Travelling to Russian battlefields and using original telegrams and official documents, David Reynolds reassesses Stalin's role in the struggle between Germany and Russia in WWII.
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AIR-RAID SIREN ECHOES
He was a little man, about five foot five.
In his sixties.
Enjoyed his drinks and his smokes.
An unlikely hero perhaps,
but in the dark days of the 20th century, he helped save Britain.
This programme contains some strong language.
And he was one of the biggest mass murderers in history.
Stalin was his party name.
We like to think that Britain's survival in the Second World War
was secured by "Our Finest Hour" in 1940 -
the Battle of Britain, Churchill's bulldog leadership.
But more critical was what happened
on the other side of Europe in 1941 -
the horrific life-or-death struggle between Nazi Germany
and the Soviet Union.
And crucial to the outcome would be the leadership of Stalin.
Stalin meant "man of steel",
but the reality of his war in 1941 didn't live up to that name,
as he lurched from crisis to crisis, coming close to a nervous breakdown.
It was touch and go.
In 1941, the Man of Steel blew it.
His military bungling cost millions of lives,
he nearly lost Moscow, and almost let Hitler win the war.
I want to explore how, despite his spectacular mistakes,
Stalin clung on to power and led an extraordinary fightback
against Hitler's military machine.
This is the Second World War from the less familiar Russian perspective -
a story of dramatic twists and turns
that helps us understand why Nazi Germany was eventually defeated,
AND why a Stalinist "Iron Curtain" came down across half of Europe.
This programme contains some strong language.
Stalin would be the big winner from World War Two,
but he had to learn to bend and compromise in order to win.
He would even enter into perhaps the most bizarre shotgun marriage
in diplomatic history, sealed with an arch-capitalist
during a drunken evening at the Kremlin.
Stalin had a strange, almost seductive charm.
Winston Churchill, an unremitting enemy of communism,
responded with respect, at times, even affection,
towards the man he himself nicknamed Uncle Joe.
This is the enduring mystery of Stalin -
the friendly uncle and the Man of Steel,
a titan of the Second World War, and a monster of the 20th century...
who got away with it.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa,
started here on the Bug River,
180 miles east of Warsaw, early on 22nd June 1941.
And it began as a walk-over.
Along a front 1,000 miles long,
more than three million German troops, in three vast army groups,
surged across the border, and deep into Soviet territory.
Officially, the Soviet Union called it a "surprise attack",
but more than that, it was a paralysed defence.
Paralysed from the very top by the Man of Steel.
For hours, Stalin would not even allow his commanders to fire back.
It must surely go down
as one of the most spectacular military blunders in history.
By noon on Day One, a quarter of the Red Air Force had been destroyed -
over 1,200 planes, many of them lined up on the ground, uncamouflaged.
In Moscow, Stalin was beside himself with incredulous rage,
lashing out at everyone around him.
"This is a monstrous crime!
"Those responsible must lose their heads!"
But this was a disaster born in his paranoid mind,
and in the brutal terrorized regime that he had created.
1941 was a damning verdict,
on 20 years of Soviet history.
Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili seemed an unlikely leader -
small, with a withered arm and a club foot,
his sallow face pock-marked from smallpox.
As a child in dirt-poor Georgia, deep in the Caucasus,
he was regularly beaten by his shoemaker father.
Nor did Stalin sound like a leader.
With his flat, monotonous delivery,
he was hardly a great orator,
and he never lost his thick Georgian accent.
This was an outsider's voice, and faintly ridiculous.
One British wartime interpreter likened it to Wigan Pier, Lancashire -
almost as if George Formby had been made dictator.
TRANSLATION IN BROAD NORTHERN-ENGLISH ACCENT: For a job well done in constructing
the Moscow Metro, we declare gratitude
to the whole underground construction collective of engineers,
technicians and workers, both male and female.
Stalin wasn't an intellectual
like Lenin and the Bolshevik elite.
His doting mother wanted him to become a priest,
but young Stalin was expelled from seminary.
He found his true calling as a revolutionary bandit
in the dying years of Tsarist rule.
His speciality was bank robberies.
In one heist in Tbilisi, he and his gang seized a quarter of a million roubles
and left around 40 guards and bystanders dead.
But Stalin was a crook with a cause.
The proceeds of this and other raids helped fund the Bolsheviks
in their bid for power.
After the Revolution in 1917,
Stalin concealed his ambitions behind a facade of dull reliability.
A backroom boy, not a big hitter.
He was made General Secretary of the Party.
Sort of keeper of the card indexes.
Neither he nor his administrative job
appeared to pose a threat to rivals,
but slowly, carefully, Stalin began accumulating power.
Stalin made a career out of being under-estimated.
Behind the unimpressive exterior, this was a man with a sharp mind,
a formidable memory and a capacity to get to the heart of any problem.
Unlike other dictators, Stalin wasn't a great talker,
but he was a good listener,
skilled at reading the tone and thrust of a conversation
while disguising what he himself really thought.
At meetings he would say little,
waiting for his moment
while doodling obsessively.
This is one of Stalin's doodles.
Hard lines, sharp angles, wolfs' snouts.
A sinister glimpse behind the calm, modest exterior
into a mind that was savage, vindictive, often paranoid.
Here was a gangster, a street thug,
but with a strategic brain
and absolutely no respect for human life.
In the power struggle after Lenin's death in 1924,
Stalin employed his gangster logic to get rid of his rivals.
He cleverly shifted his political allegiances, allying with the Right to eliminate the Left.
Zinoviev... and then tacking leftward to kill off the Right - Rykov...
And in the 1930s, Stalin stitched up the loyalists and close officials
who'd helped him rise,
subjecting thousands to macabre show trials, torture and death.
Stalin had learnt that a well-timed beating or bullet could get him what he wanted.
Nowhere was this lesson more brutally applied
than in his handling of the army.
Stalin was haunted by history, in particular how Napoleon Bonaparte
had exploited the French Revolution to jump from corporal to emperor.
