Nikolai Vatutin: An Inconvenient General?

In keeping with the Soviet tradition of marking the birthdays of important historical figures, the Voice of Russia (Russian text here) marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of General Nikolai Fedorovich Vatutin. While the profile is in general terms a good one, several things about it struck me as more representative of the current state of Russian military historiography than of the actual historical record.

Vatunin isn’t as well known in the West as he ought to be. His record at the 1943 Battle of Kursk and the subsequent liberation of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine from the Germans is an impressive one. Vatunin’s problem is that he died during the war, and as a result left no memoirs and played no role in the shaping of the war’s history in the way that comparable figures like Aleksandr Vasilevskii or Sergei Shtemenko could.

What the article focuses on, though, is Vatutin’s role as an “inconvenient [neudobnyi] general,” one who stood up to the country’s misguided political leadership on the eve of war. While this is an interpretation with obvious resonance in current circumstances of Russian military reforms that are opposed by the bulk of the high command, it’s not clear to me what grounds there are for this judgment in the historical record.

Vatutin’s rise to prominence postdated the 1937 purges, and so he didn’t have much opportunity to say anything especially controversial until 1938. While he did participate in the Main Military Council (the Soviet military’s collective deliberative body) in the pre-war years, it’s not clear that he said or did anything especially noteworthy. The Voice of Russia article cites Mikhail Miagkov to claim that Vatutin, not Georgii Zhukov, was the major force behind the May 1941 idea of a spoiling attack to disrupt Hitler’s obvious preparations for an invasion of the Soviet Union. This likewise seems to me to lack much foundation. Vatutin here seems to be useful as a man who spoke truth to power, and then conveniently died. To credit Zhukov as the real force urging more active measures against the Germans would bring in all sorts of complications with Zhukov’s subsequent political career.

What struck me, though, was how little the article made of the circumstances of Vatutin’s death. He was ambushed by Ukrainian nationalist partisans in early 1944, and died of his wounds in hospital. While the article certainly mentions this fact, it does little with it. Given the Kremlin’s current preoccupation with East European nationalist movements, and its tendency to label as “falsification” any history that sympathizes with them against the Soviets, this was a missed opportunity to lambast the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

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