On the Stalin Purges of the Soviet Military

Dear Readers:

In preparation for the upcoming big Russian holiday, i.e., Victory Day on May 9, celebrating the Soviet Union’s military victory over Nazi Germany, I have a new historical piece for you by our resident Russian blogger, known on the internet as Lyttenburgh.

Lyttenburgh is a historian, specializing in international affairs of the inter-war period, in particular the collapse of the Versailles system and the lead-up to World War II.

Lyttenburgh has studied the Stalinist repressions of the mid 1930’s as they pertain to the war-readiness of the Soviet military.   Using numbers and facts, he examines the assertion that these repressions “disarmed” and “beheaded” the Soviet military just prior to its major ordeal on the battlefield.

After reading this piece, I reckon that Lyttenburg proves his case.  He debunks the myth that these repressions, consisting of dismissals and also executions of military cadres which occurred (for political and also other reasons) during this time, had any significant effect on Soviet performance in the first stages of the Great Patriotic War.

After Lenin’s death, the next 15 years were taken up with big-ass faction fighting.

I am not a student of history myself, other than the dilettante level, but here is my personal view, just for the record:

Factoring in the human factor (and we have all seen this in our own daily lives) that certain people who get fired from their jobs (for laziness or incompetence) claim that it was for other reasons (like “The boss didn’t like me”, or “I was politically repressed”, etc.) — factoring in this, as Lyttenburgh does, there do remain a certain number of people who were in fact politically repressed.  In other words, dismissed, or even shot, solely because of their political allegiances.  These political repressions were part and parcel of a major “mopping-up operation” conducted by the Stalinist faction, as it sought to remove political rivals, or anyone who they thought was “disloyal” to them, i.e., in their mind, to the state itself  (in the spirit of “l’etat c’est moi”), from all organs of the Party and state.  In the process, the Stalinist faction corrupted supposedly “independent” state organs, such as the government bodies and judiciary, while converting the Soviet Union into a one-party one-faction type state.  This process, IMHO, laid down a long-fused time-bomb, which exploded decades later.  When all it took was a small clique within the Party elite (Gorbachev-Yeltsin) to conspire to bring down the entire socialist system, break up a successful Federation of nations, destroy the lives of millions, and willingly lead the rump states, including Russia, into Western occupation and bondage.  I can’t help but feel, that had the Soviet Union established a multi-party (or at least multi-factioned) political system, decades earlier, then this more democratic system, better expressing the popular will, might have contained within it more testicular fortitude to withstand these external pressures.  In other words, there could have been another political party to step up to the plate and say “No” to what was going on within the Gorbachev camarilla.

On the other hand, I realize, sadly, that people who use such verbs as “had they…” and “would have been…” or “could have been…” are just losers flailing ineffectually in the Winds of Time.  There is no way to go back into the past, or to rewrite history; and no way to know who, in the words of Sophocles, “would have been right”.  As the ancient Russian proverb has it, “If my grandmother had four wheels, an engine and a carburetor, then she would have been a Toyota truck.”

Just for the record, though, I also don’t buy into certain Western conspiracy theories that Stalin (or Trotsky either, for that matter), was operating as a secret Wehrmacht agent, or in fact operating with any ulterior motive, other than on the plane of the political power struggle.  Just like the Tudor court, but in modern dress.

But anyhow, enough about my personal opinions, they don’t really matter except to me, here is Lyttenburgh and his latest piece:

Red Army soldiers, circa 1918-1921

On The Purges in the Soviet Military.

By Lyttenburgh


One of the numerous and most widespread “opinions”, shared equally by the Russophobic liberals (both within the country and abroad) and by various armchair-generals and big fans of everything armed-forces related, who consider the upper echelon of the military caste to be some sort of chivalrous “elite”, head and shoulders above the ordinary people, is the question of the effect of the 1937-38 repressions on the combat readiness of the Red Army and Fleet. For them there is no “question” at all – paranoid maniac Stalin “beheaded” his own armed forces, depriving them of an enormous number of bright and talented senior and mid-level commanders. This, say these people, directly resulted in the general degradation of quality and discipline of the forces, which had to withstand the first attacks of the Wermacht in 1941, and led to enormous losses and crushing defeats early in the War.

More often than not, said people don’t bother to study the subject itself, instead appealing to emotions and citing separate instances of unjustly sentenced people and then extrapolating from them to the rest of the “repressed”. As I have said numerous times elsewhere, not everyone “purged” during the time of the Great Terror of 1937-38 was a priori an “innocent victim of the regime”.

But that’s not the topic of this article. Instead, let’s talk about what these “patriotic” armchair-generals usually shy away from – the general state of the Soviet armed forces before and after the Purges. In this we are helped with a lot of archival data that has become available both a long time ago, and in the not so distant past. Data, fully available to check it out for those who want it.

Part 1. The History of the Myth.

Every myth (and the common perception of the late 30s period is literally crawling with various myths, stereotypes and misconceptions) must have both a beginning and some real basis behind it. So, how did the “Pogrom of the Officers” enter the parlance of anti-Sovietists and Russophobes years ago? We can trace it back to this particular quote:

“Stalin eradicated the best of commanders, he had shot, discharged, exiled about 30 000 officers”
– L.D. Trotsky (quoted by: Троцкий Л. Д. Портреты революционеров. М., 1991. С. 149).

Trotsky among the Red commanders. Far right from him – I.E. Yakir

That’s how it all began. Lev Davidovich was at the time not in a position to gain access to the internal statistical data of the Soviet Union (or was he?), but that number – 30 000 repressed officers, “best of the best” – immediately became a meme by itself, seriously influencing all consequent assessments of the scale of the Officers Purge. Besides – it was Trotsky talking! What else do you need to trust his words without question?

