Stalin had been purging his enemies—real and chimerical—for years, including military officers. Then the 1941 German invasion exposed the Red Army’s real problems.
In late June, 1941, without a declaration of war, the Axis armies of Germany, Hungary, and Romania invaded the Soviet Union along a broad front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Much of the Red air force was destroyed on the ground in the first week of the war, leaving the army at the mercy of the German Luftwaffe. The Red Army leadership reacted clumsily and ineffectively to the German blitzkrieg style of war, and by the end of September, the Axis had conquered large swaths of territory in the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine, and had killed, captured, and wounded millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians. Soviet general secretary Joseph Stalin reacted to the German advance by blaming his generals and had several of them executed on baseless charges of cowardice, as examples to the rest.
In October the Germans launched their drive on Moscow and made it to within 12 miles of the Kremlin. Weather, sheer exhaustion, massive casualties (750,000), and lack of supplies were among the factors that halted their advance, but mostly it was the Red Army’s refusal to quit fighting. After the war, while Stalin lived, discussions of who was responsible for the disaster of 1941 were forbidden. But once he was gone, the army was quick to blame him, citing the ongoing purge of 1937–1939.
In the popular imagination, and even in the world of scholars, Joseph Stalin’s terror purge in those years is associated with midnight arrests, lengthy torture sessions resulting in false confessions, and firing squads. Certainly, the terror purge—often referred to as the Ezhovshchina after Nikolai Ezhov, the chief of the police (the NKVD) at the time—was a terrible tragedy for Soviet society at large and the officer corps of the Red Army in particular.
Yet its ultimate effect on the Soviet military was initially greatly overstated by Red Army apologists, in part to deflect blame for the 1941 disaster from the army onto Stalin. Even as the purge was taking shape, the armed forces were exaggerating and misrepresenting their losses, perhaps in order to persuade Stalin to end the Ezhovshchina. Until recently, historians had estimated that the purge claimed as many as 50,000 out of an estimated 100,000 officers. Now, thanks to greater access to Russian archives, we know that far less than 50 percent were lost, and even as officers were purged, new officers were added—almost 14,000 in 1937 and 57,000 in 1938. At its worst, then, no more than 12.5 percent of the officer corps was repressed. We can legitimately question whether the purge had as dramatic an impact on the leadership and the army’s unpreparedness for war as long assumed.
Without a doubt, Stalin wanted to eliminate specific top officers and commissars whom he unjustifiably suspected of outright disloyalty to him, failing to support his policies, or being unreliable in a crisis. Among those purged were some of his best officers, notably Robert Eideman, Iona Iakir, Innokentii Khalepskii, August Kork, Aleksandr Sediakin, Aleksandr Svechin, Mikhail Tukhachevskii, and Ieronim Uborevich, while Stalin’s incompetent cronies—Marshals Semen Budenny, Grigori Kulik, and Kliment Voroshilov survived.
As commissar of defense, Voroshilov submitted to Stalin a list of some 300 officers to be repressed. Voroshilov wanted to put an end to the struggle over modernizing the Red Army that his cohorts were waging against Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii’s group of rising professional officers, who wanted to emphasize armor and aviation at the expense of cavalry. Also, Stalin and Voroshilov held personal grudges against certain officers. Yet none of that explains the scale of the repression that extended not just to the military but to all sectors of Soviet society and government. Nor do any of the many theories suggested for the terror adequately explain all of its variations. The best we can do is accept that Stalin promoted the Ezhovshchina purge because he was afraid of losing his own political power. We may never know how he decided who was a threat to him or why he allowed his murderous measures to extend to people who could not possibly have been a threat.
The progression of the Ezhovshchina within the military shows that the army itself was at least partly culpable: Stalin initiated the purge by ordering some of the truly professional officers of the Tukhachevskii group to be arrested on false charges, emanating from the security services, that they were traitors in the pay of Nazi Germany. Voroshilov subsequently called on all servicemen to vigilantly report suspicious activity and denounce enemies of the people hidden in their ranks. Officers and men enthusiastically heeded these instructions, especially those in Communist Party organizations. As a result, a wave of denunciations spread throughout the armed forces. From June through December 1937, 2,238 officers were arrested and 15,426 discharged. By the time the Ezhovshchina was over, twothirds of the more than 9,500 arrests had been orchestrated by special sections of Ezhov’s NKVD assigned to the army; the People’s Commissariat of Defense (NKO), playing Stalin’s game, had ordered the arrest of the remaining third.
