Eighty-two years ago today, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In the U.S.-centric West, we tend to forget that the conflict between Germany and the USSR, which became known as the Eastern Front, was the central battlefield in World War II, and this was how it started. There are many reasons, both ideological and strategic, behind Adolf Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union, which are too complicated to go into here. But all know how it turned out: Hitler couldn't complete his victory in time to avoid bogging down in the Russian winter, and in the succeeding years the Soviet Union eventually rebounded to crush Germany. But in the first terrible hours and days of the invasion it looked like the USSR might really be finished.
There's a famous legend surrounding Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, regarding what happened on June 22. Supposedly he was so surprised by the move, and devastated by the potential consequences of not having anticipated it, that he suffered sort of a breakdown and could no longer function as supreme leader of the USSR. Most accounts of the story have Stalin retreating to his dacha outside Moscow where he remained for three days, seeing no one, making no decisions and possibly going on a bender. We do know that Stalin was a heavy drinker, so this is totally plausible. He may even have feared that he was going to be arrested or deposed by some combination of his underlings, one or more of whom might have seized upon his surprise and failure to remove him from power and thus remove the threat to themselves. Eventually his lackeys did move, but not to depose him. Two of his most odious toadies, Molotov, Soviet foreign minister, and Beria, head of the NKVD or secret police chief, went to the dacha, intervened to rescue Stalin from his stupor and convinced him to come back to work. Then with his steely resolve the Soviet dictator decided to do whatever it took to annihilate Hitler.
But is this really what happened? The story of Stalin's breakdown is so well-entrenched in World War II lore that it seems dangerous to question it. It's a part of almost every retelling of the invasion from the Soviet point of view. I've heard it mentioned in many documentaries. In the 1992 HBO TV movie Stalin, where the dictator is played by Robert Duvall (who won a Golden Globe for the performance), the episode is depicted with the "bender" angle added; Molotov and Beria reticently creep into the Leader's bedroom, which is trashed, to find him sitting on the floor surrounded by glasses and empty vodka bottles. Most of these depictions come from the testimonies of Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan who claim this is basically how it happened. However, in recent years some historians have come to question this "standard" account, pointing to various military orders signed by Stalin in the post-invasion days, suggesting that he was engaged at least to some degree and perhaps the "breakdown" or "bender" story is exaggerated.