By mid-October of 1941, Moscow seemed on the verge of falling to the Nazis. German troops had reached the city’s edge, and there were rumors of fascist tanks closing in. At the same time, the situation seemed to have, literally, frozen in place. As the poet Semyon Gudzenko wrote: “Curse you, forty-first year, freezing the infantry in the snows.”
It was as if both the German armies and the scattered, fragmented units of the Western Front that were defending Moscow had been trapped by the frigid, torrential snows of October 1941. Nobody could muster the strength to surge forward: it was taking everything the Soviet troops had just to defend Moscow, and the Germans, for whom just a tiny stretch stood between them and their prize, were stuck. Both sides were on their last leg.
It is easy to imagine the sense of shock felt in Moscow and across the Soviet Union at that point. For years the Soviet people had been told that their country’s military was the mightiest on earth. Even civilians lived in a state of constant combat readiness: they sang rousing songs about how the mighty Soviet people would unite to crush any aggressor, and, beginning in 1931, virtually every young person in the country was involved in an athletic program with the no-nonsense name “Be Prepared for Labor and Defense.” All that running and jumping, all those push-ups and sit-ups, were not for people’s own health – they were to make them more effective workers and better defenders of the motherland in case of enemy attack.
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