Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Annotated Roads To Moscow

(with apologies for formatting problems THC has been unable to fix; the blogspot platform seems particularly unstable right now)
The finest pop/rock song about an historical event is undoubtedly Roads To Moscow, the 1973 song composed and recorded by Al Stewart (which I saw him perform in 1974 at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, when he toured in support of the album, Past, Present, and Future).  The events it describes began 75 years ago on this date - June 22, 1941 - Operation Barbarossa, the German surprise attack on the Soviet Union, triggering the bloodiest conflict in human history.  By the time it was over in May 1945, 4.3 million Germans were dead, mostly military personnel, and perhaps up to 27 million Soviets, two thirds civilians. soldiers)

 Stewart's song balances a vivid, poignant and historically accurate lyric with a lovely melody, a Russian influenced chorus and an evocative and stirring arrangement.  He tells the story of a Soviet soldier, one of the tens of millions caught in this horrific tragedy caused by two of the most brutal regimes to ever be inflicted on the human race - Nazi Germany, led by Adolph Hitler and the Communist Soviet Union of Josef Stalin.  It's a world of spiritual darkness and limited and terrible choices for the common person trapped in those events, an era also brought to life by Alan Furst in his splendid series of novels set in the same time period - particularly Night Soldiers and Dark Star.

Let's take the lyrics and explore the background:
They crossed over the border the hour before dawn
At about 315am on the morning of June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, was launched by the German army.  The attack, including 14 Finnish and 13 Romanian divisions, involved 3.8 million personnel, 3,400 tanks, 3,500 aircraft and 700,000 horses.  Facing the onslaught were about 2.5 million frontline Soviet soldiers (the Red Army had about 4 million men under arms overall in the European part of the country). Though Hitler and Stalin had been allies since the August 1939 signing of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, which also divided Poland and the Baltic States, they were long-term ideological enemies and a conflict at some point was inevitable.  However, the motive for the decision of Hitler to attack at this specific time was the same as that of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812; to ultimately defeat Britain by destroying its only hope of a strong military ally on the Continent - Russia then, and now, the Soviet Union.

With the decision made, ideological considerations drove decisions on how the war would be conducted.  The inhabitants of occupied portions of the Soviet Union were to be starved or driven out to make room for German settlers, captured Red Army communist commisars executed, and roving extermination squads organized to kill the Jews.

In the months leading up to the German attack, Stalin dismissed multiple warnings from his own secret service as well as Churchill and Roosevelt, claiming they were provocations designed to entice him into a war with Germany that would only benefit the Western powers. As late as the night of June 21-22 he ordered the execution of German defectors who entered Soviet lines to warn of an imminent attack.  As a result, Red Army troops were left deployed in forward positions near the border, in vulnerable formations ill-suited for defense.  

The Soviet Army was also still recovering from Stalin's 1937-8 purge of the senior military leadership in which at least 75% of those officers were killed, and its poor performance in its 1939-40 Winter War with Finland, giving the Germans what proved to be unwarranted confidence that the Soviet Union would be quickly defeated.

The 1941 border referred to in the lyrics was different than the 1939 Soviet border.  With the 1939 pact with Germany, Stalin was able to occupy half of Poland, all of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and the Romanian province of Bessarabia.  By advancing the border, he gained strategic depth against invasion, while also arresting and deporting thousands of citizens of those countries who he believed might oppose his plans. In addition, with his surprise attack on Finland (October 1940) he gained buffer room for Leningrad and the crucial northern port of Murmansk.

Moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
The Luftwaffe destroyed over 2,000 Soviet aircraft on the ground on the first day, losing only 35 planes in its attacks, and destroyed approximately 3,900 during the first three days, giving the Germans overwhelming air superiority.

Waiting for orders we held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away 

Ah, softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields on our hands and our knees  
And all that I ever, was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red, silhouetting the smoke on the breeze 

In those first days and weeks many Soviet troops found themselves isolated behind the rapidly advancing German lines and without orders amidst the command chaos.  The first two lines accurately portray the confusion and lack of information for the soldiers on the front line.  While many surrendered (nearly 3 million by the end of 1941), tens of thousands were able to eventually find their way back in the gaps between the rapidly advancing German Panzer units and the slower infantry following behind them. Our narrator was one of them. Other remained uncaptured but behind enemy lines, becoming the core of the partisan units that would harass the Germans for years.   

All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine
Smolensk and Vyazma soon fell
By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel

In this passage, the narrator is using the terms "us" and "we" in reference not to his personal location but rather to the overall plight of the Red Army.

