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Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky
Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky.
Born (1893-02-16)February 16, 1893
Died June 12, 1937(1937-06-12) (aged 44)
Place of birth Alexandrovskoye, Russian Empire
Place of death Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Allegiance  Russian Empire (1914-1917)
 Russian SFSR (1918-1922)
 Soviet Union (1922-1937)
Years of service 1914–1937
Rank Marshal of the Soviet Union
Commands held Chief of General Staff
Battles/wars World War I
Russian Civil War
Polish-Soviet War
Awards Order of Lenin
Order of the Red Banner
Order of Saint Vladimir
Order of Saint Anna
Order of Saint Stanislaus

Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky (Russian: Михаи́л Никола́евич Тухаче́вский; February 16 [O.S. February 4] 1893 – June 12, 1937) was a Marshal of the Soviet Union, commander in chief of the Red Army (1925–1928), and one of the most prominent victims of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge.

Early life

Tukhachevsky was born at Alexandrovskoye, Safonovsky District, into a family of impoverished hereditary nobles.[1] His great-grandfather was Alexander Tukhachevsky, a Colonel of Imperial Russian Army. He was of Russian ethnicity.[2] After attending the Moscow Military School in 1912 he moved on to the Aleksandrovskoye Military School whence he graduated in 1914. At the outset of the First World War, he joined the Semyenovsky Guards Regiment as a Second Lieutenant declaring,

"I am convinced that all that is needed in order to achieve what I want is bravery and self-confidence. I certainly have enough self-confidence... I told myself that I shall either be a general at thirty, or that I shall not be alive by then."[3]

After being taken prisoner by the Imperial German Army in February 1915, Tukhachevsky escaped four times from POW camps and was finally held as an incorrigible escapee in Ingolstadt fortress.[4] There he shared a cell with Charles de Gaulle who reported that he played his violin, spouted nihilist beliefs and spoke against Jews who he called dogs who "spread their fleas throughout the world".[5]

His fifth escape was successful, and after crossing the Swiss-German border, he returned to Russia in September 1917. After the October Revolution, Tukhachevsky joined the Bolshevik Party and went on to play a key role in the Red Army in spite of his noble ancestry.

During the Civil War

He became an officer in the newly established Red Army and rapidly advanced in rank due to his great ability. During the Russian Civil War he was given responsibility for defending Moscow. The Bolshevik Defence Commissar Leon Trotsky gave Tukhachevsky command of the 5th Army in 1919, and he led the campaign to capture Siberia from the anti-communist White forces of Aleksandr Kolchak. Tukhachevsky used concentrated attacks to exploit the enemy's open flanks and threaten them with envelopment.

He also helped defeat General Anton Denikin in the Crimea in 1920, conducting the final operations. In February 1920, he launched an offensive into the Kuban, using cavalry to disrupt the enemy's rear. In the retreat that followed, Denikin's force disintegrated, and Novorossiysk was evacuated hastily.

In the final stage of the civil war, Tukhachevsky commanded the Seventh Army during the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921. He also commanded the assault against the Tambov Republic between 1921 and 1922.

British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore has described Tukhachevsky as being "as ruthless as any Bolshevik".[6] He was known for using summary execution of hostages[7] and poison gas[6][8] in his suppression of peasant uprisings.

During the Polish-Soviet War

Polish soldiers displaying captured Soviet battle flags after the Battle of Warsaw

Tukhachevsky commanded the Soviet invasion of Poland during the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, and was defeated by Józef Piłsudski outside Warsaw. It was during the Polish war that Tukhachevsky first came into conflict with Stalin. Each blamed the other for the Soviet failure to capture Warsaw. Tukhachevsky later lamented,

"There can be no doubt that if we had been victorious on the Vistula, the revolutionary fires would have reached the entire continent."[9]

His orders were frequently disobeyed, even by high-ranking officers, which led the Soviet armies to several major failures throughout the campaign (see also 1st Cavalry Army)[citation needed]. On the other hand, Tukhachevsky argued that he could not choose his division commanders or move his headquarters from Moscow, for political reasons[citation needed]. The animosity between Tukhachevsky and Stalin would ultimately have fatal consequences for him.