And next – we have this abstract number mentioned by Trotsky gaining a life of its own, growing exponentially like a snowball rolling down from a mountain. Dmitry Volkogonov, Soviet cadre political officer, who later decided to become a historian (whose father had been repressed and executed in 1937), spent the halcyon years of Perestroika digging the dirt on the “Bloody Regime”. He was equally welcomed by Yeltsin’s administration, who literally showered him with medals, rewards, various top-ranking postings and even charged him with de-classifying sensitive information. It’s rather telling, that after his death in 1995, his enormous archive was transferred to the Library of Congress of the USA (including a number of documents from 1967-95 that were still classified). So, it’s little surprise when he claimed that in the period from May 1937 till September 1938 “36 761 person had been repressed in the Army, and about 3 000 – in the [Red] Fleet” (q.b.: Волкогонов Д. А. Триумф и трагедия/Политический портрет И. В. Сталина. В 2-х книгах. Кн.II. Ч.1. М., 1989. С.51). But even such a “loyal” to the current political trends of the day person as Volkogonov admits, that “part of them were just discharged from the RKKA”. Future so-called “liberal” discourse would take care of this quote and use it its own maximum advantage.

Later, the snowball effect went out of control. Anti-Stalinist-In-Chief who took special pride in his role in the destruction of the USSR A.N. Jakovlev went in his claim even further – in his article in the “Izvestiya” newspaper (25 April 1995, №76, article “Жириновскому и другим «патриотам» в жирных кавычках” ) he claimed that “more than 70 000 of the Red Army’s commanders were annihilated by Stalin even before the war”. Another “hike” in the number of repressed happened in the same year – according to the book co-authored by V.I. Rapoport and Y.A. Geller, “…we have to assume, that the decrease of the commanding cadres during the 2 years of the Purge amounted to c. 100 000” (q. b.: Рапопорт В. И., Геллер Ю. А. Измена Родине. М., 1995. С.291)

But if we talk about typical (and handshakable) myths, fully endorsed and “understood” from the people from abroad, then only the sky is the limit in this eternal struggle against the countless crimes of Stalinism!   It’s little wonder that these claims sooner or later reached their “final conclusion”:

“Before the war in the NKVD’s torture-chambers and camps died nearly completely the whole entirety of the officer corps – the backbone of the Red Army” (q.b.: Коваль B.C. «Барбаросса»: истоки и история величайшего преступления империализма. Киев, 1989. С.593)


“The entire middle tier of the officer corps had been annihilated by the hands of the executioners” (q.b.: Мельников Д. Е., Черная Л. Б. Тайны гестапо. Империя смерти. М., 2000. С.404).

And so, the myth had been established for everyone to believe and not to doubt. The myth relies on 3 core assumptions:

1) Prior to 1937, “from taiga to the British seas”, the Red Army was the greatest, the strongest power the world has ever known.

2) Before 1937 the Red Army and Fleet officer corps had been crème de la crème, all of them – true geniuses of the military science, war-gods on the battlefield, 100% loyal to their country and who had incredibly improved the conditions of the Soviet military to the stellar level.

3) The Purge of the officer corps targeted an exorbitant number of people, all of them – the best of the best, and this alone criminally crippled the armed forces of the Soviet Union right before the Great Patriotic War.

People, who screech especially loudly these 3 accusations tend to be among the greatest haters of either the Soviet Union in all its time periods, or of the organized military as a structure – or both.

But how was it in reality? What was the real level of battle readiness of the Red Army prior to repressions? And the scale of the repressions – how many actually suffered from them? Who came to replace those “disappeared” by the ruthless “bloody” Regime? How did the RKKA look prior to its greatest ordeal in 1941? Instead of just perpetuating these and other myths, let’s find out how it was in reality!

Part 2. Red Army before the repressions.

Let’s disassemble this shining mythic construction with one element at a time, shall we? First of all – what was the general state of the RKKA before the dreaded 1937 and its top echelon in particular?

Probably, unsurprisingly, the roots of this myth about the “beheaded army” and “the best of the best were purged” could be sourced back… to Lev Trotsky again! Okay, not him directly but to a person who expressed nothing but boundless adulation and adoration to Trotsky – I’m talking about former Soviet military commander and diplomat A.G. Barmine who in July of 1937 became “nevozvrashenets” and continued his panegyrics to Lev Davidovich and ceaseless critique of the Regime. He wrote that, knowing personally the high command of the Red Army, he could name only 10 talented and smart commanders who were capable of waging modern warfare. And that of those ten Stalin “destroyed” 7 of them in the fateful June of 1937.

Alexander Barmine

Actually, it wasn’t just Barmine who knew Trotsky very well – so did a lot of the top echelon of the RKKA, i.e. the “old guard” who gained their prominence and high positions in the time of the Russian Civil War and Foreign Interventions – and who had to build working relations with then People’s Commissioner of the Army and Fleet, i.e. with Trotsky. Leaving aside for a moment their personal political views and how much “Trotskyite” they were, we have to admit one ugly fact – the supposed “elite” of the Red Army and Fleet had come to their vaunted positions thanks to their actions during the Civil War and party connections (at that time it meant – Trotsky) and that the vast majority of them had no systematic military education. Of repressed ComandArms only 4 had higher military education (Kork, Kamenev, Uborevitch and Vatsetis), and only 17 of the repressed ComCors had it. Yeah, sure – a higher education degree all by itself could mean very little (George W. Bush is a Yale graduate, after all…) and some of the truly amazing and talented Red Army commanders (like Zhukov, Konev, Vasilievsky, Rokossovsky, Malinovsky, Tolbukhin, etc.) who proved themselves in 1941-45 also didn’t receive systematic military education. But, as the saying goes – “the devil is in the details”. Those commanders proved their military talent, while calling most of those repressed in 1937-38 “talented” or even “brilliant” military commanders is a tad pretentious and subjective – especially, given that they didn’t especially prove that.

Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky

After its massive “shrinkage” after the end of the Civil War (due to quite understandable reasons), the Soviet Union began rebuilding, expanding and upgrading its military in the late 1920s – early 1930s period. This required not only the increase of “manpower” (i.e. rank-n-file soldiers) but also of the officer corps as well. In his book “Боевая выучка Красной армии накануне репрессий 1937-1938 гг.” (“Military training of the Red Army before the repressions of 1937-38”, 2 volumes, M., 2013) A.A. Smirnov cites numerous examples of problems and setbacks which resulted from such rapid military expansion. The most obvious one – people who just didn’t answer all the requirements of the command positions were placed in those positions anyway. According to Smirnov, in 1925 about 75% of commanders of the Red Army had been holding their higher positions for less than a year (and about half of them – for less than six months).

But that was in the peaceful 1925, when the Red Army numbered just 600 000 soldiers. In 1933 the number of new commanders in the ranks of the RKKA was much bigger than in 1937, despite the fact that by that time the Army increased its ranks by 1.5. The number of new appointments in 1936, the last pre-repression year, was bigger than in 1937.

One of the reasons for the less than stellar quality of both commanding and ordinary corps in the RKKA was, obviously, the limited financial and economic strengths of the USSR in that time period. A. Isayev in his book “From Dubno to Rostov” cites a lot of harsh realities that the Soviet servicemen had to deal with daily. Thus, in mid 1930s the salary of a teacher of the senior classes in school (i.e. for kids aged 14-16) was 750 rubles per month, while a squad commander in the Army earned only 600 rubles. While having to work not 7, but often from 12 to 14 hours per day. Soldiers had to build their own barracks and other essential buildings, which distracted them from training. Due to constant shortages, commanders had to use sparingly ammo, spare parts and fuel for their soldiers, tanks and planes limiting the quality of their training even further. And that’s not mentioning the sub-par quality of the food rations, lack of new and clean uniforms, properly made firing ranges and classes, teaching materials…

Military archives are chock-full with reports from the officers and special commissions that paint the very sorry state of the Red Army in early and mid 30s:

“Subordinates hold themselves with their seniors familiarly, licentious, don’t hold their legs together, take orders while sitting, bicker all the time… A lot are in ragged clothing, dirty, unshaven, in ragged boots, etc.”
(q.b.: РГВА. Ф.37464. Оп. 1. Д. 12. Л.92)

“Mid-tier commanders are unshaven and with dirty collars”
(q.b.: РГВА. Ф.37928. Оп. 1. Д.269. Л.З; Ф. 1417. Оп. 1. Д.285. Л. 16)

“…strikes the eyes the weak drill bearing […] during entire summer uniforms were never washed, now acquired the color of oil […] When the senior commander enters, cadets’ orderlies… hesitate, scratch one cheek and turn one’s head around, not knowing what to do: to stand or sit.”
(q.b.: РГВА. Ф.31983. ОП.2.Д.13.Л.151, 171, 164,25)

The last quote is from the report on cadets of the Joint Belorussian military school written in August 1932, i.e. it’s about the future cadre servicemen, the proverbial “backbone” of the RKKA.

As for the military training itself – the situation was equally, if not even more sad and depressing. In 1936 there were carried out grandiose maneuvers, where participated 2 of the most powerful army groups of the RKKA – from Kiev’s and Belorussian military districts. The results were rather disappointing:

“Tank recon was poorly organized, had not been active and was inadequate”
(q.b.: РГВА . Ф.31983. Оп.2. Д.213. Л.58).

“The combat formations of the attacking armored units quickly became disorganized”
(q.b.: РГВА . Ф.31983. Оп.2. Д.213. Л.57; Ф.25880. Оп.4. Д.80. Л.469, 482-483)

“Infantry everywhere attacked enemy machine guns not in dispersed chains but in dense crowds of squads. In reality, such attack formations would’ve failed, drowned in blood. The reason: particular troopers, squads and platoons are not trained enough”
(q.b.: РГВА. Ф.31983. Оп.2. Д.213. Л.47)

By the time of big maneuvers in February 1937 (that’s it, just a few months before the beginning of the Great Purge) performance levels remained abysmal:

“The composition and battle formations of units do not always meet the conditions of the situation… During the offense company and battalion commanders lost control. Especially bad was the coordination of artillery and infantry actions… Poor attention is given to the combat within the enemy’s defenses.”
(q.b.: РГВА. Ф.900. Оп.1. Д.269. Л.51)

And who were the commanders, who allowed their troops to perform subpar to the requirements? Why, only the best and, highly decorated and politically well-connected I.P. Uborevitch (Byelorussian Military District) and I.E. Yakir (Kiev Military District)!

Part 3. The Purge

Data about the exact numbers of persons discharged from the Soviet Military in the period of the “Great Terror” of 1937-38 is not some Forbidden Knowledge locked behind seven seals and unavailable for the low and sundry. First of all – it’s been available to the government of the USSR and the top leaders of the Communist Party. And now it’s available for all those who bother searching for it.

