“I was killed near Rzhev,
In an unnamed swamp,
In the fifth company, on the left,
In a violent RAID»
In Russia, these poems by Alexander Tvardovsky are well known, a Requiem for the soldiers of the red Army who died during the” great Patriotic war ” of 1941-1945. The battle of Rzhev, which lasted from January 1942 to March 1943, has fallen out of official history. Some archives are still unavailable. Academic papers mark a number of military operations, not to mention this great battle. The battle of Rzhev, which was one of the bloodiest battles of the Second world war, was in the shadow of Stalingrad and on the far pages of history.
The historian Jean Lopez calls it “a colossal failure”. The Soviet forces lost more than two million dead, wounded, and missing at Rzhev (1.1-1.3 million in Stalingrad). A disaster that is hidden as a black spot on the uniform of Stalin’s Supreme strategist and chief of the General staff, Marshal Zhukov, the Creator of the victory over Hitler and a symbolic hero of the country.
However, the situation is changing. On June 30, Vladimir Putin is due to travel to Rzhev (230 km West of Moscow). The ceremony was supposed to take place on the eve of may 9, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus. The President will open a monumental memorial in the city, one of the largest in the country: “Front-line soldier” – a soldier 25 meters high, from whose steps cranes fly up, a symbol of the Soviet military who died in battle… Glorifying the heroic sacrifice of a generation is the Central message of Kremlin rhetoric.
Red flag in Rzhev
Rzhev was completely destroyed during the war,and then rebuilt. It still preserves the pain and sadness of the martyred cities. Through the city flows the Volga, whose calm waters in the past separated the soldiers of the red army and the Wehrmacht who were entrenched in their bridgeheads. The former merchant city with an 800-year history is currently experiencing an acute demographic and economic crisis. Its population is 60,000, which is only slightly more than in 1941. The sanctions imposed in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea are weighing on the local economy, which was once dominated by mechanical engineering. Young people leave because of the lack of universities and jobs. Mayor Roman Krylov (40 years old) still emphasizes the work done in three years to modernize (roads, services…). “The construction of the victory monument is a stage on the way to our revival,” he believes.
In the historical Museum, Director Olga Dudkina demonstrates Stalin’s telegram from January 1942 with the order to return the city. After the defeat at Moscow in December 1941, the Wehrmacht gained a foothold on the long front line, one of the strategic points of which was Rzhev (an area of 150 by 100 km). “It took the red army 15 months to comply with Stalin’s order,” says Olga Dudkina. When Soviet soldiers finally set up a red flag in Rzhev on March 3, 1943, the Nazi troops had already left the city with weapons and equipment. Only 250 people remained from the population of the destroyed Rzhev.
On February 22, 1943, 18-year-old machine gunner Ivan Kladkevich was seriously wounded on the outskirts of Rzhev. Today, the 95-year-old veteran takes “Figaro” in his small apartment in Tver (180 km Northwest of Moscow) and tells about the day when he miraculously managed to survive: “When we were given the order to attack, we with two comrades went 200 or 300 meters, making about 400 shots. We were in the enemy’s sights. But they kept coming. And then a mine exploded very close by. Two of my comrades were killed, and I was wounded in the legs, and remained unconscious until nightfall. Then I was picked up.”
This elderly man has buried all his loved ones and lives alone with memories. For the guests, he comes to attention again and puts on his medal-studded uniform. One of them was handed to him in the Kremlin by Vladimir Putin, as evidenced by the photo hanging in the living room. “I participated in more than one battle, but Rzhev was the most impressive. I had every chance to die, but I survived…” – he says.
“A dagger aimed at Moscow»
In August 1942, Zhukov became a military adviser to Stalin (that is, the first among equals at the top of the red army leadership). He was obsessed with Rzhev. He demanded more and more men and equipment to remove this “dagger aimed at Moscow”, as he wrote in his memoirs, where almost no mention is made of this battle associated with bitter memories… Soviet forces conducted at least four large-scale operations in an attempt to recapture this key intersection on the way to Minsk, Warsaw, and Berlin. Unsuccessfully.