Determined to weed out any upstart "Bonapartist" in his army,
Stalin appointed a new class of political commissars to watch over his officers.
And he purged hundreds of progressively minded generals,
including Mikhail Tukhachevsky - a charismatic early exponent of tank warfare.
The confession of treason extracted from Tukhachevsky
was handed to Stalin spattered with blood.
The Soviet leader was utterly unrepentant.
"Who's going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years?
Nobody was safe, except Stalin,
and he controlled the surviving members of his inner circle through raw fear.
Men like his foreign minister Molotov.
Western diplomats called him Stone Arse because he was so stubborn,
but in private, Molotov was totally under Stalin's thumb.
When Stalin had his Jewish wife Polina thrown in jail,
Molotov joined the rest of the Politburo
in voting for her imprisonment.
Stalin's oldest buddy was Voroshilov -
a former metalworker who liked dressing up in military uniforms.
Good company over a few drinks, but really rather thick, and no threat.
Beria was head of Stalin's secret police.
He liked to keep his hand in by doing some of the torture himself, using a truncheon.
Then he relaxed by listening to records of Rachmaninov,
or raping young women.
But Stalin liked Beria, because he was a coward who never challenged the boss.
Stalin had created an apparently unassailable position
at the pinnacle of an autocratic state.
But, of course, that system had a fundamental weakness.
It depended on one man -
on his strengths, but also on his whims and neuroses.
A serious misjudgement by Stalin
could plunge his servile regime into chaos,
and that's what happened with a vengeance
when war came in June 1941.
By June 26th 1941, just four days after Barbarossa began,
400,000 more Soviet soldiers were trapped as the Nazi pincers
closed around Minsk, a key stronghold on the route to Moscow.
Barbarossa had hardly come out of the blue.
Stalin, like everyone else, knew all about Hitler's demands
for 'lebensraum' - living space for Germany in Russia.
Stalin gambled on a deal with Hitler. In August 1939,
he signed a pact with Germany that would carve up eastern Europe.
Stalin got half of Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania.
He now expected Hitler to fight a long war for western Europe
against Britain and France.
-'Ja, der Englander ist getroffen.'
-But then Germany sliced through France in a month in 1940.
Only Britain held out.
Stalin's gamble had backfired disastrously.
Victory in the west in 1940 left Hitler free to go east
for living space in 1941,
and now Stalin made another colossal error of judgement.
In the spring of 1941, Hitler began massing his troops in Poland.
It was no secret.
The Kremlin accumulated a bulging intelligence dossier,
including clear warnings from German deserters and the British.
But Stalin, always suspicious about the capitalist West,
assumed that much of the intelligence had been fabricated by Britain,
with the aim of dragging him into its war with Hitler.
Stalin refused to go onto a war footing, telling his generals...
"Germany is busy up to her ears with the war in the West and I am certain
"that Hitler will not risk a second front by attacking the Soviet Union."
"Hitler is not such an idiot."
Stalin didn't grasp that Hitler was intoxicated
by a megalomaniac vision.
He assumed that Hitler would act like he did,
on hard-boiled calculations of national self-interest.
This was Stalin's fundamental mistake.
On June 29th, reports reached Moscow that the city of Minsk had fallen.
It was only a week since the German invasion had begun.
At this rate, the Germans expected to be in Moscow within a month.
Suddenly, Stalin seemed to grasp the enormity of the disaster.
He raged at his generals,
reducing even Zhukov, his Chief of Staff, to tears.
But then Stalin crumpled.
"Everything's lost", he groaned.
"I give up. Lenin founded our state,
"and we've screwed it up!"
Stalin was driven to his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow.
There, he slumped in shock.
Next day, he didn't come in to the Kremlin, or respond to phone calls.
In the dictator's absence, no-one dared to take any decisions
or sign any documents.
Suddenly, there was a chilling vacuum at the heart of power.
Was this a sinister game?
The great actor testing the loyalty of his underlings,
like the man he called his teacher, Ivan the Terrible?
Waiting, watchful, ready to pounce on anyone who tried to seize power?
That's certainly possible,
but I think Stalin had really come close to a nervous breakdown,
because what he faced was not just military defeat,
but the collapse of everything he'd worked for within Russia.
Stalin had revolutionised his country even more profoundly than Lenin.
In the late 1920s, he embarked on a frenzied campaign of modernisation.
The old Russia, dominated by a peasant mentality,
rooted in the Orthodox religion, would be swept away
to be replaced by five-year plans,
collective farms, mass production -
above all, gigantic steel works.
It was a steel crusade for the Man of Steel.
Stalin was determined that his communist state must match up to the capitalist West.
It was, he claimed, a matter of life or death.
"We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries.
"We must make good this distance in ten years.
"Either we do so, or we shall go under."
Stalin's Russia did catch up.
During the 1930s, iron and steel output increased fourfold.
A country that produced only 700 trucks in 1928
churned out more than 180,000 in 1938.
Stalin's Second Revolution dragged Russia into the 20th century.
But it couldn't have been accomplished without the utter ruthlessness that was his trademark.
Just as he had eliminated opponents within his inner circle,
Stalin simply swept away any of the wider Russian population
who resisted industrialisation.
Many were packed off to prison camps
in the Arctic wastes of Siberia.
This was the notorious Gulag,
where nearly two million Soviet citizens were incarcerated in 1941.
The forced collectivisation of agriculture was even more brutal.
Peasants often fought back against state seizure of their land and livestock.
As a last act of defiance,
many killed their own animals.
Half the Soviet Union's cattle were slaughtered.
In the famine that followed, an estimated five million people died.
This was Stalin's revolution -
its triumph and its tragedy.
Now it was all falling apart,
and Stalin must have known that it was largely his fault.
On June 30th 1941, with German Panzers rolling towards Moscow,
the Politburo drove out to Stalin's dacha.
They found him sitting in an armchair.
Stalin looked up, haggard and nervous.
