During World War II, and for a dozen years after, Mikhail Tukhachevsky was a nonperson. A celebrated Bolshevik hero of the civil wars that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution, Tukhachevsky had risen swiftly through the ranks of the Red Army with a combination of cold-blooded ruthlessness and military genius to become its chief of staff and one of the Soviet Union’s most innovative military theorists and strategists.
But in 1937 he was denounced for organizing “a military-Trotskyist conspiracy”; on Stalin’s orders he was secretly arrested, tried, and shot in his cell the next day in the basement of the Lubyanka, the notorious Moscow headquarters of the Soviet secret police. The signed “confession” produced at his trial was stained with his own blood.
Following his execution, Tukhachevsky ceased to exist. His military writings were banned. As Stalin’s purges of the Red Army officer corps grew to the thousands, the message was unmistakable: anyone who showed the slightest deviation from the correct Stalinist line would be next. And in the Red Army on the eve of World War II, there was no more suspect deviation than the revolutionary ideas about the role of the tank that Tukhachevsky had championed. At his trial, he had been specifically condemned for seeking the “rapid formation of tank and mechanized units.” Decadent capitalists “hid behind mechanical contrivances”; true Marxists placed their trust in the masses.
Though undeniably a courageous and tough soldier, Tukhachevsky did not at first blush seem to be the stuff that subtle or innovative military genius was made of. Much of his career was built on a talent for brutality, opportunism, and doctrinaire politics. The scion of a noble family, he had served as a lieutenant in World War I; captured by the Germans, he tried to escape from prison camps four times, succeeding on his fifth. Jumping to the Bolshevik cause, he had put down mutinies and peasant revolts with appalling barbarity, wiping out rebellious villages with poison gas. As Patrick Wright relates in his book Tank, Tukhachevsky also skillfully did in rivals on the general staff with the same sort of trumped-up denunciations of “bourgeois ideology” that would later bring about his own end.
Yet as early as 1923 he had also begun to formulate a theory of modern tank warfare that placed the Soviets well ahead of such better known prophets of the blitzkrieg as the British writer J. F. C. Fuller or Germany’s Heinz Guderian. Most Western armies were thinking about the tank in a decidedly limited role, perhaps replacing the horse in cavalry units as a way to carry out swift reconnaissance or flanking attacks. More enthusiastic proponents like Fuller saw the tank as the spearhead of fast attacks that would break through the stalemate of static trench warfare that had bogged down million-man armies in the First World War and thus bring back the traditional concept of mobility to the battlefield.
But Tukhachevsky saw the tank as the centerpiece of an entirely new conception of land battle. As he explained in lectures and writings, the vast extended fronts of modern warfare made it impossible to gain a victory in a single blow; thus a series of linked operations were necessary across the battlefield to achieve a strategic objective.
In particular, he argued, it was necessary to strike an enemy in depth. An initial breakthrough would be followed by successively deeper plunges into the enemy’s rear to pursue and destroy his remaining forces. In his conception the tank was not simply the spearhead to be followed by infantry; follow-on forces needed to be just as swift and powerful, and thus mechanized too.
It was only after the Soviets’ crushing defeats during the German invasion in 1941 that Tukhachevsky’s ideas about deep battle were quietly rehabilitated—leading to the stunning Soviet counteroffensive beginning with the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. But it was only after Stalin’s death that Tukhachevsky received recognition by name for his posthumous contribution to the Soviet victory, when he was officially exonerated in 1957.