knopf
ISBN: 1400044308
416 Pages