"Why have you come?" he asked,
apparently suspecting a coup.
But the men in suits were on a very different mission.
They wanted Stalin to return to take charge of a new State Defence Committee -
a sort of War Cabinet.
The relief on Stalin's face was transparent.
"But," he asked,
"can I lead the country to final victory?"
"There may be more deserving candidates."
His old crony Voroshilov spoke up -
"There is none more worthy."
Nodding, Stalin accepted his new role.
Even at the moment when Stalin had screwed it all up,
his yes men hadn't the guts to depose him.
Or, more exactly and more chilling,
after a decade in which they'd been both the agents and the victims of Stalinist terror,
they couldn't imagine Russia without him.
Now Stalin began to regain his nerve.
His prime task was to steady the country, dispelling the swirl of rumour and panic.
One old man in a Moscow street complained,
"Why hasn't anybody spoken to us on the radio? They should say something, good or bad.
"But we are completely in a fog."
On July 3rd, Stalin finally broke his silence,
with a speech relayed across the country through loudspeakers in factories and streets.
"Hitler's troops have succeeded in capturing Lithuania,
"the western part of Belorussia, part of Western Ukraine.
"A grave danger hangs over our country."
Stalin's delivery was as flat and toneless as ever.
His Georgian accent still grated.
But what he actually said was astounding.
He frankly admitted that most of the western Soviet Union had been lost.
He even addressed his people, not just as comrades,
but as brothers and sisters, and dear friends.
From the depths of the crisis,
Stalin was attempting to build a new relationship with his people.
But behind the soft soap was the old iron fist.
Stalin intended to terrorize his army into fighting.
He issued an order, drily known as number 270.
"Those falling into encirclement are to fight to the last.
"Those who prefer to surrender are to be destroyed by any available means,
"while their families are to be deprived of all state allowances and assistance."
This savage order was Stalin's handiwork, but he got his henchmen,
including Molotov and Voroshilov, to add their names at the bottom.
When Stalin's son Yakov was captured, Order 270 was applied to his family.
His wife Yulia, Stalin's daughter-in-law,
spent two years under arrest.
Yakov was later shot at a POW camp near Lubeck -
whether in an attempt to escape, or as deliberate act of suicide
has never been clear.
But flogging his own people was not enough.
Russia couldn't survive the German onslaught alone.
The only other power still fighting Germany
was one that had tried to crush the Russian Revolution.
Now in an extraordinary U-turn,
Stalin reached out to the old capitalist enemy.
Equally amazing, Britain's Prime Minister, a notorious Red-basher,
was ready to meet Stalin halfway.
CHURCHILL: 'I see the Russian soldiers guarding the fields
'which their fathers have tilled from time immemorial.
'I see, advancing upon all this in hideous onslaught, the Nazi War machine
'with its clanking, heel-clicking, dandified Prussian officers.'
It seemed as if Winston Churchill
was going back on everything he'd been saying in the last 20 years.
After the Russian Revolution, he even wanted British troops to help
stamp out what he called the "foul baboonery of Bolshevism".
By 1941, Churchill's view was changing.
In part, he recognised that Stalin's Russia was very different from Lenin's anarchic state.
But this was also a matter of political expediency now,
because the Soviet Union was his enemy's enemy.
The day Barbarossa began,
Churchill told an aide,
"If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference
"to the Devil in the House of Commons."
In telegrams to Stalin, Churchill promised tanks, planes and food.
But privately, the British didn't think the Russians would last a month
against the army that had smashed France.
Then Hitler would turn back on Britain.
CHURCHILL: 'His invasion of Russia is no more than a prelude
'to an attempted invasion of the British Isles.
'He hopes, no doubt, that all this may be accomplished before the winter comes.'
Today, we assume the Battle of Britain had been decided in 1940,
but that wasn't how Churchill saw things in 1941.
Just three days into the German assault on Russia,
he ordered that Britain's defences
must be at "concert pitch" for invasion from September 1st.
In September 1941,
it did indeed look as if Russia's big cities were doomed.
In the north, German troops laid siege to Leningrad -
the old Tsarist city of St Petersburg.
Hitler ordered it to be destroyed street by street,
and then razed to the ground.
Down south, German Panzers encircled Kiev - capital of the Ukraine.
Out of his depth, Stalin could only bluster and bully.
Hearing that Nikita Khrushchev, the local party boss,
was ready to surrender,
Stalin telephoned him in a rage.
"You should be ashamed of yourself!
"Do whatever it takes. If not, we'll make short work of you!"
Stalin rejected any retreat at Kiev,
thereby condemning over 600,000 Soviet troops
to German prisoner of war camps.
For most, that meant certain death.
After yet another disaster,
Stalin was in a state of panic.
He now sent Churchill an anguished appeal, written in his own hand,
urging Britain to mount a second front against Hitler,
a landing by some 30 divisions, several hundred thousand troops,
in the Balkans or France, before the end of the year.
But this was pure fantasy.
Churchill didn't have 30 useable divisions in the whole British Army.
With no help in sight, Stalin now faced the ultimate threat from Hitler,
who targeted Moscow itself in an offensive codenamed Operation Typhoon.
The name proved apt, because the Germans simply blew away the Red Army.
By October 5th, German tanks were only 80 miles from Moscow.
Stalin placed veteran general Georgi Zhukov in charge of the defence
of the Soviet capital, with one of his highly motivational pep talks.
"If Moscow falls...
"heads will roll."
The Germans were now approaching one of the sacred sites of Russian history,
renowned in literature, music and folk memory.
Stalin ordered a last stand here,
on what he called the Mozhaisk Line.
The Mozhaisk Line was largely a figment of Stalin's imagination,
but it was rooted in Russian history
because it ran across the old battlefield of Borodino.
Borodino was the epic battle between Napoleon's France and Tsarist Russia.
It was evoked in sound by Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture,
and immortalised in words by Tolstoy in War and Peace, his classic novel,
which was being serialized on Radio Moscow.