The German attack was divided into three army groups. North advanced through the Baltic States towards Leningrad.  South drove the Soviets "back through the Ukraine", culminating in September with a great encirclement near Kiev in which 700,000 Soviets were killed or captured.

The third, and initially most powerful, German army group was Center, taking the road to Moscow on which Smolensk, Vyazma, and Orel were located.   The Battle of Smolensk lasted from July 10 to September 10, with the Germans finally prevailing and the Red Army losing 310,000 dead or captured out of 579,000 engaged with another 159,000 wounded or sick.  The battle was prolonged because in its early stages, Hitler diverted panzer units to the south for the Kiev encirclement.  The ensuing delay in capturing Smolensk may have been fatal to the later failure to capture Moscow.

When the panzer units returned to Army Group Center, the Moscow advance began again in late September.  During October, the Germans pulled off two more giant encirclements of the Red Army at Vyazma and Bryansk, in which another million Soviet soldiers were killed or captured.  Orel fell on October 3 to General Guderian's tanks. 
Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell 
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill
On November 15, the Germans began their final push towards Moscow.  General Heinz Guderian (1888-1954), commander of Second Panzer Army, is considered one of the finest tank generals of the war. He performed brilliantly during the Polish invasion and then led the armored spearheads in the 1940 campaign in France. Guderian's role in the Moscow assault was to approach the capital from the southwest and encircle it. In late December 1941 he would be dismissed because of a dispute with his superiors over how to respond tactically to the Soviet counter-offensive.  Recalled to duty by Hitler in 1943 after the disaster at Stalingrad, he was charged with rebuilding the army's panzer capabilities.  On July 21, 1944, a day after the failed assassination attempt against Hitler, Guderian was appointed Army Chief of Staff.  Although he often argued with Hitler about tactical decisions, he remained a faithful supporter of the Fuhrer until the end of the war. Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-139-1112-17, Heinz Guderian.jpg(Guderian in Russia, wikipedia)
Winter brought with her the rains
Oceans of mud filled the roads
Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground
While the sky filled with snow 

In this passage two weather periods are mixed together.  From late October into mid-November came a period of cold rain, turning  the primitive Soviet road network into a sea of mud and slowing German operations.,_Russland,_Herausziehen_eines_Autos.jpg(The Mud Season in Russia, 1941)

Then came freezing temperatures, making the roads stable and more passable.  The final German push was launched in this window before the onset of brutal cold and snow made offensive operations more difficult.

And all that I ever was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red silhouetting the snow on the breeze

Notice that now the red is silhouetting "the snow on the breeze" rather than "the smoke on the breeze" of the first verse, signaling the passage of time from the warmth and sun of June, to the cold bitterness of December. 

In the footsteps of Napoleon the shadow figures stagger through the winter
The German offensive continued until December 5 under increasingly taxing conditions with heavy snow and temperatures plunging to 20-30 F below zero.  Expecting to achieve complete victory by the end of fall, German soldiers were not issued winter clothing, nor were the tanks, assault guns and motor vehicles equipped to operate in these conditions.  At -5 F, the recoil fluid, lubricating oil and firing pins on German artillery, anti-tank and machine guns failed, tank turrets would not turn and tanks and motor vehicles had to be kept constantly running, using precious fuel. Despite these difficulties, isolated German units got within 15 miles of the Kremlin, in the center of the city, while to the northwest, the main German forces were within 25 miles. A German officer wrote of conditions during the advance:
"It is icy cold . . . To start the engines, they must be warmed by lighting fires under the oil pan.  The fuel is partially frozen, the motor oil is thick, and we lack antifreeze to prevent the cold water from freezing.

The remaining limited combat strength of the troops diminishes further due to the continuous exposure to the cold.  It is much too inconvenient to shelter the troops from the weather . . . In addition, the automatic weapons of the groups and platoons often fail to operate, because the breeches can no longer move."
On December 3, the commander of Fourth Panzer Group reported its offensive combat power "has run out" because of "physical and moral over-exertion, loss of a large number of commanders, inadequate winter equipment".
Falling back before the gates of Moscow
Standing in the wings like an avenger

What kept the German high command trying to press ahead despite the casualties and the exhaustion of its men and equipment, was the belief that the Russians had exhausted their reserves and were on the verge of collapse.  It was an enormous miscalculation.  They underestimated the willingness of Stalin to move troops from the Soviet Far East as the capabilities of the brutal and ruthless Soviet system to mobilize an almost endless number of reserves (unlike Hitler, who resisted fully mobilizing the German economy and populace throughout the war, Stalin immediately took such measures).  Between June 22 and December 31, the Soviets lost 4 million men, the equivalent of its entire army on June 22, yet still had 4 million under arms at the end of the year.  It is hard to contemplate any other society surviving that type of devastation without collapsing. On the night of December 5-6, the Soviets launched a massive counterattack on the depleted German forces.  In a series of actions lasting until early March of 1942, the exhausted Germans were forced back more than 100 miles, eliminating the threat to Moscow. 