Military district staffs in particular played an important role in the scale of the Ezhovshchina, because the NKO gave them wide latitude. In October 1937 the NKO authorized military districts to expel Communists under suspicion from the party without consulting the central authorities in Moscow and to relieve expelled officers of their military duties on the spot. What constituted grounds for discharge or arrest was not always clear. A man could be denounced for any type of military inefficiency or political unreliability, from criticizing some aspect of party policy to holding favorable views of the policies of Stalin’s former rivals to having even the slightest connection with a foreign country. Six months earlier, in March 1937, the Politburo had ordered that all senior officers expelled from the party were to be discharged from active duty. Many men found themselves in trouble simply for not being Russian: In 1938 orders went out to the military districts to discharge all officers with German, Polish, Latvian, Estonian, Korean, Finnish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Turkish, Hungarian, or Bulgarian backgrounds. Accordingly, NKO leadership initiated the discharge of 4,030 army and political officers and the military districts discharged another 7,148 men.
By September 1938, however, Voroshilov was attempting to end the Ezhovshchina by publishing an order that forbade military districts to submit any more lists of personnel to the NKVD for ethnic background checks. Yet the submissions continued. It took a joint NKO/NKVD order in August 1939 to finally put the brakes on the practice.
Conventional wisdom has it that the army—and the Soviet people in general—felt terrorized by the Ezhovshchina. Some people did live in terror, and the suicides of prominent officers attest to that, but there is evidence that some, and perhaps many, Soviets believed the Ezhovshchina was just and necessary. The state bombarded the population with the idea that traitors and spies were threatening the security of the Soviet Union and had to be eliminated. Consequently, people denounced one another in good conscience, thinking they were doing patriotic deeds. Boris Starinov, a captain in 1938, remembered thinking that Tukhachevskii and his “gang of wreckers” were guilty. One budding pilot, Valentina Ivanova, said of the times and Stalin: “He rid us of traitors.” To this day, there are Russians who still believe that Stalin made the Soviet Union safer through his purge.
Many people, civilian and military, believed that the Ezhovshchina was conducted legally and fairly, because, in the months and years that followed, thousands were released from custody and tens of thousands reinstated. By mid-1940 nearly one-third of all officers who had been expelled from the party and discharged from the army had successfully appealed both their expulsions and discharges and had been reinstated in the party and in their jobs. Party members first appealed through the established party mechanism, which gave all members a right to appeal an adverse ruling regarding membership. If that appeal was successful, they then appealed to the NKO personnel office for reinstatement, using their rehabilitation to the party as proof of their innocence. Nonparty officers made their cases directly to the NKO. At the end of 1941, more than one-third of the arrested had been released, some based on individual appeals to the Commissariat of Justice, others on orders from the NKVD based on requests from the NKO. Most officers were then given back their rank and assigned to duty. Time and again one reads in officers’ memoirs of “mistakes” made in the arrests of friends and family that were recognized and rectified after an effective appeal. Such was the case of Sigismund Torgovskii, a lieutenant arrested in May 1938 for having been born in formerly Russian Poland and accused of being a Polish spy. He wrote a letter of appeal denouncing Ezhov and his minions for the mistake. (By this time Ezhov himself had been arrested and replaced as head of the NKVD by Lavrenti Beria.) In less than a year, the lieutenant was reinstated in the army by administrative orders from Beria.
The terror purge of 1937–1939 can be seen as an extension of earlier Trotskyite purges taken to extremes. Stalin’s war with Leon Trotsky lasted from the 1920s until Trotsky was murdered in Mexico in 1940. In those years, anyone suspected of having been a Trotsky supporter on any issue was doomed, whether he worked on a collective farm or on the army’s General Staff. In the mid-1920s, 26,000 Trotskyite officers were purged— dismissed—from the service during high-level party battles. That marked the beginning of politically based repression of army officers, but it was only the beginning. In March 1937 Voroshilov proudly announced to a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee that from the onset of the fight against Trotsky in the mid-1920s to that point, the NKO had discharged 47,000 officers. The commissar of defense noted that 5,000 of those men, “clearly oppositionists,” had been arrested. In a secret meeting with members of the Military Soviet of the Commissariat of Defense on June 2, 1937, Stalin explained the need to arrest Marshal Tukhachevskii and his group in the context of the ongoing struggle against Trotsky and Fascist spies. Gullible members of the Military Soviet, including career officers such as Marshals Georgii Egorov and Kirill Meretskov, believed the charges and gave their approval for the arrest of senior officers. Marshal Egorov, in his capacity as a Communist Party Central Committee member, continued to authorize the arrest of high-ranking party members in the months preceding his own arrest.
