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On August 23, 1941, German troops captured Leningrad, which was at the time part of the Soviet Union. The city was then renamed by the Nazis “St. Petersburg”, but it remained part of the Soviet Union until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
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Residents of the Soviet capital fled—or remained behind to fight—as Operation Barbarossa proceeded in 1941.
HITLER WAS RELEASED On June 22, 1941, the greatest military operation in history, Operation Barbarossa, began. Over three million soldiers invaded the Soviet Union with the goal of complete victory. Stalin’s troops would be defeated, Hitler was certain. Moscow would fall in a matter of weeks. His panzers moved at such a rapid pace and defeated Stalin’s army with such ease that most of the rest of the world, including America and Britain, agreed. The panzers were more than halfway to their objective by the middle of September, with the Soviet capital just 250 miles away.
Stalin, the Soviet tyrant, kept his people in the dark about the danger. Despite the fact that the battle was difficult, the “fascist hordes” were surely destroyed, according to a diet of falsehoods and half-truths. The Kremlin’s relentless suppression of the truth, however, could not prevent rumors from leaking past the official news outlets’ protective barrier. These reports were rampant by October. The city of Moscow was in peril.
In October 1941, Russian houses are set ablaze as German tanks approach Moscow. In the beginning, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin—shown below piloting the state ship in a propaganda poster—told people nothing about the danger, fueling suspicions in the capital. (Photo credit: AP)
(Getty Images/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group)
“There is a sense of impending disaster in the air and countless rumours,” wrote Peter Miller, a British historian working on a project at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, on October 7, 1941. Today is an especially terrible day.”
Most Russian troops at the front preferred to avoid expressing the scope of the situation, either to avoid alarming their families or to escape censorship. “Don’t trust the papers or the radio; the things they say are lies,” one couldn’t help himself. We’ve seen it all, the way the Germans are pushing us—our own people don’t know where to go; we have nothing with which to fight; and when the Germans catch up with us, our soldiers have nowhere to hide. Because we don’t have any gasoline, they leave our vehicles and tanks and flee.”
Victor Kravchenko, a Communist Party official, observed Moscow’s steady collapse. He remembered, “A city, like a person, may have a mental breakdown.” “Trams and buses ran in and out of service. Despite the fact that the stores were largely empty, customers waited nonetheless. Homes and businesses lacked heat, and water and electricity were infrequent and unreliable. I heard officialdom cursed for the first time in twenty years.”
Fear, deprivation, and a suppressed loathing of the Soviet secret police—the NKVD—and other instruments of a repressive state produced something of a pro-German backlash. Nazi propaganda—intimating the restoration of individual liberties and land ownership once the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy had been destroyed—fell on fewer deaf ears than the Party might have hoped. Alexander Osmerkin, an artist, was so confident all would be well under the Nazis that he rebuked a friend who was seeking to leave Moscow before their troops arrived. “Have you gone off your head?” he demanded. “Excuse my crudeness, but who are you running from? Do you really believe our cheap propaganda? They [the Germans] are after all the most cultured people in Europe. I’m sure they won’t persecute people like you and me.” So anxious was he to secure his own future under Nazism that he emptied his apartment of every compromising pamphlet, book, photograph, and “all the rest of the filthy Bolshevik rubbish.”
Even the most committed communists, on the other hand, were concerned about the possibility of a Nazi triumph. They despised the Nazi flyers that were strewn over the city by the Luftwaffe. Nazi propagandists were “signally dumb” for suggesting that Russia would once again flow like milk and honey under the Third Reich’s benevolent supervision. Not only was such propaganda arrogant, but it also made the fundamental mistake of conflating patriotism with Stalinism.
Muscovites assemble in front of a loudspeaker to hear Hitler declare war on the Soviet Union and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov respond. (Voller Ernst/Chaldej/AKG-images)
The Kremlin suddenly determined at the end of the first week of October that the official line could no longer be maintained. Instead of announcing hard-fought but unavoidable triumphs against the Nazi hordes, the Red Army publication, Red Star, abruptly informed the people that “the Soviet State’s own survival was in jeopardy.” On October 9, the publication urged all Soviet citizens to “stand strong and fight to the last drop of blood” in order to preserve the country. On the same day, Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, urged Moscow residents to “mobilize all their forces to repel the enemy’s offensive,” and, the next day, it warned that the enemy was attempting to “disorganize the rear and create panic” through a “wide network of its agents, spies, and agent-provocateurs.”