While Soviet soldiers were better equipped for the weather than their enemy, the conditions still took a heavy toll; conditions not limited to the weather - Soviet commanders still favored frontal assaults, regardless of casualties.

And far away behind their lines the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts, growing like a promise
You'll never know, you'll never know
Which way to turn, which way to look, you'll never see us
As we're stealing through the blackness of the night
You'll never know, you'll never hear us

Partisan warfare in Russia, was on a completely different, and larger scale, from its counterparts in Western Europe, involving huge numbers, semi-organized and large scale assaults on the German rear lines and logistics that proved of strategic significance.  Large portions of the Soviet countryside behind enemy lines remained out of German control throughout the war and forcing many troops to be were diverted to fighting the partisans. 
And the evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
The word choice "amber" in this context is very interesting.  Amber is a fossilized tree resin, valued as a gemstone. From at least 1500 BC there was an Amber Road by which the valuable material was moved in trade from the shores of the Baltic to the Mediterranean.  The leading source of amber is near what used to be the city of Konigsburg in Prussia, now known as Kaliningrad, and a part of Russia since 1945. 

The famous Amber Room was initially constructed in Konigsberg, and gifted in 1716 by the Prussian King to Peter the Great of Russia.  Installed in a palace outside of Petersburg (later Leningrad), the room was expanded, eventually covering 590 square feet and containing over 6,000 pounds of amber on panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors.

(The Amber Room, from wikipedia

During the war, the German Army removed the Amber Room and transported it back to Konigsburg.  Disappearing at the end of the war, its location remains unknown, one of the last mysteries of World War II.
The morning road leads to Stalingrad 
And the sky is softly humming
We've moved into the summer of 1942. June 28, the German launched a large scale attack in the south of Russia, aiming for the oil fields of the Caucasus region and the heavy industrial town of Stalingrad.  The Germans advanced quickly but became bogged down in Stalingrad, with an increasingly fixated Hitler insistent on its capture.  The fighting lasted 6 1/2 months, ending in catastrophe for the Nazi regime with the destruction of the Sixth Army and the supporting Hungarian and Romanian armies, along with large losses for other German units.  Of 91,000 prisoners taken by the Russians at the end, only 5,000 ever returned to Germany, some not until 1955.  The cost of victory was staggering for the Red Army - more than 1.1 million dead, wounded or captured. soldiers, Stalingrad)

Stalingrad was the symbolic turning point of the war and both Stalin and Hitler were aware of its symbolism at the time. The horror of the battle from the Russian perspective is captured best in Life And Fate, by Vassily Grossman, one of the greatest pieces of 20th century literature, in a section recounting the struggle of one Red Army squad to hold a ruined building amidst the rubble of the city. Of course, being a Russian novel, everyone dies. 

After Stalingrad, the Germans could no longer win the war, though it was not certain the Reds could win either. 
Two broken Tigers on fire in the night
Flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines, for the final approach to begin 
It's been almost four years, that I've carried a gun
At home it'll almost be spring
The flames of the Tigers are lighting the road to Berlin

The lyric in this section is very cleverly structured.  The first line tells us of "two broken Tigers", followed by a reference to "the final approach" but we don't know where or when it is.  The next line tells us it's been "almost four years that I've carried a gun", placing us in 1945, but still not telling us the location, since Soviet armies were fighting from the Baltic to Hungary.  Then it's revealed that the flaming Tigers as they "flicker their souls to the wind" are also "lighting the road to Berlin", creating a striking and precise word picture.

The Tiger was the heaviest and most powerful tank produced by Germany during the war.  Like much German equipment it was overenginered, overly complex to manufacture and required high levels of maintenance to keep operational.  The Tiger I was produced from 1942 to 1944 and the Tiger II from 1944 on, but fewer than 2,000 were produced in total.  When available and running the Tiger could prove devastatingly effective. 
(Tiger II)

It's now April 16, 1945.  The Russians are less than 50 miles from Berlin.  Much has transpired since the surrender of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in early 1943. After the Soviets advanced through the winter of 1942-3, the front lines stabilized.  In July 1943, Hitler launched a major attack near Kursk.  It proved unsuccessful, the Soviets counterattacked, and from then until the end of the war the Red Army conducted a series of large scale offensives.  The German siege of Leningrad ended and most of Ukraine was reconquered in 1943.  In June 1944, the Soviets crushed Army Group Center and drove the Germans out of Russia, while they advanced into Poland and by late July were on the outskirts of Warsaw (the Warsaw Uprising of the Polish Home Army in August and September was yet another tragedy of the war with both the Nazis and Communists vested in the destruction of the Poles).

