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In the fall of 1941, two gargantuan armies faced each other in the largest and most costly battle in all of human history.

In official accounts of the Great Patriotic War, one belief has been so sacred as to be unchallengeable: no matter how desperate their plight or how great the sacrifice demanded of them, the Russian people never wavered in their determination to resist the German invaders.

But in October 1941, as Nazi forces began encircling Moscow to deliver what Hitler thought would be the coup de grâce, the city gave way to panic, anarchy, and chaos. Eager to avoid this embarrassing truth ever since, Soviet historians tended to skip quickly over the entire story of the Battle of Moscow. The accounts they did write were often highly abbreviated and full of glaring omissions. So taboo was the subject that, ironically, the true story of the city’s ultimately heroic defense was minimized along with the less savory facts.

The battle for Moscow pitted two enormous armies against one another in what was literally the greatest battle in all of human history. Seven million men fought, twice the number engaged at Stalingrad, which in the popular imagination holds a far greater claim as the bloodiest clash of World War II; two and a half million were killed, severely wounded, taken prisoner, or missing, with losses far greater on the Soviet than the German side. And yet the Battle of Moscow is now largely forgotten.

The truth is that October 16 brought sights that shook Muscovites to the core. Droves of civilians fleeing the city were attacked and robbed by other panicking evacuees. Food stores were abandoned and goods carried off. Policemen deserted their posts. A bank stood open with currency scattered on the floor. Thick black smoke arose from the chimneys at Lubyanka Square, the secret police headquarters, as papers were hastily burnt.

On October 18 the head of the Moscow directorate of the NKVD, the Soviet internal security service, filed a lengthy secret report on the deterioration of order and morale that had swept the city over the last few days. Across the city and outlying region, workers were rioting and looting. NKVD troops were sent into the street with orders to shoot looters and “spies and deserters” on the spot.

A rare acknowledgment of the excruciating pain of that moment when Russian morale almost gave way altogether occurs in Konstantin Simonov’s classic war novel, The Living and the Dead. Long after the war, the main character “found it intolerable to remember Moscow as it had been that day, even as it is intolerable to see a loved one’s face distorted with terror.”

By early November the panic had subsided, though the military situation remained every bit as dire. Lead German units were less than forty miles from Moscow. Although the invaders were tired, battered, and overextended, they still threatened to make good on Hitler’s vow to seize and then annihilate the Soviet capital before winter. Stalin and his entourage were far from convinced that the worst was over; the weeks of grueling stalemate had bought only reprieve, not relief.

It was at this moment that Stalin insisted on carrying out a bold, almost mad, gesture of defiance: a full-blown celebration of November 7, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was convinced that precisely because Moscow’s fate was so uncertain, such a stage-managed display would provide the city’s defenders with a much-needed boost of confidence. Unless, that is, something went wrong.

The riskiest, and maddest, part of the spectacle was the traditional military parade in Red Square. Most of the commanders whose units were chosen to take part were notified at two in the morning, only a few hours before the parade was to begin, and hastily mustered their troops and assembled tanks and artillery in the freezing predawn darkness.“For us it was incredible,” said one new recruit, Leonid Shevelev. “The enemy was near Moscow and we were practicing our marching!” Fears of a German air raid receded as a heavy snow began to fall from the gray skies, but Soviet fighters continued to patrol overhead. From the Kremlin gate, Marshal Semyon Budyonny emerged on a white horse with saber drawn and the parade began. Many troops went directly from Red Square to the front as soon as the parade ended.

In a speech broadcast the next day, Stalin underscored the message he intended the spectacle to send. “Our reserves in manpower are inexhaustible,” he declared. So unconcerned was he about the outcome on the battlefield, he seemed to be suggesting, he could spare thousands of men and armored might for nothing but pomp and ceremony.

In truth, Stalin and his generals knew that the fight for Moscow, and the nation, could go either way. Much depended on that most elusive but pivotal of military factors: morale.

Vasily Grossman, the novelist and war correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star, the official Soviet military newspaper), reflected on the differences between the soldiers of the opposing armies as they fought each other and struggled with the elements; first rain and mud, then freezing temperatures. “Germans are not so well-prepared for the physical hardship, when a ‘naked’ man is facing nature,” he wrote in his notebook. “A Russian man is brought up to hardship, and his victories are hard earned. Germans, on the other hand, are prepared for easy victories that would be based on technological superiority, and they give in to the hardship caused by nature. General Mud and General Cold are helping the Russian side. (But it is true that only those who are strong can make nature work for them, while the weak are at the mercy of nature.)”