At least some level of army purge continued from the mid- 1920 Trotskyite purges right up to Stalin’s death in 1953, with thousands of officers dismissed from service every year on suspicion of being politically unreliable. In 1930, for example, the NKVD launched Operation Vesna, a major effort to eliminate officers who had begun their careers in the tsarist army and were then suspected of being anti-Soviet. Roughly 3,000 officers were discharged and many of them arrested on bogus charges of conspiring with the Orthodox Church to overthrow the Soviet regime. Strictly on political grounds, the NKO discharged 6,198 officers from the army in 1935 and another 5,677 in 1936.
Considering that the number of officers repressed has proven to be far lower than previously believed, we have to look to the quality of the officers lost to help explain the disasters during the German offensive of 1941–1942. In absolute numbers lieutenants and captains suffered the most; however, on a percentage basis, the purge hit hardest senior officers with the rank of colonel and higher. For example, between January 1937 through to the end of 1938, 52 corps commanders, 123 division commanders, 264 brigade commanders, and 897 colonels were discharged. In all, the army discharged 1,336 colonels and generals and 1,385 of their commissar equivalents. The NKVD subsequently arrested 800 of these officers and 465 commissars.
After Stalin’s death, Soviet historians declared that those purged were the Red Army’s best and brightest as a way to blame Stalin for the army’s failure to stop Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg. The insinuation is that the more militarily proficient an officer was, the more likely he was to be repressed. But this thinking must be viewed skeptically: After all, why focus a purge on your best officers? Further, the competent performance during the war of such generals as Vasilii Chuikov, Ivan Konev, Boris Shaposhnikov, Aleksandr Vasilevskii, and Georgy Zhukov, to name but a few who were not purged—and of the many lieutenant colonels and colonels who rose to successfully command divisions and armies—challenges the idea that only incompetents survived. All of this suggests that the Ezhovshchina was just one of several factors that contributed to the debacle in 1941–1942.
The Red Army had never been in good shape; it continuously struggled with indiscipline, rampant alcoholism, equipment and weapon shortages, and inattentiveness to training. Social strife between workers and peasants in the ranks was also a problem: The peasantry had suffered when agriculture had been collectivized in the 1930s and a famine early in that decade only worsened matters, as did the party’s idealization of workers.
In general, it is fair to say that the quality of senior officers— colonels and above—was very uneven in the prewar years. Most senior officers had little to no formal military education and had risen to high command at young ages during the Russian civil war. Their credentials were based on their performance in an extremely low-tech war and on their party loyalty rather than on professional training and demonstrated competence. The purge of Trotskyites in 1926 only made matters worse, leaving the army with serious officer shortages, lack of effective officer training, and a pattern of intrusive politicization. The subsequent Ezhovshchina was not the reason for the preponderance of poorly trained officers in the Red Army but it did exacerbate the problem.
Another contributing factor was the exponential growth of the armed forces in anticipation of eventual wars with Germany and Japan. The Red Army more than tripled in size in only four years, from 1.3 million in 1937 to 4.5 million in 1941. The plan to counter the growing threat called for the army to field a fully mobilized armed force of 8.6 million men by spring 1942, dividing them between the Soviet Far East and Eastern Europe. To achieve these numbers, the scale of the expansion in 1939 alone was breathtaking: 4 new army groups, 2 fortified regions, 8 armies, and 19 corps—all requiring administrative structures and support staffs. Along with this were 111 new infantry divisions comprising 333 infantry regiments, 222 artillery regiments, and 555 separate artillery battalions; 16 tank brigades; 12 reserve infantry brigades; 85 reserve regiments; 137 artillery battalions independent of corps and divisions; 42 military schools; 52 reserve officer refresher courses; and 345 evacuation hospitals. New units were still being formed in the spring of 1941 when the Germans invaded. The Red air forces establishment was similarly expanded to enable it to support ground forces with air cover and tactical air support.