But, before we begin our talk about it – a few words about the total number of the command cadres within RKKA of the described period. In 1936 there were 106 247 Red officers, and by 1941 this number was 373 910. But what part of them had been purged and repressed?

One of such exhaustive evidences is the reference note (справка) written by the head of the 6th department of the People’s Commissariat of the Defense colonel Shiryaiev (q.b.: РГВА. Ф.37837. Оп.19. Д.87. Л.42-52). In it he meticulously lists the statistical data on the cadre servicemen discharged from the RKKA in the period from 1934 to late October 1939 (the time of when this reference note had been written). He even dares to report (in the time of the bloody-ghoul Beria as the head of the all-powerful NKVD!) that “part of the commanding corps had been discharged for unjustified reasons” and that some of them, after proper procedures carried out by the Party and the PCD, were fully rehabilitated and returned to their previous ranks and positions. In conclusion, he states, by 1939 the stuffing of the commanding positions with the officer cadres is more than adequate and cites the high performance of the RKKA in battles at the lake Khasan and Khalkhin Gol as the evidence to that.

If we sum up the statistical data provided by colonel Shiryaiev, then the total will look like this:

Reason for discharge 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1939 Total
For drunkenness, embezzlement, theft, moral decay 1513 6719 1942 1139 2671 197 14181
Due to illness, disability, death, etc. 4604 1492 1937 1941 941 1150 12065
Arrested and convicted of a crime 479 349 257 4474 5032 67 10658
For political reasons (+ the exclusion from the Party) 782 11104 3580 277 15743
Foreigners, those born abroad and having connection with it* 4138 4138
* Poles, Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns, Estonians, Koreans, et al., born abroad and associated with it, discharged according to the PCD directive №200/ш (24.06.1938)


I remind you, that the term “repressions” doesn’t necessary mean “were immediately lined up against the wall and shot”. No – ordinary firing from your job due to your political views/ancestry or discharge from the army or security services for the same reasons could also be called “repressions”. As I have said previously and elsewhere, even such a tiny fact that no one with facial/head tattoos can serve in the US military is, in fact, an act of repression. Not to mention how both open and “closeted” communists faced harassment or were barred from some jobs in the post-war FRG or the U.S.

Actually, it’s probably wrong to include in the “repressed” category all those who were arrested and convicted of a crime. There are enough examples of Red Army officers (or even higher commanders) who had committed criminal acts and were persecuted for that. If we are to read PCD’s order № 0219 (28 December 1938) “On combating the drunkenness in the RKKA” not only will we learn that it had been a real and widespread problem, but we also will know about “complications” which resulted from such unbecoming behavior of the Red commanders. This order lists some of the most outrageous violations of conduct and military regulations, committed by the officers while in a state of alcoholic intoxication:

“- October 15, in Vladivostok four Lieutenants got drunk until they lost all human composure, started a brawl in a restaurant, opened fire and wounded two people.
– September 18, two lieutenants of the railway regiment under the same circumstances while in a restaurant, started a fight and shot each other.
– The Politruk of one of the units, a drunkard and a ruffian, fraudulently collected from the junior commanders 425 rubles, stole a watch and revolver, then deserted his unit and a few days later raped and killed a 13-year-old girl.
– November 8, in Rechitsa five drunken Red Army soldiers started on the streets a knife-fight and wounded three workers, and, while returning to their unit, raped a passerby, and then tried to kill her.
– May 27, in Ashgabat captain Balakirev being drunk made an acquaintance in the park with an unknown woman, in the restaurant he blurted out to her several items of sensitive information, and the next morning was found sleeping on the porch of someone else’s house without a revolver, ammunition and Party membership card.”

Those people were dishonorably discharged from the ranks of the RKKA not “just” for drunkenness, but for committing serious crimes. I guess no one will defend these people as the “innocent victims of the Stalinist Regime” ™ or doubt, that there were others like them who were justly dealt with. Determining who were truly innocent and unjustly repressed, and who were criminals and received an adequate punishment for their crimes is still a thing of the future efforts of historiography.

Still, if we are talking about the categories of Soviet servicemen who were discharged for political or similar reasons (i.e. 3-5 lines of the table – but keeping in mind what I just said about arrested and convicted officers), then the total for 1937-38 time period is 30 539 – less than Volkogonov’s 36 761, and much more close to Trotsky’s original number.

But let’s not forget abut those whose criminal cases were re-examined, and who were fully rehabilitated and restored to their previous rank. What is interesting – PCD’s commission for re-examination and re-habilitation of unjustly repressed officers had been created during the peak of the Great Terror – in accordance with January’s decision of the Plenum of Central Committee of the VKP(b). And, yes, we know the number of the people who were rehabilitated and restored to their previous posts as well – thanks to the reference note by the head of the Office of commanding and senior cadres of the RKKA E.A. Shadenko written in April 1940 (ref.: Справка о количестве уволенного командно-начальствующего и политического состава за 1935-1939 гг., РГВА. Ф.37837. Оп.18. Д.890. Л.4-7).

The data from Shadenko’s extensive reference note directly confirms the numbers provided by the already mentioned note on the number of discharged officers by the colonel Shiryaiev. Shadenko lists all the same categories of the official reasons to discharge a serviceman, and then lists the number of them who were rehabilitated – year by year, till April of 1940. According to his reference, by 1940 there had been fully restored 10 704 servicemen previously discharged for political reasons, which puts the number of the “truly repressed” to 19 835. And this, I remind you, is the number of the people discharged due to more or less “political” reasons – not the number of the people executed, in which all sorts of anti-Sovietists and Russophobes believe to this day.

Let’s be honest here – we are not talking about “eviscerating”, or “beheading” of the Red Army here.

