Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

Voroshilov, Gamarnik and Yakir: The Troika

Monday, November 21st, 2011

At the annual meeting of the ASEEES (the organization-formerly-known-as-the-AAASS), I presented some preliminary research on the Great Purges in the Red Army, looking at the specific figure of Iona Yakir, then commander of the Kiev Military District. That made him one of the two men intended to bear the brunt of any future war in Europe, alongside the commander of the Belorussian Military District Ieronym Uborevich. In looking at the process of the purges in 1937, I found links back to the Red Army’s annual maneuvers, particularly the obscure 1933 Antoniny maneuvers of the then-Ukrainian Military District, and then the celebrated 1935 Kiev maneuvers.

Krasnaia zvezda devoted extensive coverage the 1935 maneuvers, which involved four corps, 65,000 men, 1000 tanks, and the drop of an entire paratroop regiment. One thing that jumped out at me from the visuals associated with that coverage was a particular emphasis on individual. As expected, Stalin’s puppet at the head of the Red Army Kliment Voroshilov figured prominently, but Iona Yakir, who’d be dead in two years, was almost as important. Even more surprisingly, there was a pronounced emphasis on a specific troika of individuals: Voroshilov, Yakir, and Ian Gamarnik (nicknamed “The Beard”), head of the Red Army’s Political Directorate.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s the front page of Krasnaia zvezda, 15 September 1935. This picture makes Voroshilov look quite Hitler-like, which is not intentional. It’s an artifact of the original photo, the scanning, and Voroshilov’s mustache, an attribute that seems characteristic of Stalin’s inner circle:

Gamarnik, Yakir, and Voroshilov, KZ 15 September 1935

Gamarnik, Yakir, and Voroshilov, KZ 15 September 1935

The next day we get the same three individuals, again on the front page:

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 16 September 1935

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 16 September 1935

And finally the next day a large shot from an interior page of the same three:

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 17 September 1935

Gamarnik, Voroshilov, and Yakir, KZ 17 September 1935

A couple things to note: there are lots of other high-ranking officials of the Red Army present in Kiev; those particular three are the ones chosen for emphasis. Tukhachevskii, in case you were wondering, is almost invisible. I’m still unclear on precisely how to interpret all this; that’s research still remaining to be done.

The Kirov Murder Solved?

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Reuters has a story (picked up by Johnson’s Russia List and the New York Times) that Russian archivists have finally settled the question of who killed Kirov.

For those who don’t know much about Soviet history, Sergei Mironovich Kirov, party boss of Leningrad, was shot in his office on 1 December 1934. Stalin used this as his pretext for beginning the Great Purges–dismantling what protections existed against arbitrary arrest and execution.

The question then and since is whether Leonid Nikolaev, the man who ostensibly did the deed, actually did it, and if he was the one who did it, whether he did it at Stalin’s behest. As usual for these questions, the rumors in Russia run the gamut. My personal favorite is the one I was told over tea in one Moscow archive: Kirov, allegedly a notorious babnik (womanizer), had worked his charms on Nikolaev’s wife, and the assassination was payback.

In any event, the documents suggest that Nikolaev was the classic disgruntled loner, not part of any conspiracy, who shot Kirov out of a sense of personal affront. This certainly sounds plausible to me, though I’m under no illusions that it will settle the debate.

Book preview: Soviet photos online

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Foreign Policy has posted a nice collection of historical photographs, none of which I’d seen previously, from a forthcoming book by David King. Hat tip to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria.

The Baltics and Geopolitics

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Russian Front Commenter mab asked about a recent document release from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) on the Baltics in World War II.

I’ve finally had time to do a first read of the documents to see what I think they’re intended to show and what they actually do show.  The collection is entitled “The Baltics and Geopolitics” (Pribaltika i geopolitika), available in three parts on the SVR website, at present only in Russian.

No question that this release is connected to the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (early in the morning of August 24, 1939), and not surprisingly Russia’s SVR is releasing this document collection in an effort to shape interpretations of the events of 1939-1941.  This fits quite well, at least in the SVR’s public spin on the documents, with Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s efforts to fight what he sees as falsification of the Soviet Union’s role in World War II, efforts that I’ve discussed extensively at the Russian Front, most recently here and here.

According to the SVR, the documents reveal that the Soviet Union had no choice but to enter Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that Britain and France had abandoned any possible alliance with the USSR, and the alliance with Hitler was necessary to prevent German takeover of the Baltic states.

