Stalin's Massive Military Purge Almost Doomed the Soviet Union

Wikimedia Commons
October 6, 2020 Topic: History Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Soviet UnionStalinGreat PurgeTukhachevskyWorld War II

Stalin's Massive Military Purge Almost Doomed the Soviet Union

The scale of the purge was staggering: 13 of 15 army commanders, 50 of 57 corps commanders, 154 of 186 divisional commanders, 220 of 406 brigade commanders, all 11 vice-commanders of defense, 98 of 108 members of the Supreme Military Soviets, all army political commissars, 25 of 28 corps commissars, 58 of 64 divisional commissars. Even the lower ranks were not spared.

“With each arrest it became more difficult to believe in the disloyalty, the sabotage, the treachery of these men,” said General Alexander Gorbatov. When he protested the arrest of his superior, he was inevitably jailed himself. Other officers he met in jail advised him to confess to anything about anyone “because they believed it was better to stand on their false testimony in order to put an end as quickly as possible to the torment and to die as quickly as possible.” But Gorbatov was an exception and, surprisingly, was not shot for his defiance, but merely sent to a Siberian labor camp.

Another defiant general was Konstantin Rokossovsky. After having eight teeth knocked out and three ribs broken, he was hauled before the Supreme Military Court and told that another officer, named Yushkevich, had confessed to spying with him for Germany. Instead of submissively agreeing with the accusation and taking a bullet, Rokossovsky shouted back, “Can the dead give evidence?” “What do you mean the dead?” the surprised judge asked. Rokossovsky replied, “Well, Adolf Kazimirovich Yushkevich was killed in 1920 at Perekop.” When records bore him out, Rokossovsky became perhaps the only defendant ever acquitted in the purge, although he was still sent to one of the most dreaded gulag camps in Siberia, Vorkuta.

The Outcome of the Purge

The effects of the purge could be seen in the disastrous winter war with Finland in 1939-1940. As described by future Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev: “Stalin was furious with the military and with Voroshilov—justifiably in my opinion. Stalin jumped up in a rage and started to berate Voroshilov. Voroshilov was also boiling mad. He leaped up, turned red, and hurled Stalin’s accusations back in his face: ‘You have yourself to blame for all this! You’re the one who had our best generals killed!’ Voroshilov then picked up a platter of roast suckling pig and hurled it against the table.” Although dismissed as commissar for defense, Voroshilov amazingly was not shot for his actions. He survived Stalin to serve as the Soviet Union’s ceremonial president, living until 1970.

Because of the Finnish fiasco, Stalin rehabilitated and restored 13,000 officers. Rokossovsky was sent to a seaside resort to recuperate and equipped with twin rows of metal teeth. Always one to enjoy toying with his victims, Stalin faked surprise upon seeing Rokossovsky. “I don’t seem to have seen you around for some time,” said the dictator. “Where did you go?” “I was arrested, Comrade Stalin,” Rokossovsky responded. “I was sitting in prison.” Stalin laughed. “A fine time you chose to go to prison!”

Rokossovsky went on to be the greatest Soviet commander of World War II after Grigori Zhukov, helping to win the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk and conquering Berlin. Another hero of the war to come, Marshal Ivan Konev, would argue: “Of the commanders destroyed—Tukhachevsky, Yeogorov, Yakir, Kork, Uborevich, Blyuker, Dybenko—only Tukhachevsky and Uborevich can be regarded as modern military leaders. Most of them were on the level with Voroshilov and Budenny. Those heroes of the Civil War were living on their past. If they had remained at the top the war would have turned out quite differently.” Konev might have thought differently had he known that when he was defeated early in the war, Stalin wanted him shot but was talked out of it by Zhukov.

Until his death in 1968, Rokossovsky never spoke of his ordeal in the purge. Once, however, while a marshal of the Soviet Union, he was crossing Siberian airspace and had his plane fly over the site of his old camp. As he looked down, the former prisoner muttered a brief epitaph for his fellow victims: “No traces left.”

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.