Part 4. Military Education in pre-war USSR

Which brings us to the essential question – how were the ranks of the Red Army replenished after the “Great Purge”? Or, more specifically – what was the mechanism of preparing new commanding cadres in the Soviet Military and was there any difference before and after the repressions of 1937-38?

The fact of rapid expansion of the RKKA in the 1930s was already mentioned, as well as the general deterioration in the quality of new commanders and officers within its ranks. In fact, even many years within the military on commanding positions weren’t a sure way to prove one’s competence. One has only to remember the after-action reviews of Marshal Blukher’s actions during the battle at Lake Khasan (soldiers were throwing grenades with pins still attached en masse!), after which not only the Far Eastern Front (which by that time had been transformed into the Red Marshal’s personal fiefdom) had been dissolved – its former commander was discharged from his position and arrested. Officers and commanders who participated in the battle at Khasan (and, later, at Khalkhin Gol) were educated in “pre-repressed” military schools and academies in accordance with the standards that were the norm at that time. And the quality of this military training was such, that at Khalkhin-Gol Red commanders needed 2 weeks to get all relevant sitreps and then re-modeling (well, actually building from the scratch) all operative and technical schemes of RKKA activity during the battles.

The answer lies on the surface. The Red Army had no military experience since the time of the Civil War. Yes, it had been been engaged in the counter-insurgency operation against the basmachs in Central Asian republics, and then there were a series of military clashes and incidents along the КВЖД (Chinese Eastern Rail-Road) in late 1920s and early 30s. Experience acquired by those, who fought in Spain against Franco and his Italian and German “advisers” was of limited use – actually, not that many of the Red Army personnel took part in the Spanish Civil war, and even reports of those who fought and successfully returned home had not been analyzed and systemized properly.

Another stumbling bloc in the system of the military education in the USSR was the ideological aspect. Lessons of the devastating defeats suffered during the Soviet-Polish War (where a lot of future “red marshals” featured prominently, especially Tukhachevsky) had failed to unburden chief military strategists and educators of the concept of “class solidarity”, as a potential positive feature in any future conflict. That simple fact that neither Polish nor Finnish (or German) member of the working class would “turn his bayonet against the exploitive class of his own country” was thoroughly ignored. And one of the chief “believers” in that, till his final days, remained Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky.

Rehabilitated Tukhachevsky appears on a Soviet postage stamp.

Tukhachevsky was the initiator of many reforms in the Red military in the 1930s, after he thoroughly defeated in a series of debates the concepts and ideas of “oborontsi” (“defendists”), and when it seemed like the star of his military career shone as bright as ever. It was he who began in 1936 the reform of the system of military education. All “military schools” were to be renamed “military colleges” (rus. военные училища) and rigorously enforced the unification of the educational process. So far so good? But here lies the catch – while the number of military education facilities had increased only a little bit, the number of cadets within them had increased manifold: in 1937 there were 49 military colleges educating 36 085 cadets. But even after Tukhachevsky’s execution his policy in exponential increase of new cadets remained: in 1938 there were already 63 military colleges, but 59 150 cadets; in 1939 – 64 military colleges, but 65 250 cadets within their walls. Finally, by 1940 the number of military colleges had reached the number of 114 – and the number of cadets within them equaled 169 620.

By 1938 RKKA was experiencing what is known by a chess term of “zeitnot”. The threat of a new global, World War, was clearly obvious and the Soviet PCD had to take all possible measures to prepare its military for the coming storm by rapidly expanding (and sometimes building from scratch) a new, modern military force. As usual in such situations, the question of “quality vs. quantity” reared its ugly head. There was a real need for new officer and commanding cadres – but there were also time constraints. As a result, the Higher Command continued to solve this question by “cranking up the output” from the military schools, colleges and academies. Sadly, this “cranking up” had been achieved by making lots of sacrifices to the general quality of the “output”. Namely – the time of education within military institutions had been lowered significantly. While in March 1938 the time of education within military colleges was lowered from 3 years to just 2.5 years, by late September of 1938 it had been lowered once again – to 2 years. And the effects of these decisions on cadets who were still studying, were not compensated in any meaningful way, like increasing the number of studying hours or intensifying the educational process. No. Educational plans for a new study year were already compiled and confirmed by the beginning of the “educational year” (i.e. by 11 September 1938) and there was NO revision of them after the late-September shortening of the educational process-time. Those, who hoped for a full year ahead of them in early September of 1938, were instead graduated in just 6 months time.

This table shows us the main sources from where the RKKA drew its new commanders and officers:


1935 1936 1937 1938 1939
From Military Academies 1359 2311 2803 2762 4432
From Military Colleges 3979 8247 8517 20316 35290
From the Courses of Junior Lieutenants 26750 51221
Restored from the military Reserve 9642 2834 2675 7172 10204
TOTAL 14980 13392 13395 57000 101147

Thus, by 1938 about 2/3 of military colleges graduates had finished their education prematurely. In the period of 1938-39 into the ranks of RKKA arrived 55 606 cadres educated at military colleges, plus 95 347 from those who successfully finished 3 months long courses of junior Lieutenants and restored from the military reserve.