Surprisingly, such warnings failed to have the intended impact. The media merely fueled further suspicions by repeatedly scaring the public with headlines like “The Homeland is in Grave Danger.” Irina Kreuze, a trainee nurse, received word from a friend that the city’s youngsters were being evacuated from Moscow, as well as the nation’s leaders. “Whether this is true or not,” she said, “the administration remains quiet, which depresses the public.” People are totally befuddled. I observed a guy carrying an empty casket along the street the other day. ‘What a fortunate person he got this casket for,’ remarked an elderly woman who stopped me a few feet away from him. He is no longer alive and no longer has to fight.’
TO SABOTAGE THE ENEMY, Alexander Shcherbakov, the first secretary of the Communist Party’s Moscow City Committee, went about forming resistance organizations. The NKVD was supposed to be in charge of this clandestine activity, which would be run by Party cadres from each municipal area. Shcherbakov took a personal interest in the selection process, his office walls covered with comprehensive maps of the city. When he was interviewing one applicant, he told him that Stalin had ordered this last-ditch defiance of the enemy. He asked, “Do you understand how serious that is?” “Yes, Alexander Sergeyevich, I do.” “Are you aware of the danger?” “Yes, I’ll end up on a German scaffold if I do it wrong.”
Even more urgent was the job of disassembling hundreds of military supply factories and moving them hundreds of miles to the relative safety of the Urals, Volga Region, Western Siberia, Kazakhstan, or Central Asia, where they could be rebuilt and ready for production within 14 days. Within six weeks, 498 businesses and 210,000 employees had been relocated to one of the far-flung locations. More than 1,500 factories, or 1.5 million train loads, would be saved by November.
This was only feasible because the Party machine was able to enlist the services of a large number of courageously obedient patriots. A Pravda writer described one typical sight in somewhat exaggerated terms: “The ground was like stone, frozen firm by our strong Siberian frost.” The rocky earth was impenetrable to axes and pickaxes. People hacked at the ground all night in the light of ARC-lamps. They built the foundations by blowing up the stones and the frozen soil. They didn’t quit work despite the fact that their feet and hands were swollen from frostbite. The snowstorm was roaring over the charts and plans that were spread out on packing boxes. Hundreds of trucks carrying construction supplies continued to arrive. The equipment, coated in hoar frost, started to arrive on the 12th day, inside the new buildings with their glass roofs. To unfreeze the machinery, braziers were constantly lit. The military factory started manufacturing two days later.”
If the panzers stormed into the city, all plants that couldn’t be destroyed were to be blown up. Food shops and refrigeration facilities, as well as railway terminals, tram and trolleybus depots, and power plants, were all set to be demolished. Under bridges, explosive devices were put. The Bolshoi Theatre, the mint, the central telegraph office, and the telephone exchange were all targeted as well. If the Germans penetrated the city’s fortifications, every major economic asset was to be destroyed beyond repair.
An antitank ditch being dug by Soviet residents, the most of whom are women, close outside Moscow (top). Hundreds of industries were packed and relocated in case the Germans arrived in the city. A train car plant’s equipment arrives at its new home in the Urals, 800 kilometers to the northeast. (Getty Images/Sovfoto/Universal Images Group)
(Getty Images/Sovfoto/Universal Images Group) )
Three concentric levels of defense around the city—tank traps, ditches, and barbed wire fences—were ordered constructed as a last-ditch effort to keep the Germans from reaching that far. Six hundred thousand Muscovites responded to the call by showing up equipped with spades and, if they had them, axes, picks, and crowbars. In worsening conditions, this ramshackle army of laborers—men and women—worked at a frenetic pace for little nourishment. The combination of piercing winds and torrential rain mixed with driving snow, as well as a lack of heavy equipment, made their job exhausting. They persevered, however. They understood that shirking duty was not allowed, and that miscreants would face the full fury of a punishing state, if patriotism wasn’t enough.