Now Russian troops slugged it out with the Germans
around the very earthworks where their ancestors had fought Napoleon's Grand Army.
Yet whatever Stalin's wishful thinking, the Russians were driven from the field of Borodino,
as in 1812, back towards the western outskirts of Moscow.
This was a critical moment.
The fate of Moscow, the very outcome of the Second World War,
hung in the balance.
Now Stalin wrestled with the same terrible question faced in 1812
by the Tsar's marshal, Mikhail Kutuzov -
whether to fight for Moscow, or abandon the city.
Here in 1812, Kutuzov decided to fall back and sacrifice Moscow,
in order to preserve his army and ultimately save Russia.
Now in 1941, Beria took a similar line, arguing,
"Moscow is not the Soviet Union.
"Defending Moscow is useless."
Zhukov, on the other hand, was sure Moscow could be held.
Stalin, torn between these conflicting views,
pored over a new biography of Kutuzov, underlining the sentence -
"Up to the last moment no-one knew what Kutuzov intended to do".
While Stalin dithered, his staff packed his belongings,
and made ready a special train.
Then, on the morning of October 15th,
Stalin authorised the government to prepare an evacuation to Kuibyshev,
500 miles east of Moscow.
According to minutes from the meeting, "Comrade Stalin himself
"will be evacuated tomorrow or later, depending on the situation".
Even at this, its most desperate moment, Stalin's regime
kept up its calculated yet gratuitous cruelty.
As the Soviet bureaucracy geared up to go, the jails were cleared out.
One victim was part of Stalin's inner circle.
Bronya, the wife of Alexander Poskrebyshev,
Stalin's secretary, the bald little gate-keeper of the Kremlin office.
Bronya had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason.
Poskrebyshev was distraught,
but Stalin did nothing to help.
"Don't worry", he said sweetly.
"We'll find you another wife."
During the evacuation of Moscow, Bronya was executed.
Choking back his grief,
Poskrebyshev kept on working for Stalin round the clock.
"One death is a tragedy -
"a million deaths are a statistic."
That cliche is often attributed to Stalin.
Whether or not he actually said it,
that's certainly the way he did things -
inflicting cruelty on a mass scale,
but also at a personal level on close associates.
Poskrebyshev, Zhukov, Khrushchev, even his own family.
This was a man who, I think,
derived real sadistic pleasure
from playing with people's minds.
Stalin's own mind about evacuation was still undecided.
On October 16th 1941, the people of Moscow woke
to what seemed like a ghost town.
No buses, trams or even policemen.
Across the city, grey snowflakes were falling -
ashes from the burning of millions of official papers,
even party cards.
It seemed that Hitler would soon achieve his dream
of consigning Bolshevism to the rubbish heap of history.
Then suddenly, the city became infected with panic
as news of the evacuation spread.
Abandoned shops were looted.
Cars and trucks clogged the roads going east.
The game seemed to be up.
One man noted in his diary,
"Today Moscow is like an ant heap - people loaded down with goods
"going in all different directions.
"The Metro is closed, and people are saying it is to be blown up or flooded,
"and that the Germans will arrive tonight."
At an outlying railway siding, Stalin's train was ready.
According to one of his aides, the Soviet leader paced up and down
in his tattered greatcoat, weaving in and out of the steam,
Then he told his staff,
"We'll stay here until victory."
The evacuation order was revoked.
Hundreds of looters were shot, and the capital was placed under martial law.
No-one can really judge what tipped Stalin's decision.
Certainly he and Zhukov knew that fresh troops
were now being rushed west from Siberia.
But I think that Stalin's ego
and sense of history also played a part.
The outsider, the cobbler's son from faraway Georgia,
thought he could outdo Kutuzov,
one of the heroes of the Russian past.
He would save Russia AND save Moscow as well.
Stalin had now finally taken a grip on the crisis, and on himself.
His decision to stay in Moscow
and quell the panic was a critical turning point of World War II.
Despite appearances, all was not going Hitler's way.
Hitler had assumed that what he considered the Jew-ridden Bolshevik regime
would quickly collapse.
"You only have to kick in the door," he said, "and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down."
But when Hitler did kick in the door,
the Soviet Union, though tottering, did not fall.
And the Russian people, whom in racist contempt
he dubbed "the Slavic rabbit family", bit back.
Hitler and his generals underestimated the resilience of Stalin and his state.
Even more, they underestimated the tenacity of the Russian people.
An early demonstration of Russian bravery
had been the defence of Brest in the very first week of Barbarossa.
The citadel here is still commemorated,
even by the youth of the 21st century, as a Hero Fortress
of the Soviet Union.
The Germans expected to capture it on day one of Barbarossa.
In fact, a few hundred Russians held out for eight days
against a whole German infantry division with 10,000 combat troops.
The Russians battled on in appalling conditions with virtually no water.
The Germans tried everything - tanks, shells, bombing.
Eventually they had to winkle out the defenders room by room.
One Russian soldier, Georgi Karbuk, recalled -
"The Germans deployed flamethrowers.
"They simply poked the nozzles into cellar windows and burned everything.
"Even the bricks melted.
"Others threw grenades into cellars where families were hiding."
Ultimately, the German 45th Infantry Division
did conquer the fortress here at Brest.
But it had lost nearly 500 men in a week,
more than it lost in a whole month in France in 1940.
For the German army, as well as the Russian people,
Brest was a foretaste of horrors to come.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
The will to resist the invaders was just as strong behind the front line.
Much of Soviet industry lay west of Moscow. Easy pickings for Hitler.
So the Russians dismantled some 1,500 factories, put them on trains
together with workers and families
and then rebuilt them east of the Ural Mountains.
The scale was incredible.
Over a million railway wagons were needed.
Placed end to end, it was estimated that they would've stretched
right across the country from Poland to the Pacific.
What made ordinary Russians - soldiers and civilians,
struggle so tenaciously?
