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The Militant, 4 October 1941

Leon Trotsky

How Stalin’s Purge Beheaded the Red Army

Trotsky Warned That Stalin’s Murder of the Red Army Leaders
Would Endanger Defense of Soviet Union


From The Militant, Vol. V No. 40, 4 October 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following extracts are from an article written by Leon Trotsky in 1937, shortly after Stalin’s execution of the eight leading generals of the Red Army. Only now is the world beginning to understand that in murdering these men Stalin was destroying the supreme leadership of the armed forces of the Soviet Union. Nor did Stalin stop with the extirpation of these eight generals. In the space of twelve months, from May 1937 to May 1938, the GPU shot or jailed almost to a man the commanding staff of the Red Army, air fleet and navy. The most conservative estimate of the number of officers shot or jailed in that period is 40,000.

On August 20, 1940 a Stalinist assassin succeeded in dealing a death-blow to the one man above all to whom the Soviet Union at war would now be looking for leadership – Leon Trotsky, founder and builder of the Red Army.

Of those who were connected with the leadership of the armed forces in the period of the Civil War and the building, of the Red Army, only three now remain – Voroshilov, Shaposhnikov and Budenny. The Red Army suffers today above all from lack of leadership. Every one of its defeats is due to Stalin’s beheading of the Red Army. On Stalin’s hands is the blood, not only of the generals and officers he murdered, before the war broke out, but also of the millions of heroic Red fighters who have fallen only because of lack of leadership. – THE EDITORS

* * *

In the past few months hundreds, probably thousands, of public servants have been shot in Soviet Russia. The executed include the most eminent personages in the Soviet government, the majority of whom were heroes of the Russian revolution. It is as if, in America, the Roosevelt administration were to shoot half the cabinet, a score or so of the United States Senate, the Presidents of a dozen leading corporations, and the head of the Department of Justice – for treason!

And now the latest chapter in blood-letting is the decapitation of the Red Army. More than all the other Moscow trials put together, this act has had the widest repercussions in world opinion. “Is the Red Army as strong as we thought it was?” the German general staff is asking itself. Among the enemies and allies of Russia, a revision of opinion is in process which may have the profoundest effects in world politics, and which cannot but affect the question of war and peace in the world arena.

* * *

On May 22, 1937 Marshal Tukhachevsky was suddenly removed from his post as Vice-Commissar of Defense and transferred to a minor post in the provinces. Within the next few days the commanders of the military districts and other prominent generals were likewise transferred. These measures boded nothing good. It was evident that the ruling tops had come into serious conflict with the officers’ corps.

Moved by the interests of Soviet defense, the commanders of the districts and the responsible generals, might have intervened in Tukhachevsky’s behalf. Did they do so? In all probability the whirl of transfers and arrests in the month of May and during the first days of June can be explained only by panic in the Kremlin. On June 1, Gamarnik either shot himself or was shot. The commanders of the military districts no sooner arrived at their new posts than they were placed under arrest and turned over to the court. On June 9, the following were arrested: Tukhachevsky, who had just been appointed to Samara; Yakir, who had just been transferred to Leningrad; Uborevich, commander of the White Russian Military district; Kork, head of the Military Academy; Putna, former military attaché at Tokyo and London; Primakov, a cavalry general; Feldman, chief of the personnel section of the General Staff; Eideman, head of the Ossoaviakhim. Two days later, all eight were sentenced to death and on the following day shot.

The Leaders of the Red Army

The army must have been stirred to its very depths. In the mind of everyone was the question: Why kill the legendary heroes of the civil war, the talented field commanders and organizers, the heads of the Red Army who, only yesterday, were the mainstay and hope of the regime? Let us first recall briefly who they were. The actual leaders of the army in recent years were two men: Tukhachevsky and Gamarnik.

Both came to the fore during, the civil war, not without the intervention of the author of these lines. Tukhachevsky gave indubitable evidence of outstanding talent as a strategist. Tukhachevsky was a very young man at the time and had made a leap from the ranks of Czarist officerdom to the camp of Bolshevism. Thereafter he apparently applied himself assiduously, if not to the study of Marxism, then to military science. He acquired a knowledge of modern military technique and, not unsuccessfully, played the role of mechanizer of the army.

