By Ewan Leslie, VI Form
Joseph Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military and Its Subsequent Consequences
In November, 1935, the five Marshals of the Soviet Union, the highest military rank in the Red Army, posed for a photograph.2 These marshals made up a diverse group of military leadership. On the far left, 42 year old Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevksy was a young, innovative officer who was proposing groundbreaking military tactics.3 Next to him, Marshals Semyon Budyonny and Kliment Voroshilov were steady, veteran leaders who served in the Russian Civil War almost two decades earlier. On the far right, Marshals Vasily Blyukher and Alexander Yegorov served important positions within the Red Army hierarchy, mainly concerning the running of the Red Army apparatus and its various military fronts.4 With these five Marshals anchoring the Red Army leadership, the future of the Red Army and the Soviet Union seemed promising. However, Joseph Stalin, the dictatorial General Secretary of the Soviet Union, would disrupt this situation by instituting a series of purges that led to the executions of Marshals Tukhachevsky, Blyukher, and Yegorov, damaging the Red Army’s capabilities for years to come.
In February 1937, Stalin spoke to key government and military officials in a plenum of the Central Committee.5In his speech, Stalin addressed the impending danger to the Soviet Union posed by numerous counter-revolutionary groups who had supposedly infiltrated the Red Army. The rise of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in Europe had led to Soviet fears of fascists in the Red Army. Domestically, Stalin warned of the rise of a new and dangerous “fifth column,” a group made up of anyone who dared to oppose Stalin’s iron grip on power.6 Specifically, Stalin feared that his historic rival, Leon Trotsky, had gained substantial influence amongst both Soviet politicians and Red Army officers, and that now he threatened Stalin’s power. To combat this perceived threat (and to assuage his growing paranoia), Stalin advocated for and implemented a series of purges against various sectors of Soviet society, including the Red Army, trying to eliminate any potential threats to his regime. These purges are known collectively as the “Great Purge” and the “Great Terror,” and they led to the disgracement of over 25,000 Red Army officers, many of whom were executed or sent to the infamous Soviet Gulag work camps.7 The Great Purge also claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians who were deemed “counterrevolutionary”.
Stalin’s purges not only had disastrous effects on the Soviet populace, but they also significantly harmed the Red Army’s effectiveness. The execution of many innovative officers left the Red Army incapable of fighting a modern war. The officers who remained after the purges employed outdated tactics, and the armed services’ morale dropped to an all time low. Therefore, it is not surprising that, when it was time for the Soviet Union to fight in the late 1930s, the purges’ disastrous consequences were on full display. The Soviet performance during the Winter War of 1939-1940 was an early indication of the purge’s effects, permanently damaging the Red Army’s reputation.8
Moreover, the stunning Soviet defeats during the German invasion in 1941 further exposed the deep wounds that the purges caused. The Red Army leadership that remained after the purges utilized ineffective and outdated tactics, and a lack of effective officers meant that the Red Army had no answer to the German’s modern and fast-paced attack.9 As a result, the Soviets suffered catastrophic defeats, with the Germans capturing or killing over a million Soviet soldiers within the first few months of their invasion. Additionally, the Germans were successful in capturing large swaths of Russian territory, including the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and the Baltics, and their invasion was only halted just outside Moscow’s gates. Even though the Soviets were able to eventually push the Germans back from Moscow, it required an overhaul of their tactics and the removal of many of the generals who advocated for the purges in favor of new and innovative ones.10
Ewan Leslie is a VI Form boarding student.