A review by the Russia editor of OpenDemocracy, Hugh Barnes, of a new history of the Russian battle for Moscow in World War II, The Greatest Battle by Andrew Nagorski, recently appeared in the Moscow Times. In it, Barnes writes:
On Sept. 16, 1941, [Nazi] Field Marshal Fedor von Bock gave the orders for the capture of Moscow under the codename “Typhoon,” and the following month German troops surrounded seven Soviet armies near the cities of Vyazma and Bryansk, just west of Moscow, killing or capturing a million men. The novelist and journalist Vasily Grossman, who reported from the frontline for the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, noted that the October weather seemed to the Germans a more daunting opponent than the Red Army itself. “General Mud and General Cold are helping the Russian side,” he added. “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.”
German field commander General Heinz Guderian begged Hitler to let him press all the way to Moscow, but crucially — and perhaps inexplicably — the Fuhrer hesitated, in October 1941, when the capital lay defenseless, insisting that the Panzer units head south and capture Kiev first. By the time the Russians reached the outskirts of Moscow at the end of the year, it was too late. The Germans were worn down by the weather, lacked supplies for the winter and were already exhausted by the struggle.
In other words, the Russians didn’t defeat the Nazi invasion by means of skill but rather by means of sheer dumb luck. Didn’t courage play a role? Barnes continues:
One of the overarching themes of official Soviet accounts of the Great Patriotic War is that the Russian people never wavered in their fight against the German invaders, even when the outlook was grim. But Nagorski’s well-researched book suggests that Stalin’s own unpredictability as much as the proverbial stoicism of the Russian people held the key.
His volatile temperament recovered from the dark days of midsummer to galvanize, or perhaps terrorize, the nation into a heroic resistance. The Battle of Moscow helped Stalin to work out a strategy by which the sacrifice of millions of lives made up for the inadequate weaponry and equipment of the Red Army. At one point, in early December 1941, Soviet military commanders begged Stalin to let them move the western front to the east due to a lack of ammunition. “Do our soldiers have spades,” barked the Great Leader down the telephone line. “Yes, Comrade Stalin, there are spades. What should they do with them?” came the reply. “Tell your men to take their spades and dig themselves some graves.”
In other words, it wasn’t courage against the German threat that decided Russia’s fate, it was fear . . . fear of the even more horrible things their own government would do to them if they didn’t resist the Germans.
As we’ve said before, it wouldn’t be at all difficult to make the argument that Russia would have been better off in the long run losing to Nazi Germany rather than winning. After all, Moscow fell to Napoleon, and Russia lived to fight Hitler. France was conquered by Germany, yet now it wields an economy far more potent and a standard of living immeasurably higher than Russia.
But more important, if Russia had lost it would have been forced to confront the reality of losing, and perhaps it would have been induced to make some changes, changes that might have altered the course of Russian history so that today Russia would rank in the top 100 world nations for male adult lifespan and its people would earn a standard European wage, rather than an average wage of $4 per hour.
Below, we report on the outcome of the Australian Open tennis tournament, finding a number of stark parallels between tennis and Russian political life. Tennis analyst Peter Bodo has written of the tournament’s winner, so-called “Russian” Maria Sharapova, that “when you see that Sharapova fall-away forehand or some of her other stroking glitches (serve, anyone?), maybe it’s just as well that [her stroke consultant Robert] Lansdorp’s name has largely been left off her resume.” What he’s saying is both that Maria’s crazy father, Yuri, has tried to take too much credit for the quality of Maria’s game, and at the same time vastly overestimated that quality, which his own influence has greatly diminished from what it might have been. Maria herself can’t even seem to decide which country’s she’s from. If it’s Russia, why not go back and live there? If it’s America, why keep telling the world otherwise?
If you listen closely, you will undoubtedly hear in the reactions of Sharapova’s sweaty little fans the echo of Russia itself. It doesn’t matter how badly she’s played or for how long. It doesn’t matter that she’s spurned Russia her whole life. If she ever wins, regardless of how much dumb luck was involved, it’s a great victory for “Russia” the proves perfection and immunity to criticism. In the same way, no matter the cost, if Germany failed to actually take over the Russian government then it was Russia’s great victory in the “Great Patriotic War.” It’s exactly this type of ivory-tower idiocy that brought the USSR to its knees, and Russians go right on with it as if that never happened, either. We find this phenomenon quite terrifying, far more so even than the KGB’s murdering those who try to dispel the illusion. We offer it battle.
It’s not — this is important to remember — confined to military activity and sports. In fact, in the economic sphere it has a name: Dutch disease. Thus, Russia scholar Michael McFaul has argued that the Russian economy, always vastly overestimated, would have been far better without the intervention of Vladimir Putin. Because of him, and the rising oil price, it’s neglected basis reforms that are utterly essential to its future. For Russia, oil is more like a toxin than an elixer. As stock market analyst James Beadle wrote on January 24th in the Moscow Times: “The benchmark RTS index has dropped 16 percent since peaking at 2339.79 on Jan. 14. This sudden loss of around $160 billion in market value stands in sharp contrast to consensus expectations, which predicted around a 25 percent upside and decisive decoupling from the slowing U.S. economy this year.” This jolt has forced many to begin to realize just how correct McFaul was. Yet, all the Russian nationalist set can do is jabber about Russia’s economic power. They can’t name one specific policy he has enacted which is responsible for any increase in Russia’s standard of living, they simply given Putin credit for the rising price of oil as if he were controlling it.
Just as the barbaric actions of Vladimir Putin, most recently ordering the return of tanks and missiles to Red Square on May Day and firing missiles off the coast of France have exposed Putin for the crude barbarian he is, as we report below the actions of Sharapova’s father from the stands at the Australian Open have betrayed his (and her?) true nature as well. The illusion of success isn’t success; in a very real sense, it’s worse than actual failure because it prevents you from reforming and eventually destroys you. The Soviets preferred it anyway. Will Russians follow that path?
Maybe one day Maria Sharapova will become insightful and grownup (and American?) enough to admit that she needs to reform seriously instead of deluding herself into thinking she’s already great. Maybe one day after one of her rare tournament wins she will say: “Wow, I have a lot of potential and should be doing so much better. I really need to make some changes, and now I’m going to. And the first thing I’m going to do is move back to Russia (or get U.S. citizenship). And the second thing is that I’m going to fire my father.” Because she has a lot of talent, and could become great if she did. And maybe one day Russia itself will admit that World War II wasn’t a great victory it was a horrific defeat, and that it needs to dramatically rethink itself. Because Russia has a lot of talent, and could become great if it did. That’s what this blog is all about.
But the clock is ticking on both Sharapova and Russia. Time is running out. A few more years with their heads in the clouds will have them both stumbling into the dustbin of history.
The theme of the Potemkin Village, the practice of elevating form over substance, is if illusion was reality, runs right the way through Russia’s 1,000-year history. Russians have simply shown no interest in putting their noses to the grindstone and doing the real work that makes a truly great nation. Russian patriots who try to expose Potemkin Russia in the hope of reform are jailed or killed, while Russian traitors like Putin who seek to expand the Potemkin village are lionized and empowered. That is the reason Russia has degenerated to such an extent that today it’s average male life span is not in the top 100 world nations and the population is in rapid decline.