The manning requirements created by the formation of these new units, combined with the need to replace the losses from the purge, further degraded the leadership capacity of the officer corps: Officers spent very little time in their positions before being promoted to higher responsibilities, often in new units. In their new positions, they were responsible not only for leading and overseeing the training of hundreds or thousands of soldiers but also for training subordinate officers, despite their own minimal training and experience. Lateral transfers between units only increased with the pace of expansion and undermined cohesion within the leadership.
Although the defense industry began to produce matériel at a frantic pace, it could not keep up with the army’s rapid mobilization of manpower. Soldiers would arrive at newly established regiments with barracks still under construction. They often had to sit idle, waiting for artillery pieces or the rifles and ammunition necessary for their training. Some units had to wait weeks to be issued such simple things as boots so they could go into the field.
Stalin and his generals knew that expanding the armed forces would be difficult, not just because of the ambitious material goals they had set but also because there was already a deficit of leadership cadres. Even before the start of the Ezhovshchina in May 1937, the army was short some 10,000 officers. By the following January, at the height of the Ezhovshchina, that number was 39,100. As 1938 progressed, newly created infantry divisions required 33,000 additional officers, but even with the bulk of discharges and arrests over and reinstatements beginning, the army was still short 73,000 officers at the end of the year. The Red Army projected that 198,000 officers would need to be added in 1939 to meet that year’s expansion plans, and it subsequently set a goal of procuring 203,000 men to fill newly created and vacant officer posts.
From 1938 to 1939 the army had commissioned only 158,147 officers. These new officers, who would lead platoons and companies into battle in 1939 in Poland, Finland, and Mongolia, were woefully underprepared. The majority—77,971 of them— were junior lieutenants who had trained for six months or less, while some 62,800 went through shortened courses of one or at most two years at military schools; the remaining 17,376 officers were reservists called up for temporary service and given only abbreviated refresher training. In contrast, young officers who had been recruited after the civil war and before the rapid expansion of the army (1922 through 1937) had typically spent four years in a military school preparing for their commission.
General Efim A. Shchadenko, head of the personnel office for the Commissariat of Defense, estimated that the officer corps would need to grow by 50 percent between January 1, 1939, and March 1940—that is, from 240,000 to approximately 357,000. Despite their best efforts, the army and the Communist Party failed to recruit enough officers, and with 9,093 officer casualties in combat in 1939–1940 (in the invasion of Poland, the Battle of Khalkin-Gol with Japan, and the Winter War with Finland), the army was, in March 1940, undermanned by 125,000 officers. Shchadenko then reported that in order to have the officer corps fully manned by 1942, at the completion of the projected expansion, a total of 438,000 additional officers would be needed. A mind-boggling 980,000 sergeants would also be required over the same two years to lead the soldiers at the squad level; privates, however, abounded. By May 1940 the army numbered almost 4 million soldiers, an increase of 2.2 million over 1937.
One week before the Nazi invasion, on June 15, 1941, the Red Army had 439,143 officers, half of whom had been in the military for two years or less. This number was 15 percent (67,000 men) fewer than it needed. The hundreds of thousands of officers added to the rolls since 1937 were simply not prepared to lead their semitrained and underequipped men, and many companies and even battalions were commanded by recently minted lieutenants as young as 19. The catastrophe to come, then, had roots that went far deeper than the Ezhovshchina. The purge and the expansion together crippled the leadership capacity of the Red Army officer corps at the most critical time in Soviet history.
In sum, the disaster of 1941 was the result of a combination of factors: a shortage of officers due to the purge as well as the rapid expansion of the armed forces; hasty and abbreviated training of junior officers after 1937; the brief time in command positions before promotion or transfer or both; and lack of talent among many of the senior officers. Harder to quantify is the effect of the politicization of the officer corps and Stalin’s interference in personnel policy regarding the promotion, assignment, arrest, and release of top generals. The effect of the purge was not only to remove many competent officers but to create an air of distrust among the officers and their men, who, influenced by state-controlled media propaganda, became predisposed to believe that their commander could be a traitor or a spy. Overall, Stalin’s interference in military affairs was unhelpful and destabilizing, but it was the rapidity of the war itself that dealt the greatest blow to the Red Army.
Roger Reese is a professor of history at Texas A&M University and a leading expert on the Soviet military under Stalin. The most recent of his four books on the subject is Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought (2011).
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.