Already mentioned here E.A. Shadenko summed up the results of the rapid and controversial military reforms of 1930s in his note-report from 20 March 1940:

“Over these 10 years the Army had lost (due to death, disability, court martial and other reasons) 62 000 people, plus 5670 were selected and transferred to the Air Force. Total departure of officers from the land forces was 67 670. Consequently, the graduates from [military] schools hardly covered the natural decrease without creating any reserves to ensure the growth of the army and its reserve.
Particularly acute shortage of commanders had been felt by completely ignored infantry. The number of Infantry Schools not only did not increase in line with the growth of the Army, but on the contrary decreased and some of them were transformed into technical schools. In the period of 1930-1932 four infantry schools (in Ulyanovsk, Orel, Saratov, Gorky) were reorganized into armored Colleges, and in Vladivostok the infantry school was simply liquidated ”

[And I remind you that in that time – early 1930s – Mikhail Tuchachevsky, “Red Napoleon”, was in charge of reforming and “upgrading” the system of military education of the Red Army. His propensity to “innovations”, as it seems, took the better of him, at the cost of everything else – Lyt]

“Situation has been even more difficult with the building up of the reserve. After a call-up for large training sessions of up to 50 000 of the military personnel, as well as the final stuffing of units in the Leningrad and Kalinin districts, the reserve fell by 50%, and as for infantry – the reserve had been exhausted completely. It’s necessary to prepare in just 3 years 300-350 000 commanders for these forces, 145 000 in the 1938-1939 period. In fact, due to the fact that both the [military] schools and the reserve courses were not deployed properly, only 53 600 were prepared in that time. All of these speaks for the fact that as in the past, and as in the recent years, the issues of accumulation and re-stocking of the personal were not given due attention.
If this situation with the accumulation of full-fledged military personnel and reserve is to remain, then during de-mobilization in 1940 and 1941, the army will have at least 70% of hastily prepared [officers], and the war itself will certainly increase this percentage rapidly to 80 and more percent.”

(q.b.: Известия ЦК КПСС. 1990. № 1. С. 177-185)

As we can see clearly – the picture is rather depressing, resulting in favoring “quantity” over “quality”. But the fairly low quality of officer cadres had always been a feature of the Red Army since early 1930s and before. Sadly, there were no adequate measures taken to meliorate this serious situation. But, never the less, some positive measures to increase the general level of combat readiness and military education among the ranks of the RKKA had been taken:

“If on the eve of repressions higher military educations received 29% of senior commanders, then in 1938 it’s been 38% and in 1941 – 52%; among the senior commanders that replaced arrested from 1 May 1937 to 15 April 1938, those with a higher military education had been 45% more than that of their predecessors.”
(q.b. :Смирнов А. А. Боевая выучка Красной армии накануне репрессий 1937-1938 гг. (1935 – первая половина 1937 года). Т. 2. М., 2013. С. 549)


Soviet troops in Smolensk, July 1941

Part 5. In conclusion:

To sum all that was already mentioned in my article, here is what should be noted:

1) Clearly, the RKKA in the 1930s was NOT some dreadful and unstoppable force, threatening the well being of the Civilized, bourgeoisie Europe with its militaries.

2) The number of the “victims of the repressions” in the Soviet Military in 1937-39 period is too inflated for politically motivated reasons.

3) The detrimental effect of the repressions for the general state of the RKKA that took place in that period is strongly overestimated.

4) The influence of repressions on new officer cadres sent to replace all those who were discharged from the Red Army and Fleet in that period is minimal in comparison to the overall inadequate state system of the military education in the Soviet Union, which largely remained unchanged till 1941.

In June 1941 the Soviet Union faced the combined military force of the “Civilized World” at its doorsteps. Wermacht forces at that time (the most powerful, ruthless and technically advanced warmachine on Earth) numbered more than the combined number of USA, China and Russian Federation soldiers nowadays. USSR did all its power to postpone the inevitable and prepare for the invasion. Despite this, efforts in both avoiding the inevitable and getting the military ready proved inadequate. What didn’t fail was the absolutely unprecedented resolve and dedication of the Soviet people of all nationalities, who were either fighting on the frontlines or contributing in other ways to the defense of their common Homeland.

Red commanders in 1941 didn’t lose initiative and were as prone to improvise and ignore the orders of their higher ups as ever – despite the alleged all-pervasiveness of the “Officers Purge”. That “mass-production” machine of cadre officers established in the pre-war years worked like a well-oiled mechanism in the times of the Total War, increasing its output even more and proving its effectiveness in the facts of Red Army’s victories over seemingly undefeatable enemy. A lot of people who had no hope to rise up in the military due to the lack of proper political connections made their careers during those dreadful years.

Not denying for a second that, yes, there were those completely innocent people unjustly repressed and then executed, who had served their Soviet Homeland more if they were still alive, nevertheless I say it again – repressions of the officer corps didn’t break the Red Army and didn’t result in the early horrible defeats of 1941. Instead of constantly searching whom else to blame for that catastrophe, suffered while fighting the greatest military power on the globe, let’s remember the heroic contributions of those who stopped and then defeated this monster – for the sake of all future Life on the Earth.

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29 Responses to On the Stalin Purges of the Soviet Military

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    One of the many (and, probably, not the most crucial) reasons for me to write and post this article has to do with this another piece by, supposedly, ideologically unburdened, balanced and adequate people of Sic Semper Tyrannis. David Habakkuk proved himslef suprising staunch and informed opponent of everything written by a little piece of shit known as Dmitry Rezun aka “Suvorov” (you know – of the “Icebreaker/Ледокол” infamy) but even he commits this same old mistake:

    “The role of Stalin in all this is quite incredibly mixed. On the one hand, among his many catastrophic actions, his fear of new Bonaparte made him destroy what was, apart from the German, the best command group in Europe, and replace them with inept cronies like Voroshilov and Budyonny”

    And – once again! – we have “in spite of, not thanks to” ideology (and phrases like “apocalypse of terror”) that is thin on factual data and thick on emotions.


