Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by Rodric Braithwaite

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Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War by Rodric Braithwaite

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Braithwaite's strength lies in his portrayal of a vast array of individuals - their thoughts, feelings and opinions. This is an outstanding book and a masterly account, but the wealth of detail may swamp those who count narrative power as paramount.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: 1 Mar 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861977748

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In the summer of 1941, the Wehrmacht attacked Russia. Woefully unprepared, the Russians lost territory the size of France within weeks. By November, the Germans were almost knocking at Stalin's door, only fifteen miles from Moscow and within artillery distance of the Kremlin. In Moscow 1941 former Soviet ambassador Rodric Braithwaite argues that this battle for Moscow, culminating in the first defeat for the Wehrmacht, was the defining moment of World War II.

It's a fascinating account, dwelling not so much on the military tactics - blundering or otherwise - but on individual experience. Braithwaite has interviewed a whole host of Muscovite survivors - soldiers, civilians, politicians, workers and artists. As the narrative progresses from the shock of the first German advance through evacuations, fighting, infighting and dying on an unimaginable scale to the eventual hard-won victory, there is vignette after vignette of what it was really like for the people living through it. Some of Braithwaite's interviewees argue passionately between themselves over events even today.

There is such a wealth of detail - Yelena Volkova trained as a pilot but worked as a nurse and was decorated for tending the wounded under fire. Irina Golyamina kept all the letters from the boys at School No 110 who didn't return from the war. As an office worker, Sergei Polyakov was entitled to just 400 grammes of bread per day under rationing; when bread was actually available, that is.

Occasionally, this wealth of detail bogs it down. Moscow 1941 lacks the gripping narrative power of Keith Lowe's Inferno for example. There are a couple of disgruntled reader reviews at Amazon describing poor Mr Braithwaite's style as turgid. Well, it certainly isn't turgid but it is dense - as you would expect from a man whose career was spent in the diplomatic service. Armchair historians looking for something on a level with National Geographic propaganda documentaries should probably pass Moscow 1941 by. Anyone prepared to concentrate will be rewarded with a strong and illuminating evocation of the battle for Moscow by someone who has a better understanding than most of that elusive Russian psyche.

According to some estimates, for every British or American soldier that died in World War II, eighty-five Russians lost their lives. Almost a million of them died fighting for Moscow. As Braithwaite says, you can see why Russians believe they won the war. If you want to flesh out such devastating numbers with people, with their faces and hopes and dreams and aspirations, Moscow 1941 more than repays the effort required to read it.

My thanks to the publisher, Profile, for sending the book.

Those interested in World War II should also take a look at Keith Lowe's excellent book Inferno about the Allied forces bombing of Hamburg.

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Magda said:

Excellent review, Jill.