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Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at Warby Rodric Braithwaite
Synopses & Reviews
A brilliantly researched and realized history, an essential addition to the literature of World War II.
The 1941 Battle of Moscow — unquestionably one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War — marked the first strategic defeat of the German armed forces in their seemingly unstoppable march across Europe. The Soviets lost many more people in that one battle than the British and Americans lost in the whole of the war. Now, with authority and narrative power, Rodric Braithwaite tells the story in large part through the individual experiences of ordinary Russian men and women.
Setting his narrative firmly against the background of Moscow and its people, Braithwaite begins in early 1941, when the Soviet Union was still untouched by the war raging to the west. We see how — despite abundant secret intelligence — the breaching of the border by the Wehrmacht in June took the country by surprise, and how, when the Germans pushed to Moscow in November, the Red Army and the capital's inhabitants undertook to defend their city. Finally, in the winter of 19411942, they turned the Germans back on the very outskirts.
Braithwaite's dramatic, richly illustrated narrative of the military action offers telling portraits of Stalin and his generals. By interweaving the personal remembrances of soldiers, politicians, writers, artists, workers, and schoolchildren, he gives us an unprecedented understanding of how the war affected the daily life of Moscow, and of the extraordinary bravery, endurance, and sacrifice — both voluntary and involuntary — that was required of its citizens.
"What was existence like in Stalin's Moscow at the most fraught moment in the Soviet Union's weird history, when the German army was miles away from overrunning the city, with possibly genocidal results? This question, among others, is addressed by Rodric Braithwaite's 'Moscow 1941,' a fascinating account of the Eastern Front's crucial showdown, the Battle of Moscow. The altercation the book... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) treats was World War II's biggest, involving 7 million participants on both sides (Stalingrad, by comparison, involved 4 million) and an area of operations 'the size of France.' It was also, arguably, the war's most important battle; outside Moscow, the Nazis suffered their first military defeat. After it failed to overrun the Bolshevik capital, Braithwaite writes, the Wehrmacht no longer seemed invincible. 'In their hearts,' he writes, '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.' But Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to the Soviet Union, is concerned not with the Germans or even primarily with the battle's military aspects; rather, his concern is with how life was lived during and just before the battle. Grounded in interviews with soldiers, nurses and witnesses, the book keeps to a minimum the tactical discussions that can bog down war histories for the general reader. Instead, it evokes how things might viscerally have felt in that place, at that time. 'Moscow 1941' begins with a vision of Soviet life starting with New Year's Eve of 1940 — that is, right before Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, when the average Muscovite still 'desperately wanted to believe' that the country would keep clear of the slaughter to the west. Things were far from perfect, of course; newspapers were filled with homages to Stalin, the 'Genius of Mankind, the Greatest Genius of All Times and Peoples,' and the capital was rife with crowding and squalor. On the other hand, the theaters were buzzing, the grand Metro was new, Lavrenti Beria's NKVD seemed more humane than his predecessor's secret police, and the regime had created schools, educational opportunities and jobs. Despite the savageries, a 'genuine enthusiasm' for the Russian Revolution persisted here in the 'city of opportunity in the First Country of Socialism.' It was into this anxious, dynamic world that the war smashed on June 21, 1941, as the German military cakewalked across the Soviet border. Visitors to the former Soviet Union will be familiar with the rhetoric and iconography that attends a war still eerily present in the popular imagination: the brutalist statues depicting popular valor, the gloomy monuments honoring the lost empire's 'Hero Cities.' Braithwaite does the Soviets he obviously admires the favor of showing the reader what incantations such as 'valor' and 'heroism' actually meant. Thus we see civilians seized with an almost mystical patriotism rushing to volunteer (and being wiped out in huge numbers), even as undernourished girls are sent off to dig trenches and cut firewood. At one point, Braithwaite shows us a group of Bolshoi Theater performers digging a trench on the outskirts of the city. When a Communist Party member suggested others should perform such stoop labor, they took offense: 'What, do you take us for deserters?' And so on, in a panoply of sometimes vain or suicidal effort. Interestingly, Braithwaite is also careful to give the Stalinist elite its due. Moscow boss Alexander Shcherbakov, for example, may have been Stalin's man, but he was also a tireless administrator who apparently killed himself trying to hold the city together. He dropped dead on May 9, 1945 — Victory Day. Not everything, obviously, was admirable. During the panic of October, when the Nazis were a mere 15 miles from Moscow, the city air swam with ash as party members burned their identifying documents. Looters marauded through abandoned homes and stores. 'Cars loaded down with middle-level bureaucrats and their domestic treasures' wallowed past poorer citizens hoofing it out of the city; gangs of workers thrashed their fleeing bosses. In addition to the chaos of war, there reigned that paradoxical chaos of Soviet authoritarianism: In a system in which initiative was reserved for functionaries and information was carefully guarded, it could be difficult to act correctly. The security apparatuses, of course, confronted disorder with their characteristic tools: purging, jailing and killing. 'Moscow 1941' is a wonderful book about a battle that — although it has attracted less attention than, say, Stalingrad or Kursk — was in fact the biggest in world history. The book is also an excellent addition to a series of recent English language histories that evoke for the Western reader how the Soviet experience must — on a daily basis and by people from different social strata — have been lived. Andrey Slivka is a writer who lives in Kiev, Ukraine." Reviewed by Andrey Slivka, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Conversantly connected to his interviewees and to documentary sources, Braithwaite delivers a tragically human Moscow of 1941, victorious but traumatized." Booklist
"A symphonic evocation of a great city at war." The New Yorker
"A wide-ranging and excellent account...Braithwaite never shirks the terrible truths." Antony Beevor, Sunday Times (U.K.)
"One of the most overlooked moments in history...the strength of Moscow 1941 lies in its eye for detail, the snapshot of everyday life that set the scene." The Observer (U.K.)
"In his riveting book, Rodric Braithwaite brilliantly captures a pivotal year not only for Russia but also for the world....With style and intelligence, Braithwaite has delivered an eye-opening exploration of their sacrifice. We owe him — and the Russians — our thanks." Miami Herald
"A vivid picture....As military epics go, Hitler's lightning assault on Moscow in June 1941 and the desperate but successful defense of the Russian capital that winter can hardly be matched. It has an able chronicler in Sir Rodric Braithwaite." The Economist
"Moscow 1941 is an outstanding book. It is extremely readable and incorporates much new material into its account of how the Second World War was experienced in Moscow while shedding light on the war in the Soviet Union as a whole." Catherine Andreyev of Oxford University, The Times Higher Education Supplement
Braithwaite's dramatic, richly illustrated narrative of the 1941 Battle of Moscow offers telling portraits of Stalin and his generals, giving an unprecedented account of how the war affected the daily life of Moscow.
About the Author
Rodric Braithwaite is also the author of Across the Moscow River: The World Turned Upside Down. He was British ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992 and now lives in London.
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