“I saw thousands and thousands of Moscow women, who were unfamiliar with heavy labor and had left their city apartments lightly clad, work on those impassable roads, in that mud, digging antitank ditches and trenches, setting up antitank obstacles and barricades, and hauling sandbags,” said Georgy Zhukov, Stalin’s favorite general. Mud clung to their boots and the wheelbarrows they used to carry dirt, and shovels that were foreign in women’s hands took on an enormous load.”
A map dated August 4, 1941 depicts a network of defense lines winding around Moscow and its surroundings. (jccalvin.ddns.net)
THE TENSE IN THE CAPITAL WAS PERCEPTIBLE BY OCTOBER 15. In the distance, a cluster of artillery could be heard. Above us, enemy planes flew low. The city was about to fall; the Germans had reached the outskirts of the city; their spies were dressed as Soviet soldiers; paratroopers had landed in a nearby forest or in Red Square; the panzers would soon be on Gorky Street; Stalin had either been deposed or had already left the Kremlin for an unknown destination.
As it turned out, the Soviet dictator had been engaged in meetings with senior members of the Party’s highest governing body, the Politburo, since the early hours of that day. They decided that the only alternative was to relocate the government to Kuibyshev (now Samara), which was 660 kilometers to the southeast. The embassies of the United Kingdom and the United States were called to meet the foreign minister. Vyacheslav Molotov looked tired. “I’ve never seen him look so exhausted and sick in my life. Sir Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador, observed, “He clearly has been up all night, and the decision has wounded him deeply as one can see.” They were instructed to gather their belongings and depart that night towards Kuibyshev. Before hastening to the train station, foreign embassy employees barely had time to pack their luggage and incinerate any files and documents that could otherwise fall into Nazi hands. They discovered it already congested with a large number of Russians fleeing the city.
Some members of the Bolshevik leadership failed to provide the sort of example that decent communists should have set. Many people rushed to join the migration without waiting for permits. Senior officials’ limousines plowed past an increasing stream of heavily loaded horse-drawn carts, peasants herding livestock and sheep, and regular people voting with their feet, showing their confidence in officialdom. Some of these individuals “must have been in the latter stages of exhaustion,” according to a British Embassy employee, “as we observed several collapsed or collapsing by the roadside.” The flow of traffic continued all night and into the following day…with vehicles honking and chauffeurs cursing in all directions.”
Not everyone considered escaping. Andrei Sakharov, a 20-year-old student who would go on to become a world-famous nuclear physicist and dissident, pushed his way through the crowd to Moscow State University with a group of other students to see if he could help. The pupils were given scant shrift by the local Party secretary. “When we inquired if there was anything we could do to help,” Sakharov recalled, “he looked at us frantically and shouted out ‘every man for himself.’” A few days later, the future Nobel Laureate was told to board a train bound for Turkmenistan, where the institution was to be re-established. “I studied Yakov Frenkel’s works on quantum physics and relativity [and] suddenly gained fresh insights into those subjects,” he said, nearly the whole 2,000-mile train trip to Ashkhabad.
Dmitri Shostakovich, a well-known composer, was not so optimistic. He wished to remain in the besieged city of Leningrad, where he worked as a fireman. However, in late September, he was ordered to leave his beloved city for the relative safety of Moscow. He was on the go again almost as soon as he arrived. He was huddled with his family on the slush-covered platform waiting for the Kuibyshev train on October 16, together with a tiny army of authors, painters, singers, and artists. As Moscow’s cultural elite fought for seats in their allocated carriages, there was a lot of uncomradely pushing and shoving. Shostakovich was stumped, holding his child’s toilet in one hand and a sewing machine in the other. The great man was eventually accommodated in one of the Bolshoi Theatre’s props and staff carriages. He discovered he had left two bags on the platform just after the train left the station, a situation from which he was only partly rescued by the kindness of other passengers, who provided him with socks, a spare shirt, and other basic needs.