Whatever the truth of Grossman’s generalizations, the Red Army soldier was no superman, physically or psychologically. Many of the troops fighting to defend Moscow felt as worn down as their opponents. They, too, struggled with the elements and keeping themselves fed and warm. Their superiors nervously monitored their mood, watching for signs of trouble.

The Moscow region military censorship office boasted in an internal memo that it had checked 2,505,867 letters written between November 15 and December 1, which accounted for all the correspondence for that period. While it claimed that most of the letters showed that morale was good, it reported the confiscation of 3,698 letters and deletion of passages from 26,276 others. Since most soldiers certainly knew that their letters could and would be checked, the fact that a portion of the correspondence demonstrated “low morale, which was connected with questions of provisions and warm clothes” and others contained “anti-Soviet propaganda” indicated that the authorities had serious reason for concern.

“The food is really poor. Soon I won’t be able to move because of hunger,” a soldier named Ptashnikov wrote. Semyon Leskov was more descriptive. “You know how cold it is and we are sitting in the trenches wearing cold boots,” he wrote. “We’re sitting here shivering, and the Germans keep pounding us day and night. They want to get to Moscow by any means, but we’re standing here by the river and won’t let them break through. Sometimes we have enough food, but usually we don’t because we keep changing our position to fight.” The complaints about the cold and the food were widely echoed. “You want me to describe my service. You know that it’s very cold in winter and that we don’t have enough bread. We haven’t had a bath for two months already and everybody has a lot of lice,” wrote N. I. Folimonov in a letter home.

Another soldier complained bitterly, “They give us enough food just to keep us alive. And our life is really very difficult— only prisoners live like this, and soldiers should not have to endure such conditions. We have only cabbages and potatoes to eat.” V. Sorokin reported even more meager rations: he said the men of his unit received only “five spoons of soup” in the morning, which was supposed to keep them going until evening.

But the most alarming letters were the ones that linked the dismal conditions with predictions of defeat.“Wherever we go, the Germans chase our soldiers and we don’t know where to run. We don’t have enough weapons to fight and vehicles to drive. We lack fuel so our troops leave tanks and vehicles and run,” wrote E. S. Suslin. Another letter, signed by the name Dronov, went from complaining about the insufficient supplies of food to predicting flatly that “the Germans will take Moscow in a few days.” He added, “Don’t believe the newspapers.”

All of those letters were confiscated.

Even as some of the troops in the field grew discouraged, others responded to the call for volunteers to defend the capital. The Moscow authorities had managed to expand the Communist brigades, or home guard units, which were composed of a combination of volunteers and draftees. By late November, their ranks had swelled to about 48,000, almost a fivefold increase from October, when the first groups were organized. Some were set up as antitank units, while others were prepared for street fighting if the Germans managed to enter the city. Others were quickly deployed in positions guarding the approaches to the capital.

They were thinly deployed—and they knew it. Albert Tsessarsky, a medical orderly who had gone to Moscow for supplies on October 16, was back with his thirty-three-man home guard unit near Mozhaysk, sixty miles southwest of Moscow. With about four to five hundred enemy troops facing them on the other side of the Moscow River, they knew they had no chance of stopping the Germans with their single machine gun.

But the home guard troops came up with a clever plan to make the Germans think twice about launching an attack. Starting in early November, they constantly patrolled the riverbank with ten men at a time—that is, about one-third of their total strength. Normally, a patrol that size would be deployed only by a much larger unit, which was precisely the point. The idea was to lead the Germans to believe that they were facing a much more formidable force. Although dressed in winter coats and valenki—Russian felt boots—each ten-man unit went out for only two hours at a time. “That was the longest we could stand the cold,” Tsessarsky said.

Across the river, the Germans, who lacked winter gear, huddled in their encampments and did not seem eager to move. Even when the river froze in early November, the Germans didn’t try to cross. But some of the local inhabitants who had been trapped on the German side tried to make a break for it across the ice one night. The Germans suddenly came to life, turning on a searchlight and shooting at the fleeing civilians. “There were terrible scenes,” Tsessarsky recalled.“I remember a mother was crossing the river with a child on a sled. When she reached us, she wanted us to take the baby, but he had been killed. The next morning, we saw many dead bodies on the ice. The ice was red from blood.”

Tsessarsky treated the wounded as best he could. “My first real medical practice was there,” he noted. Some of the villagers brought their dead with them. Since it was impossible to bury them in the frozen ground, Tsessarsky and the other soldiers wrote down the names of the dead and attached them to the clothing, offering the vague hope that the bodies might be given a proper burial in the spring.