The reform of the Red Army


Marshal Tukhachevsky

According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, Joseph Stalin regarded Tukhachevsky as his bitterest rival and dubbed him Napoleonchik (little Napoleon).[10] Upon Stalin's ascension to Party leadership in 1929, he began receiving denunciations from senior officers who disapproved of Tukhachevsky's tactical theories. Then, in 1930, the OGPU forced two officers to testify that Tukhachevsky was plotting to overthrow the Politburo via a coup d'état.[11]

According to Montefiore,

In 1930, this was perhaps too outrageous even for the Bolsheviks. Stalin, not yet dictator, probed his powerful ally Sergo Ordzhonikidze: "Only Molotov, myself, and now you are in the know... Is it possible? What a business! Discuss it with Molotov..." However, Sergo would not go that far. There would be no arrest and trial of Tukhachevsky in 1930: the commander, "turns out to be 100% clean," Stalin wrote disingenuously to Molotov in October, "That's very good." It is interesting that seven years before the Great Terror, Stalin was testing the same accusations against the same victims -- a dress rehearsal for 1937 -- but he could not get the support. The archives reveal a fascinating sequel: once he understood the ambitious modernity of Tukhachevsky's strategies, Stalin apologised to him: "Now the question has become clearer to me, I have to agree that my remark was too strong and my conclusions were not right at all."[12]

Marshal Tukhachevsky with his family

Following this, Tukhachevsky wrote several books on modern warfare and in 1931, after Stalin had accepted the need for an industrialized military, Tukhachevsky was given a leading role in reforming the army. He held advanced ideas on military strategy, particularly on the use of tanks and aircraft in combined operations[citation needed].

Tukhachevsky took a keen interest in the arts, and during this period became a political patron and close friend of composer Dmitri Shostakovich: they met in 1925,[13] and subsequently played music together at the Marshal's home (Tukhachevsky played the violin). In 1936, Shostakovich's music was under attack following the Pravda denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. However, Tukhachevsky intervened with Stalin on his friend's behalf[citation needed]. After Tukhachevsky's arrest pressure was put on Shostakovich to denounce him, but he was saved from doing so by the fact that the investigator was himself arrested.[14]

The theory of deep operations

His theory of deep operations, where combined arms formations strike deep behind enemy lines to destroy the enemy's rear and logistics,[15][16] were opposed by some in the military establishment,[17] but were largely adopted by the Red Army in the mid-1930s. They were expressed as a concept in the Red Army's Field Regulations of 1929, and more fully developed in 1935's Instructions on Deep Battle. The concept was finally codified into the army in 1936 in the Provisional Field Regulations of 1936. An early example of the potential effectiveness of deep operations can be found in the Soviet victory over Japan at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan), where a Soviet Corps under the command of Georgy Zhukov defeated a substantial Japanese force in August–September, 1939.

Due to the widespread purges of the Red Army officer corps in 1937–1939 "deep operations" briefly fell from favour,[18] only later being gradually re-adopted following the embarrassment of the Red Army during the Winter War of 1939-40 when the Soviet Union tried to invade Finland. They were used to great success during World War II in Eastern Front, in such victories as the Battle of Stalingrad and Operation Bagration.

The fall

File:Nikolai Yezhov conferring with Stalin.jpg

Yezhov and Stalin conferring

In 1935 Tukhachevsky was made a Marshal of the Soviet Union, aged only 42. In January 1936 Tukhachevsky visited Britain, France and Germany. Aware that the Soviet military was the only institution which could successfully obstruct his quest for absolute power, Stalin set out to "liquidate" Tukhachevsky and seven other senior commanders. This time, there was no disagreement from his inner circle.

Just before his arrest, Tukhachevsky was relieved of duty as assistant to Marshal Kliment Voroshilov and appointed military commander of the Volga Military District.[19] Shortly after departing to take up his new command, he was secretly arrested on May 22, 1937, and brought back to Moscow in a prison van.[20]

Tukhachevsky's interrogation and torture were directly supervised by NKVD Chief Nikolai Yezhov. Stalin instructed Yezhov, "See for yourself, but Tukhachevsky should be forced to tell everything... It's impossible he acted alone."[6]

According to Montefiore, a few days later, as Yezhov buzzed in and out of Stalin's office, a broken Marshal Tukhachevsky confessed that Yenukidze had recruited him in 1928, and that he was a German agent in cahoots with Bukharin to seize power. Tukhachevsky's confession, which survives in the archives, is dappled with a brown spray that was found to be blood spattered by a body in motion.[21]

Stalin commented, "It's incredible, but it's a fact, they admit it."[21]

On June 11, 1937, the Soviet Supreme Court convened a special military tribunal to try Tukhachevsky and eight Generals for treason. The trial was dubbed the Case of Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization. Upon hearing the accusations, Tukhachevsky was heard to say, "I feel I'm dreaming."[22] Most of the judges were also terrified. One was heard to comment, "Tomorrow I'll be put in the same place."[22] After his trial, five of the officers serving as judges in that court martial were executed. It was explained to the accused that the trial was being conducted according to the law of 1 December 1934, meaning that defense attorneys were barred from the courtroom and that appeals of the verdict were forbidden.[23]