Shostakovich, unlike Sakharov, was unable to work on the trip. “As soon as I boarded the train, something within me broke. “I can’t compose right now because of how many people are dying,” he was overheard saying. Despite this, Shostakovich was able to finish his renowned Leningrad Symphony—Symphony No. 7—in only ten weeks.
The flight of people from Moscow was seen by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov (top) and musician Dmitri Shostakovich (bottom). When Sakharov offered to assist at the university where he studied, he was informed, “Every man for himself.” (According to the American Institute of Physics)
(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images) )
THE 16TH OF OCTOBER became known as the “Great Panic Day.” The “German-fascist forces” had thrown “large numbers of tanks and motorized infantry at our troops, and in one sector burst through our defenses,” according to early morning radio reports. The “Enemy is Threatening Moscow,” according to Pravda.
Social anarchy replaced communist discipline overnight. “There are fights in the queues, people crushing old folks, there are stampedes in the queues, young people are looting, and policemen hang around sidewalks in groups of two [to] four, having a smoke, saying, ‘We don’t have instructions,” wrote one shocked observer, Nikolai Verzhbitsky, a journalist who stuck to the Party line when writing for his newspaper.
It was as though a dam had suddenly been breached, releasing a resentful flood of loathing toward those bosses and Party members who had left their posts without a thought for their workers. Verzhbitsky was bitter and blamed the authorities: “The hysteria above reached down to the masses. They began to remember and count up all the insults, repression, injustices, pressure, bureaucratic machinations of officialdom, contempt and self-puffery of Party members, Draconian orders, deprivations, systematic deception of the masses, the newspapers braying self-congratulations. It is terrible to hear. People speak from the heart. Can a city really hold out when it’s in such a mood?”
It seemed for a while that it would not. Normally law-abiding people resorted to mob violence in their rage and hatred. Some people not only wanted revenge, but also identified easy scapegoats. There was a nasty outbreak of anti-Semitism, which the Party fiercely denied existed, but had long simmered under the surface of public opinion. It wasn’t just limited to the mob, however. Occasionally, committed communist cadres, enraged by colleagues who had left, expressed similar sentiments.
Although it could be assumed that V. Voronkov, as a college administrator, did not hold such biases, he was furious on the day of the “Great Panic,” when “a throng of Jewish ‘teachers,’ as well as graduate students, researchers, workers, and librarians, rushed into my office in the morning.” The scoundrels’ lips trembled, and they were all white. They were overjoyed to be earning $2,000 each month. They insisted on having me sign their evacuation paperwork. I declined because this swarm of short-legged obese faces revolted me.” “The director took the vehicle, chairmen of departments left their doors open, with all the students’ papers, incomplete paperwork,” he said, directing his anger towards colleagues who had already departed the school. Cowards and scoundrels.”
Even basic supplies have become scarce. Voronkov once spent an entire day in a succession of food lines that he described as “as long as gigantic pythons as enraged as a hundred hyenas.” He spent two and a half hours buying a couple of pounds of bagels, three hours buying one pound of pork, and was enraged when the store ran out of butter completely “because of damned ladies who created 12-15 ‘workers’ cards and took 2-3 kilograms [approximately four to seven pounds] each.” I was on the verge of biting people.”
The Soviet regime’s incapacity to connect with its people in a way that didn’t add to their fear and mistrust was brutally revealed. When a group of employees, forced to find their own way to their reconstructed plant in the Urals, informed commissar Alexei Shakhurin that they had not been paid or given advice on how to locate houses, purchase food, or educate their children so far from Moscow, he was taken aback. Shakhurin tried to comfort them, but stressed that getting the new aircraft constructed came first. No one challenged him, but one lady approached him, upset to the point of tears, and said, “We thought everyone had gone, and you’d abandoned us!” “If you mean the administration and the military, then no one has left,” Shakhurin said over the din. Everyone has arrived. Everyone is at their posts, but the factories are being moved to locations where they will be able to continue manufacturing sophisticated aircraft for our army.” The atmosphere was clearly relaxed as a result of this.
