This incident from Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s book, In the Court of the Red Tsar: In 1943, the German defeat already appears inevitable. The huge Soviet military is steadily pushing back the Nazi invaders after suffering horrific losses – millions of soldiers and civilians dead, wounded, or captured. Stalin, initially paralyzed with depression after the invasion, [He knew it was coming, but he thought it would be much later. He disregarded the voluminous intelligence, some of which actually stated the date of Hitler’s planned attack. Some spies, returning to the USSR to warn of the attack, were shot for spreading disinformation.] has regained his egomaniacal groove, and is now the great Supremo, devising military strategy for the operations, a profession about which he knows next to nothing.
At a staff meeting, Stalin and the generals are planning an operation against a city still held by the Germans, a significant target in the way of the Russian advance to Berlin. Stalin declares that a single-pronged attack is the way to take the city, but general Russokovsky, realizing that this plan will cause huge and needless casualties, suggests a two-pronged attack. Stalin tells him to “think again about his idea,” and continues his “planning,” drawing figures on a huge wall map of the area. Russokovsky interjects again with his assertion that a two-pronged attack is the superior option. Stalin tells him to leave the room for a few minutes to think over what he has said.
The general moves outside while the meeting continues. Russokovsky, who is half-Polish, and therefore subject to much suspicion from Stalin who, nevertheless, admired him as a military man, realizes that two others are standing over him as he sits and stews. Molotov and another party man rebuke him: “Don’t you understand who you’re talking to! You can’t contradict Stalin like that – change your position!!” The general, who before the war was arrested and tortured by the head of the secret police, Beria, returns to the room, and in answer to Stalin’s question replies, “Comarade Stalin, I believe a two-pronged approach is best.” Thousands, millions! of people had been imprisoned or shot for less direct defiance of the great Supremo. Stalin says, “Perhaps a two-part attack is the best plan.” The military operation proceeds with Russokovsky’s strategy.
To anyone who knows anything about Stalin, this is a remarkable and hair raising story. Montefiore cites several incidents in which Stalin evinced a grudging respect for people with a nervy defiance of him, and says that they often survived because of it. He was a murderous egomaniac, but not a fool. It is a stunning example of the intellectual corruption that comes with absolute power. And what of the general? Was he a man of incredible principle? Did he have superhuman courage? Or perhaps, since it was ’43, and millions of his countrymen had died, he reasoned: “I die on the battlefield doing my duty, or I die in a prison cellar, a bullet in my head, for having done my duty.”