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The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Soviet Military , by Peter Whitewood

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. vii, 360. Notes, index . $37.50. ISBN: 0700621172.

Stalin and the Purge of the Soviet Armed Forces

Stalin hesitated for almost two weeks in May-June 1937 before giving the NKVD the go ahead for the purge of the top Red Army leadership. His response to the growing evidence provided by Nicolai Yezhov was to demote and reassign the main officers, such as Marshal Tukhachevsky, deputy to Kliment Voroshilov, the Soviet Commissar for Defense. On May 10, Tukhachevsky was assigned to command of the Volga Military District. But then something intervened, on May 24th Stalin secured a vote by the Politboro and the marshal and other high ranking officers were all brought back to Moscow and indicted. By June 10th they appeared before a closed military court, were found guilty, and they were shot the following day.

Peter Whitewood's well-researched book explores the origins of the suspicion that party officials had about career officers, the "military specialists" the Red Army had desperately needed in the wake of the October Revolution. Many of them were former tsarist army officers or simply guilty of having "bourgeois" origins, others were unrepentant Trotskyists.

Using Soviet documents and recent Russian language publications, Whitewood shows how fear and denunciation were rampant throughout Soviet society. The exile of Red Army founder Leon Trotsky, by then in Mexico (where he was assassinated in 1940 by the NKVD), was a loyalty test for all members of the Soviet Communist Party and the Red Army in particular. Whitewood follows in the tracks of J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov *, in treating the purge and the terror more as a massive national paranoia than the result of an actual conspiracy. Long standing rivalries between “accidental” soldiers such as Kliment Voroshilov and career officers like Mikhail Tukhachevsky were well known, but not reason enough to unleash such an enormous and crippling bloodletting.

The 1934 murder of Sergei Kirov triggered the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Trotskyist plot trials of 1936 and spread fear that unknown counter-revolutionaries were plotting the murder of Stalin and the Soviet leadership in a military coup. The Anti-Comintern Pact and the Spanish Civil War reinforced the obsession with foreign inspired plots within the Red Army and the party. Whitewood, whose style is marred by frequent repetition and a dry absence of anecdotes, quotes from many speeches by Voroshilov, Gamarnik, and others as they denounced wreckers and saboteurs. Yezhov, who replaced Genrikh Yagoda as head of the NKVD, zealously prepared the evidence for the trials. 

The sudden unexplained hesitation on Stalin's part during May 10-27, 1937, a lull in the process of the purge, remains without adequate explanation. Was the dictator showing uncertainty or a sudden fear? Some event made him decide to give Yezhov the final green light. Confessions were extracted through brutal torture during interrogations, followed by mock trials and instant executions. The Great Terror was unleashed. But why? Whitewood's explanation unfortunately remains unsatisfactory when he only states that the symptoms of the Great Terror and the purge of the Red Army were brewing for years and merely required the right circumstances to set off an explosion. In other words the Great Terror was "in the air" rather than instigated.

Dismissing Cold War era explanations, Whitewood quotes Molotov’s memoirs forever justifying Stalin's murderous choices by calling the process a general drift leading to a massive purge of the Red Army -- 35,000 military leaders dismissed and 4,000 executed. By 1939 over one million Soviet citizens were in the Gulag, three quarters of whom were either executed or died of poor treatment. Stalin explained that the generals were about to stage a coup, to overthrow the government and the regime by July 1937, and he therefore had to take action quickly. Documents from the dictator's private secretariat that were immediately swept up by Beria after Stalin's death in 1953, were never recovered. 

From the start Whitewood dismisses as unreliable the accounts of dissidents and defectors. In particular Whitewood omits the testimony of Walter G. Krivitsky to the U.S. Congress in 1939 and to MI5 in 1940 that forged documents prepared by the Gestapo were passed on to the Kremlin. Krivitsky claimed Stalin used these forgeries to unleash the purge.

Also not mentioned is the memoir of French counterintelligence officer Col. Paul Paillole** reporting a conversation at the Quai d'Orsay in January 1936, during the Soviet marshal's visit to Paris. Tukhachevsky told a French counterintelligence officer posing as a diplomat that he was to meet with a representative of ROVS, the tsarist officer's group, in London and hinted sarcastically of his little regard for Stalin and his regime. Such statements and attitudes reached the Kremlin and were filed away in Stalin's private archive to be reactivated when required. Or perhaps the Gestapo's dossier suddenly appeared and tipped the balance. Three months after the executions, in September 1937 the head of ROVS, General Evegeny Miller, was kidnapped in Paris, and disappeared into the cellars of the Lubyanka. Whitewood sheds light on some of the mystery, but the deeper secrets of 1937 still elude us.

* J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, eds. The Road to Terror. Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks 1932-1939 (New Haven: Yale, 1999)

 ** Paul Paillole, Fighting the Nazis. French Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence 1935-1945 (New York: Enigma Books, 2003)


Note: The Red Army and the Great Terror, a volume in the UPK “Modern War Series” is also available in several e-book editions


Our Reviewer:  The founder and senior editor of Enigma Books, Robert L. Miller the Executive Director of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, and the author of a number of articles and books, including Hitler at War.  His previous reviews include Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam, and The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941


Reviewer: Robert L. Miller   

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