June 21 1941 could scarcely have been more stifling, and Stalin’s top aide, Alexander Poskryobyshev, was sweating profusely, his window open but the leaves on the trees outside utterly still. The son of a cobbler, like the despot whom he served, he occupied the immediate outer office through which all visitors had to pass, and invariably they would spray him with questions—“Why did the Master have me summoned?” “What’s his mood?”—to which Poskryobyshev would laconically answer, “You’ll find out.” He was indispensable, handling all the phone calls and document piles in just the way the despot preferred. But Stalin had allowed Beria to imprison Poskryobyshev’s beloved wife as a “Trotskyite” in 1939. (Beria had sent a large basket of fruit to their two baby girls; he then executed their mother.) Now, Poskryobyshev sat at his desk trying to cool down with a bottle of Narzan mineral water, under a photograph of a youthful Stalin wearing a pointy, red-starred civil war cap. On Stalin’s instructions, at around 2:00 p.m., he phoned General Ivan Tyulenev, head of the Moscow military district. Soon the general heard Stalin’s “muffled voice” asking, “Comrade Tyulenev, what is the situation concerning Moscow’s antiaircraft defenses?” After a brief report, Stalin said, “Listen, the situation is unsettled and therefore you should bring the antiaircraft defenses of Moscow up to 75 percent of their readiness state.”
Poskryobyshev thumped the latest intelligence, delivered by field courier, onto Stalin’s desk. Rather than purloined documents, almost all of it was hearsay. From London, Ambassador Maisky, despite having been given British intelligence about German force concentrations (gleaned, unbeknownst to him, from Enigma codebreaking), wrote to Moscow (June 21) that he had told Cripps, “As before, I consider a German attack on the USSR unlikely.” But from Berlin, Ambassador Dekanozov—who also knew the view in the Kremlin and the consequences of contradicting it—was finally reporting, under the influence of the best spies in the Soviet network, that Germany’s actions signaled an imminent invasion. Stalin evidently concluded that his Berlin envoy had been fed disinformation by British agents and stated, “Dekanozov is not such a smart fellow to be able to see that.”
From Tokyo, Max Clausen (June 21) radioed yet another message from Sorge, this one composed the day before: “The German ambassador in Tokyo, Ott, told me a war between Germany and the USSR is inevitable.” The dispatch gave no start date. For Stalin, the question was not whether war with the Nazi regime was inescapable, but whether it was inescapable this year. Scores and scores of invasion warnings had accumulated on his desk, but just about every reported date—including at least fourteen specific ones—had passed. These ranged from the earliest, such as “March 1941” (transmitted on December 29, 1940), “May 20,” “April or May,” “April 6,” “April 20,” or “May 15 to June 15,” to the more recent: “either in May or after defeating Britain,” “not today or tomorrow,” “May 18,” “May 25,” “in late May,” “summer 1941 before the harvest gathering,” “at the beginning of June,” “no later than June 15,” “around June 15,” “June 15,” and “June 15–20.” The only remaining possibilities were “June 22–25” (reported on June 16) and “June 21 or 22.”24 The invasion window would soon shut; Stalin was virtually home free for another year.
Never mind the secret intelligence: warnings were splashed across the front pages of the global press. But knowing how he himself used newspapers, Stalin took the screaming headlines to be planted provocations. He reasoned that Britain (and the United States) wanted nothing more than for the USSR and Nazi Germany to become embroiled in war—which was true—but as a result, he dismissed all warnings of a German attack. He knew that Germany was experiencing severe shortages—again true—so he reasoned that it needed even more supplies from him, and that a German invasion would be self-defeating because it would put those supplies at risk. He knew that Germany had lost the First World War because it had fought on two fronts—also true—and so he reasoned that the Germans understood that it would be suicidal for them to attack the USSR before defeating Britain in the west. This logical reasoning had become Stalin’s trap, enabling the Germans to spread a seemingly all-encompassing explanation for what they could not conceal: their colossal troop buildup. It was supposedly not for war but for extorting Soviet concessions. When Stalin intemperately damned his intelligence as contaminated by disinformation, he was spot-on. But the despot had no idea which parts were disinformation, and which might be accurate intelligence. He labeled as “disinformation” whatever he chose not to believe.
