Sunday, February 04, 2007

Soviet Leadership in Total Confusion


Stalin had retired when Zhukov called Kuntsevo.
‘Wake him immediately,’ Zhukov told the duty officer. ‘The Germans are bombing our cities.’
… At 4.17 a.m. (Russian time) the Black Sea command called Zhukov at the Defence Commissariat to report a swarm of bombers. At 4.30 a.m. the Western Front was on the line, at 4.40, the Baltic was under attack. Around the same time, Admiral Kuznetsov was telephoned by his Sebastopol commander: the German bombing had started. Kuznetsov immediately phoned the Kremlin where he encountered the bureaucratic narrow-mindedness that is so characteristic of tyrannies. It was meant to be a secret that Stalin lived at Kuntsevo, so the officer replied:
‘Comrade Stalin is not here and I don’t know where he is.’
… Kuznetsov tried all the numbers he had for Stalin but to no avail, so he called the Kremlin again:
‘I request you to inform Comrade Stalin that German planes are bombing Sebastopol. This is war!’
‘I shall report it to the proper person.’ A few minutes later the Admiral discovered who ‘the proper person’ was: flabby, quiet-spoken Malenkov called, asking in ‘a dissatisfied, irritated voice’.
‘Do you understand what you’re reporting?’ Even as German bombers strafed Kiev and Sebastopol and as their troops crossed the borders, Stalin’s cronies were still trying to bully away reality. Malenkov rang off and called Sebastopol to check the story.
… Timoshenko ordered anti-aircraft forces not to respond: [anti-aircraft artillery head, Marshal N.N.] Voronov realized ‘he did not believe the war had begun.’
Timoshenko was called by the Deputy Commissar of the Western Special Military District, [General I.V.] Boldin, who frantically reported that the Germans were advancing. Timoshenko ordered him not to react.
‘What do you mean?’ shouted Boldin. ‘Our troops are retreating, towns are in flame, people are dying…’
… Timoshenko’s instinct was to persuade someone else to break the news to Stalin. He asked [Semyon] Budyonny: ‘The Germans are bombing Sebastopol. Should I or shouldn’t I tell Stalin?’
‘Inform him immediately!’
‘You call him,’ beseeched Timoshenko. ‘I’m afraid.’
‘No, you call him,’ retorted Budyonny. ‘You’re the Defence Commissar!’ Finally, Budyonny agreed and started calling Kuntsevo. Timoshenko… ordered Zhukov to telephone Stalin too.
Zhukov was still waiting on the line to Kuntsevo as Stalin was roused. Three minutes late, he came to the phone. Zhukov reported and asked permission to counter-attack. There was silence. He could just hear Stalin’s breathing.
‘Did you understand me?’ asked Zhukov. ‘Comrade Stalin?’ He could still only hear heavy breathing. Then Stalin spoke: “Bring Timoshenko to the Kremlin. Tell Poskrebyshev to summon the Politburo.’ Mikoyan and the Politburo were already being rung:
‘It’s war!’ Now Budyonny reached Stalin at the dacha and added that Riga was being bombed as well. Stalin called Poskrebyshev, who was sleeping in his study: ‘The bombing’s started.’ (pp. 321-322)

… amazingly, [Stalin] still persisted in the idea (at a Politburo meeting) that the war might be ‘a provocation by the German officers’, convinced that Hitler simply might have a Tukhachevsky among the high command of the Wehrmacht. ‘Hitler simply does not know about it.’ Stalin would not order resistance until he had heard from Berlin.
… Schulenburg had already contacted Molotov’s office, asking to see the Foreign Commissar….
Schulenburg read out the telegram that had arrived at 3 a.m. Berlin time: the concentration of Soviet troops forced the Reich to take military ‘counter measures’. He finished. Molotov’s face twitched with disbelief and anger: Finally, he stammered:
‘Is this supposed to be a declaration of war?’ Schulenburg could not speak either: he shrugged sadly…. Molotov rushed back to Stalin’s office where he announced: ‘Germany declared war on us.’ (pp. 323-324)

Yet despite everything, Stalin persisted in clinging on to shards of his shattered illusion: he said he hoped to settle things diplomatically….
‘No!’ replied Molotov emphatically. It was war and ‘nothing could be done about it’. By midday, the scale of the invasion and Molotov’s stark insistence had shaken the reality into Stalin. (p. 324)

