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On the Precipice: Stalin, the Red Army Leadership and the Road to Stalingrad, 1931 1942 [Hardcover]

Peter Mezhiritsky
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

15 Sep 2012
A unique blend of prosaic literature and shrewd historic analysis dedicated to events in Soviet history in light of Marshal Zhukov's memoirs Exhaustive knowledge of Soviet life, politics and censorship, including the phraseology in which Communist statesmen were allowed to narrate their biographical events, gave Peter Mezhiritsky sharp tools for the analysis of Zhukov s memoirs. The reader will learn about the abundance of awkward events that strangely and fortuitously occurred in good time for Stalin's rise to power, about the hidden connection between the purges, the Munich appeasement and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, and about the real reason why it took so long to liquidate Paulus' Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Mezhiritsky presents a clear picture of the purges which promoted incompetent and poorly educated commanders to higher levels of command, leaving the Soviet Union poorly prepared for a war against the Wehrmacht military machine, and offers alternative explanations for many prewar and wartime events. The second part of the book is dedicated to the course of the Great Patriotic War, much of which is still little known to the vast majority of Western readers. While not fully justifying Zhukov's actions, Mezhiritsky also reveals the main reason for the bloody strategy chosen by Zhukov and the General Staff in the defensive period of the War. In general, he shares and argues Marshal Vasilevsky's conviction that if there had been no purges, the war would not have occurred. On the Precipice became widely known to the Russian-reading public on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the last ten years its quotations have been used as an essential argument in almost all the debates about the World War II. On the Precipice has been nominated for the 2013 PushkinHouse/Waterstone's Russian Book Prize

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Helion and Company (15 Sep 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1907677720
  • ISBN-13: 978-1907677724
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,124,491 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

The strongest point of the book being discussed here is that Mezhiritsky combines the skills of a professional historian, the patience of an archivist, and the passion of someone for whom the years 1941-1945 are part of his life. The author of captivating fiction, he knows how to make his writing accessible to professionals and the lay public alike. He often interrupts the exposition by digressions, asides, and personal recollections, so that the reader becomes a participant in the unfolding tragedy. This is indeed an academic book with a human face. --Anatoly Liberman, Professor of Germanic and Slavic at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis campus

About the Author

Author Peter Mezhiritsky belongs to the so-called Shestidesyatniki -"the 60s generation" - Soviets born between 1925 and 1945 who resisted the Communist Party's cultural and ideological restrictions in adulthood. As children, they'd been fully convinced in the ideals of communism, only to be disillusioned by knowledge of the widespread repressions as they matured. Many of this generation became noted writers. Mezhiritsky obtained a Master's Degree in Engineering, but quickly understood the phantom essence of the socialist economy and started sharing his views by writing. His first novel was a complete success, being translated into Polish and made into a movie by Belarusfilm. In 1979, forced by the growing impositions of Soviet censorship, Mezhiritsky emigrated to the United States, where he kept working as an engineer while continuing to write books. His Russian-language books "Longing for London" and "Reading Marshal Zhukov" (published in 1994 and 1995 respectively) were dedicated to the consequences of Stalinism. The novel "On the threshold of immortality" (2006) was dedicated to the patriarchs Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. He is the author of many short stories, essays and articles, which have been published in the United States, Germany, Israel, Russia and the Ukraine. He lives in San Diego, CA. / Stuart Britton is a freelance translator and editor residing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has been responsible for making a growing number of Russian titles available to readers of the English language, consisting primarily of memoirs by Red Army veterans and recent historical research concerning the Eastern Front of the Second World War and Soviet air operations in the Korean War. Notable recent titles include Boris Gorbachevsky's 'Through the Maelstrom: A Red Army Soldier's War on the Eastern Front 1942-45' (University Press of Kansas, 2008) and Yuri Sutiagin's and Igor Seidov's 'MiG Menace Over Korea: The Story of Soviet Fighter Ace Nikolai Sutiagin' (Pen & Sword Aviation, 2009). Future books will include Lev Lopukhovsky's detailed study of the Soviet disaster at Viazma in 1941, Svetlana Gerasimova's analysis of the prolonged and savage fighting against Army Group Center in 1942-43 to liberate the city of Rzhev, and more of Igor Seidov's studies of the Soviet side of the air war in Korea, 1951-1953.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, an Excellent Read 13 April 2013
By Dave History Student TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
As an avid student of the Russo-German War I'm constantly looking for new material to study. I feel fortunate for having read this book for the author has presented new info to learn as well as making me reconsider some things that I already knew in a different or deeper light. Mr Mezhiritsky is an extremely well read and experienced historian of Russian history and especially of the important 1930s and 1940s when the machinations of two dictators caused so much death and destruction.