The Nazis’ brilliant disinformation campaign generated reams of Soviet intelligence reports saying both that war was coming and that there would be blackmail—and if the latter was true, the former need not be. The fake ultimatum became for Stalin the ultimate truth, something that, given his lack of confidence in the Red Army’s prospects against the Wehrmacht, he desperately needed to be true.
Blackmail certainly fit Hitler’s profile. Early on, the British had dismissed the German buildup in the east and the accompanying rumors of a military showdown there as “wishful thinking.” Then they latched on to the Hitler-ultimatum theory, which many British officials did not relinquish even after decrypted Enigma intercepts exposed real-time German war orders. While Göring told his high-placed, notoriously indiscreet British contacts that he had personally drawn up a list of demands to be presented to the Soviets so that Germany could continue the fight against Britain, Goebbels’s men launched rumors that the Führer would soon demand a ninety-nine-year lease on Ukraine. Stalin found himself in the reverse of the role in which he had placed Finland in 1939. The crucial difference was that, whereas he had issued his demands to the Finns and sought to negotiate, he was still waiting upon Hitler’s, and Hitler had no intention to negotiate. In the meantime, Germany had attained the buildup necessary for an invasion.
Colonel Georgy Zakharov, a decorated fighter pilot, had been ordered to conduct a full daylight reconnaissance of the border region on the German side, and he reported that the Wehrmacht was poised to invade. The NKGB had discovered that German saboteurs brazenly crossing into the USSR had been instructed that “in the event German troops cross the frontier before they return to Germany, they must report to any German troop unit located on Soviet territory.” Soviet counterintelligence noted vigorous German recruitment of disaffected Belorussians, Balts, and Ukrainians, who were forming underground groups and engaging in terrorism long after Stalin’s supposed annihilation of the fifth column in the terror. Overburdened Soviet rail lines that were needed to transport troops westward were swamped with tens of thousands of “anti-Soviet elements” being deported eastward from the annexed territories. On June 21, Merkulov issued an order to Ukraine for a new wave of preemptive arrests to interdict sabotage: “Immediately telegraph by what deadline the indicated operation could be readied by you, and provide an overall orientation about the number of people who could be removed, with a breakdown by categories.”
Stalin paced and paced. Actually, it was more like a waddle as he swung his hips around awkwardly, the result of that childhood collision with a horse-drawn carriage. He wore, as ever, his signature baggy breeches, which he tucked into his well-worn black leather boots, as well as matching khaki tunic, buttoned at the top, simple and functional, and different from the bourgeois suits favored by Lenin. The despot’s clothes were martial in look without being an actual military uniform, a style first popularized in Russia by Alexander Kerensky as well as, yes, Trotsky. His former nemesis had survived sixteen years beyond Lenin’s death—an eternity, burning its way into the Little Corner with his acid pen. But what had Trotsky marshaled—a few thousand dispersed followers?—before Stalin’s assassins managed to drive that ice pick through his skull in the run-down Mexican villa? German tanks, warplanes, and pontoon bridges had been advanced into the barbed-wire-protected inner zone of the border, and the barbed wire itself was being removed. The click and whir of German motors resounded across to the Soviet side.
At the centerpiece of the Little Corner, the felt-covered conference table, the despot had held countless sessions devoted to war preparations. “Stalin had an enormous capacity for work,” observed Molotov, who, despite his demotion from head of government, had kept his reserved seat at the table. “If the subject was cannons—then cannons; if tanks—then tanks.” He had forced into being upward of 9,000 new industrial enterprises during the three Five-Year Plans, and Soviet military production grew even faster than GDP for a decade. He had overseen the formation of 125 new divisions just since 1939, and the Red Army now stood at 5.37 million troops, the largest in the world. It had 25,000 tanks and 18,000 fighter planes, three to four times Germany’s stocks. Stalin knew that Germany was underestimating this massive force out of prejudice as well as ignorance, so he had arranged German visits to Soviet aviation and tank factories, and even allowed Göring’s planes nearly unimpeded reconnaissance of Soviet troop concentrations, airfields, naval bases, and fuel and ammunition depots. Stalin also had his spies spread rumors that, if attacked, Soviet aircraft would assault Berlin with chemical and biological agents. In Hitler’s shoes, Stalin would have been deterred.
Of course, if your own country really was so well armed, why not let the foolish enemy underestimate you? Because the Winter War with Finland had exposed Soviet military weaknesses not just to Hitler, but also to Stalin. The Red Army was still in the middle of its gigantic, protracted, contradictory post-Finland rearmament and reorganization.
