Josef Stalin made for an accomplished dictator, writes young Russian historian Pleshakov (The Tsar’s Last Armada, 2002, etc.). He was a terrible military leader, though, and his failings cost millions of Soviet lives, especially at the outbreak of WWII.
Was Stalin planning a preemptive strike against the Nazis? The question has consumed historians for decades, and though, as Pleshakov notes, he hasn’t turned up any smoking guns, the evidence certainly seems to point in that direction. For sure, the Nazi generals and operatives who were more or less freely operating inside Russian territory in the days of the Soviet–Axis nonaggression pact thought so: Stalin’s armies were configured to strike, and they had trained for the eventuality. “If Stalin ordered an offensive strike,” Pleshakov observes, “each salient would serve as a thrust into Germany. But if the Germans forestalled him, the salients would become lethal traps for the Red Army.” The Germans did indeed act first, and the Red Army died in swarms, at the rate of a soldier every two seconds. Stalin had already murdered the best of his military leaders—rightly, Pleshakov suggests, at least in a way, because they were sure to rebel sooner or later—and had tied the hands of the survivors so that they could not act on their own initiative, even if they had been capable of doing so. (Pleshakov severely devalues Marshal Georgi Zhukov, for one, as a tactician and commander.) Moreover, as if paralyzed by Hitler’s betrayal, Stalin absented himself from the Kremlin several times during the first ten days of the war, making it impossible for his underlings to deliver decisions to the front. In the end, Pleshakov writes, in the first 20 days of the war the Soviets lost 600,000 men, “one in five soldiers stationed on the front.” The social reverberations, he adds, would be many and long-lasting, from xenophobia to the destruction of Russian feminism to a mistrust of authority.
A fascinating study, drawing on hitherto unavailable Soviet documents and on Pleshakov’s ready command of a vast literature little known to Western scholars.