Voroshilov versus Tukhachevsky – Part VI

Dear Readers:

Continuing to recap this movie about Voroshilov vs Tukhachevsky. But first some possible errata from yesterday’s post. I had the “brown-haired historian” (real name = Ilya Ratkovsky) saying something like 120,000 Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner by the Poles after the Soviet defeat on the Vistula. These events occurred during August of 1920. Maybe I heard wrong, or maybe those numbers are inflated. I did a bit of research, since then, on the internet. The figure of 120,000 possibly refers to all casualties, deaths, woundings, captures. According to this piece,

The number of Soviet casualties is unknown. Historians estimate that total losses of the Red Army varied between 10,000 and 25,000, with 30,000 wounded, and 65,000 captured. Some 30,000-35,000 soldiers were interned. Meanwhile, Polish forces lost 4,500 soldiers, 22,000 were injured and 10,000 were missing. One of the results of the battle was a ceasefire between Poland and Soviet Russia, which was agreed in October 1920. The agreement was a basis for the Riga peace treaty signed in March 1921.

Tukhachevsky’s Waterloo: Polish infantry during the Battle of Warsaw

Another interesting tidbit is that much of the Polish success can be attributed to the fact that Polish cryptographers had broken the Soviet army codes as early as September of 1919. This fact was only revealed in 2005, so none of the players here, neither Stalin nor Voroshilov nor Tukhachevsky, knew anything about this. In the mutual recriminations which ensued from this defeat, Tukhachevsky and his supporters continued to insist that the Axis Stalin-Voroshilov-Budyonny were to blame for the Polish defeat, since they would not send cavalry reinforcements in time. The historians in the movie have already discredited this as well, since Stalin’s insubordination only delayed the reinforcements by a single day; which was not significant in this multi-day siege of Warsaw.

The other point being that Tukhachevsky cannot have it both ways: After the dust had settled from the Civil War, Tukh and his Reformer clique mocked Voroshilov and his horse army as operationally ineffectual (which these historians in the movie agree as well); so Tukh can’t then turn around and claim that the lack of these ineffectual horses is what lost him Warsaw. In retrospect, with his cyphers broken and the Polish officers knowing everything that he was going to do before he did it, the battle was all but lost anyhow. Even Bonaparte himself, the greatest General in the history of the planet, could not have won, under those conditions. But even not knowing about that, Tukh should have just manned up and taken accountability for the defeat instead of trying to pass the buck.

However, the main thing, psychologically, is what people believed at the time. The bitter feuds within the Red Army had already begun and were to play out, over the next two decades, to their bloody conclusion. The other take-away being that Tukhachevsky’s dreams of personal glory, plus whatever political ambitions he harbored, died on the Vistula. After that, his only road back to life was as a loyal Soviet General knowing his place in the scheme of things, following the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, and seeking redemption for his big defeat.

Redemption, Bolshevik-Style

17:30 minutes in: Tukhachevsky dreamed of revenge, and undertook to crush the anti-Bolshevik uprisings.

Boris Sokolov: Tukhachevsky, as a trained (professional) officer was considered more reliable than, say, a Budyonny. [When it came to shooting peasants.]

Narrator: The most notable [of these repressions] was the liquidation of the Tambov insurrectionists. The peasants had come out to protest the grain requisitions. [Images of people making a movie about this incident.] The peasant rebellion was extinguished in a river of blood. Director Andrei Smirnov tells us about the Red Terror, with the language of cinema, in his film “Once upon a time there lived a woman…” which is about the Tambov incident. These events happened almost exactly 100 years ago.

Smirnov’s anti-Bolshevik propaganda film features a likable peasant woman.

Smirnov: We’re talking about 100 million people here. Russian people. To arrest them, convey them to prison, guard them, feed them, torture them, shoot them and bury them. Who did this? Germans? Jews? Tatars? No, these were their neighbors, just the same kind of Russians as they.

[We see Smirnov directing his extras in a crowd scene.]