    [Profoundly handshakes yalensis and gives to him a notebook of the executed general. To live not by lie. Такъ победимъ!]


  2. colliemum says:

    Thank you, Lyttenburgh and yalensis, for this labour of love – hugely interesting!

    That snowball effect in regard to ‘purged officers’ can easily be explained thus: 30,000 (Trotsky) plus 39,000 (Volkogonov) gives, rounded up, 70,000 (Yakovlev), which, rounded up for easy effects, makes 100,000 (Rapport and Geller). For propaganda exercises, no explanations are needed.

    What I find fascinating is the comparison with the rebuilding of the Reichswehr after Versailles, where Gen von Seeckt went explicitly for quality, building up the corps of officers and NGOs. One does suspect that, unlike Tuchachevsky, he wasn’t concerned with the rank-and-file becoming an instrument of revolution.
    Here’s a wiki entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truppenamt

    Personally, I’m intrigued by the display of medals and honours in that photo of Marshall Rokossovsky, so I feel the need to counter with this picture, to show how it’s really done to best effect (I would, wouldn’t I …!):


    • yalensis says:

      The Duke of Wellington?
      Quite a dandy, eh?


      • yalensis says:

        P.S. – one take-away for me, is that Trotsky’s estimate was in fact in the ballpark, if perhaps slightly inflated.
        This must have been particularly painful for Trotsky to watch from afar, because a lot of these repressed guys, including the executed ones, were his former friends and colleagues. He also had a lot of friends and social network in the NKVD. Stalin was determined to root them out, one by one.


      • colliemum says:

        He was indeed!
        Allegedly he was tickled pink when his officers and aide-de-camps called him “Beau Douro” behind his back – Douro because that was one of his titles, before he became Duke.
        And his invention – boots which he could ride in all day (which he did!) and not have to change them but go and visit a party and dance as soon as he was back from work, they have survived until today, albeit in rubber: the wellies without which no dog walker can survive …
        (No, I’ve never danced in my wellies …)

        I confess unashamedly that I’m a great admirer of Wellington – not just because of Waterloo but because of his campaigns in India and in the Peninsular war.


        • marknesop says:

          I had no idea that the Wellington boots were named for THAT Wellington.


          • yalensis says:

            I think Beef Wellington was also named after him.
            That’s the one where they take a steak and bake a pie around it.


            • colliemum says:

              Yeah – but he never ate any of that!
              He was very frugal, often slept on the ground wrapped in his cloak, and was actually chewing on a cooked chicken leg for lunch, sitting on a wall, observing the French at Salamanca, when he famously said ‘By God, that will do’, threw that chicken leg over his shoulder, jumped up and gave command for that famous battle where his army decimated the French.

              It’s astonishing how many diverse things were named after him: a whole town in New Zealand, boots, food, a horde of pubs across the British Isles with one at least in every village, town and city, and never mind the statues.
              There’s even a ‘Duke of Wellington’ rose, created a decade after his death, with ‘scarlet flowers and upright habit, rare’ – which I managed to get last autumn for my garden …


          • yalensis says:

            And when he threw that chicken leg over his shoulder it hit, and simultaneously wounded, three French infantrymen who were trying to sneak up behind him….


            • colliemum says:


              No way! Do your really think his glamorous aide-de-camps would’ve let one Frenchie, never mind three, sneak through? The 95 Rifles (under Sharpe, naturally, teeheehee) would’ve killed them off long before that!


      • colliemum says:

        This portrait ain’t one of the best, but it shows all his medals to a nicety, that’s why I choose it.

        This one, painted after Waterloo, is the most famous:

        He was the same age as Napoleon – hard to believe!
        No wonder the ladies of the English aristocracy flocked to Paris and literally threw themselves at his feet/draped themselves round his neck. One of them was -allegedly – Countess Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador to Great Britain.


    • Lyttenburgh says:

      That’s, ladies and gentelmen, is what is called “The Bling of War”.

      I accept your Wellington and raise the ante with Gerogiy Zhukov:

      This portrait is not accurate. Zhukov was actually a four-time Hero of the Soviet Union.


      • colliemum says:

        Very impressive indeed!
        Mind you – he’s not got many Orders actually hanging round his neck …
        He does look quite fearsome, another one, like Wellington, who’d have one quaking in one’s boots trying to defend a mistake or oversight.
        The nosey parker that is me wonders though if he’d been able to be in the saddle (of a horse) for 19 hours non-stop.
        We know Napoleon wasn’t, and Marshall Zhukov’s adversary in the Great Patriotic War most certainly wasn’t. That one wouldn’t have known one end of a horse from the other.


        • Lyttenburgh says:

          Zhukov began his career first as rank-n-file, and then as Non-Com in the Czars Cavalry unit. During the Great War. Was wounded several times, but also earned several St.George’s crosses (like for storming machine-guns defended hill held by the Germans). During the Civil War he also was cavalry commander.

          So, while I don’t know for sure about him spending 19 hours per day in the saddle, he was quite competent rider. As, I think, was any Soviet commander who have served during the Civil War. Paradoxically, it was, probably, the last large-scale war when the cavalry ruled the day.


          • colliemum says:

            That makes sense – although there were still some cavalry during WWI.
            I know of a German cavalry unit using horses (forgotten the name, sorry) because their leader was one of the officers involved in Henning von Tresckow’s hand-picked group of officers in the German resistance. His name was Georg von Boeselager. He didn’t survive, his brother, also in that group, did: Phillipp von Boeselager.