At 11:35 that night, all of the defendants were declared guilty and sentenced to death. Stalin, who was awaiting the verdict with Molotov, Kaganovich, and Yezhov, did not even examine the transcripts. He simply said, "Agreed."[22]

Within the hour, Tukhachevsky was summoned from his cell by NKVD captain Vasili Blokhin. As Yezhov watched, the former Marshal was shot once, in the back of the head.[24]

Immediately afterward, Yezhov was summoned into Stalin's presence. Stalin asked, "What were Tukhachevsky's last words?"[22] Yezhov responded, "The snake said he was dedicated to the Motherland and Comrade Stalin. He asked for clemency. But it was obvious that he was not being straight, he hadn't laid down his arms."[22]


A 1963 Soviet stamp featuring Tukhachevsky

Tukhachevsky's family members all suffered after his execution. His wife Nina Tukhachevskaya, and his brothers Alexandr and Nikolai (both were instructors in a Soviet military academy) were all shot. Three of his sisters were sent to the Gulag. His under-aged daughter was arrested when she reached adult age and remained in the camps until the Khrushchev thaw. She lived in Moscow after her release and died in 1982.[25]

Prior to Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech in 1956, Marshal Tukhachevsky was officially considered a Fascist Fifth Columnist. Soviet diplomats and apologists in the West enthusiastically promulgated this opinion. Then, on January 31, 1957, Tukhachevsky and his co-defendants were declared innocent of all charges and were "rehabilitated."

Although Tukhachevsky's prosecution is almost universally regarded as a sham, Stalin's motivations continue to be debated. In his 1968 book The Great Terror, British historian Robert Conquest accuses Nazi Party leaders Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich of forging documents which implicated Tukhachevsky in an anti-Stalinist conspiracy with the Wehrmacht General Staff. This was done because Himmler and Heydrich wished to weaken the Soviet Union's defence capacity. These documents, Conquest said, were leaked to President Edvard Beneš of Czechoslovakia, who passed them to Soviet Russia through diplomatic channels. Conquest's thesis of an SS conspiracy to frame Tukhachevsky was based upon the memoirs of Walter Schellenberg and Edvard Beneš.[26]

In 1989, the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union announced that new evidence had been found in Stalin's archives indicating German intelligence intentions to fabricate disinformation about Tukhachevsky with intention to eliminate him. "Materials of foreign intelligence agencies at important level, also personal characteristics of Stalin like morbid suspiciousness and extreme suspicion had been possibly highest factor in it."[27]

However, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union it became clear that Stalin, Kaganovich, and Yezhov had actually concocted Tukhachevsky's "treason" themselves. At Yezhov's order, the NKVD had instructed a known double agent, Nikolai Skoblin, to leak to Reinhard Heydrich's Sicherheitsdienst concocted information suggesting a plot by Tukhachevsky and the other Soviet generals against Stalin.[26]

Seeing an opportunity to strike a blow at the Soviet military, Heydrich immediately acted on the information and undertook to improve on it. Heydrich's forgeries were later leaked to the Soviets via Beneš and other neutral nations. While the SD believed it had successfully fooled Stalin into executing his best generals, in reality it had merely served as unwitting pawns of the Soviet NKVD. Ironically, Heydrich's forgeries were never used at trial. Instead Soviet prosecutors relied on signed "confessions" which had been beaten out of the defendants.[26]

In 1956, NKVD defector Alexander Orlov published an article in Life Magazine entitled, The Sensational Secret Behind the Damnation of Stalin. This story held that NKVD agents had discovered papers in the Tsarist Okhrana archives which proved Stalin had once been an informer. On the basis of this knowledge, the NKVD agents had planned a coup d'état with Marshal Tukhachevsky and other senior officers in the Red Army.[28] According to Orlov, Stalin uncovered the conspiracy and used Yezhov to execute those responsible.[29]

Simon Sebag Montefiore, who has conducted extensive research in Soviet archives, states,

"Stalin needed neither Nazi disinformation nor mysterious Okhrana files to persuade him to destroy Tukhachevsky. After all, he had played with the idea as early as 1930, three years before Hitler took power. Furthermore, Stalin and his cronies were convinced that officers were to be distrusted and physically exterminated at the slightest suspicion. He reminisced to Voroshilov, in an undated note, about the officers arrested in the summer of 1918. 'These officers,' he said, 'we wanted to shoot en masse.' Nothing had changed."[30]

