"The Bolsheviks are lucky. God is on their side." Not, perhaps, words one would have attributed to Joseph Stalin, but they indicate his gift for understanding his people's mood in a crisis. He also knew how to appeal to a Russian patriotism so closely allied to the Orthodox religion, by invoking saints, sacred and military, from Alexander Nevsky to Field Marshal Kutuzov.
The contradictions of the Soviet Union's wartime leader come into stark relief in Rodric Braithwaite's engrossing and masterly account of the battle for Moscow from summer 1941 until spring 1942. It was primarily Stalin's responsibility that the Soviets were ill-prepared when German bombers attacked on 22 June. Braithwaite makes it clear that the oft-repeated assertion that Stalin believed Hitler would never attack him is untrue; it was the timing that he got disastrously wrong.
Stalin had set in motion the destruction of his own officer-class in the purges of the late 1930s. Those who survived became unwilling, or unable, to do anything other than obey orders - and some of Stalin's orders were as pig-headed as his refusal to prepare for war. Yet Stalin inspired his nation to carry on in the face of overwhelming odds, enabled them to sustain enormous losses (for every Briton who died, the Soviets lost 85), and to counter-attack until the aggressors were worn out.
Braithwaite demonstrates how Stalin harnessed the spirit of Russia to the great task of defeating the Nazis. His hallmark obstinacy came into its own when he had a genuine enemy. One of his greatest moments was his defiant decision to hold the usual 7 November parade on Red Square in 1941, with the Germans only miles from Moscow and bombing imminent. Those who participated in it never forgot.
Soviet life might appear cheap, with millions dying through combat, starvation, disease, unjust imprisonment and execution. Yet, night after night, the heroic work of rescuing the victims of bombing went on. Individual life, it seemed, did matter after all.
The amount of material this former ambassador to Russia has organised is staggering. This is a significant contribution to our understanding of the Great Patriotic War though, as he makes clear, there is much work to be done in assessing the role of the Soviet Union - and Stalin - in the victory over Nazi Germany.
The writer's 'Catherine the Great' is published by HutchinsonReuse content