Another minister who braved the workers’ fury while trying to calm unrest was Anastas Mikoyan, a Politburo member in charge of supervising the transfer of important enterprises. He discovered the director and a top trade union official arguing furiously with a throng of thousands of irate workers at a car plant named after Stalin. When the workers spotted Mikoyan, they turned on him, demanding to know why the government had fled. Mikoyan attempted to calm them down. He said, “Stalin and Molotov are both here,” and that the ministries had gone since the front line had approached Moscow. You must now maintain your composure. Please leave the director alone and return home.” Finally calmed, the mob dispersed.
On the top of the Hotel Moskva in downtown Moscow, Red Army troops operate an antiaircraft cannon. Although German planes did hit, the consequences were minor. (Sputnik RIAN Archive/Oleg Knorring)
Stalin had been urged to flee Moscow in the immediate aftermath of the panic. Instead, he moved inside the bomb-proof security of a Metro station, where he was given an office and living accommodations in a series of cubicles hidden from public view. Meanwhile, his crew prepared a special train to transport him to Kuibyshev, where a replica of his Kremlin residence had been constructed in a subterranean bunker along the Volga’s banks, assuming he would flee the city. Four Douglas DC-3 planes were waiting for him if he chose to go by air. However, the Soviet Union’s commander in chief made it known at some point during those crucial hours that he would stay in Moscow.
On October 19, Stalin took strong action to restore order, declaring the capital a “state of siege.” “Violators of order will be swiftly brought to account before the military tribunal, and provocateurs, spies, and other enemy agents trying to undermine order will be shot on the spot,” the public was warned. That was no frivolous threat. The NKVD was tasked with protecting the city not just from the enemy, but also from its own people. Mikhail Ivanovitch, a sniper tasked with guarding the Kremlin’s Spassky Gate from a position on the second story of the GUM Department store, did not hesitate: “It was absolutely essential to restore order.” Yes, we shot individuals who refused to leave stores and offices where food and other supplies were kept.”
It was ruthless, but it was effective. Irina Krauze was overjoyed. “Order is being restored: businesses are functioning, police are extremely focused on verifying passports, [and] there is a little of food in the shops,” she wrote on October 20. The trial of a number of panickers and deserters is reported in the newspapers.”
Chaos and anarchy did not disappear immediately, but Stalinist control was restored within days. The city’s food supply was not depleted, stores and kiosks reopened, employees were paid, trams and trains resumed service, and theaters and cinemas reopened.
In the harsh Soviet winter, underequipped Wehrmacht soldiers fight. “Blizzards rage in the East, but cannot break our troops’ will,” read the German propaganda text on the back of the original picture. However, the weather proved to be a formidable foe. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Berliner Verlag/Picture Alliance) )
However, this did not imply that the capital was safe. The enemy was closing up on us. However, when fall gave way to winter, the Germans’ advance was slow, arduous, and bloody. In the midst of deteriorating weather, the soldiers pressed on. Roads became sticky quagmires as a result of the constant rain. The temperature dropped to 20 degrees below zero as the snow hit. Thousands of German soldiers died of frostbite due to a lack of appropriate gear. Many people perished.
The weather’s consequences, on the other hand, were not the cause of Hitler’s frontline commanders’ dilemma, but rather a symptom. They were running out of armor, vehicles, replacement parts, and gasoline by November. They were also losing soldiers at an alarming rate—killed, injured, or captured. Hitler’s arrogance masked a disastrous lack of foresight, planning, and logistical organization. Furthermore, when the Germans drew closer to Moscow, the Red Army battled even harder. Coercion played a role—“cowards” were killed in droves—but for the most part, Stalin’s men and women fought with the zeal of patriots who understood the Motherland’s existence was on the line. It was a “do or die” situation for Russia.
Although a few German troops may have gotten a sight of the Moscow skyline in the distance, their panzers never got closer than 20 miles away from the city. Operation Barbarossa came to an end in early December, five months, three weeks, and six days after it began. Retreat was unavoidable. Moscow would not be endangered in the future.
On November 7, 1941, Soviet soldiers marched directly to the front in a symbolic show of commitment in Red Square. (Getty Images/Sovfoto/UIG) )
This story appeared in World War II’s August 2022 edition.
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