According to Montefiore, Stalin had always known that the Red Army was the only institution which could have resisted his quest for absolute power. Stalin's paranoia about internal subversion and belief in his own infallible ability to detect traitors did the rest. Stalin, Yezhov, and Marshall Voroshilov orchestrated the arrest and execution of thousands of Soviet military officers after Tukhachevsky was shot. Ultimately, five out of the eight generals who presided over Tukhachevsky's "trial" were arrested and shot by the NKVD.[31]

According to Montefiore, Stalin's close friend and confidant Lazar Kaganovich later joked, "Tukhachevsky hid Napoleon's baton in his rucksack."[6]

In popular culture

Marshal Tukhachevsky appears as a character in the anthology Apricot Jam and Other Stories, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In a short story about Marshal Georgii Zhukov's vain attempts at writing his memoirs, the retired Marshal reminisces about serving under Tukhachevsky against the Tambov rebellion. He recalls Tukhachevsky's first address to the Red Army officers and men, in which he announced that total war tactics will be henceforth used against civilians who assist or even sympathise with the Tambov rebels. Zhukov also recalls his subsequent assignment as a staff officer to Tukhachevsky and how close he came to being executed following Tukhachevsky's fall.

Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky is also the tragic hero of the 2010 television movie Tukhachevsky, Conspiracy Marshal (Russian: Тухачевский, маршал заговор).

Honours and awards

Imperial awards
  • Order of St. Anne, 2nd class with swords, also awarded 3rd class with swords and bow; and 4th class with the inscription "For Courage"
  • Order of St. Stanislaus, 2nd class with swords, also awarded 3rd class with swords and bow
  • Order of St. Vladimir, 4th class with swords
Soviet awards

See also

  • Moscow Trials


  1. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, page 252.
  2. "Жертвы политического террора в СССР". Retrieved 2013-06-12. 
  3. The Red Army - Page 111 - by Michel Berchin, Eliahu Ben-Horin - 1942
  4. Weintraub, Stanley. A Stillness Heard Round the World. Truman Talley Books, 1985, p. 340
  5. The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathan Fenby p68
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, page 222.
  7. Suvorov, Viktor. The Chief Culprit: Stalin's Grand Design to Start World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008.
  8. Pipes, Richard. Russia under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
  9. A century's journey: how the great powers shape the world - Page 175 - by Robert A. Pastor, Stanley Hoffmann - Political Science - 1999.
  10. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, pages 221-222.
  11. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, page 58-59.
  12. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, page 59.
  13. Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: a Life Remembered, p. 39.
  14. Elizabeth Wilson, pp. 124-5.
  15. Richard Simpkin in association with John Erickson Deep battle : the brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii, London, Brassey's Defence, 1987 ISBN 0-08-031193-8
  16. Alexander Vasilevsky The Case of All My Life (Дело всей жизни). 3d ed. Политиздат, 1978 Chapter8 (Russian)
  17. John Erickson The Soviet High Command: A Military-Political History, 1918–1941, Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-7146-5178-8
  18. Sebag, Simon. "31". Stalin: the court of the red tsar. p. 342. ISBN 978-1-4000-7678-9. 
  19. Fyodor Mikhailovich Sergeyev, Tainye operatsii natsistskoi razvediki, 1933-1945 (In Russian). Moscow: Politizdat, 1991. ISBN 5-250-00797-X: p.18
  20. Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G. P. Putnam (1945), pp. 7-8
  21. 21.0 21.1 Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, page 223.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, page 225.
  23. Sergeyev (1991): p. 20
  24. Donald Rayfield, Donald (2005). Stalin and His Hangmen: the tyrant and those who killed for him. Random House. pp. 322–325.
  25. Sergeyev (1991): p.44
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Lukes, Igor, Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930s, Oxford University Press (1996), ISBN 0-19-510267-3, ISBN 978-0-19-510267-3, p. 95
  27. Sergeyev (1991): p. 3
  28. Roman Brackman The secret file of Joseph Stalin: a hidden life 466 pp. Published by Routledge, 2001 ISBN 0-7146-5050-1 ISBN 978-0-7146-5050-0
  29. Paul W. Blackstock "The Tukhachevsky Affair" Russian Review, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Apr., 1969), pp. 171–190
  30. Montefiore, Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, page 226.
  31. Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam (1945), p. 322

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Sergey Kamenev
Chief of the Staff of the Red Army
Succeeded by
Boris Shaposhnikov

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