History has always fascinated me, but it’s most interesting when you learn the stories of the people who lived it.  I love learning history from good historical fiction (or well-written non-fiction), but history in a song has its own special place.

I’ve always liked Al Stewart’s Roads to Moscow for its minor tunes but didn’t always give my full attention to the lyrics.  Then one day elsewhere, I read that Russian soldiers who were captured, even briefly, by the Germans, were suspected of having been turned and of now being spies.  They were given short shrift if they lived to return to Russia–either killed or sent off to Siberia. Hence this song, when I began really listening, took on new, heartrending meaning.

While Year of the Cat is a better-known Stewart song, I prefer Roads to MoscowRoads to Moscow tells the story of a soldier whose return to Mother Russia was not the joyous occasion he expected.  Stalin, a worse murderer than Hitler, was just as paranoid. The words to the song tell us how the Germans almost took Moscow before being driven, half-starved and defeated by Russia’s frigid winters, back into Germany by what was left of the Russians.  Surely a happy ending for the Russians, who could then go home, right? Not necessarily. Too many ragged Russian soldiers, former captives of the Germans, if only for a short time, straggled back to Russia, only to find themselves suspected of being spies and sent from the horrors of war to the horrors of Siberia.

At http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=8680, where you’ll find a bit of background on the song, one comment includes Al Stewart’s own words about it:

Here’s what the man himself had to say on the liner notes for Past, Present and Future:

Al wrote: The German Invasion of Russia, on the 22nd June 1941, was on of the greatest single events in the history of the world. The hero of “Roads to Moscow” fights his way first backwards towards Moscow, and then all the way to Berlin, only to be imprisoned by Stalin, as were incalculable millions of others at the end of the Second World War. General Guderian, the Panzer Leader, was incidentally perhaps the most imaginative of the early German Commanders, and his lightning drives across Poland and France had created the basis for mush of the German Army’s reputation of invincibility. He was also the only German General to argue with Hitler, during the latter’s frequent harangues.

– Greg, Shelbyville, Ky

Watch the video and listen to the song that way.  The combination of pictures, words and tune is mesmerizing and will wrap itself around your heart.  The lyrics follow and at the end of the post is a link to a page that ties in some history to the lyrics.

Al Stewart–Roads to Moscow

They crossed over the border, the hour before dawn
Moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
Waiting for orders we held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away
Ah, softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields on our hands and on our knees
And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red
Silhouetting the smoke on the breezeAll summer they drove us back through the Ukraine
Smolensk and Viasma soon fell
By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel
Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill
Winter brought with her the rains, oceans of mud filled the roads
Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground while the sky filled with snow
And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air glowing red
Silhouetting the snow on the breezeIn the footsteps of Napoleon the shadow figures stagger through the winter
Falling back before the gates of Moscow, standing in the wings like an avenger
And far away behind their lines the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts, growing like a promise
You’ll never know, you’ll never know which way to turn, which way to look you’ll never see us
As we’re stealing through the blackness of the night
You’ll never know, you’ll never hear us
And the evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
The morning roads lead to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming

Two broken Tigers on fire in the night
Flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin
It’s been almost four years that I’ve carried a gun
At home it will almost be spring
The flames of the Tigers are lighting the road to Berlin
Ah, quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can’t slow us down
And all that I ever
Was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening
Now it’s the end of the dream

I’m coming home, I’m coming home, now you can taste it in the wind, the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train-wheels as we roll across the border
And now they ask me of the time that I was caught behind their lines and taken prisoner
“They only held me for a day, a lucky break,” I say they turn and listen closer
I’ll never know, I’ll never know why I was taken from the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia
And it’s cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I’ll be home again and the morning answers “Never”
And the evening sighs, and the steely Russian skies go on forever.

A bit of history to go with the song can be found here:  http://alstewart.com/publicfiles/HISTORY_roadstom.htm.

  1. billgncs says:

    thanks for sharing that.

  2. Su Leslie says:

    I’d never heard the song before; it’s beautiful. One of my aunts in Scotland married an ex-POW who was from the Ukraine and had fought with the Germans in one of the White Russian regiments. Somehow he managed not to be sent back to the USSR after the war, but the cost was that he died never knowing what had happened to his family in the Ukraine. It’s only recently that my cousin has traced that part of the family and reestablished contact. It’s a terrible chapter in history; so many Russian – and especially Cossack – soldiers were sent back to death or imprisonment. The British knew what would happen, but didn’t want to offend Stalin by accepting the men (and sometimes their families) as political refugees.

    • I love Al Stewart and this song is so poignant. This has turned out to be a popular post which is cool but sort of surprise. Thanks for the story about your relative. Stalin was as bad or worse than Hitler but since he was our ally, we didn’t say anything. Sometimes that happens.


  3. […] My post with the most staying power and overall views, is one I did back on December 9, 2012: Story of Stalin’s war…Al Stewart’s Roads to Moscow.  I didn’t have many followers then and the original post only got 16 likes and 4 comments, […]

  4. Allan G. Smorra says:

    Happy Blogaversary, Janet. I missed this post the first time around and am so glad that you mentioned it today.

    This is also the first time that I’ve heard this song. It recounts an unbelievable time in history. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    • It’s about a time in history that many people don’t know about and Al Stewart does it so well. I imagine when I posted it that you weren’t following my yet, so I’ll forgive you this time. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to visit it, though.

      • Allan G. Smorra says:

        Every now and then the puck gets past the goalie. Thanks for catching me up.

  5. […] he wrote this pocket masterpiece about a young Russian soldier in World War Two and his ultimate betrayal at the hands of the Great Stalin. And it’s so beautiful, so epic, so sad it pretty much […]

  6. Devlin says:

    Thanks for this great post Janet. I’ve loved this song forever, and have seen Al do it 3 times at least; I’m ashamed to admit I was unaware of the fate of the Russian troops captured for any length of time at all following their return to Russia. Until last night when I was playing along with it on my guitar and decided to read up on it and noted some comments on a YouTube video. I was about 10 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s (the protagonist of the song it appears) released “The Gulag Archipelago”. That’s going on my reading list. Thanks for the great post. A fantastic song and post about a horrific misjustice.

    • Devlin, thanks for taking the time to comment. This post has been really interesting to me as it is my most viewed post and every week gets 1-5 or 6 views, but no “likes” or comments. I love Al Stewart and wish I could see him in concert. This bit of history is fascinating. I can’t remember whether I heard the song first and then learned about what Stalin did or the other way round, but it’s such a wonderfully sad and profound song. Stalin was the ally of the Allies for a reason, but he was a horrific leader and killed more of his own people than Hitler killed Jews and others. Thanks again!


  7. Central Scrutinizer says:

    Just listened to this tune and was caught by what I am sure is a reference to Stalin in the last line – “the steely Russian skies go on forever” – “Stalin” means steel in Russian.