… Amazingly, the USSR possessed no Supreme Command: at nine that morning, Stalin created an early version, the Stavka. Naturally, the decree named Stalin as Commander-in-Chief but he crossed it out and put Timoshenko’s name instead.
Everyone agreed that the Government had to announce the war. Mikoyan and the others proposed Stalin should do it but he refused: ‘Let Molotov speak.’ After all, Molotov had signed the treaty with Ribbentrop. The entourage disagreed – surely the people would not understand why they were not hearing from the Premier. Stalin insisted that he would speak another time. ‘He didn’t want to be first to speak,’ said Molotov. ‘He needed a clear picture… He couldn’t respond like an automaton to everything… He was a human being after all.’ (p. 325)

… it was Timoshenko reporting on the chaos of the frontier where the commanders, especially [Colonel-General D.G.] Pavlov on the vital Western Front that covered Minks and the road to Moscow, had lost contact with their troops. Stalin fulminated about how ‘unexpected attack is very important in war…. Call the commanders, clear the situation and report…. How is the situation with Pavlov?’…. (pp. 325-326)

… Timoshenko reported that almost a thousand planes had been eliminated on the ground by the end of the day.
‘Surely the German air force didn’t manage to reach every single airfield?’ asked Stalin pathetically.
‘Unfortunately it did.’… (p. 326)

… The Western Front was disintegrating. Ailing Marshal Shaposhnikov collapsed from the strain. Headquarters lost him too.
… Stalin sent Voroshilov to find Kulik and Shaposhnikov. On 26 June, the ‘First Marshal’ arrived in Mogilev on a special train but was unable to find either the Western Front or the two marshals. Eventually his adjutant came upon a pitiful sight that looked more like a ‘gypsy encampment’ than a headquarters and espies Shaposhnikov on the ground covered by a coat, looking very dead. Then he saw Pavlov, the commander, lying alone beneath a tree eating kasha out of a mess-tin in the pouring rain which he did not seem to have noticed….
… Then the two marshals retired to the special train to decide what to do about poor Pavlov….
… Voroshilov summoned Pavlov, berating him for his failures. In another of those moments that reveal the importance of personal vendetta, he reminded Pavlov that he had once complained to Stalin about him. Pavlov fell to his knees, begged for forgiveness and kissed the Marshal’s boots. Voroshilov returned to Moscow.
At dawn on 4 July, Mekhlis arrested Pavlov for treason….
… On 22 July, the four commanding officers of the Western Front were shot. So many telegrams flooded in asking permission to shoot traitors, they blocked the wires in Mekhlis’s office. That day, he told them to sentence and shoot their own traitors.
Stalin was absorbing the scale of the catastrophe. The fronts were out of control: the Nazis were approaching Minsk, the air force decimated, thirty divisions shattered. On the 26th Stalin urgently recalled Zhukov from the South-Western Front: the Chief of Staff found Timoshenko and General [N.F.] Vatutin standing to attention before Stalin…. (pp. 327-328)


On 28 June, the Germans, who had penetrated three hundred miles into Soviet territory, closed the net on the encirclement of 400,000 troops – and took the capital of Belorussia, Minsk…. The fall of Minsk would open the road to Smolensk and Moscow, but such was the rout that Timoshenko again lost contact with the armies. That infuriated Stalin who arrived back at the Little Corner at 7.35 p.m….. After midnight, Stalin called Timoshenko for some concrete news from Belorussia: there was none. That was the final straw. Stalin stormed out of the office…. (p. 329)

… Stalin led his men into Timoshenko’s office and announced that he wanted to acquaint himself personally with the reports from the front…
‘What’s happening at Minsk?’ asked Stalin.
‘I’m not yet able to report on that,’ replied Timoshenko.
‘It’s your duty to have the facts clearly before you at all times and keep us up to date,’ said Stalin. ‘At present, you’re simply afraid to tell us the truth.’ At this, the fearless Zhukov interjected rudely:
‘Comrade Stalin, have we permission to get on with our work?’
‘Are we perhaps in your way?’ sneered Beria… The meeting now degenerated into a row between Zhukov and Beria, with a bristling Stalin standing in the middle.
‘You know that the situation on all fronts is critical. The front commanders await instructions and it’s better if we do it ourselves,’ replied Zhukov.
‘We too are capable of giving orders,’ shouted Beria.
‘If you think you can, do it,’ retorted Zhukov.
‘If the Party tells us to, we will.’ (pp. 329-330)

… Stalin uttered his first word of truth since the war began: ‘Everything’s lost. I give up. Lenin founded our state and we’ve fucked it up… Lenin left us a great heritage and we his successors have shitted it all up…’ … Stalin said he could no longer be the leader. He resigned….
Stalin ‘had shut himself away from everybody, was receiving nobody and was not answering the phone’….
As the Germans advanced, the Government was paralysed for two long days. (pp. 330-331)