Zhukov, who received the Marshal’s epaulets in January 1943, was opposed by one of The Wehrmacht’s best generals, Walter Model, a master of deep defense. In April 1942, the skilful maneuvers of the commander of the 9th Reich army led to the encirclement of the 29th and 33rd armies of the USSR. The commander of the troops in the center, Marshal Mikhail Efremov, refused to be evacuated by plane and committed suicide along with the trapped soldiers. Marshal Ivan Konev, Zhukov’s successor as commander of operations from August 1942 to February 1943, also broke his teeth about Rzhev.
At the end of 1942 the Soviets launched two parallel operations: Uranus and Mars. The first began on 19 November and was aimed at destroying the 6th German army of Paulus in Stalingrad, while the second was launched on 25 November to capture Rzhev. The idea was to disperse the German forces and prevent them from transferring troops from one section of the front to another. “Zhukov was able to get huge funds from Stalin for Mars, a quarter of the entire red army,” Jean Lopez emphasizes. There was no question of a simple diversionary maneuver, as Zhukov himself later claimed, to hide the failure at Rzhev…
The fact is that “Uranus” was successful and allowed to surround the German army in Stalingrad on November 22, 1942, but “Mars” turned into a bloodbath: in just one month (by December 20) The red army lost 300,000 men (100,000 dead). The soldiers called the fighting in Rzhev a “meat grinder”. “Incredible carnage. The Soviet troops did not achieve anything and could not break through the defense, – explains Jean Lopez. — Therefore, this colossal and bloody failure was hidden in Soviet historiography, especially since the blame for it lies with Zhukov, the first Marshal of victory, who did not lose a single battle.” Special emphasis was placed on Stalingrad, which fell on February 2, 1943, which really was a turning point in the Second world war.
“You don’t have anything against Stalin, do you?»
On August 4, 1943, Stalin spent one of his few nights at the front in Rzhev. The blue house where the Generalissimo was housed became a relic-filled Museum of his glory. Guests are met by Marina Kopayeva. She loves her job and is a little suspicious of us: “You don’t have anything against Stalin, do you? Here we do not idealize him, but talk about his contribution to the development of the USSR and the victory over fascism. This is the main thing.” In this anniversary year, before the covid-19 epidemic, the Museum had four times as many visitors as usual.
According to the historian Svetlana Gerasimova, one of the best Russian specialists on this period, the battle of Rzhev is not just limited to a few “local” operations, as the historiographical Vulgate claims. It actually played an important strategic role. At that time, the command even put Rzhev above Stalingrad, she claims. “Which operation made the most difference? There is no consensus on this point. Official science claims that this is “Uranus” in the South. We and other historians believe that this is “Mars”, the defense of Moscow. Besides, isn’t Mars the main God of war? ” – Svetlana Gerasimova is sure. According to her, Rzhev was not mentioned later, because Zhukov, Konev and the high command could not defeat the Germans. The main strategic goal (defense of the capital) was achieved, but no more…
“In the spring of 1942, the Soviet command misunderstood Hitler’s intentions, thinking that he would go to capture Moscow, as in November 1941, — says Jean Lopez. – German sources indicate that the main goal of the large-scale offensive of the Wehrmacht in the summer of 1942 was the Caucasian oil and, to a lesser extent, stopping the transportation of oil along the Volga. The second task was to unite with the Finnish allies East of Ladoga to finally cut off Leningrad and the naval base at Kronstadt from the Soviet forces. In 1942, Hitler did not even think about a second attack on Moscow.”
The scale of the operation and the failure at Rzhev were long hidden in the army archives, but still began to surface from the mid-1990s. Printed sources and other declassified documents allowed Western experts to assess the significance of the battle. A major contribution was the work of the American historian David Glantz, published at the turn of the 2000s, in which he reviewed the orders of Stalin stored on magnetic tape, transmitted by the Bodo apparatus (named after its Creator, the Frenchman Emile Bodo).
The battle of Rzhev rose from purgatory. Attention was drawn to it by documentaries, as well as a feature film released last year in Russian cinemas. In an article published in the American magazine “national interest”, Vladimir Putin quotes a poem by Tvardovsky and voices the losses: 1,154,698 killed, wounded and missing. “I call these terrible, tragic, and far from complete figures collected from archival sources-for the first time, paying tribute to the feat of famous and nameless heroes, about whom in the post — war years, for various reasons, they spoke unfairly, unfairly little or no silence,” the President notes in a publication that emphasizes the key role of the USSR in the victory over Hitlerism and condemns Western “revisionism”. It is curious that in the Russian version of the article Putin gives higher figures: 1 888 342…