By October 1941 the situation for the Soviet Union looked desperate. At the start of the month the 3rd and 4th Panzer armies had joined together to create a massive encirclement around the town of Vyazma, west of Moscow, with the Germans trapping five Soviet armies. And together with the German victory at the nearby town of Bryansk, more than 600,000 Red army soldiers were captured. The road to the Soviet capital now seemed open to the Germans.
Moscow was defended by less than 100,000 troops and preparations were being made to move the government east, to Kuibyshev on the Volga. A secret document (no. 34) from the State Defence Committee, dated 15 October 1941, records that it had been decided ‘To evacuate the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the top levels of Government… (Comrade Stalin will leave tomorrow or later, depending on the situation)… In the event of enemy forces arriving at the gates of Moscow, the NKVD – Comrade Beria and Comrade Shcherbakov – are ordered to blow up business premises, warehouses and institutions which cannot be evacuated, and all Underground railway electrical equipment.’i
Anastas Mikoyan, a member of the Soviet Politburo, later said that Stalin had told him on 15 October that he intended to leave the Soviet capital. Crucial communications equipment and documents were taken from the Kremlin and packed on board Stalin’s train, waiting at Moscow station. On the night of 16 October, key personnel were told to leave their offices and prepare to flee. ‘There was a car waiting outside [the Kremlin],’ recalls Nikolay Ponomariev, Stalin’s telegraphist. ‘We were driven away. Moscow was completely dark. The weather was wet. I saw we were heading for the railway station. I saw the armoured train and Stalin’s guards walking to and fro on the platform. It became clear to me that I would have to wait for Stalin and go into evacuation with him.’
Meantime, panic was growing amongst the population of Moscow. There were even rumours that Germans had been seen in the city. As a result, some shop owners opened their doors and told Muscovites to take whatever they liked, because soon the Germans would snatch it all. In the chaos, many people tried to flee the Soviet capital. The roads and rivers were blocked with people trying to escape from the city by any means they could.
Now, at this most crucial point in his country’s history, Stalin faced a simple choice. Should he stay or should he go? Should he try and remain in Moscow and risk encirclement by the German army – perhaps even his own capture or death – or should he run east to seek safety in the shelter of the Ural mountains, behind the River Volga?
Indeed, it’s not too fanciful to say that the decision that Stalin now had to take was the most vital of the war. Because if Stalin had left Moscow it is possible – perhaps likely – that the Germans would have captured the Soviet capital and won the war, with Stalin’s authority grievously damaged by his decision to run away.
‘He [Stalin] had erased all his enemies in the previous 15 years,’ says Professor Robert Citino, ‘and it is impossible to imagine the Soviet regime as constituted in late 1941 surviving without Stalin’s presence and Stalin’s presence at the centre of what we would call the political centre of gravity [i.e. Moscow] in the Soviet state.’
‘I think it was, from the point of view of morale, very important that Stalin stayed on in Moscow, ‘ says Professor Robert Service, ‘and he was tempted to move off to the Volga region, but at the last moment he changed his mind. He appreciated that if it was known that the leader was staying in Moscow within bombing range of the German armed forces then the morale of the Soviet defence effort would be all the greater.’
‘He [Stalin] was such a key figure that Russia really depended on his authority,’ says Simon Sebag Montefiore, ‘and that’s why in June-July  they [the rest of the Politburo] kept him and he wasn’t overthrown. They realised that they really needed him, and for the same reason him not leaving in October ’41 was, I think, totally decisive because Russia was collapsing. There was no doubt about it.’
Stalin decided to stay in Moscow. His train was unpacked and his offices opened up once again at the Kremlin. Then, at a meeting on 19 October, Stalin toyed with the members of his Politburo. He refused to state his own position on whether the Soviet leadership should stay in Moscow or leave, and insisted on asking each of them in turn ‘Are we going to defend Moscow?’ii Each of them, sensing no doubt the view their boss wanted them to give, replied that Moscow should be defended. Even Beria, the feared head of the secret police, buckled under Stalin’s stare.
Before Stalin’s arrival, talking to his colleagues, Beria had said that Moscow should be abandoned, adding ‘how are we going to defend Moscow? We have absolutely nothing at all. We have been overwhelmed and we are being shot down like partridges.’iii But now, in the meeting with Stalin, he meekly agreed to stay and fight for the Soviet capital.
Stalin decided, in the words of Vladimir Ogryzko, an NKVD commander in Moscow that October, to use ‘fear to crush fear.’ The Soviet leader established a state of siege and the NKVD used the harshest measure imaginable to restore order. ‘It isn’t peacetime,’ says Ogryzko. ‘You’re not going to say ‘Stop or I’ll shoot!’ a thousand times before you shoot, nor are you going to shoot in the air. Of course not. You shoot them on the spot. It was a tough command. Anybody who resisted and didn’t obey orders on demand – especially if they moved away or opened their mouths – was eliminated on the spot without further ado. And that was considered a truly heroic act – you were killing the enemy.’
New divisions arrived from Siberia to help shore up the front outside Moscow – their release made possible by Soviet intelligence which suggested that the Japanese were planning on attacking the Western Allies in Asia, rather than moving north into the Soviet Union. And Stalin led his people that winter – if not to victory – then certainly to the avoidance of defeat.
i Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning from History, BBC Books, 2005, p. 191
ii Interview with V.S. Pronin published in the Voyenno-Istoricheskii Zhurnal (Journal of Military History), 1991, N.10, p. 39
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