That memory of the unburied dead was to trouble Tsessarsky for the next sixty-five years: “Even now I don’t know what happened to the bodies,” he recounted.

Stalin and General Georgy Zhukov, commander of the central front in defense of the capital, knew they couldn’t count on the home guard to hold off or fool the Germans for long. Moscow’s only real hope lay with the Siberian divisions being hastily redeployed from the Soviet Far East now that Stalin finally felt confident he wouldn’t be attacked from the east by Japan.

Though known as Siberians, not all of the troops hailed from that region. Some of the men were survivors of units that had been virtually wiped out fighting the Germans. Reassigned to the Far East, they were blended into newly organized units undergoing training there. They soon found themselves returning to the battlefronts on the approaches to Moscow.

Boris Godov had been in an airborne brigade near Kiev at the start of the war and had sustained a stomach wound while escaping from the German encirclement of the Ukrainian capital. After recovering in a hospital near Moscow, he was assigned to the 413th Siberian Division, which was dispatched in late October to defend Tula, an arms-producing city about a hundred miles south of Moscow.

Godov and his fellow troops in the Siberian division quickly discovered that they weren’t prepared for the intensity of the fighting they’d face and, in some cases, weren’t properly equipped for it. True, they had good winter clothing: valenki, cotton wool jackets, overcoats, and white camouflage coverings. The field kitchen was also better than in most other units, providing warm soup and kasha, morning and evening, and even a hundred grams of vodka when the weather turned cold. The bad news was that German planes started bombing the Siberians as soon as they arrived, and they didn’t always have the weapons they needed to fight off ground assaults.

In one case, an artillery unit was completely at the mercy of the German tanks because it had been issued shells that were too small for its guns. “The entire artillery regiment perished since they couldn’t do anything,” Godov recalled. Many soldiers died trying to blow up German tanks with hand grenades, since that was the only usable weapon they had. Of the 15,400 men in Godov’s division, only about 500 survived. But the Germans never succeeded in capturing Tula from the Siberians.

On other parts of the front, the invaders had already penetrated Greater Moscow, which consisted of eighty-seven districts. In November and December, German troops completely controlled seventeen of them and occupied parts of another ten. Those living on the outskirts of the capital were never sure whether the next soldiers to show up would be friend or foe.

Natalya Kravchenko, the daughter of a Moscow artist who had died a year earlier, was staying at the family dacha in the village of Nikolina Gora, thirty miles west of Moscow, during that uncertain period. There were seventeen checkpoints manned by the Red Army on the heavily shelled road leading to the capital, but they were suddenly abandoned, and the sounds of battle—the gunfire and shelling that the villagers had been hearing daily—disappeared just as abruptly.“It was a very difficult moment,” Kravchenko recalled.“The silences were one of the most frightening things during the war.”

Kravchenko, her sister, and her grandmother were in their house when the silence was broken by a strange noise. “We didn’t understand where the sound was coming from and we went to find out,” she said. Right outside the house, all along the village road, there were Siberian troops, fast asleep and snoring. “It’s difficult to imagine the speed at which the Siberian troops were moving forward,” she added.“They used to sleep only two or three hours a day.” This was one of those sleep breaks, and the exhausted soldiers were making full use of it.

When the soldiers woke up, they asked for water, which the Kravchenko women poured into their helmets. They marched off, and the firing resumed nearby. Kravchenko’s dacha was transformed into an aid station for the wounded. The family’s curtains, blankets, and sheets were all used for makeshift operating stations; the wounded were treated on the large drawing tables in her father’s study. The intensity of the fighting soon convinced the Kravchenkos that they should return to Moscow, since it was beginning to look safer than the outskirts, where there was no escape from the bloodshed.

The Siberians didn’t have that option. Vladimir Edelman was one of the men who had just arrived from the east. Like Godov, he wasn’t really a Siberian. A Ukrainian Jew, he had also fought in the battle for Kiev in September. Unlike many of his relatives, who were among the victims of the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, he escaped from his native city and ended up in an infantry unit in the Omsk region composed mostly of Siberian military cadets and recent graduates of military colleges.

As a lieutenant with combat experience, Edelman was put in charge of a twenty-five-man unit. When his superior officers came to check on his soldiers’ shooting skills, they were angered by what they initially saw. Instead of positioning themselves on the ground and aiming according to standard regulations, the Siberians sprawled and took aim from any position they liked. The officers berated Edelman for failing to teach his men basic procedures. But when they saw the targets the Siberians had been shooting at, they quickly overlooked all that. “They were excellent shots because they were all hunters,” Edelman said. On a scale of one to ten, most of the men had scored nines or tens.

