MOSCOW — Writing a book is not unlike planting a garden. You make elaborate plans for each section; you comb encyclopedias and guides for advice; you collect every piece of information about the species that interests you; you say to yourself that, unlike other gardens, yours is going to be consistent, orderly, and will have meaning to it.
But when you start the real work, involving heavy digging, weeding and watering, you immediately lose the overall vision and forget about your beautiful initial plan. How could you possibly think about the color scheme when your back hurts, your nails chip and the damn Madame Lefebres, or whatever the name of the wretched rose is, starts dying as soon as you begin thinking about sticking it into the ground?
Only when you’re finally done (in a couple of years if the weather and the roots are generous) can you actually see your creation en bloc — and it is going to surprise you, believe me. Who could’ve thought that gooseneck spreads like wildfire as does peppermint, that coral bells look more like a heap of dung and that hollyhocks grow as tall as the Empire State Building?
With a book, it is the same. Preoccupied with getting everything right, worried to death about chapter seven and even more about chapter three, you have no time or energy left to see the larger picture. Only after the publisher sends you the book, still smelling of ink and the printing machine, can you finally read it — and, boy, will you be surprised.
Apart from realizing that you still didn’t get everything right and that there are gaps and even infuriating mistakes throughout the text, you are stunned, or rather shell-shocked, by a few revelations that become obvious. When you were writing, you didn’t notice where your research was taking you and now you are surprised by your own book.
I’m still working on my garden, but I did finish a book recently, “Stalin’s Folly.” It deals with the first 10 days of World War II on the Eastern Front — in other words, Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Its publication date in the United States coincided with the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of V-E Day in Europe.
Dozens of dignitaries, including U.S. President George W. Bush, headed for Moscow to celebrate. Without a doubt, the Russian contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany was the greatest, and it is only fair that Moscow was the center of festivities. But there is one more thing that made Moscow the venue of the anniversary: With Germany now the strongest nation in the European Union, it would have been quite awkward for nations like France and Britain to celebrate its defeat at a European location. In a way, Moscow got the event by default.
The enormous sacrifices made by the Russians and other Soviets between 1941-1945 was the center of media coverage from Moscow. But I am not sure the Russian hosts provided the full picture.
For starters, the nation still doesn’t know how many citizens it lost — 20 million, 27, or 50. In the first days of war, the Red Army was losing a soldier every two seconds — 600,000 in all in the first three weeks. As the pace of the retreat averaged 50 km a day, there was rarely a chance to bury dead soldiers and, by the beginning of July 1941, about half a million corpses remained aboveground in the woods and meadows of Byelorussia, Lithuania and Ukraine.
The accounts of farmers that had to dump them in mass graves are exceptionally grim. Occasionally a German air force raid hit local cemeteries, setting old skeletons next to unburied 20-year-olds.
I was unable to find any figures for civilian casualties in the Soviet Union’s western borderland; what’s worse, I realized that such statistics simply do not exist. The number of military casualties was determined by roll calls after a day’s fighting. But there is no way of finding how many civilians, mostly women and children, died on the chaotic clogged roads, or even in their own houses and apartments — which German pilots strafed and bombed from the air. Was it 300,000, 600,000, or more?
During the celebrations in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin kept playing the “And still we won!” tune. Yes, the Soviets still won the war — but they did so rather by good luck than by good management. The Soviet regime, led by the whimsical maniac Josef Stalin, was frightfully inefficient.
The secret police, believed to be the perfect instrument of terror and intimidation, failed to intercept hundreds of German commandos who successfully interrupted practically all cable communications in the western part of the country on the eve of the attack. Railway dispatchers did not know how to send a military echelon to the right destination; the military industry did not know how to make time bombs.
Stalin himself, famously paranoid about his safety, did not have an underground bunker, and when a German air raid was reported, he had to run to a Moscow subway station to hide like a rat.
Throughout the first days of war, the dictator kept sending his troops into suicidal counterattacks, wasting hundreds of thousands of lives, instead of organizing viable defense lines in the rear. His generals proved to be yes-men, willingly supporting such madness.
The sacrifices the Soviets made were horrendous not just because the Nazis were brutes but also because the country and the army were led by imbeciles.
The eventual victory over Germany was due, first of all, to the immense size of the country. In the first 10 days of war, Germans advanced 500 km; a year earlier, France’s loss of exactly the same amount of territory had meant that the whole country had been occupied. In the case of the Soviet Union, only the western borderland was lost. The Red Army could keep rolling east toward Siberia — and it could also keep drafting millions of soldiers from the immense population pool.
Used as cannon fodder, those millions of men eventually won the war, but this is hardly worth a celebration. State mourning all over Russia this month would have been more appropriate.
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