Here's one story, which I think captures the spirit of Russian resistance in 1941.
Fleeing the German onslaught on the road to Moscow,
the war correspondent Vasily Grossman was given shelter by an old peasant woman.
She used up her tiny stock of supplies, welcoming him
with a good meal and a roaring fire,
all the while singing songs.
She told Grossman of her son fighting at the front and of her nightmares.
"The Devil came to me last night, and sank his claws into my hand.
"I started to pray, but the Devil took no notice.
"So I told him to fuck off, and then he did disappear."
Grossman was very struck by this typically Russian mix
of generosity and bloody-mindedness.
"If we do win in this terrible, cruel war,
"it will be because there are such noble hearts in our nation.
"They illuminate all our people with a miraculous light."
For this old woman, and for millions of Russians,
their defiance was rooted
in a deeper sense of homeland, of Russia's history and faith,
that stretched back long before Lenin and Stalin.
One popular wartime poem tapped into this mood,
imagining the ghosts of the old religious Russia
coming to the aid of Stalin's godless communists.
"It was as if at the graves in each Russian village
"Guarding the living with the sign of the cross
"Our ancestors were gathering to pray
"For their grandsons who no longer believe in a God."
With customary opportunism,
Stalin responded to this resurgent sense of history,
and Russians, in turn, responded to Stalin,
or more precisely, to the heroic image of Stalin
projected by the regime.
The Man of Steel, the modern Tsar,
became a symbol for the Russian people of their determination
to resist the new invaders.
Stalin accelerated his transformation into nationalist leader.
His speech for the Revolution Day parade in November invoked Lenin,
but also the Russian heroes who had repulsed earlier invaders,
including the Tsarist general Kutuzov.
The troops paraded through Red Square and marched straight on to the front.
Moscow was now under almost nightly attack from the Luftwaffe.
The Kremlin's air-raid shelters had not yet been completed,
so for a few days Stalin shared the ordeal of ordinary Muscovites,
dossing down in his greatcoat alongside them
in one of the Metro stations.
By December 2nd 1941, German advance units
were only a dozen miles from the Kremlin.
Its domes and spires glinted in the pale sun.
One German medical officer reached a tram stop on the road into the city.
"There was an old wooden bin attached to the wall.
"I felt inside and dragged out a handful of old tram tickets.
"We picked out the Cyrillic letters,
"which by now we knew spelled 'Moskva'."
But there was to be no easy ride into Moscow for those German soldiers.
This vast replica of a tank trap
marks the end of the line for them -
the point where Barbarossa, once molten fire, literally froze up.
Temperatures were now 30 below.
Tank and plane engines had to be heated for hours before they could be started.
Many German soldiers lacked winter clothing, even proper gloves -
victims of Hitler's hubris about a quick victory.
Seizing their chance, Stalin and Zhukov now planned a dramatic counterattack.
Before dawn on December 5th,
Soviet troops ploughed into the frozen Nazi pincers around Moscow.
Although the Germans weren't routed,
they were driven back 100 miles.
At last for the Russians, after six months of defeat, a first victory.
But could they keep it up?
Zhukov knew the limits of his army.
He wanted a targeted strike to save Moscow.
But Stalin was now on a roll.
Though no general, he had apparently done what Kutuzov could not do -
save Russia without sacrificing Moscow.
And like Hitler when he launched Barbarossa, Stalin now believed his enemy to be ripe for destruction.
Pacing around his study in the Kremlin, Stalin told his generals,
"The Germans are taken aback by their defeat near Moscow.
"Now is just the time to mount a general offensive."
Zhukov protested that he hadn't the resources to advance
in this way, all along the front.
Stalin would have none of this.
"Our task is not to give the Germans a breathing space.
"We must drive them westwards without a halt.
"This will ensure the complete defeat
"of the Nazi forces in 1942."
According to Zhukov, nobody else spoke up.
The dictator had browbeaten his generals.
The all-out New Year offensive went ahead and Stalin,
with customary vindictiveness, crossed Zhukov's name off the list
of those to be honoured for saving Moscow.
'Along the whole front, the great Russian counter-offensive,
'which Stalin personally worked out in every detail, springs to life.'
British newsreels recorded Stalin's great offensive.
The heroic Russians seemed to be the only ones effectively fighting the Germans.
Britain was still on the back foot.
And America, though at last in the war,
was in disarray after Japan's surprise attack at Pearl Harbour.
Yet in early 1942, Stalin was sniffing victory,
and like Hitler, it went to his head.
Having lost eastern Europe in 1941,
he was now determined to get it back.
He told Britain and America that Russia's rewards for victory
should include eastern Poland and the Baltic states -
the very territories signed over to him in 1939
as part of his pact with Hitler.
Now he wanted his allies to endorse the same dirty deal.
This obsessive haggling for territorial gain
may seem bizarrely premature to us now,
but I think it makes sense if we remember that Stalin, still on a high
from the success of the winter counter-offensives,
thought the war might be over within a few months.
So he was trying to strengthen his hand
for an upcoming peace conference.
Russian friendship was vital for Britain.
But handing over Poland and the Baltic states to the Soviets,
as Hitler had done, seemed utterly immoral.
After anguished debate, the British Government dug in.
So Stalin applied direct pressure.
He sent Molotov, his tough-guy foreign minister, to Britain,
to press Russia's case for territory.
'Early one morning in May, a powerful four-engined Soviet bomber came in to land at a northern aerodrome.
'Out of it stepped the Soviet people's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Monsieur Molotov,
'clad in heavy fur-lined flying kit.'
In front of the newsreel cameras, it was all smiles,
but behind the scenes, Molotov did not prove an easy guest.
Conscious, perhaps, that 20 years earlier,
his host Churchill had tried to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle,
Molotov and his aides slept with revolvers under their pillows.
Their rooms were also guarded round the clock
by grim Russian matriarchs dressed in black.
Molotov was notorious for his hard-nosed negotiating style,
but he could not get his way on carving up eastern Europe.