The main purpose of the book is to present the events and reasons why the Soviets did so poorly in defending the homeland in 1941 and how in the following year began to improve their situation with their victory at Stalingrad.
The book begins in the 1930s with the political and especially the military purges that devastated the ranks and especially the command of the Soviet military. The author is very deliberate presenting these prewar years, spending almost half of the book on it. While there are three main protagonists, Stalin, Zhukov and Hitler running throughout the book, the author also includes a hundred other key characters, many of which are found in this first section. The inclusion of all these key characters will make the account more personal and will show more easily Stalin's reasons and motives for the terrible deeds he enacted that will place the Soviet Union's military posture in such a vulnerable state by 1940.
Mr Mezhiritsky is a major critic of Stalin and shows many examples of his poor decisions and their ramifications. He blames the dictator for most of the ill done to Russia and her people before and during the war.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An original look at the Soviet Union and the Eastern Front 30 Nov 2012
By T. Kunikov - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As Stuart Britton, the translator, explains, Peter Mezhiritsky doesn't so much tell a story as engage in a dialog with the reader. In general this is something that's rather more common in Russian historical literature (mainly when written by hobbyists and journalists) but it comes with strengths and weaknesses. Many assertions are offered, poetic licenses taken, and guesstimates proposed with the end result being the author is showing the numerous blank spots that are evident even in today's literature that deals with both the history of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Front. In the end, this style works well enough with both the pre-war Soviet period and the Second World War because some revelations will remain a mystery to us while others are gathering dust in still inaccessible archives. Thus when Mezhiritsky, for instance, questions the level of Zhukov's education and where his genius originated - was it in short Soviet courses during the 1920s or when he studied in Germany thanks to the Treaty of Rapallo? - it gives the reader something to think about and chew over. Unfortunately, Zhukov either never left an account of his time in Germany or it is buried among his papers in Russian archives, but to this day we don't know what impact that time had on him and how much of an influence it had over future studies and his time in the field throughout the Second World War. An additional strength of this text is encompassed in some of the more interesting asides and accounts dealing with the author's personal recollections about the war. He witnessed June 22 as a seven year old in Kiev and experienced the fear and chaos of evacuations firsthand, as well as the condition the country found itself in as Germany's armed forces enjoyed continued success in the first months of the invasion.

The majority of the text follows Zhukov's career with quite a few detours into Soviet history. Stalin features regularly but one needs to keep in mind that the book is not wholly about Stalin and his actions, but rather his impact on Zhukov and the Soviet Union as a whole. In many ways this text resembles dissident polemics of the Cold War period, which also means that dissident ideas come to the forefront. For instance, Mezhiritsky holds Stalin's genius for planning and cunning in high regard, but there are today many questions that have been raised and answered about Stalin's role in the purges and the direction Soviet foreign policy assumed in the 1930s. While I don't fully agree with all Mezhiritsky's ideas, I will say they still provoke questions that need to be asked and for which we are still missing concrete answers. And in the end Mezhiritsky himself understands that much of what he writes is in the form of `suppositions' that are in desperate need of `supplementary research'. This also applies to the author's thoughts on Operation Barbarossa, including its planning and execution. These days I am in agreement with David Stahel's work, `Operation Barbarossa and Germany's defeat in the East' (which Mezhiritsky is aware of and addresses), that shows through meticulous research Germany's plans for subduing the Soviet Union were flawed from the beginning and doomed to failure. Mezhiritsky, however, has highlighted some interesting ideas but I would argue that he is missing the forest for a few select trees. Anecdotal evidence is interesting to come by, and he has plenty to offer having lived through the war, but the overall situation is much harder to grasp within the framework that he's created.