  3. Cortes says:

    Thank you for such an eye opening essay. It strikes me that one explanation for the handwringing and bewailing in “western ” circles over the fate of the creme de la creme might be a bizarre and curmudgeonly attempt to underplay the achievements of the Red Army in rolling back the Wehrmacht and its Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish and other cohorts (as well as SS, police battalions, Caucasian irregular forces etc). “Well, if Stalin hadn’t decapitated the flower of world military genius, Hitler would never have dared launch a war.”
    Alternatively, “western ” commentators may be guilty of projection. Today, Dmitry Orlov has blogged a review of a book on the insanity of US bureaucrats which explains much. The phenomenon described isn’t restricted to the USA: http://cluborlov.blogspot.co.uk


  4. Lyttenburgh says:

    Thank you, Cortes – expecially for the link.

    “Consider this recent news story involving a Virginia sixth-grader, the son of two schoolteachers and a member of the school’s program for gifted students. The boy was targeted by school officials after they found a leaf, probably a maple leaf, in his backpack. Someone suspected it to be marijuana. The leaf in question was not marijuana (as confirmed by repeated lab tests). End of story, wouldn’t you think?

    Not at all! The 11-year-old was expelled and charged with marijuana possession in juvenile court. These charges were eventually dropped. He was then forced to enroll in an alternative school away from his friends, where he is subjected to twice-daily searches for drugs and periodic evaluation for substance abuse problems—all of this for possession of a maple leaf.

    “It doesn’t matter if your son or daughter brings a real pot leaf to school, or if he brings something that looks like a pot leaf—okra, tomato, maple, buckeye, etc. If your kid calls it marijuana as a joke, or if another kid thinks it might be marijuana, that’s grounds for expulsion,” the Washington Post cheerfully reassures us.”

    This is how real repressions lool like. And this kid is indeed an innocent victim of the regime, that propagates these repressions. Following liberast and Westerner logic, such a regime can not be excusable, sympathetic or even legitimate.

    Which makes me recall the 2nd most famous quote by Sergey Lavrov – “Who the fuck are you to lecture us?”.


  5. Lyttenburgh says:

    A sort of “call-back” and “post scriptum” on our previous historical discussion, concerning Lenin’s role in Russian history, triggered by Putin’s careless remark 2 months ago.

    Ultra-liberal Levada-center has conducted yet another poll on Russian’s attitude to wards the USSR, its break up and political leaders. What is of particular interest: even after the officially endorsed discussion on the role of Lenin (with already defined “correct” governmental position), 53% of Russians consider Lenin either wholly positive or mainly positive figure in Russian history – up 2%, even after the scary talk about the “atomic bomb under the foundation of Russia”.

    On a similar note, this time about Stalin, shows that 54% of Russians consider Stalin either completely or chiefly a positive figure, and only 32% as either partially or mainly negative one.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks, Lyt, those polls are very interesting. They show that decades of liberal propaganda don’t work on approximately half the population.
      This makes sense. The class lines are always there, as Lenin himself would have pointed out. I.e., liberal bourgeoisie vs. regular people.


  6. marknesop says:

    An excellent piece, Lyttenburgh. I will direct it to Marko Marjanović, he’s a bit of an historical researcher himself, and did a very good piece on the Soviet losses in the Second World War. I was fortunate enough to publish it, here;


    I’m sure he will be interested.


    • Lyttenburgh says:

      Thank you very much, Mark, for reading my article and for the kind words. I kinda missed this post on your blog about the losses of the SU during the war, due to still being “in between” of things after my then recent return from the Army.

      This is actually a whole different kind of beast in the Russophobic menagerie of slanderous myths about Russia/Soviet Union. That the USSR somehow “cheated” and defeated those fine, cultured and Racially Superior well-groomed European gentlemen. Naturally, so-called “Russian liberals”, democratic journalists, gays and EuroUkrs absolutely adore the myth that “Soviets buried the enemy with their own dead” and that the highest mark of the Soviet military science was rushing poor, half-starved penal-battalions (armed only with the shovel-hands to boot) through the minefields defending all approaches to the many-layered Racially superior German defenses. All according to the secret sources (c).

      Oh, and, yeah – their deaths are ultimately Stalin’s personal fault. Somehow.

      But back to the myth that during the WW2 the Red Army was a mindless horde that overcame it’s enemies with shear numbers. Unsurprisingly, we can trace it back to the Korean War, when the US genuinely wanted to believe that so they could point and go “Look at how evil those godless commies are, they don’t even care about there men!”. Besides, ain’t it a comforting thought that, come the WW3 and the bloody Reds would outnumber superior Murikan Military 10 to 1, forces of Light and Democracy could still fight off them easily. Or the Enlightened Western Society ™ been told, while still Fledgling NATO was still busy tearing out the hair on their assess while trying to devise a “fighting retreat” from the Germany with lots of A-bombs dropping on anything still un-bombed.

      And not forget that thanks to the “Operation Paperclip” a lot of genuine Nazis (and Wermacht officers) found a safe heaven in the USA, where they could vent off their sense of butthurt in various articles, books and memoirs. And so a large segment of society was already suffering via “baby-duck syndrome” from this indoctrination, and honestly held a belief that “faceless Undermench commie hordes attack handsome, scrubbed clean Germans Who-Were-Definitely-Not-Nazis” is a God-given truth. The opening of Soviet and Russian archives did little to correct this false mistake – first of all, because such truth would hurt both triumphant Euro-Atlantists and their quislings, running things in now “independent” Russia.


    • Cortes says:

      I checked in at the link and was most impressed by not just the article but also the quality of the comments.
      Fern’s observation of 0743 on 22/09/2014 (on ISIS etc) really is a triple gold medal winner.


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