Churchill would only offer a general treaty of alliance,
and no promises about territory.
Molotov cabled the British offer to Stalin contemptuously.
"We consider this treaty unacceptable
"as it is an empty declaration which the Soviet Union does not need."
Molotov assumed Stalin would agree,
but, back in the Kremlin,
the mood was changing, as bad news filtered in from the front.
Buoyed up by over-confidence, and once again riding roughshod over generals like Zhukov,
in May 1942, Stalin had ordered a reckless new assault
to recapture Kharkov, second city of the Ukraine.
After a week of fighting, Khrushchev phoned to report
that the Soviet forces at Kharkov had driven themselves into a trap,
and were being encircled by the Germans.
Stalin refused even to take the call.
"Put down the phone.
"As if he knows what he's talking about!"
It was like June 1941 all over again.
Only after a quarter of a million men were captured
and 1,200 tanks were written off did Stalin face the facts.
With his regime on the ropes once more,
Stalin called off the offensive,
and rethought the priorities of his diplomacy.
Stalin dropped his demands for territory.
What mattered now was getting the Allies to mount a second front -
a British and American assault on mainland Europe
to divert German forces from Russia.
Stalin cabled Molotov in London.
He told him to stop protesting, sign the treaty with Britain
and firm up the Allies' commitment to a second front.
Molotov was flabbergasted, but the man whom the British regarded as the hardliner
grovelled abjectly to his boss.
"I shall act in accordance with the directive.
"I believe that the new draft treaty can also have positive value.
"I failed to appreciate it at once."
'At the Foreign Office, the Grand Alliance was entered into
'as signatures were appended to the document by the representatives of the high contracting parties.
'Full understanding was also reached with regard to the creating this year of a second front in Europe.'
In mid-1942, Hitler resumed his offensive.
The new campaign was directed southeast to seize Russia's oil in the Caucasus.
But Stalin still assumed that Hitler's real goal was Moscow.
Thanks to Stalin's misplaced deployments, the German advance was even swifter than in 1941.
By the end of the summer,
the swastika was flying over the highest point in the Caucasus.
The Red Army had lost another 600,000 prisoners,
and thousands more tanks.
The pattern was the same as 1941 -
armoured pincers, and mass encirclements,
rants from Stalin about "not one step back",
and new orders for blocking units
to shoot those trying to flee.
In July 1942, with the Red Army collapsing,
Stalin was once again desperate for help.
Stalin now really needed Churchill
to deliver on the promise of a second front in Europe in 1942.
But nothing seemed to be happening.
Stalin sensed that he was being betrayed by the old enemy.
"Personal and Secret.
"Premier Stalin to Premier Churchill.
"In spite of the agreed communique concerning the urgent tasks
"of creating a second front in 1942,
"the British Government postpones this matter until 1943."
Relations between London and Moscow were reaching crisis point.
As the German juggernaut rolled east, rumours swirled around
about Soviet capitulation and peace talks.
A new Nazi-Soviet Pact would be a disaster for Britain.
For the British, Stalin's military blunders
opened up a terrifying scenario.
Churchill's Chief of Staff, Alanbrooke, noted in his diary...
"While we are talking, the Germans are walking through the Caucasus.
"Our defences in Iraq and Persia are lamentably weak."
If the Germans smashed through the Caucasus to Iraq and Persia,
they would grab most of Britain's oil.
Neutral Turkey would probably throw in its lot with Hitler,
perhaps even allowing a link-up with Rommel's army in Egypt,
now steam-rollering towards the Suez Canal.
The Germans might even join forces with the Japanese to threaten
India from the west as well as east.
Nightmares, perhaps, but all too vivid and real at the time.
In 1941, Russia's collapse threatened to expose the British Isles
to the Nazi war machine.
In 1942, the whole British Empire seemed at stake
because of Stalin's military bungling.
While Stalin felt betrayed by Churchill over the promise of a second front,
Churchill doubted Stalin's ability
to hold out against Hitler.
Without trust, the alliance was doomed.
Churchill felt that he and Stalin had to meet face-to-face.
In the middle of August 1942,
after a long flight dodging German fighters,
Churchill arrived in Moscow.
Churchill was excited to meet Stalin for the first time,
and keen to get the measure of the man. But he was also anxious.
He was about to give Stalin an update on the second front that wouldn't be welcome.
It was, he said, "Like carrying a large lump of ice to the North Pole."
At seven that evening, Churchill was ushered into Stalin's office.
First impressions were not flattering.
At the door was a nervous dwarf -
actually Poskrebyshev or "Bald Head" as one snooty British official called him.
And Stalin himself didn't look particularly impressive,
attired as usual in lilac tunic,
baggy trousers and long boots.
This was actually standard Communist Party dress, but to the British,
he looked a bit of a yokel.
For Stalin, a gangster from the Caucasus, used to manipulating cronies and underlings,
having to negotiate with a grandee from the West,
face-to-face and on equal terms, was a new experience.
A first test, if you like, of his ability to play in the premier league of international diplomacy.
And I think that the records of his meetings with Churchill
throw a revealing light on Stalin's effectiveness as a statesman,
as he learnt to manage Russia's wartime alliances for his own ends.
To start with, the meeting was heavy going.
Stalin admitted the news from the Caucasus was bad.
Churchill spoke defensively about all the problems
of mounting a second front in France that year.
Stalin looked grim.
"What about a smaller operation?" he asked.
"Like recapturing the Channel Islands?"
Churchill said it would be "a waste of seed-corn"
for the real harvest which would come in 1943.
Stalin, who was used to wasting tons of seed-corn, replied testily,
"A man who isn't prepared to take risks cannot win a war."
But then Churchill revealed that he and the American President Franklin Roosevelt
had a top secret plan which would be every bit as good as a second front offensive against mainland Europe.
He drew a sketch of a crocodile.
Northern France, he said, was Hitler's hard snout,
but the Mediterranean was his soft belly.