19:00 minutes in: But the main weapon [of the Bolsheviks] was their system of taking hostages. They took the families of the rebels; and if the latter refused to surrender within 2 hours, they shot them in front of everybody. [Image of movie star reacting in horror, as her neighbors are gunned down.]

History has preserved a copy of Order #116 [dated 12 June, 1921] in which permission is actually given, by the Commander of the Tambov troops (i.e., Tukhachevsky) to use poison gas to clear the forests of the remnants of these counter-revolutionary bands.

Historian Vladislav Goncharov: Let’s be perfectly honest about this. All of these cliches about Tukhachevsky poisoning the Tambov peasants — there is a grain of truth in this. What is true, is that he pasted up all these fliers on every post, these typed-up leaflets announcing that anybody who took part in this [rebellion] would be sprayed with poison gas. But he was just using informational war to terrorize his opponents, by threatening them with the poison gas. [And scaring them out of the nearby forests.]

Narrator: But does this mitigate his guilt? Even if he didn’t poison the peasants, he most certainly, in the name of Bolshevik ideology, ordered these peaceful civilians to be shot. And in this sense, was Tukhachevsky any different from Voroshilov, who looked through his fingers [pretending not to see] the anti-Jewish pogroms committed by his Horse Cavalry as they retreated from Poland?

[yalensis sidebar: Here is some additional material as to that latter point, sorry for the lengthy quote; one might also note that Soviet writer Isaac Babel, who helped to expose these atrocities, was arrested and shot in 1940 on Stalin’s order. Stalin/Budyonny apparently still holding a grudge 20 years later. Babel was cohorted in a shooting batch along with various other motley “usual suspects” at a time when Stalin was running out of people to kill and just pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel!] Quote:

The worst Red Army pogroms were perpetrated by the First Cavalry Army under Semyon Budyonny—later to become an important ally of Stalin—during its retreat from Poland in 1920. Isaac Babel, who accompanied the army as a war correspondent, described them later in his literary masterpiece, The Red Cavalry. The soldiers of this army were mainly Kuban Cossacks, among whom anti-Semitism was traditionally widespread. Moreover, many of them had previously served under the command of Anton Denikin and other counterrevolutionary military leaders.

After a series of lootings and killings of civilians, including Jews, in southern Russia in 1919, a report by Red Army political department deputy head Zhilinsky urgently drew attention to the lack of political consciousness and widespread anti-communism and anti-Semitism in the troops. Zhilinsky claimed that the slogan “Beat the Jews, beat the Communists” was heard again and again among the cavalrymen. He also warned that the cavalry’s looting and rape were playing into the hands of the counterrevolution. Entire communities and villages that had previously welcomed the Reds with open arms had now switched sides to the Whites.

Isaac Babel: Exposed excesses and atrocities committed by Budyonny’s Cavalry Army.

The looting and Zhilinsky’s report led to serious conflicts within the army leadership in 1920. As head of the Revvoensovet (Revolutionary Military Council), the highest body of the Red Army, Trotsky pressed for harsh punishment of offenders in order to discourage repetition of the crime.

However, Budyonny was concealing the crimes of his troops, having gained the support of Voroshilov, Minin and Vardin, who comprised the southern front’s military leadership, and Stalin, who then held office in the Politburo. Budyonny and Voroshilov were to be among Stalin’s closest allies in the coming decades. They were also two of the very few “old Bolsheviks” to survive the terror of the 1930s.

The leadership of the First Cavalry Army eventually effected the dismissal of Zhilinsky. Although the party leadership gave Zhilinsky its backing, their efforts to punish those involved were continually undermined by opposition from the local army command over the following months.

After the devastating pogroms committed by the Red Army Cavalry during its retreat from Poland in late September and early October 1920, the military leadership immediately dispatched a commission of inquiry, which nevertheless proved ineffectual. On October 9, the Revvoensovet then resolved to immediately dismantle all units involved in the pogroms.

20 minutes in: It would seem that in the Civil War, Tukhachevsky had proved his loyalty to the Bolsheviks. But Voroshilov never believed that for one second. Looking at his second-in-command, Voroshilov was always aware that before him stood a former Tsarist officer.

[to be continued]

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