While still in Siberia, Edelman and the other men had been issued long underwear, sweaters, fur vests, cotton wool pants, gloves or mittens, winter coats, and fur hats. They kept their handguns under their coats and also wrapped up their radios so that they wouldn’t freeze. Edelman admitted that the Germans had better radios, machine guns, and mortars at that point in the war and the Russians would try to seize their equipment whenever they could. But once he and his twenty-five men were deployed northwest of Moscow, Edelman quickly came to realize that the big advantage his men had was their winter gear. The temperature would drop to as low as minus forty at times during November and December, and the Germans suffered the most.

It wasn’t only the men who froze, so did the lubricants in their tanks and other vehicles. The German troops on the approaches to Moscow hadn’t been supplied with antifreeze or even chains to tow stranded vehicles. In some cases, German planes dropped ropes to the troops, so they would have something to pull their immobilized vehicles with.

There was no question that the real Siberians could handle the cold better than the Germans, better than most Russians. In late December, Edelman’s unit reached a small village with a crude but functioning bathhouse, their first chance to wash in months. “The Siberians would have their steam bath and then jump into the snow,” Edelman recalled with amazement.

One sight remains vividly etched in Edelman’s memory: a group of captured Germans standing at a crossroads where he was directing traffic in the biting cold. The prisoners were wearing summer uniforms with light coats and no hats. The only sound that emanated from them were sighs and moans and the repeated words “O Mein Gott! O Mein Gott!” Every so often, one of them would drop to the ground, dead.

Another time, as he led his men across a snow-covered field near Volokolamsk, Edelman realized that they were literally walking on bodies that were just beneath the white surface, packed together so tightly after a recent battle that it was impossible to avoid them. “The fields around Moscow were filled with hundreds of thousands of corpses,” he noted. “It’s hard to describe what was happening there.” Many perished from the mines planted first by the Russians to slow the German advance and later by the Germans to slow the Red Army’s push back.

The Siberians helped recapture several towns and villages northwest of Moscow, but they paid an almost unfathomable price for every one of their victories. Of the twenty-five men under Edelman’s command when they joined the battle for Moscow in late October, only three were still with him by January 1942. “The rest were either killed, wounded, or frozen,” he said. “My hands and feet also froze but I still kept fighting.” Edelman was wounded five times during the war and decorated after the battle for Moscow for bravery. His mother, who had escaped from Kiev, was twice notified he was dead.

Despite his evident patriotism and courage, Edelman was eager to set the record straight on one point.“It’s a myth that people yelled,‘For the motherland! For Stalin!’” he said. “I never heard anyone yelling that. There are a lot of myths and you can only find out the truth bit by bit.”

The truth about the Siberians, as with so many who took part in the defense of Moscow, has remained literally just below the surface of the fields and villages where they fought and died. Semyon Timokhin grew up in Toropovo, a tiny village in the Kemerovo region of Siberia. He was only seven when the battle for the capital was reaching its climax and his father was one of the conscripts dispatched to the Moscow region. As his train was approaching its destination, German bombers struck, and he was badly wounded. “His arm was torn to shreds and that was the end of the war for him,” Timokhin recalled.

Timokhin heard plenty of vivid accounts of the Siberians’ ordeals from his uncle, though, who was also sent to fight near Moscow that autumn. Growing up after the war, Timokhin pursued a military career, eventually rising to the rank of general in the army. In 1989, after he retired from his last assignment as head of the Moscow area aviation headquarters, he was allotted a plot of land not far from Snegeri, a village just northwest of Moscow where the Siberians had waged several brutal tank and infantry battles. “I began to cultivate and fence it, and found bones all over the place,” he said. The local inhabitants had tried to bury those who had died in late 1941 and early 1942 once their bodies began to thaw in the spring.“All this territory, with more than two hundred plots of land, turned out to be a huge common grave,” Timokhin explained.

A plot of land this close to Moscow was a prize possession, but given all that he already knew about the price the Siberians had paid there, Timokhin couldn’t treat it as just another place to grow the cabbages, tomatoes, parsley, apples, and pears that he had dreamed of. “I could not stay there,” he said. The ghosts of his fellow Siberians drove him away.


Excerpt from The Greatest Battle by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster, September 2007).

Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here