Stalin’s early commitment to mass armament production, amid rapid technological change, meant that more than 10,000 Soviet tanks (T-26s and BT-7s) were now too light, while the more advanced, heavier T-34 (45-millimeter-thick armor) and KV (75-millimeter armor) numbered only around 1,800 units. Similarly, the most advanced warplanes (Yak-1, MiG-3, Pe-2) made up just one quarter of the air force. Stalin’s war preparations also bore the mark of his executions of thousands of loyal officers, especially top commanders like Vasily Blyukher, whose eye had been deposited in his hand before he died under torture, and the gifted Mikhail Tukhachevsky, whose blood had been splattered all over his “confession” to being a German agent just before Stalin signed the Pact. Now, 85 percent of the officer corps was thirty-five or under, while those older than forty-five constituted around 1 percent. Fully 620 generals were under forty-five, 393 under fifty-five, and only 63 older than fifty-five. Many had been majors a short time earlier. The Red Army had one officer for every nine soldiers, versus one for every nineteen in Japan and one for twenty-nine in Germany, but Soviet officer ranks were swelled by those in the army’s political apparatus. Of the 659,000 Soviet officers, only around half had completed a military school, while one in four had the bare minimum (a few courses), and one in eight had no military education whatsoever.
Lately, the despot’s morose side had gotten the upper hand. “Stalin was unnerved and irritated by persistent reports (oral and written) about the deterioration of relations with Germany,” Admiral Kuznetsov would recall. Stalin’s face gave away stress—even fear—to the point that he sometimes failed to fill his pipe with the Herzegovina Flor cigarette tobacco that had stained his teeth and mustache yellow. “He felt that danger was imminent,” recalled Khrushchev, the party boss of Ukraine, who was in Moscow until June 20. “Would our country be able to deal with it? Would our army deal with it?”
Since May 1941, nighttime use of electric lighting in the Kremlin had been forbidden. But June 21 was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. At around 5:00 p.m., Stalin ordered Alexander Shcherbakov, party boss of Moscow province and city, and Vasily Pronin, chairman of the Moscow soviet executive committee, to keep all ward party secretaries at their posts.44 At 6:27 p.m., Molotov entered the Little Corner, the first visitor, as usual. At 7:05, in walked Voroshilov, Beria, Voznesensky, Malenkov, Timoshenko, Admiral Kuznetsov, and Grigory Safonov, the young deputy procurator general, who was responsible for the military courts on railroads and in the fleets. The discussion apparently revolved around recent developments pointing toward war, versus Stalin’s dread of provocations that might incite it. Germany had achieved the buildup necessary to attack. Filipp Golikov, of Soviet military intelligence, estimated Germany’s concentration of forces against the USSR at only 120 to 122 of around 285 total divisions, versus 122 to 126 against Britain (the other 44 to 48 were said to be reserves).46 In fact, there were around 200 divisions arrayed against the USSR, including 154 German ones—a total of at least 3 million Wehrmacht soldiers and half a million troops from its Axis partners, as well as 3,600 tanks, 2,700 aircraft, and 700,000 field guns and other artillery, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 650,000 horses. The Soviets had massed around 170 divisions, perhaps 2.7 million men in the west, along with 10,400 tanks and 9,500 aircraft. The two largest armies in world history stood cheek by jowl on a border some 2,000 miles long.
Such immense Soviet troop concentrations testify to both Stalin’s understanding that Germany represented a monumental danger and his misunderstanding of blitzkrieg. But only one of the two vast armies on the frontier had occupied its firing positions. Stalin had allowed covert strategic redeployments westward and lately had finally yielded to Timoshenko and Zhukov’s insistence that the Red Army commence camouflaging of aerodromes, tank parks, warehouses, and military installations (which in many cases would require repainting). But he would not permit assumption of combat positions, which he feared would only play into the hands of German militarist-adventurers, who craved war and schemed to force Hitler’s hand, the way they had pushed the Wehrmacht beyond the agreed-upon German-Soviet line in Poland in 1939. Soviet planes were forbidden from flying within six miles of the border. Timoshenko and Zhukov, subject to the despot’s admonitions and the watchful eye of Beria and his minions, made sure that frontline commanders did not cause or yield to “provocation.” Beria also tasked the assassin Sudoplatov with organizing “an experienced strike force to counter any frontier incident that might be used as an excuse to start a war.”
