On September 30th, having destroyed 43 divisions of the four Soviet armies (the Red Army lost over one million men, 60% of them taking prisoner), the Wehrmacht launched Operation Typhoon which final objective was the capture of Moscow – the capital of the Soviet Union.
The first blow took the Soviet High Command completely by surprise (no wonder – by that time the whole infrastructure of the Red Army was on the verge of collapse).
The 2nd Panzer Group, returning from the south, took Oryol, just 121 km south of the Soviet first main defense line. Three days later, the German armored columns pushed on to Bryansk, while the 2nd Army attacked from the west. To the north, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies attacked Vyazma.
This combined assault shattered the first Soviet main defense line (hastily created after it became painfully clear that Operation Thunderstorm – an all-out invasion of Europe – was ruthlessly canceled by Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS).
Six Soviet armies totaling over 600,000 men were encircled. About 100,000 more were killed, injured or taken prisoner which left only 100,000 (and around 150 tanks) available for the defense of Moscow.
Despite enormous losses in personnel (in millions) and in hardware (in tens of thousands) the Red Army still had formidable reserves. However, its logistics and the whole military (and civilian) commands were in such disarray that the Soviet High Command simply could not assemble sufficient force to stand up to the German onslaught.
Hence, the capture of Moscow by the Wehrmacht became a very real possibility. So real, in fact, that secret document (decree #34) from the State Defense Committee, dated 15 October 1941 (the worst day of the whole war for the Red Army and the whole USSR), records that it had been ordered
‘To evacuate the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the top levels of Government… (Comrade Stalin will leave tomorrow or later, depending on the situation)… In the event of enemy forces arriving at the gates of Moscow, the NKVD – Comrade Beria and Comrade Shcherbakov [First Secretary of Moscow Communist Party City Committee] – are ordered to blow up business premises, warehouses and institutions which cannot be evacuated, and all Underground railway electrical equipment.’i
Anastas Mikoyan, a member of the Soviet Politburo, later said that Stalin had told him on 15 October that he intended to leave the Soviet capital. Crucial communications equipment and documents were removed from the Kremlin and packed on board Stalin’s train, waiting at Moscow station.
On the night of 16 October, key government personnel were told to leave their offices and prepare to flee. According to Nikolay Ponomarev, Stalin’s telegraphist:
‘There was a car waiting outside [the Kremlin]. We were driven away. Moscow was completely dark. The weather was wet. I saw we were heading for the railway station. I saw the armored train and Stalin’s guards walking back and forth on the platform. It became clear to me that I would have to wait for Stalin and go into evacuation with him.’
Meantime, panic was (predictably) growing amongst the population of Moscow. There were even (totally unfounded) rumors that Germans had been seen in the city. As a result, some shop owners opened their doors and told Muscovites to take whatever they liked, because “soon the Germans would snatch it all”. In the chaos, many tried to flee the Soviet capital. The roads and rivers were blocked with masses of people trying to escape from the city by any means they could.
Now, at this most crucial point in his country’s history, Stalin faced a simple choice. Should he stay or should he go? Should he try and remain in Moscow and risk encirclement by the German army – perhaps even his own capture or death – or should he run east to seek safety in the city of Kuybyshev (present day Samara) on the Volga river?
During World War II, Kuybyshev was chosen to be the alternative capital of the Soviet Union should Moscow fall to the invading Germans, until the summer of 1943, when everything was moved back to Moscow.
In October 1941, the Communist Party and governmental organizations, diplomatic missions of foreign countries, leading cultural establishments and their staff were evacuated to the city. A dugout for Joseph Stalin known as “Stalin’s Bunker” was constructed but never used.
However, Stalin decided to remain in Moscow, taking an enormous gamble. He was quoted as saying:
“If the enemy enters the city, I will personally lead the Kremlin security battalion into the battle”
And he meant it. He knew his country, his city and his people well enough to have no illusions – had he leaved the city, it would feel abandoned by its Leader. Fear, loathing and depression will totally suppress the will to fight and the inevitable panic would immediately lead to the collapse of both civilian and military infrastructure.
And thus to the inevitable fall of Moscow. Leningrad will fall in no time as it will also feel abandoned and hopeless. No, it would not have surrendered – the Wehrmacht commanders were under strict Hitler’s orders to not even negotiate the surrender of the city. There would be simply an enormous exodus of both the military and the civilians which will make Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) a de-facto open city.
Stalin knew himself very well as well. He knew that after the fall of Moscow and St. Petersburg, he himself would have had no will to fight left. He had to apply an enormous effort to restore it after the devastating blow that he received in the early morning of July 22nd when Hitler attacked. The loss of both Moscow and Leningrad in a matter of days would have surely crippled him mentally and emotionally.
As well as all other Soviets – top to bottom. After two consecutive blows of such magnitude – after dozens of smaller blows received by every Soviet citizen in the past four months, both the Red Army and the Soviet state would inevitably – and almost instantly – collapse.
Making both easy prey for the victorious Wehrmacht – and guaranteeing its swift, decisive and irreversible victory. Which was made even more inevitable by the fact that Kuybyshev was no Moscow in terms of command and control infrastructure – one simply could not run efficiently neither the Red Army nor the Soviet state from there.
So Stalin took an enormous gamble – and won.