Was Stalin A Good War Chief? – Part II

Marat: Vous avez chacun votre dada; vous, Danton, la Prusse; vous, Robespierre, la Vendée. Je vais préciser, moi aussi. Vous ne voyez pas le vrai péril ; le voici: les cafés et les tripots.

Marat demands to know: Who is the real enemy of the Revolution?

[“You each have your own bogeyman: you, Danton, it’s Prussia; you, Robespierre, it’s the Vendée. I am going to be specific: I have one too. Neither of you is seeing the true danger here: It’s in the cafes and the gambling dens.”] (Victor Hugo Quatrevingt-Treize)

Dear Readers:

Continuing my review of this piece by “controversial” Russian historian Mikhail Diunov:

On August 8, 1941 Stalin was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all the Soviet armed forces. It was his job to win his war.

This title gave Stalin not just absolute power over all the military components, but also all institutions and enterprises, both military and civilian, which operated in the theater of war. Such a title had only appeared in Russian history as late as 1914, at the outbreak of World War I. The very first Russian to hold this title was Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, a professional soldier and General of the Russian Cavalry. Nikolai was highly qualified: An army man his whole life, he had fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78; then for many years led the Guardsmen and other troops in the military okrug of the capital system. Not one person ever doubted the Grand Duke’s professional credentials.

Grand Duke Nikolai, Russia’s first Commander-in-Chief

In the tough days of 1915, Tsar Nikolai II, Emperor of All the Russias, took the job away from his cousin and assumed the role himself. Fortunately, the Tsar was also a military man, and had received a decent military education, as part of his training to assume the Russian throne.

During the Civil War, effective July, 1919, the title of Commander-in-Chief was assumed by Sergei Kamenev (no relation to Old Bolshevik Lev Kamenev), who had fought in World War I with the rank of Colonel. [Diunov doesn’t mention one other Commander-in-Chief squeezed in between Grand Duke Nikolai and Kamenev; this was Latvian rifleman Jukums Vācietis.] Kamenev had received a sterling military education in the Nikolaev Academy of the General Staff, which was considered one of the best in the world, during Tsarist times.

And so, here is the irony: After a series of such highly qualified individuals in this role, now we get a bureaucrat like Josef Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party. A man with virtually no military credentials to speak of. A man who had never studied a single day in any military school or academy, and had never served a single day in the army.

To be sure, Stalin had taken part in the Civil War. But not as a commander of troops. Just as a bureaucratic manager and political commissar. It was not the job of the Bolshevik political leaders on the front lines to lead military units or compile operational plans; their job was to mobilize the forces, maintain vigilance over the bona fides of the military specialists, to investigate defeats, and also to punish those who were guilty of negligence. If you please, Stalin was exemplary in above-mentioned job duties; that is to say, exemplary in the negative sense, since his methods were so unsound that they evoked criticism even from Lenin. The latter, who didn’t shed too many tears over Terror excesses, felt that Stalin had been shooting too many military specialists who could have been useful to the Red Army.

Given these factors, it is legitimate to pose the question: To what degree was Stalin a suitable candidate for this all-important job of Commander-in-Chief during these war years; and to what degree was he successful in this role?

Stalin Didn’t Trust His Generals

“The Military Commissar is the Father and Soul of his unit.”

We notice certain problems even before the start of World War II. Stalin did not trust the Soviet generals. Therefore, in 1937, in the full fury of the Great Terror, the title of “Political Leaders” (Commissars) was re-established, notwithstanding the fact that the military men themselves were decisively opposed to this breach of the principle of authoritarian command. In 1940 the Commissars were abolished (again), but as soon as the war broke out, they were put back in. Moreover, the Commissars were granted broad powers of control over the commanders, a fact which seriously harmed troop management during that most difficult first war of the war. It is tricky for any commander to do his job, knowing that, peering over his shoulder, there is a Party appointee who, at any moment, might accuse him of treason and seize command. It wasn’t until October 1942 that the Commissars were abolished once and for all.