Jan Gamarnik, born of a Jewish family in the Ukraine, distinguished himself during the civil war by his political and administrative talents – to be sure, on a provincial scale. For a period of ten years Gamarnik held important posts at the very center of the party apparatus, and was in daily collaboration with the GPU. Is it conceivable that in such circumstances he could have conducted two policies, a public one for the external world, the second private? In our opinion, impossible.

Why, then, did the axe descend on these two leaders of the army?

Reasons for the Purges

As educator of the commanding staff and future generalissimo, Tukhachevsky could not but value talented military leaders. Putna was one of the most outstanding officers of the general staff; Tukhachevsky undoubtedly intervened in behalf of Putna as he must have done in the case of other officers drawn into the web of the GPU.

Voroshilov is Russia’s Commissar of War, Commander-in-Chief of the army. What was his part in all this? Up to now, Voroshilov’s policy was determined to a far greater extent by his ties with Stalin than by his ties with the army. Voroshilov, moreover, a man of limited horizon and rather a scatterbrain, could not but have cast jaundiced glances in the direction of his far-too-talented vice-commissar. Such could very well have been the source of the conflict.

As the head of the political department of the army and navy, Gamarnik was obliged not only to deliver his collaborators into the hands of Vyshinsky, but also to participate in the fabrication of false charges against them. It is highly probable that he came into conflict with the GPU and complained about Yezhov, the new head of the GPU – to Stalin! This in itself was enough to endanger him.

Let us see who the others were.

If Tukhachevsky, an officer in the Czar’s army, became a Bolshevik, then Yakir, a young tubercular student, became a Red commander. From the very outset, he revealed the imagination and resourcefulness of a strategist. Veteran officers more than once cast astonished eyes on the gaunt commissar, as matchstick in hand he traced moves on military maps. Yakir had occasion to prove his devotion to the revolution and the party in a much more direct manner than Tukhachevsky. When the civil war ended he plunged into serious study. The authority he enjoyed was great and well-merited.

Alongside Yakir we may place Uborevich, a somewhat less brilliant but thoroughly tested and reliable field commander of the civil war. It was these two men who were entrusted with the defense of the Western frontier, and they prepared themselves for years for their roles in the coming great war.

Kork, a graduate of the Czarist military academy, successfully commanded one of the armies during the critical years, was later given command of a military district and, finally, placed at the head of the Military Academy in succession to Eideman.

For the last few years, Eideman directed the Ossoaviakhim, through which is effected the connection between the civil population and the army.

Putna was an educated young general with an international outlook.

In Feldman’s hands was concentrated the power of direct supervision over the commanding personnel. This alone indicates the measure of confidence which he enjoyed.

Next to Budenny, Primakov was unquestionably the most outstanding cavalry commander.

It would be no exaggeration to say that in the Red array there is left not a single name, with the exception of Budenny that, as regards popularity, not to speak of talent or knowledge, is comparable to the names of the alleged criminals.

The New “Leadership” of the Red Army

When Tukhachevsky was demoted, a very informed person wondered: who will henceforth take charge of the work of Soviet defense? Marshall Yegorov, a lieutenant-colonel during the World War, was appointed to Tukhachevsky’s post (and was later shot). The new chief-of-staff, Shaposhnikov, is an educated executive officer of the old army, devoid of strategic talent and initiative. And Voroshilov? It is no secret that Voroshilov, the “old Bolshevik”, is a purely decorative figure. While Lenin was alive, it never entered anybody’s head to include him in the Central Committee. During the civil war, Voroshilov, while displaying an indubitable personal courage, showed a complete lack of military and administrative talent and, besides, a narrow, utterly provincial outlook. His only qualification for a seat in the Political Bureau, and the post of People’s Commissar of Defense, is that he supported at Tsaritsin, the opposition of Stalin to that military policy which insured victory in the civil war. Incidentally, neither Stalin nor the other members of the Political Bureau ever entertained any illusions concerning Voroshilov as a military leader. Just because of this, they had surrounded him with qualified collaborators.

Thus the decimation of the leadership of the Red army was carried through with the full knowledge of what it implied!

* * *

To the Red army, Stalin has dealt a fearful blow. As a result of the latest judicial frameup, it has fallen several cubits in stature. The interests of the Soviet defense have been sacrificed in the interests of the self-preservation of the ruling clique.

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