Where we left off in our recap of this documentary film: We saw Tukhachevsky make a (principled) power-play against his boss, Klim Voroshilov. If this were the modern era, it would have been an email flame-war; back in those days it was a hostile exchange of correspondence.
The main difference of opinion was what to do about the horse cavalry. Very simply put, Tukhachevsky wanted to get rid of the equines and replace them with mechanized tanks. Even though he was not a good rider himself, Voroshilov was invested in the horses, that was part of his romantic image and the basis of his popularity. It was actually an open and shut case: Tukhachevsky should have won this debate. Instead, the Big Boss, Stalin, took Voroshilov’s side and demoted Tukhachevsky. This was a blow against the “Reformers” faction in the Red Army. Whose stated goal was to build the largest, most modernized, and most effective army the world had ever seen.
Yaroslav Listov, 23:00 minutes in: This cult of Voroshilov was promoted quite ferociously. Everything was “Voroshilov this, Voroshilov that, Voroshilov’s riflemen, Voroshilov’s airmen, Voroshilov’s horsemen…” This was a man about whom poets wrote songs.
Narrator: Against the background of the growing power of this cult of Voroshilov, the Army experienced its first wave of repressions. Three thousand military specialists were dismissed from the ranks. Tukhachevsky himself was forced to endure some rather serious unpleasantness: In Leningrad, all of the former officers who had once served in the Semyonovsky Regiment, were arrested. Everybody. Except for him.
Julia Kantor: The fact that they still carried the banner of the Semyonovsky Regiment, this was considered practically a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. Tukhachevsky helped everyone that he could, thus taking a personal risk, but still maintaining ties with them. He also tried to provide [financial] assistance to the relatives of his former Regimental comrades.
yalensis sidebar: I did a little research on the history here, and it turns out the Soviet government was not wrong to worry about the Semyonovtsy, given their checkered history. Tukh had served with these guys during WWI. The regiment as a whole went over to the side of the Bolsheviks, but there was also a case of large-scale defection to the Whites.
Long story short: This Regiment was founded in 1691 by Peter the Great. Named after the village of Semyonovsky, where it was founded. Initial function was a personal guard to the Emperor himself.
In 1801 the Semyonovtsy took part in the conspiracy to assassinate Emperor Paul I. During the war of 1812 the Regiment played a positive role during the Battle of Borodino. Helped to defeat Napoleon eventually, and made it all the way to Paris in 1814.
In 1905 the Regiment was dispatched to Moscow to help put down the revolutionary uprising. Played an active role in WWI. Now here is where it gets interesting: In 1917 the Regiment went over to the side of the new government, in 1918 was renamed to “Third Petrograd named after Uritsky” and helped to defend Petrograd against the Whites. The plot thickens. The Third Battalion of the Regiment (around 600 men) turned traitor against the Reds and conspired with the Whites. The regimental orchestra also defected with them and played tunes as they marched down the street. The leader of the conspiracy was a guy named V.A. Zaitsev, a former Captain. They secretly let the Whites enter the town of Vyra, located just 6 kilometers from the railway line connecting Petersburg to Warsaw. The turncoats proceeded to shoot all the Communists they could find. They were eventually defeated, but left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth; and the Semyonovsky Regiment became the most hated in the land.
It is also worthy to note that, after the anti-Communist counter-revolution, many decades later, namely in 2012, Russian President Putin restored and honored the good name of this Regiment, which is typical of him, part of the process of rehabiliating the Monarchy and portraying the Whites as the good guys.
In any case, one can see that the Soviet government of the time (1931) may have had legitimate cause to worry about the former Semyonovtsy in the Red Army, given that they still nurtured their old banners and traditions; this could be a possible source of an anti-Soviet Vendée; although one might also think the main danger had already passed by that time, and people were just being nostalgic about their youth. The main point being, though, that Tukhachevsky had been one of these guys, and he still revered and helped out his old comrades, this band of brothers from his youth. Which brought down suspicions upon his head, despite his years of useful service to the Red Army.
Narrator: Did Tukhachevsky himself understand that he was walking the fine edge of a precipice? But to everyone’s surprise, in 1931 Stalin brought him back to the capital and put him under Voroshilov’s wing. Why did this happen? Because Europe was again arming itself [for war]. Tukhachevsky was given the assignment of building a strong army, and he took to this task with enthusiasm. Voroshilov, on the other hand, was more sombre than a dark cloud. His situation was no longer as sure as it once seemed. On the night of November 9, 1932 Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Allilueva ended her own life with a pistol shot. Voroshilov’s wife Ekaterina was one of the last people to see her alive; and Voroshilov himself was witness to this unpleasant scene of a jealous [argument, with Nadezhda accusing] the Leader of flirting with [Galina Yegorova], wife of the future Marshal Yegorov.
