The second world war
From The Economist print edition
AS MILITARY epics go, Hitler's lightning assault on Moscow in June 1941 and the desperate but successful defence of the Russian capital that winter can hardly be matched. It has an able chronicler in Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who, as British ambassador to the city from 1988-92, witnessed the decline of the Soviet Union and the birth of democratic Russia. His book, which came out in Britain in the spring, will be published in America at the end of this month.
Sir Rodric's affection for Russia, and his extensive network of friends there, are the basis for the book. He creates a mosaic of eyewitness accounts, many from people still living, which brings across well the surreal complacency of the days leading up to the war, when Stalin forbade his generals from preparing any defence, the panic that followed, and the gradual recovery of an effective, meatgrinding military machine.
Any book that uses the stories of dozens of people, mostly with names very [ugh, sorry] unfamiliar to the lay reader, risks being confusing. Some characters run through the book, such as Marshal Konstantin Rokossovski, a half-Polish military genius. But the author might have done better to use fewer stories and tell them more fully.
It is worth recalling that Hitler's megalomaniac military blunders were even greater than Stalin's. Had the German army been told to befriend, rather than subjugate, the people it conquered; had it been allowed winter supplies and clothes, and had it concentrated on one objective rather than several, the enfeebled and chaotic Soviet defences might have buckled completely.
Soviet wartime conditions are painted in all their gruesome inefficiency and brutality: the midnight calls from the NKVD, the careless sacrifice of lives, the endless political interference—and above it all the malign, ruthless, suspicious figure of Stalin. Although Sir Rodric tries to strip away the decades of Soviet propaganda, a slightly Russo-centric tone still prevails. Poles in particular may find his cheery treatment of Marshal Rokossovski, who as the military minder to post-war Poland oversaw the execution of many innocent and patriotic soldiers there, as verging on the scandalous.
The more modern Russia tries to use wartime heroism as its unifying national myth, the more tempting it is to argue that Hitler and Stalin were villains of equal hue. The crude triumphalism of the celebrations in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the war's end, and the perverse whitewashing of Stalinist crimes towards Poland, the Baltic states and other countries, have caused many outside Russia to rethink somewhat their attitude to the second world war's causes and aftermath. Sir Rodric's book may, unfashionably, dodge some of those complexities. But it does give a vivid picture of the stark and bloody struggle for national survival with which Russia's war began.