Just over 70 years ago, in the autumn of 1941, it looked as if the Soviet Union was about to lose the war. The Germans were outside Moscow, and there was panic inside the capital. Then something truly incredible happened: the Soviet people suddenly regained their courage. Several years ago I was lucky enough to meet one of the soldiers who helped create this extraordinary transformation.
His name was Vladimir Ogryzko, and in the autumn of 1941 he was an officer in the Soviet NKVD—Stalin’s police forces. Though he was 80 years old when I met him, he still looked like one of those tough guys you see in The World’s Strongest Man tournament. His back was ramrod straight and he had the kind of commanding stare that made you immediately want to call him “sir.”
And he talked as tough as he looked. Because the truth is that Vladimir Ogryzko and his men suppressed the panic in Moscow by the most ruthless measures imaginable. “The people who fled Moscow, thinking that they would be saved and would survive—they were so primitive,” Ogryzko said. “And these people blocked the roads. We didn’t touch the people who were confused, and there were a few of them—we simply brought them back in line. Those who resisted were executed. These severe measures, these beautiful measures, are the essence and content of war…. It isn’t peacetime. 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 also moved away or opened their mouths—was eliminated on the spot, without further ado. And that was considered to be a truly heroic act—you were killing the enemy. It was the way to dampen down the panic.”
Once they had brutally broken the panic in Moscow, Vladimir Ogryzko and his men operated behind the front line just outside of Moscow. Here their task was not to shoot Germans, but to stop any of their own Red Army soldiers they saw retreating: “Whether or not he’s an officer, when he’s struck by panic, he loses control of himself. So you have to ‘stop him in time,’ as we said back then, you have to give him a shake or even punch him. And you see then he becomes a soldier again…. You had to stop him, tell him to turn around, drop to the ground and keep fighting. And that brings him round. His stress leaves him. If he resists or something or runs away, we eliminate him. We shot them, that’s all. They weren’t fighters.”
Given this attitude, it shouldn’t be hard to guess who Vladimir Ogryzko revered during the war. Yes, that’s right: Joseph Stalin. “It was the power of Stalin. Cowardice! Treachery! Breaking your oath! You’d be shot on the spot! It was a very good decision to take and it shouldn’t be judged. They fought the panic. They used fear to crush fear. If it was right or wrong, so what? It was a time of war and there had to be certainty.”
After I’d finished my encounter with him I remember feeling a bit shell-shocked. I stood with my Russian researcher in the rundown entrance hall to Ogryzko’s block of flats in the suburbs of Moscow and tried to digest what I had heard. Then we saw a rat as big as a cat saunter past us, pausing only to stare at us en route to the elevator shaft and the scraps of garbage that lay nearby. “My God,” my Russian researcher said. “Even the rats are supertough around here.”