If War Comes Tomorrow

Diunov: Another problem, which also revealed itself before the war, touched on the strategic leadership, in other words the competence itself of the Commander-in-Chief. The USSR had adopted the (strategic) doctine of offensive war; a war which will be waged on the territory of the enemy, just as was sung in the song: “A mighty blow for little blood.”

yalensis: I am going to take a bit of a detour here to deep-dive into “offensive war” along with a quick movie review, before allowing Diunov to continuing making his point. Diunov is alluding to this popular Soviet song called “If War Comes Tomorrow”, from a movie of the same name, made in 1938. Music by the brothers Dmitry and Daniil Pokrass; lyrics by V. Lebedev-Kumach:

Если завтра война,если враг нападет,
Если темная сила нагрянет,
Как один человек, весь советский народ
За свободную Родину встанет


На земле в небесах и на море
Наш напев и могуч и суров:
Если завтра война,
Если завтра в поход,
Будь сегодня к походу готов!

Если завтра война, всколыхнется страна
От Кронштадта до Владивостока,
Всколыхнется страна, велика и сильна,
И врага разобьем мы жестоко!


Полетит самолет, застрочит пулемет,
Загрохочут могучие танки,
И линкоры пойдут, и пехота пойдет,
И помчатся лихие тачанки


Мы войны не хотим, но себя защитим-
Оборону крепим мы недаром.
И на вражьей земле мы врага разгромим
Малой кровью,могучим ударом!


Подымайся народ, собирайся в поход,
Барабаны сильней барабаньте!
Музыканты, вперед! Запевалы, вперед!
Нашу песню победную гряньте!



If war comes tomorrow, if the enemy attacks,
If a dark force unleashes upon us,
As one man, the entire Soviet people
Will rise up for their free Motherland.


On the land in the skies and in the sea
Our song is mighty and stern:
If war comes tomorrow,
If tomorrow we march,
Then be ready to fight today!

If war comes tomorrow, the nation will rise,
From Kronshtadt to Vladivostok,
Our nation will arise, mighty and strong,
And ferociously shatter the foe.


The plane will fly, the machine gun will shoot,
The mighty tanks will roll,
The battleships sail, the infantry will march,
And the wild cannon carts rumble on.


We don't want war, but will defend ourselves,
We build our defenses tightly.
And on the enemy's soil we will dismantle the foe,
A mighty blow for little blood!


Arise, O people, assemble to march,
Drummers beat the drums loudly!
Forward Musicians!  Singers, ahead!
Break out in victorious song!


Oh wait! I just found this great version on youtube, it provides subtitles in both Russian and English, so you can sing along. The song is so catchy, I think it will be ringing in my head for many days!

The Doctrine of Offensive War

Diunov raises a very interesting point about Soviet military doctrine of the 1930’s, which deserves more discussion. The Russian term наступательная война is translated as “offensive war”, but the meaning is not quite the same as what a Westerner might think. It doesn’t mean, for example, the American propensity for just willfully invading other countries with very flimsy pretext. In the Soviet context, it actually meant a defensive war which then switches gears and spills over onto enemy territory. Finishing off the foe on his own soil.

In my previous series on Hieronymus Uborevich, we saw that the talented Marshal (and supporter of Tukhachevsky’s team of Reformers and Innovators) was a theoretical proponent of this doctrine of offensive war, although he called it by a slightly different name, something like “War of Deep Penetration” (into the enemy territory) after rebuffing the enemy’s initial onslaught.

Soviet Marshal Rodion Malinovsky

For example, here is a quote from the contribution of Marshal K.A. Meretskov to the Uborevich anthology: “The Belorussian Military Okrug [commanded by Uborevich] was one of the creative bases and laboratories in which the theory of War of Deep Penetration (теория глубокого боя и глубокой операции) was worked out and mastered by hundreds and thousands of participants [of massive war games], trainings and exercises. Only later were the results parlayed into articles, brochures, and academic monographs. In the practical actions of creating this theory, Uborevich deserves notable credit, although he published very little about this in open sources. [Rodion Yakovlevich] Malinovsky deserves most of the credit for developing this theory of deep operations. Uborevich highly valued [Malinovsky’s] capabilities and always praised his work, considered him to be a very promising commander. Together with Malinovsky, Zakharov, Kurasov, Shumovich and Director of Artillery Muev, we worked quite a lot on this Instruction on Deep War, which was published in 1935.”