In late 1944, the Red Army advanced into the Balkans, causing Romania and Bulgaria to switch sides and become allies and reaching the borders of Hungary. On January 12, 1945 the Russians renewed their attack in Poland, sweeping away the Germans and quickly advancing to the Oder River near Berlin, where they paused to regroup for the final assault.   
Ah, quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can't slow us down
And all that I ever, was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening now, it's the end of the dream
The Berlin campaign lasted from April 16 through May 2.  The reference to "old men and children" refers to the Volkssturm ("People's Storm"), a national militia consisting of all men between 16 and 60 capable of bearing arms, first formed in October 1944, as the manpower needs of the crumbling Third Reich became ever more desperate (though even younger boys would see service by the end).  Poorly armed and trained, the Volkssturm units were of varying effectiveness and took heavy casualties. 

And notice the contrast with the opening verse of the song.  In 1941, the narrator speaks of defeat, confusion and retreat; "softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees/crossing their lines in the mists in the field on our hands and our knees".  Four years later he is moving triumphantly forward to victory; "quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground/ the old men and children they send out to face us, they can't slow us down"., 1945) 

 Despite the lyric's claim that "the old men and children . . . they can't slow us down", the Volksstrum and remaining regular Wehrmacht units imposed heavy losses on the Red Army in the final campaign - 79,000 dead and 270,000 wounded, a per day toll higher than any the Soviets had suffered since the first weeks of the war in 1941.  The human cost was made higher by Stalin's cynical move to place Marshals Zhukov and Koniev in competition to be first to Berlin and relentlessly mocking and goading them, leading to reckless frontal assaults, particularly by Zhukov (for more on him, read The Secret of Khalkin Gol).  And, with the encouragement of Stalin and the Red Army command, the soldiers took a terrible vengeance on German civilians.

I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Now you can taste it in the wind, the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels as we roll across the border
The lyric now brims over with optimism.  Our narrator has survived, against all odds, and looks forward to being reunited with his family (very few Soviet soldiers received any leave during their time in the service).  In reality, the odds were very low that any soldier on the front line on June 22, 1941, would be alive and healthy enough to fight continuously and still be in the front lines for the Berlin campaign.

8.6 million Red Army personnel died in the war; effectively the original 1941 army was killed twice over. By comparison, the United States suffered 296,000 battlefield deaths during the war with another 100,000 deaths due to accidents and illnesses. 

Nor were all the Russian dead solely the responsibility of the German Army. Life for a Soviet soldier during the war was brutal.  Commanders employed tactics that wasted countless lives.  If you died, particularly early in the war, it was unlikely your family would be notified.  Any infraction, real or imagined, was subject to harsh treatment and extreme punishment. During the first 18 months of the war (the only period for which we have figures), 160,000 Soviet soldiers were executed for cowardice, desertion and similar infractions.  By comparison, only one American was executed for these offenses during the entire war.  For those not summarily executed, there were the Punishment Battalions and Companies to which officers and soldiers were sentenced to be used, in Stalin's words, at "the most difficult parts of the front, to give them the possibility to redeem their crimes against their country with blood".  The Punishment units were deployed for tasks such as suicidal frontal assaults and the clearing of minefields by marching through them, making it no surprise that it is estimated up to 400,000 died in the process. During the post-war Soviet period the existence of these units was officially denied.

