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GREAT WAR BOOKS: Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by RODRIC BRAITHWAITE

Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War (Vintage)

Review: Observer/Guardian 

The Russian victory over the Germans was one of the most unexpected, almost preposterous, outcomes of the Second World War. Underprepared in every sense, Russia was completely overwhelmed. During the summer of 1941, the German army advanced 400 miles towards Moscow within three weeks. By the end of the year, it was within 15 miles of the Kremlin. Within days, however, it had retreated in defeat. Eventually, it is estimated here, the Germans lost five million men in Russia.

In this engaging account, Rodric Braithwaite, ambassador to Moscow in the 1960s and again during perestroika, argues that the battle of Moscow is one of the most overlooked moments in history. Fighting over a territory the size of France, more than 900,000 Soviet soldiers died, a figure that exceeds the combined deaths of the British and American forces in the Second World War. For every Briton or American who died, the Soviets lost 85 people.

Braithwaite concludes that 'had they not been fighting the Russians, they would have been in France, and there would have been no D-Day'.

But the outcome was by no means predetermined, not least because the Soviet officer class has been wiped out by the 1930s purges, with hundreds of aircraft designers and engineers executed.
The Germans, not unreasonably, suspected the Russians might be glad to see them. Some were. One woman worker commented that it was just as well war had begun, as life in the USSR was so awful. Another says: 'Now at last we can breathe freely. Hitler will be in Moscow in three days and the intelligentsia will be able to live properly.'

Hours before German forces attacked, Stalin was convinced that there was no prospect of war: he threatened to shoot any of his generals who prepared for it.

 The strength of Moscow 1941 lies in its eye for detail, the snapshots of everyday life that set the scene. The most popular book of the time is Tolstoy's War and Peace, which everyone is devouring, including most of the Soviet war correspondents. Meanwhile, after the evacuation of Moscow, those left behind find themselves making coffee with acorns and frying fritters made from potato peelings.

The publication of this book owes a lot, one suspects, to the success of Antony Beevor's Stalingrad (over half a million copies sold). There is more evocation and analysis here - dwarfed by Stalingrad's powerful narrative - but Braithwaite has a broader canvas and sets out his varied snapshots beautifully. Moscow 1941 definitely deserves to be read as a complement to Stalingrad, but is valuable in its own right as an explanation of one of history's most unlikely victories.

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The aim of individuals in any society is money and power. Societies that give equal chance to all its members to get them will be the most stable. That is why democracies are more stable than other systems of governance.

China after Deng's reform gave the chance to get rich but power is in the hands of an elite; the Communist Party of China. Membership to the party is at the whims of the local party bosses. This leaves out many people who crave political power dissatisfied and disgruntled. There in lies the roots of instability. The Party suppressed these demands once at Tiananmen in 1989. But force is hardly the way to deal with things like these.

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