This doctrine bore very good fruit and is brilliantly illustrated in the movie just discussed, namely If War Comes Tomorrow. I found this full version on youtube, it’s just one hour long and is very much worth watching, even for people who don’t understand Russian. There is not much plot or story-line, and the leading characters are just sketches, so you don’t get too involved in their stories; but the movie is extremely well made, from a technical point of view, and is very exciting to watch, especially if you like war-action movies. The producers utilize a documentary-style of film-making to make it seem that everything is happening — this simulation of a German/Polish invasion in 1938 — right at that time. Actual individuals, such as Stalin, Voroshilov and Budyonny, are seamlessly edited into the film alongside actors portraying roles; and documentary war footage is spliced together with staged scenes. Many of the scenes, especially those of tanks, planes and parachutists, were probably taken from the war games, I am guessing. The film-makers must have been given extraordinary access to Red Army sources and footage, which probably explains why they spend so much script time sucking up to Stalin and Voroshilov. (“Hoorah to the Great Genius Stalin!” the crowds chant on Red Square. Scenes of Voroshilov galloping around on his horse, looking brave and in control of the situation.)

In the movie: A radio-operator at his post.
Reds fight back with grenade launchers.

The movie basically depicts the Nazi invasion happening right then, in 1938. Three years too soon, but amazingly prescient. German commanders give the order to invade Soviet territory: “Long live our race! We shall build colonies in the East!”

The Red Army fights back and repels the first infantry onslaught. German aircraft attack a Soviet border town. The air-raid sirens in the town go off and people follow the drill. Soviet people are always prepared!

Soviet pilots take to the skies to engage in dogfights against the Nazis. The pilots are dashing heroes; but, true to the Uborevich/Malinovsky doctrine, air support always plays a supportive and not a primary role in the “deep penetration” of the enemy rear.

In the movie version, Voroshilov’s horse cavalry enter German soil and mop up the enemy.

The movie showcases the awesome new models of Soviet tanks, which are way better than the German ones. But the film-makers also have to nod ritually in the direction of Voroshilov and his horse cavalry. It is the cavalry which storms onto German soil, taking the war into the enemy’s deep rear, as the Doctrine demands. But first Soviet planes bomb the shit out of the enemy, also softening them up with artillery barrages.

In desperation, the Krauts employ poison gas, dispersed from planes. Fortunately the Reds are prepared for this scenario: The troops quickly don gas masks and body suits.

Eventually the two sets of horse cavalries meet face to face, for a thrilling scene of hand-to-hand combat on horseback, it’s all sabres and pistols just like in Napoleonic times. Voroshilov’s riders arrive to mop up the enemy. An edited-in Budyonny smiles as he sheaths his sabre.

Now comes the best part of the film: In the enemy’s deep rear, in the cities and industrial centers of the various fascist states, the proletariat finally rise up. Communist revolutions break out everywhere. The defeated enemy officers are taken prisoner and remark glumly, “We had no idea you had so many planes and tanks.”

“We tried to warn you!” their Soviet captor gloats. As the movie ends, the catchy song breaks out, and a final subtitle warns that any attack on the Soviet Union will surely lead to the destruction of the capitalist world. Which is the ultimate essence of the “Offensive War” or “Deep Penetration” doctrine. In other words: We won’t lift a finger against you unless you attack us first; in which case, you lose everything, including your sovereignty. It’s a great doctrine and, if I am not mistaken, it is still the military doctrine of the Russian Federation.

Based on what we have seen, it is clear that this movie was directed primarily to the German and Polish audiences, primarly Hitler and his gang, as a warning. The other audience being the Soviet people themselves. The movie attempted to comfort them and buck up their spirits, in the nature of: “If war comes, don’t worry. We are fully prepared, and our leaders have it all under control. We will repel the enemy quickly, with little bloodshed, and then overwhelm him with our awesome technology.”

All in all, despite some anachronisms, the movie is amazingly prophetic: As one commenter noted, “It all came to pass exactly that way, except with tons more bloodshed.”

[to be continued]

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