Churchill promised that in the autumn, British and American troops
would land in Morocco and Algeria.
If North Africa was won in 1942, he said,
we will launch a deadly attack on Hitler next year.
Stalin was now fully engaged.
He asked a lot of questions.
The meeting broke up after 3½ hours.
The British Prime Minister was driven back to the dacha he had been assigned.
Churchill was jubilant.
"My strategy was sound", he crowed.
First, he had given Stalin the bad news,
then he'd offered glad tidings.
Stalin, he said, ended enthusiastic,
in a glow.
Churchill declared that Stalin was just a peasant
whom he knew exactly how to handle.
Too late, Churchill was warned that the room had probably been bugged,
and that his comments might well be passed on to Stalin.
But Churchill wasn't cowed, stalking up to the likely location
of a microphone and shouting,
"The Russians, I have been told, are not human beings at all.
"They are lower in the scale of nature than the orang-utan.
"Now, let them take that down
"and translate it into Russian."
It was a strange echo of Churchill's spluttering 20 years earlier
about "Bolshevik baboonery".
Whether his bombast got back to Stalin, we don't know,
but the next meeting between the two leaders was very different.
Perhaps Stalin felt insulted by Churchill's taunts, or maybe
he had seen through the so-called second front in the Mediterranean.
The evidence isn't clear, but Stalin now played the hard man.
Sitting back in his chair, eyes half closed, puffing at his pipe,
he tore Churchill to shreds.
He dismissed North Africa as an irrelevance.
He accused Churchill of breaking a firm promise about the second front.
He even mocked Britain for cowardice.
"If the British Army had been fighting the Germans as much as the Russian Army,
"it wouldn't be so frightened of them."
Churchill was livid!
He shouted back, giving as good as he got.
The second meeting ended in icy deadlock.
Next day at the dacha, Churchill fumed in the garden,
safely out of range of the bugs.
"That man has insulted me!
"From now on, he will have to fight his battles alone.
"I represent a great country,
"and I am not submissive by nature."
This was no longer a policy dispute,
a row about the second front.
It was a clash of cultures
between two proud men
representing two proud nations.
Each desperately needed the other,
but there was a limit to how far either would bend.
Unlike Stalin, Churchill wasn't surrounded by lackeys.
The British Ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr,
talked back at Churchill hard.
In a letter later, he recalled how he asked Churchill bluntly
whether he intended to "flounce off home".
"All because you are offended.
"Offended by a peasant who didn't know any better.
"You are an aristocrat.
"They are rough and inexperienced,
"straight from the plough and the lathe.
"Don't let your pride blur your judgement."
Noblesse oblige - that was the message.
Clark Kerr urged Churchill to unbend
and ask Stalin for another talk.
But would Stalin unbend as well?
In fact, for Stalin, the ground was also shifting.
He had just learned that the Germans had routed Soviet troops
on the Don River.
Stalingrad, the great industrial city
named after the Man of Steel himself, was now in Hitler's sights.
Round three between Stalin and Churchill
began at seven in the evening in Stalin's office.
The two leaders had a polite and business-like final discussion
about various aspects of the war.
But as Churchill got up to say goodbye,
Stalin became Mr Nice Guy all of a sudden.
"Why don't you come back to my apartment in the Kremlin and have a little drink, hm?"
The "little drink" mushroomed into dinner with a dictator -
a six-hour feast washed down with endless bottles of choice wine.
Stalin introduced Churchill to his daughter Svetlana and watched his reaction with a twinkle in his eye,
as if to say, "You see, even we Bolsheviks have family life."
The mood became progressively more unreal
as conversation lurched from the present to the past.
Churchill boasted about the military genius of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough.
Stalin, with an impish smile,
said he thought the Duke of Wellington was more talented,
because he crushed Napoleon,
who presented the greatest danger in history.
Then Stalin got on to the collective farms campaign,
and the criminal resistance of the peasants.
It was, he said, a terrible struggle.
Ten million people, all very bad and difficult,
He hacked at a pig's head, picking at the flesh with his fingers.
Churchill had a vivid image of millions of men and women
being blotted out forever, but he held his tongue.
"With the World War going on all around us,
"it seemed vain to moralise aloud."
This final meeting cemented the alliance.
Churchill left Moscow with a new confidence in Stalin.
On the plane home next morning, nursing a massive hangover,
he murmured, "I was taken into the family. We ended friends."
'Of Joseph Stalin the Prime Minister has brought back an excellent impression
'of a great rugged war chief, blunt of speech, with a saving sense of humour.
'The two formed a friendship which promises well for the victory of the united nations.'
In the course of the war, Churchill's view of the Soviet Union
and the threat of what he called "Russian barbarism"
would yo-yo up and down,
but he retained his faith that Stalin was a man with whom he could do business.
For his part, Stalin had played a shrewd game of hot and cold
with Churchill, knocking him off balance.
This was a routine Stalin ploy.
But I believe there was something more behind his Mr Nice Guy act
when he invited Churchill to his flat.
Stalin, I think, made a deliberate decision
to open up, to show a more human side.
The bruiser had to become a charmer.
He couldn't afford to let the meeting end on a sour note,
because Russia's military situation had gone critical.
The Caucasus and Russian oil fields now seemed within Hitler's grasp.
The decisive battle would be in the cauldron of Stalingrad,
where two million Soviet and German troops became locked in a struggle to the death.
Churchill's much-vaunted offensive in the Mediterranean,
landing 100,000 troops on the beaches of North Africa
was a mere sideshow to this horrific climax of the war.
Having failed to wipe Leningrad and Moscow off the map,
Hitler was now determined to erase Stalingrad.
His orders were stark - male population to be destroyed,
female to be deported.
Hitler was becoming ever more the control freak as Supreme Commander.
But Stalin, the Man of Steel, who'd bent towards Churchill,
was also learning to be less rigid in dealing with his generals.