And then there were the Red Army's blocking detachments formed to shoot down retreating soldiers - retreating Red Army soldiers. In this clip from the movie Enemy At The Gates, which takes place in Stalingrad, you can watch (about 2 minutes in) a blocking detachment at work. The first 20 minutes of this movie are stunning, the rest, not so much.
But the optimism of those that survived extended beyond the relief of having survived and looking forward to seeing family again.  In many of the memoirs and recollections of returning soldiers and officers we hear of a belief, or hope, that conditions in the Soviet Union would be improved.  There was a feeling that they, the common Soviet citizen, had proven to Stalin through their war efforts that they could be trusted, that the regime need not fear them, that the fear of being subject to arbitrary justice would end, and there would be a new start for the Soviet people and a new and more relaxed relationship with their government.  It was not to be.
And now they ask me of the time
That I was caught behind their lines and taken prisoner
"They only held me for a day, a lucky break", I say:
They turn and listen closer 

I'll never know, I'll never know
Why I was taken from the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of Holy Russia
And it's cold and damp in this transit camp
And the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers
The snow will soon be coming
In his epic account of the German-Soviet war, Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes that "the Red Army was the only one in the world where being taken prisoner counted as desertion and treason".  Stalin believed any soldier who allowed himself to be captured was a traitor and counter-revolutionary and that Russians exposed to Westerners for any length of time became a danger to the Soviet state, because they were potentially infected with subversive views. Bellamy adds:

The Soviet government and military command had absolutely no interest in what happened to Soviet people in German captivity.  When prisoners of war who survived were released the end of the war [three of the four million POWs had died in captivity due to the deliberate German policy of exposing them to the elements and leaving them to starve], they were usually sent to the Gulag or shot, and the same fate even befell many who had fought and crawled their way out of German encirclements during the war.    
Also subject to this treatment were civilians who had either volunteered or been seized and taken to Germany as slave labourers.  Bellamy estimates that up to 1.8 million returning Soviet citizens were sent to the Gulag camps or shot.

In his book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, author Anthony Beever tells the tale of a Soviet lieutenant caught in the madness.  Captured by the Germans in August 1942, he manages to escape and rejoin the Red Army, where he is promptly arrested, charged under Stalin's Order as a deserter, and sentenced to a penal company.  Realizing that his sentence is an effective death penalty, he deserts to the Germans!  We don't know his fate, but since well more than half of the Soviets falling into German hands died and most of the survivors sentenced to the Gulag or executed by the Soviets at the end of war, he was unlikely to have had a happy ending.

Unfortunately, Britain and America are also implicated in this disgraceful episode.  Between 1945 and 1947, the two countries forcibly repatriated over one million Russians who did not want to return to the Soviet Union.  While it was the British who insisted on honoring agreements made with Stalin during the course of the war, the Americans eventually went along.  These returnees were among those sent to the Gulag or shot.

Even for those escaping the Gulag or execution, their optimism proved misplaced.  Stalin believed that after the "laxity" of the war years, Soviet discipline needed to be reimposed to prevent any sliding back from the pre-war accomplishments of the state.  The post-war years proved grimly repressive for the people of the Soviet Union, with further waves of purges and the elimination of those tiny, fragile zones of personal autonomy some were able to carve out during the war.  Stalin even ordered the removal of crippled and disabled war veterans from the streets of Moscow because he felt their presence was demoralizing.  It was in this atmosphere that a young, returning officer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, found himself sentenced to ten years in the Gulag for telling a joke about Stalin.

And I wonder when I'll be home again and the morning answers "Never"
And the evening sighs and the steely Russian skies go on forever
I find these the saddest lines in music and no matter how often I hear them they affect me as powerfully the first time I heard them.  There are other sad songs, but they mostly about imaginary situations.  This was real.  This was the betrayal of the hopes and dreams of people caught up in a horrible time, who thought they had survived the worst, only to find themselves condemned to death, exile, continual fear and hopelessness. Our narrator, after years of sacrifice on behalf of his country, was one of them.

We take leave of our narrator at this point as he disappears into the mist beneath the steely Russian skies, to an unknown fate, like so many other millions.  It seems appropriate to end with some lines from the poet Osip Mandlestam (1891-1938), who himself died in a Gulag transit camp after being sentenced for committing "counter-revolutionary activities" - writing a poem mocking Stalin:
Mounds of human heads
Are wandering into the distance
I dwindle among them
Nobody sees me 
(Gulag prisoners) 282, Solzhenitsyn)


  1. I enjoyed your fascinating and well-written post. This has been one of my favorite songs, and it's even better with the context you provided.

  2. I have recently been listening to the song. I knew some of the history of the war in Russia and found the song to be so powerful both in the history it told and in the personal experience of the narrator that I wanted an in-depth explanation of the lyrics.

    I wasn’t sure if the narrator was Russian or German. Both defeated German soldiers driven back into Germany and Russians returning home found themselves within sight of freedom, only to be rounded up and sent to the Gulags. Few ever returned.

    The last lines are so poignant, with the narrator resigned to never see home again, as winter sets in. It is one of the most despairing endings.

  3. I always loved the song...I will never listen to it the same again. Makes me wonder where a certain leader found such distain for POW war heros.