An added contribution of Mezhiritsky's is the introduction of a plethora of characters, personalities, and ideologues that few in the west are familiar with. His concentration remains on the Red Army so many of those introduced participated in the creation of the Red Army or became famous/infamous among Red Army circles. The culmination point, in many instances, is the purge of the Red Army in 1937, but there were numerous deaths that occurred before that year. For some there are accepted explanations (Frunze, Triandafillov, etc.) but for many others, strange circumstances surround their demise and to this day a conclusive answer still eludes historians (what happened to General Kotovsky is one example). Additionally, there are references to events and battles that continue to be missing from the mainstream narrative of the war. Although I have studied the Eastern Front for over a decade, Mezhiritsky's mention of an attack by a reinforced 20th army around the summer of 1942, and an ensuing tank engagement that featured some 3,000 tanks is an event I can't recall coming across previously. And it is certainly an operation that is in need of greater study and analysis. Finally, some of the most interesting commentary is offered around the battle for Stalingrad. Once more, a meticulous reading of both Zhukov's and Vasilevsky's memoirs raises more questions than we have answers for, but also shows how shrewd one has to be to `read between the lines' of Soviet era publications.

There are, unfortunately, minor grammatical problems throughout the text, but many can be overlooked as the translator tried to retain the original `richness' that Mezhiritsky wrote into his text. Another problem is encountered when chapter sixteen ends in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps a word is missing, as the sentence is clear enough in where it's going, but there is no period at the end. Additionally, somewhere along the line a corrupted image/picture of General G. I. Kotovsky somehow made it into the book. Aside from the grammatical problems, there are some incorrect facts presented, as when the author claims the Luftwaffe lost only 17 aircraft on 22 June (pg. 200), when in fact total losses for the day were 78 with another 89 damaged. This doesn't change that the Soviet Air Force lost a great deal more aircraft, but 17 is not 78. Another mistake is the mention of a Polish cavalry charge against German tanks as a well-known fact. While it might be well-known it certainly isn't a fact (315). In the end Mezhiritsky accomplishes what he's set out to do. He provokes, prods, aggravates, upsets, angers, and incites the reader to want to know more about the Soviet Union, the Eastern Front, leading men like Yakir, Gamarnik, Bliukher, and Tukhachevsky, and the multitude of men and women who gave their lives either as a sacrifice to the system that Stalin attempted to create and perfect, or the German war machine that almost achieved its destruction.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Peter Mezhiritsky's book is brilliant 28 Nov 2012
By Anna Smolensky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Peter Mezhiritsky is one of the authoritative military historians, who revealed the ominous role of Stalin in the execution of brilliant commanders of the Soviet Army just before the Second World War. Also Peter Mezhiritsky is a well-known Russian writer, an author of novels and short stories, a splendid master of literary style. We are admirers of his talent and are proud to be among his friends.

And a few words for Russian speaking readers:

Пётр Межирицкий - один из авторитетных военных историков, раскрывший зловещую роль Сталина, который накануне Второй Мировой войны обезглавил блестящее руководство Советской Армии. Он известен и как талантливый писатель, великолепный стилист, своими книгами и рассказами обогативший русскую литературу. Мы гордимся дружбой с этим замечательным человеком и желаем ему творческих успехов.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, Effective; an Excellent Read 13 April 2013
By Dave Schranck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As an avid student of the Russo-German War I'm constantly looking for new material to study. I feel fortunate for having read this book for the author has presented new info to learn as well as making me reconsider some things that I already knew in a different or deeper light. Mr Mezhiritsky is an extremely well read and experienced historian of Russian history and especially of the important 1930s and 1940s when the machinations of two dictators caused so much death and destruction.

