I know, I know – I said I was finished with the Eastern Front. But people keep turning up books that add a little more icing to this terrible cake. In this case, the miscreant was my wife. And as it turns out, she’s gifted me with a very interesting piece of that history.
The first thing I should mention – should anyone out there want to research this era: Pleshakov states in his Epilogue on this book that the era of Glasnost is apparently over. The current batch of Soviet apparatchiks have been closing down the research coffers in Russia, apparently feeling that items revealed over the past fifteen years about WWII in academic publications and the more accessible biographies of Soviet personages haven’t cast a favorable light on the Soviet Union. And Stalin’s Folly is one of them.
Pleshakov, at the time of this book’s publication, was a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College, and one wonders whether he’ll wind up in a gulag should he return to Russia. Other Eastern Front memoirs I’ve read allude to flagrant cowardice by soldiers and airmen on the Soviet side, but Pleshakov paints even generals in this light. Of course, the higher placed military people were subject to censure, sometimes execution by Stalin, should they not perform to his exacting standards. And this effect on the military in Pleshakov’s theme in portraying the first ten days of the German-Soviet war.
Joseph Stalin or the vozhd, or boss, as he was known by his intimates, steadfastly refused to believe, in the days leading up to Germany’s attack on June 22, 1941, that Germany would dare wage war on the U.S.S.R. They haven’t the resources, he thought, to fight Britain and the U.S. in the west, then begin a second major front in the east. He refused to believe German reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory in the run-up were ominous, not even reports of a German plane landing near Moscow to gain an up-close view of the city. Even when the attacks began, Stalin refused to counter them, thinking the attacks were a mistake. Given his non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, he didn’t want to antagonize Hitler, despite attacks all along the lengthy Soviet borders that clearly spelled war. He sent the eventual hero of the Soviet-German war, Georgy Zhukov, packing when he continued to insist on the German threat. And Stalin did all he could to keep Semyon Timoshenko and Zhukov separated, fearing they would depose him.
Ironically, Pleshakov reveals here that Stalin had developed extensive plans for a preemptive attack on Germany, but believed it would be unnecessary until 1942 or 43.
Pleshakov’s scholarship here is outstanding, and his ability to mix vignettes of lowly soldiers and ordinary citizens into the military/political drama in a suspenseful way as the war builds is, in my mind, unparalleled in such historical work. This book reads like well-crafted fiction, partly because of Stalin’s near-unbelievable behavior, but largely because of Pleshakov’s apparent skills as a writer. Representing the first ten days of this war in a work such as this is an arbitrary matter, but it works to depict the sorry state of the Soviet military and the lunacy of Stalin against the supremely prepared German war juggernaut. That the Soviets eventually turned the war around – with Stalin remaining at the helm – is a testament to the Russian soul and to the military’s ability to adapt to German warfare, and to the derangement of Stalin’s leadership.
Coming Next – I enjoy throwing in a classic once in a while, so for the next two weeks – with your indulgence – I’ll post on one of the more accessible of William Faulkner’s novels, As I Lay Dying.