Swallowing his old fear of Bonapartism in the army,
Stalin dismantled the system of political commissars -
the apparatchiks who could question officers' orders
on party or ideological grounds.
Now, commanders were allowed to take decisions for military reasons alone.
Party hacks like Voroshilov were demoted,
while Stalin promoted Zhukov to Deputy Supreme Commander.
Zhukov knew the fate of Stalin's generals.
At first he tried to refuse the promotion,
claiming their temperaments were incompatible.
But Stalin was insistent -
"Let us subordinate our temperaments to the interests of the Motherland."
Zhukov wasn't just a one-man band.
Around him he built a capable staff of intelligent, efficient planners.
This was a decisive moment -
a sign that Stalin had the essential flexibility to survive.
In 1941, Stalin had appealed to nationalism, not communism,
in order to galvanize his people for war.
In 1942, he compromised again,
scrapping the ideology of party control
to give his top generals the freedom to fight.
While Russian soldiers battled heroically in the ruins of Stalingrad,
Zhukov and his staff formulated a bold plan to relieve the city.
And Stalin let them do it, finally releasing the reserves
he had retained to protect Moscow and not pushing Zhukov this time
into a premature assault.
In November 1942, the pincers closed again.
But they were Russian pincers, slicing through weak divisions
that guarded the rear of Hitler's army in Stalingrad.
It was the Germans who were now encircled.
Their final surrender in January 1943
coincided with the tenth anniversary of Hitler's seizure of power.
It was a devastating turn of fortune's wheel.
War correspondent Vasily Grossman witnessed the Russian victory.
"Prisoners move on and on in crowds, their mess tins rattling,
"belted with pieces of rope, or wire.
"Russian troops are marching.
"Their spirits are higher now.
"Ah, it would be great to get to Kiev."
Another man - "Ah, I'd like to get to Berlin."
The Red Army was now on the march.
So were the British and Americans by the end of 1942,
routing the Germans in North Africa as a springboard for control of the Mediterranean.
But it was the Eastern Front,
the great battles for Moscow and Stalingrad,
that turned World War Two,
beginning a fightback that would eventually entrench the Soviet Union
as a new superpower throughout Eastern Europe.
Not just Poland and the Baltic states,
but Hungary, Czechoslovakia and half of Germany itself.
The Second World War was a struggle
to defeat Hitler's genocidal imperialism.
Yet the man who gained most from victory was a dictator
as cruel and ruthless as his enemy.
The difference between victory and defeat was in large part, that Stalin eventually learned
from the mistakes that had cost millions of Russian lives,
whereas setbacks only made Hitler more unyielding in his fantasies.
Ultimately, Stalin, for all his Bolshevik ideology,
was a pragmatist with a keen eye for survival.
Although he was an outsider, his command over the Russian people
gained him an empire, bought with their blood,
that surpassed anything won by the Tsars.
So there was a ghastly moral compromise at the heart of the Allied victory.
In 1945, the defeat of one evil
helped entrench another evil across half of Europe
and in Russia itself.
Having learnt to loosen up his regime to win victory,
after the war, Stalin tightened his grip once again,
reverting to terror.
He put his generals back in their place, demoting the war hero Zhukov on charges of corruption,
and he clamped down on his people with renewed censorship
and another purge of the party.
In the 1950s, Vasily Grossman pondered the cost of victory,
reflecting on how the heroism of the war had saved Russia,
while also saving Stalin, and shoring up the Stalinist system.
His epic novel Life And Fate was modelled on Tolstoy's War and Peace.
At the fulcrum of his book,
Grossman evokes Stalin waiting anxiously for the start
of Zhukov's vital counter-offensive around Stalingrad.
The passage is pure fiction,
but also, I think, sublime poetic truth.
Grossman imagines the dictator recalling the shambles of 1941 -
his bumblings that nearly ruined Russia.
In his mind's eye, behind Hitler's tanks,
Stalin sees the millions of Russians he destroyed coming back to life.
The prisoners of the Arctic Gulag breaking up through the permafrost.
Emaciated peasants crawling out of the soil, all of them looking for him.
Then Zhukov's pincers close.
The Germans cannot escape.
Stalingrad will be remembered as a triumph, not a disaster.
Grossman now imagines Stalin's devoted secretary -
bald little Poskrebyshev, whose wife was one of Stalin's victims -
watching silent and motionless
as his boss sits back,
drinking in the wonderful news.
To the victor, the spoils.
"This was his hour of triumph.
"He'd not only defeated his current enemy, he'd defeated his past.
"In the villages, the grass would grow thicker over the tombs of 1930.
"The snow and ice of the Arctic Circle would remain dumb and silent.
"He knew better than anybody that no-one condemns a victor.
"Very slowly and gently, his eyes closed.
"He repeated the words of a song.
"You're caught in the net, my pretty little bird
"I won't let you go for anything in the world.
"Poskrebyshev looked at Stalin, at his grey, thinning hair,
"his pock-marked face, his closed eyes.
"Suddenly, he felt the ends of his fingers grow cold."
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, historian Professor David Reynolds reassesses Stalin's role in the life and death struggle between Germany and Russia in World War Two, which, he argues, was ultimately more critical for British survival than 'Our Finest Hour' in the Battle of Britain itself.
The name Stalin means 'man of steel', but Reynolds's penetrating account reveals how the reality of Stalin's war in 1941 did not live up to that name. Travelling to Russian battlefield locations, he charts how Russia was almost annihilated within a few months as Stalin lurched from crisis to crisis, coming close to a nervous breakdown.
Reynolds shows how Stalin learnt to compromise in order to win, listening to his generals and downplaying communist ideology to appeal instead to the Russian people's nationalist fighting spirit. He also squares up to the terrible moral dilemma at the heart of World War Two. Using original telegrams and official documents, he looks afresh at Winston Churchill's controversial visit to Moscow in 1942 and re-examines how Britain and America were drawn into alliance with Stalin, a dictator almost as murderous as the Nazi enemy.