The main purpose of the book is to present the events and reasons why the Soviets did so poorly in defending the homeland in 1941 and how in the following year began to improve their situation with their victory at Stalingrad.
The book begins in the 1930s with the political and especially the military purges that devastated the ranks and especially the command of the Soviet military. The author is very deliberate presenting these prewar years, spending almost half of the book on it. While there are three main protagonists, Stalin, Zhukov and Hitler running throughout the book, the author also includes a hundred other key characters, many of which are found in this first section. The inclusion of all these key characters will make the account more personal as well as show Stalin's reasons and motives for the terrible deeds he enacted that will place the Soviet Union's military posture in such a vulnerable state by 1940.
Mr Mezhiritsky is a major critic of Stalin and shows many examples of his poor decisions and their ramifications. He blames the dictator for most of the ill done to Russia and her people before and during the war. Even with the winds of war staring Stalin in the face, he executed the absolute most brilliant military minds that the country had spawn and that probably would have stopped the Germans in their tracks before getting anywhere close to Moscow or causing millions of casualties in 1941. Most survivors of the purges were clearly inexperienced or unqualified and a major cause for the disasters of 1941 along with the poor decisions of Stalin.
The author presents many hard facts discovered from primary sources for his commentary as well as adding his own experienced opinions and analysis. And if that wasn't enough many quotes are delivered to bolster his positions. Many of these quotes come from Marshall Zhukov but there are also quotes from historians like David Stahel, Viktor Suvorov as well as other German and Russian experts.

Another key area that is discussed is the 1939-1941 period when the two dictators join in a economic alliance while at the same time vie with each other for domination of all of Europe and hopefully of the other. Though Mr Mezhiritsky doesn't have concrete proof like written battle orders, he is confident that by observing Stalin closely one can see he was preparing to attack Germany though not as early as Suvorov's July 41 timeframe but more likely in 1942. Much is also said about Hitler's attempt to subdue UK as well as the manuvering of the UK and France to persuade Stalin to join the alliance against Hitler. Hitler's motives to attack Russia are also prominent.
During the first year of war the author discusses the pros and cons of each side: why the Soviets did so poorly, why the Germans did so well. Much time is spent from command view of Operation Barbarossa once AGC reached the Dnepr. An important aspect covered is the Moscow or Kiev first strategy. The author believes that Germany had a chance of winning the war only if Moscow and nearby Gorki was captured or at least encircled in 1941. He feels that once Hitler chose to send Guderian to Kiev that the war was lost. He believes that as long as Rudstedt kept pressure on the Southwestern Front and continued to drive eastward providing as much screening to AGC's southern flank as possible that Moscow could have fallen in 1941. Theres more to the author's position than presented here but I must move on.

Quickening the pace, 1942 saw the German AGS have important victories at Kharkov, the Crimea and a successful opening few months of Operation Blue that allowed 6th Army reach the gates of Stalingrad in September. Despite these victories plus the fact that the Red Army was still learning war craft, the German Army was wearing itself out. AGS was now at the Volga and its Front Line was unmanageable and its logistics impossible as well as the fact that Hitler was running the complete show and was driving a stake in the heart of AGS by redeploying half of its AGS into the Caucasus before securing Stalingrad and the Volga. While the Stalingrad garrison was holding on and Stalin was obsessing with the defense of Moscow, Zhukov was gaining more authority over the battlefield and was planning the destruction of 6th Army and hopefully 9th Army by a counter offensive. Mr Mezhiritsky's analysis is straight forward and unambiguous and while some may argue certain positions, most interested readers will have an overall favorable appreciation for this book.

At this point the author ends his story with a few closing remarks but I wouldn't be surprised a sequel is in the works.
There are seven maps and a few photos. There are also notes, a bibliography and an index.

Though the author occasionally zigs and zags and drifts from the main course, this book is thought provoking and provides important insight on Stalin and to a lesser degree on Hitler. The coverage of the military purges that destroyed the core of the Red Army is equally insightful and if you have any interest on these dictators, the rise of Zhukov or Operations Barbarossa, Typhoon to name only some of the topics then you should consider reading this book. I found it excellent and highly recommend it.
5.0 out of 5 stars Stalin, Zhukov and others, power and military strategy 24 Dec 2012
By David Young - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I feel lucky. Lucky to have read the book and lucky that it got written in the first place.

The author presents a rare combination of being both a historian and a fine connaisseur of military strategy.

By choosing a slice of Russia's history: 1931 - 1942, the author concentrates on the personality of Stalin, the roots of military debacle of 1941 and finally on the turnaround of 1942. The role of Marshal Zhukov is also mentioned.

The amount of research that has gone into this book is astounding. The book brilliantly illustrates that Stalin was a politician rather than a military strategist, finessing foreign partners in war against Germany and ruthlessly eliminating all opposition, even suspected one.

This book raises one corner of a curtain, unveiling the truth about what was to become later a Soviet empire.

Highly recommended.

David Young
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