Stalin (at Kuntsevo) ‘looked alert, somewhat strange’, recalled Mikoyan, ‘… I had no doubt: he decided we had arrived to arrest him.’ Beria watched Stalin’s face carefully: ‘It was obvious,’ he later told his wife, ‘Stalin expected anything could happen, even the worst.’
… Molotov told Stalin that Malenkov and Beria proposed to form a State Defence Committee.
‘With whom at its head?’ Stalin asked.
‘You, Comrade Stalin.’….
… Stalin was back in power. (pp. 332-333)

Next afternoon, Stalin reappeared in the office…. On 1 July, the newspapers announce that Stalin was the Chairman of the State Defence Committee, the GKO. Soon afterwards he sent Timoshenko to command the Western Front defending Moscow: on 19 July, Stalin became Commissar of Defence and, on 8 August, Supreme Commander-in-Chief: henceforth, the generals called him Verkhovnyi, Supremo…. (p. 334)


Stalin’s new resolve hardly improved the plight of the fronts. Within three weeks of war, Russia had lost around 2,000,000 men, 3,500 tanks, and over 6,000 aircraft. On 10 July, the German Panzers renewed their advance on the gateway to Moscow, Smolensk, which fell six days later. The Germans broke through to take another 300,000 Red Army prisoners and capture 3,000 guns and 3,000 tanks – but Timoshenko’s hard fighting temporarily sapped their momentum. Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to regroup at the end of July. As he pressed his advance, in the south towards Kiev, and the north towards Leningrad, Hitler had won astounding victories yet none of Barbarossa’s objectives – Moscow, Leningrad and the Donets Basin – had fallen…. … Hitler, perhaps recalling Napoleon’s empty conquest, wanted to seize the oil and grain of the south. Instead he compromised with a new strategy, ‘Moscow and Ukraine’. (pp. 334-335)

Faced with the threat of more giant encirclements in the south, Stalin devised draconian measures to terrorize his men into fighting. In the first week, he approved NKGB Order No. 246 that stipulated the destruction of the families of men who were captured, and now he made this public in his notorious Order No. 270. He ordered it to be signed by Molotov, Budyonny, Voroshilov and Zhukov, even though some of them were not present, but it was, after all, a traditional method of Bolshevik rule. These measures ruined the lives of millions of innocent soldiers and their families, including Stalin’s own. (p. 335)

… On 19 July, Berlin announced that, among the teeming mass of Soviet prisoners, was Yakov Djugashvili….
‘The fool – he couldn’t even shoot himself!’ [Stalin] muttered to Vasily. Stalin was immediately suspicious of Yakov’s wife Julia. … under Order No. 270, Julia was arrested. Her three-year-old daughter Gulia did not see her mother for two years…. (pp. 335-336)


Around the time of Yakov’s capture, Stalin made his first approach to Hitler. He and Molotov ordered Beria to sound out the Bulgarian Ambassador, Ivan Stamenov: Beria gave the job to the assassination/intelligence specialist [Pavel] Sudoplatov, who told the story in his semi-reliable memoirs: his instructions were to ask why Germany had violated the Pact, on what condition Hitler would end the war, and whether he would be satisfied with Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova and the Baltics, a second Brest-Litovsk?... Sudoplatov met Stamenov at Beria’s favourite Georgian restaurant, Aragvi, on 25 July but the Bulgarian never passed on the message to Berlin, saying:
‘Even if you retreat to the Urals, you’ll still win in the end.’ (p. 336)


… the Panzer pincers of Army Group South, under Guderian and Kleist, swung round Kiev to encircle General Kirponos’s South-Western Front with hundreds of thousands more men. It was obvious that Kiev would have to be abandoned…. (p. 336)

Beria also redoubled the Terror. At the NKVD retreated, the prisoners were not all released – even though Stalin had every opportunity to do so. Those ‘German spies’ who had been so close to Stalin, Maria and Alyosha Svanidze, had been in prison since December 1937. Stalin remembered Alyosha who, as himself told Mikoyan, ‘was sentenced to death. I ordered Merkulov to tell him before execution that if he asks the Central Committee for forgiveness, he will be pardoned.’ But Svanidze proudly replied that he was innocent so ‘I can’t ask for pardon.’ He spat in Merkulov’s face:
‘That’s my answer to him,’ he cried. On 20 August 1941, he was shot.
… Maria Svanidze, who had so worshipped Stalin, was, with Alyosha’s sister, Mariko, shot the following year. (p. 338)

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