So far, no one has done for Moscow what Jan Morris did for Venice: No devoted outsider (yes, an outsider, as it takes a foreigner to read a city) has brought to life its myths, martyrs and demons.
Moscow is not poetic the way Venice is, yet its magic is just as potent. The caverns under the Kremlin hill, some built by Ivan the Terrible, are said to hold unrivaled treasures -- the lost library of the Byzantine emperors; the Politburo's doomsday escape route to a military airport in the suburbs; the five-star, all-inclusive air raid shelters of the Kremlin lords. No other city is as obsessed with the unseen.
Maybe a place this layered in history and secrecy cannot be revealed by a single writer and, instead, asks for the efforts of several devotees. Andrew Nagorski is definitely a devotee, and his new book is a landmark in studies of Russia precisely because it skillfully unwraps myths, martyrs and demons. Moscow's urban legends are not about gators in the sewage. They're about October 1941.
The title of Nagorski's book, The Greatest Battle, is likely to raise eyebrows, but it shouldn't. As he points out, the fighting around Moscow was "inarguably the largest battle between two armies of all time," involving a total of 7 million soldiers. If casualties are the standard, the Battle of Moscow -- where 1.9 million Soviets and 600,000 Germans were killed, captured or badly wounded -- surpasses Stalingrad, Gallipoli, the Somme or El Alamein. Strategically, it was when the German juggernaut came to a halt, "the first turning point" of World War II, in Nagorski's words, if not the war's most decisive encounter.
The book is a fine diplomatic and military history, but its real triumph is in the voices Nagorski collected in numerous interviews with survivors. Let's pause and listen, as voices -- not conquered territories -- are what matters most when wars end.
In mid-October 1941, "all of Moscow seemed to be streaming out somewhere." One river of humans flowed west, heading to the front: "Tell everyone that we will defend our country," a volunteer called from a train. Refugees fled east, stopping cars and beating their privileged occupants: "Kill the Jews!" some cried. "Suitcases, bags, clothes, lamps, even a piano" lay abandoned in a rail yard. Money littered the floor of a bank, its doors thrown open. Black smoke, presumably from burning papers, rose over NKVD headquarters. Garbage bins overflowed with communist literature and pictures of Stalin.
But the man whose portraits were being dumped in panic was still in town and still in charge. He ordered the secret police to wire landmarks with TNT and to prepare assassination teams -- including a juggler with explosive pins -- to stay behind if the Germans occupied the city. He himself procrastinated.
At the darkest hour, with the Germans already in the suburbs, Stalin went to the railway station and paced the platform next to a special train on hold for him. Then he told his driver to take him back to the Kremlin. He would stay and unleash a higher magnitude of terror in the streets, licensing NKVD troops to kill to restore order, eclipsing fear of the Nazis with fear of his regime. "There is no reliable tally of how many Muscovites perished in the subsequent clampdown," Nagorski notes dispassionately, but even residents who distrusted the communists welcomed the change. "We started to feel that we were being defended," one remembers.
Severe weather -- first a sea of mud, then vicious frostbite -- ravaged the Germans; there is no question about that. But Nagorski has identified the pivotal moment in the battle for Moscow, the dictatorship winning because it chose not to lose the whip or loose the grip. With the outcome still uncertain, Stalin called for a military parade in Red Square on the anniversary of the Revolution, Nov. 7, and issued instructions icier than any nature but his own:
"If there's an air raid during the parade and there are dead and wounded, they must be quickly removed and the parade allowed to go on." *
Constantine Pleshakov is a Russian-American author; his latest book is "Stalin's Folly."