Yaroslav Listov: The fight [between Stalin and his wife] took place that evening in Voroshilov’s flat. Stalin permitted himself some tactless behavior by tossing a bread stick at his wife. And didn’t even deny his wife’s accusation that he was having an affair.
Narrator: After the fact, many of the witnesses to this scandal ended up having an unpleasant fate. But the dictator did not lay a hand on Voroshilov or his wife. Nonetheless, The People’s Commissar (Narkom) of Defense lived out the rest of his life in a state of fear.
25:00 minutes in: [Scene from a movie made in 1989, called “A Night with Stalin”. An exhausted and drunk Voroshilov is being verbally taunted by a mean Stalin.]
Narrator: Unlike Voroshilov, everything was going quite well for Tukhachevsky [during this time]. The next six years in the history of the Red Army bore his name [i.e., the Tukhachevsky era]. He was moving rapidly towards his most desired goal: To create the best army in all of Europe. By the method of trial and error.
Boris Sokolov: Tukhachevsky was busy with a lot of projects. The idea was to have 100,000 tractor tanks; 40,000 transport planes. In 1931 there were only two planes on the Northern [front]. And, on the other hand, he had the correct ideas about the future look of the armed forces; those were the same ideas as professed by the leading theoreticians in the European armies. He staked the future on the mechanization of the army, on the creation of tank units and on aviation.
Narrator: The Red Army was stronger than ever. It is no surprise that Tukhachevsky dreamed of being at its head. According to the memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, Tukhachevsky openly mocked his own boss [Voroshilov] and told other people exactly what he thought of him.
Julia Kantor: The Army was drafting a new founding document, they were discussing it, and Voroshilov asked something like, where was the place for the horse cavalry, and he wanted to add a note to the draft, and Tukhachevsky said, we don’t need your comment, and Voroshilov asked why? and Tukhachevsky replied there was no need to add comments of incompetent people. It didn’t go any farther after that, but you have to understand that such incidents are never forgotten.
Narrator: May 1, 1936. A triumphal banquet. After healthy doses of spirits were consumed, a very unhealthy and highly unpleasant conversation broke out between Voroshilov and Tukhachevsky. In which they, once again, reopened that old wound about the defeat of the Red Army at Warsaw. Voroshilov assigned all the blame to Tukhachevsky. But very soon the combatants switched to the topic of current events. Tukhachevsky revealed to the former head of the First Cavalry that he was going to place his own people into commanding positions in the cavalry, and was going to create his own army group. Voroshilov became very agitated and tossed out: “Aren’t you already forming your own group around you?” Voroshilov knew that Tukhachevsky’s like-minded supporters were already posing the question of his [Voroshilov’s] forced retirement, at the first convenient opportunity.
Boris Sokolov, 27:30 minutes in: It goes without saying that these two men disliked each other intensely. And if Tukhachevsky and his team were lobbying Stalin to remove Voroshilov, then it was only natural for Voroshilov to be unhappy about this, and to regard Tukhachevsky and the others as his sworn enemies.
[yalensis comment: I personally cannot imagine that Tukh would have been so emboldened as to snark Voroshilov to his face and brag about replacing him, unless he had some kind of sign from Stalin. Stalin must have met privately with Tukh and led him on somehow, led him to believe that Voroshilov was a goner, and that Tukh was going to get his job. Nothing else can explain Tukh’s glaring boldness and sheer rudeness to his boss. This theory also jibes with what the memoirists wrote about Uborevich at the time — see my series of previous posts about Uborevich — in which the latter seemed to feel quite confident that their team, and their ideas, were going to prove victorious in this colossal spat. Gamarnik’s suicide was the first wake-up call: It actually came as a shock to them when Stalin took Voroshilov’s side in the end. They clearly were not expecting that. They clearly underestimated Voroshilov’s skill in playing The Game of Office Politics. I would bet anything that, right after this nasty dinner party, Voroshilov rushed off to the Kremlin to complain to Stalin directly.]
Narrator: Stalin could not permit this. If today he allows his army commander to tell him who must head the military, then maybe tomorrow he will demand some changes in internal politics. It was not very difficult to convince the Commander-in-Chief that Tukhachevsky is arming the nation, not for war, but in order to carry out a coup.
[to be continued]