The document collection is quite interesting, but what it tells us is not what we’re told it tells us.  The conclusion that the Soviet Union was forced into an alliance with Nazi Germany simply does not follow from the evidence presented.  It reminds me of Emile Faguet’s parody of Plato (hilariously funny if you’re read the Republic–trust me):

“The whole is greater than the part?”
“And the part is less than the whole?”
“Therefore clearly philosophers should rule the state.”
“It is evident; let us go over it again.” (Hat tip: Will Durant)

While the documents don’t quite hold up to the weight put upon them, what we do learn is nonetheless quite significant.

Most of the pre-war documentation is either Soviet intelligence reports on the policies of the Baltic states, or actual government documents from the Baltic states.  It’s not surprising that the Soviets would have Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian documents, since they occupied those states and could comb their archives at leisure.  What’s striking, though, is that the Soviets seem to have had a VERY good agent in the Finnish foreign ministry, who got them lots of Finnish diplomatic documents in something like real time.  The actual Finnish documents include Soviet cover letters from the time; the Estonian documents, by contrast, have no accompanying covers that would indicate that the Soviets had access to them in 1938-1939 (doc. 26, for example), and so the Estonian documents were likely obtained after occupation.

The actual content of those early documents hits on a number of themes, many but not all of which fit comfortably with current Russian political priorities.  These include German commercial penetration of the Baltic, pro-German attitudes among large segments of the population, and anti-Soviet views, at least in Estonia and Latvia.  The implicit message here that the SVR would like us to take away is that Soviet occupation of the Baltics prevented them from becoming German satellites.  Maybe–one could just as easily argue that the Soviet threat pushed the Baltics toward Germany.

The oddity here is Lithuania–Russia today would probably prefer to paint all the Baltics with a single Nazi-sympathizer brush, but Lithuania followed a somewhat different line.  It shared no border with the Soviet Union, and was quite nervous about Poland, both of which made it more friendly to the USSR.  That didn’t make any difference–it got swallowed up like the others.

There’s an awful lot of documentation of the sovietization of the Baltics.  Two things strike me here.  First, we have a mental picture of the Soviet takeover as a sharp break: the Soviets move in, and everything changes instantaneously.  The process was, in fact, longer and more complex, as the documents show.  Second, the fact that the process of sovietization was not instantaneous makes it much like the later sovietization of Eastern Europe.   A comparative analysis of the process of Soviet takeover in the Baltics 1939-1941 and the Soviet takeover in Eastern Europe 1945-1948 would be quite interesting–twisting and complex paths to a foreordained outcome.

One of the things that’s most striking to me about the documents is what’s not included.  Nearly two-thirds of the documentation comes AFTER 22 June 1941, when the really significant part of the story is over.  There’s much less than I would have liked to see on the key 1939-1941 period.

Most strikingly, and I find this utterly staggering, is that there are NO documents on the period from July 1940 to November 1941.  One or two important things happen in there, but this publication tells us nothing.  If I were Viktor Suvorov (though I’m not), I would be jumping up and down and pointing to this omission as evidence of something to hide: namely Soviet intent to launch aggressive war in 1941.

Footage of Tukhachevskii

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Thanks to colleagues at the Command and General Staff College for pointing me to this video on Mikhail Nikolaevich Tukhachevskii.  The historical commentary is OK, though its list of Tukhachevskii’s feats omits his disastrous defeat before Warsaw in the 1920 Russo-Polish War.

Its real value is in the archival footage of Tukhachevskii, including an excerpt from an actual speech.  The vignettes are somewhat datable. The budyonovka peaked cap (which looks strikingly like the German pikelhaube spiked helmet in several of these shots) is earlier–Civil War era and the early 1920s. You can also note the rank insignia on Tukhachevskii’s collar–in late 1935, Tukhachevskii and four others (Voroshilov, Budyonny, Bliukher, and Egorov) were made Marshals of the Soviet Union, with a single star.  Before that, he had four diamonds.

There’s also some very nice shots of other leading Red Army commanders of the time:
Ian Alksnis, key figure in the development of the Soviet air force (2:43)
Vasilii Bliukher, who fought the Japanese at Lake Khasan  (2:51–far right)
Semyon Budyonny, cavalry hero and namesake of the budyonovka peaked cap (2:51–with mustache)
Aleksandr Egorov, Chief of the General Staff 1931-1935 (1:39–on right)
Ieronym Uborevich, ninety-eight pounds soaking wet, whom Georgii Zhukov called the most military man he ever met (2:46)
Kliment Voroshilov, Stalin’s lackey and dim-witted long-time head of the Red Army (2:09)
plus non-military figures like
Sergo Ordzhonikidze, industry tsar (2:34)
Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s right hand man and World War II foreign minister, who appears with Tukhachevskii while both are in civilian clothes (3:06)

No Stalin, though.

Of these, Alksnis, Bliukher, Egorov, and Uborevich died in the purges; Ordzhonikidze committed suicide.