Soviet intelligence was reporting that not just Germany but also Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Finland were at full war readiness. But Stalin, having long ago ceded the initiative, was effectively paralyzed. Just about anything he did could be used by Hitler to justify an invasion. On June 20, the head of the Soviet Union’s Riga port had telephoned Mikoyan to report that all 25 German ships docked there were preparing to leave en masse on June 21, without having finished loading or unloading, and had asked whether to detain them. When Mikoyan hastened over to the Little Corner with the news, Stalin had ordered him to let the German vessels go, because if the Soviets detained them, Hitler could regard that as a justification for war. While all German vessels departed safely on June 21, a Soviet freighter, the Magnitogorsk, hastily sent a panicked radiogram, not even using ciphers, informing the Baltic Commercial Fleet in Leningrad that it was being prevented from departing the German port of Danzig, without explanation. More than forty Soviet merchant ships were immobilized at German ports.
At 7:00 p.m., Gerhard Kegel (“X”), the Soviet spy in the German embassy, had slipped out for the second time that day to tell his Soviet handler, Leontyev (“Petrov”), that German personnel living outside the facility had been ordered to relocate into it immediately, and that “all think that this very night there will be war.” At 8:00 p.m., Golikov had a courier dispatched to Stalin, Molotov, and Timoshenko, with this new piece of intelligence in sealed envelopes. In the Little Corner, Timoshenko, Kuznetsov, Safonov, and Voznesensky were dismissed at 8:15. Malenkov was dismissed five minutes later. Nothing significant was decided.
Zhukov phoned in to report that yet another German soldier had defected across the frontier, warning of an invasion within a few hours. This was precisely the kind of “provocation” Stalin feared. He ordered Zhukov to the Kremlin, along with the just-departed Timoshenko. They entered Stalin’s office at 8:50, accompanied by the old Stalin crony Marshal Budyonny, a deputy defense commissar. Whereas the two pince-nez minions Molotov and Beria provided an echo chamber for Stalin’s denials that Hitler was going to attack, the two peasant commanders could see that Germany was coiled to invade. Still, when Stalin insisted otherwise, they presumed that he possessed superior information and insight. In any case, they knew the costs of losing his trust. “Everyone had in their memory the events of recent years,” Zhukov would recall. “And to say out loud that Stalin was wrong, that he is mistaken, to say it plainly, could have meant that without leaving the building, you would be taken to have coffee with Beria.”
Nonetheless, the pair evidently used the latest defector to urge a general mobilization—tantamount, in Stalin’s mind, to war. “Didn’t German generals send that defector across the border in order to provoke a conflict?” Stalin asked. “No,” answered Timoshenko. “We think the defector is telling the truth.” Stalin: “What do we do now?” Timoshenko allowed the silence to persist. Finally, the defense commissar suggested, “Put the troops on the western border on high alert.” He and Zhukov had come prepared with a draft directive.
Where was the ultimatum? Stalin had continued to try to engage Hitler after the TASS bulletin gambit fell flat. “Molotov has asked for permission to visit Berlin, but has been fobbed off,” Goebbels wrote in his diary (June 18). “A naïve request.” Dekanozov had appeared at the German foreign ministry that same day without an appointment, mentioning nothing of a Molotov visit but inducing terror all the same. “The main political worry here is not to afford Stalin the opportunity for some kind of generous gesture to upend all our cards at the last minute,” state secretary Weizsäcker, Ribbentrop’s deputy, had written in his diary, but then he noted that the inept Soviet envoy had “merely brought up a few current matters of lesser importance.” Weizsäcker had cleverly laid out a map of the Near East, as if Germany’s attention was on British positions. “The ambassador took leave of me without anything whatever having been said about German-Soviet relations.” On the morning of June 21, Molotov had sent a telegram instructing Dekanozov to hand-deliver an attached diplomatic protest of German border violations to Ribbentrop, and to use it to elicit clarifications. “Several times that day Moscow telephoned, pressing us to carry out our instructions,” an embassy duty officer recalled. But Ribbentrop had deliberately vanished from the capital and sent instructions to inform Dekanozov that he would be contacted as soon as the Nazi foreign minister returned, whenever that might be. The Soviet duty officer, remaining behind after other employees had departed at around 7:00 p.m., kept calling the German foreign ministry every thirty minutes.