Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE over-all answer to the frequent question as to why the Red Army made such a poor showing in Finland and was able to perform such extraordinary exploits against the German invaders lies, I think, in its rapid and intelligently directed evolution. This evolution of the Red Army began as early as December 1939 and continued steadily, partly because of and partly in spite of fresh reverses and losses, until now the Russian war machine is not only the most resilient but in other ways also the most remarkable of modern times.
The outside world does not sufficiently appreciate the extent to which the Soviet high command learned the lessons of the experience in Finland and the speed with which they proceeded to turn them to account. The adaptability and energy they showed in reforming the Red Army put it in shape to resist the first German onslaught and probably saved Leningrad and Moscow from capture. The Russian forces started in Finland in low gear, with inferior equipment and very spotty leadership. I saw the first Russian prisoners taken by the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus, and they were poorly-clad and ill-equipped. That condition did not continue. Only three weeks later at Tolvajaervi I saw hundreds of frozen corpses of an utterly different, first-class Russian division. From that time through the remainder of the Finnish war the caliber of Soviet troops was maintained at a high level. Officials in Helsinki believed that Soviet Russia, misled by the reports of their agents from inside Finland, had expected the Finnish Government to capitulate without a fight. Later in Moscow I saw indications that the Russians had counted on securing Finnish bases without actually going to war and had found themselves compelled to use force before they were completely prepared. That fact, I believe, chiefly explains the early setbacks of the Red Army in Finland -- plus, of course, the superb all-round quality of the Finnish officers and soldiers and the terrible cold of the winter of 1939-40.
At any rate, the result of the Finnish campaign was that Stalin and the high command undertook a wholesale reorganization of the Red Army, including a revision of formations, tactics and command. For this purpose they actually had only fifteen months, from the time of the Russo-Finnish Armistice in March 1940 to the German attack in June 1942. They of course knew perfectly well that Hitler would strike at Russia the moment his hands were free in the west and hence that they must proceed with energy and dispatch. The chief qualities they showed were an ability to look far ahead and exceptional administrative and technical flexibility. Their chief aims were to improve tactics and weapons and to improve leadership by a careful sifting of army corps and divisional commanders. Needless to say, their own qualities and the objectives they had in view would have been vitiated and defeated if the Russian soldier had not meanwhile shown superb fighting spirit and remarkable endurance.
Two other factors contributing to their eventual success must also be mentioned. Simultaneously with the overhauling of the Red Army the Soviet Government began putting into effect a bold scheme to transfer machinery and indeed whole industries eastward from the Ukraine, and particularly from the Donets basin, and also began accelerating the expansion of the inner industrial fortress beyond the Urals. Later came the delivery of British and American war materials -- much later in reaching decisive dimensions than most Americans appreciate. Due particularly to heavy shipping losses on the Arctic route to Murmansk and Archangel, the American lend-lease and British supplies did not reach Soviet Russia in sufficient proportions to become a major factor in the crucial defensive fighting along the Don, in the northern Caucasus and at Stalingrad during the summer and early autumn of 1942. The flow became really important only about the time that the Russians had already demonstrated their bulldog grip on Stalingrad.
The first fifteen months of the Red Army's resistance thus represent an almost exclusively Soviet achievement. Throughout this defensive phase the Russian command was preparing to make the weight of the Red Army effective in a different way. On the Karelian Isthmus I saw how much the Russians relied upon massed artillery and steamroller concentrations of tanks and infantry to break the Mannerheim line. In their long withdrawals from White Russia and across the Ukraine and the Don steppes they gradually perfected an elaborate method of defense in depth, and also anti-tank tactics to make use of their new anti-tank weapons. Eventually, in the winter of 1942-43 and in the campaign of the summer just ended, they demonstrated that they could conceive and execute a well-timed offensive.
These achievements and this progress were due as much to intelligence and alertness and adaptability as to moral fiber. Hitler inherited a technically expert military élite with traditions dating back to Frederick the Great. But the master strategists of the Wehrmacht were first checkmated and then confounded by a virtually upstart military machine. This was not an accident, as we clearly see when we retrace the major steps of the Red Army's evolution in more detail.
One of the lessons learned in Finland had to do with the amount of authority that should be delegated to the political commissars. Following the purges of 1936-37, the commissars had returned to the Red Army provided with all the necessary powers to check on the loyalty of every officer. But in Finland they often showed themselves too zealous and they often insisted on too rigid control over strictly military decisions. I was later told that this had accounted for more than one of the Russian setbacks during the Finnish campaign.
During the Russian Civil War and in the years following the commissars had been primarily political. They were security officers who propagandized for the Communist ideology. But they had become much more than that. They were a combination of army chaplain, educational director, propagandist and efficiency expert. Within a month after the German attack on the Soviet Union, the Presidium Council issued a significant new decree (July 16, 1941) specifying precisely the future functions of commissars in the Red Army. This decree did not refer to them as "political" but as "war" commissars. It was based upon Stalin's conception: "If the commander is the head of the regiment, the regiment's commissar must be its father and soul." In the new decree the commissar's task of political and party work in military units was not even mentioned until the final article. The chief emphasis was placed on his responsibility "for fulfillment of the fighting task." He was to be "the moral leader of his unit, the first defender of its material and spiritual interests;" he must "inspire the troops to fight," must popularize the best men and commanders and "carry on a merciless fight against cowards, panic-mongers, deserters . . . ." It was also his job to hear and remove just grievances of the troops. In a word, the Red Army commissar's first task was the building of morale. It still is.
Brigadier General Philip Faymonville, chief of the U. S. Army supply mission in Moscow, confirmed my opinion that morale building is the commissar's chief function. "The whole Russian Army," he said, "feels that while the commissars are there wrongs won't go unrighted, that grievances will be heard and that any serious delinquencies will be reported to the top. This has a salutary effect on military commanders. They know that the morale of their men is high and that they have got to produce the goods themselves. The system keeps officers as well as men on their toes. The office of our Inspector-General is not nearly so thorough as the commissar system is, nor does it operate so swiftly. Another important thing is that since the commissar system is a selective system it is almost bound to bring the best men to the top. The commissar goes into the attack with his outfit, and often leads it. Thousands of commissars have been killed in action, but there were other thousands of well-trained men ready to take their places."
For the first sixteen months of the Russo-German war the Red Army operated with officers and commissars on the dual-command basis. Through all the withdrawals and reverses, culminating in the black summer of 1942 when the Nazis infiltrated into Stalingrad and surged up into the foothills of the Caucasus, its fighting morale remained amazingly high. Allied military observers on the spot had to admit that the powerful leadership of the Russian commissars was a real factor in this performance.
Nevertheless, the dual command authority was finally removed in October 1942. Significantly, this was the moment when Marshal Stalin was preparing the first great Russian counteroffensive. Many Allied officers who had not been in Russia during the present war leapt to the conclusion that the commissar system had failed and was being abolished. This seems to me an error. Doubtless the high command wished to give the military commanders in the field complete freedom of decision in the great and complicated offensive action directly ahead. This was now possible, for Stalin had finished the reorganization of his general staff and had evolved an imposing number of commanders upon whom he could rely. More important, I think, was the fact that in sixteen months of incessant combat the Red Army's 300 divisions had suffered heavy losses in officers. In its commissars the Red Army possessed a unique reserve officers' training institution which had been functioning, not hundreds of miles from the scene of combat, but in the front lines. Under the dual command system every commissar from the rank of lieutenant up to colonel and general had been going to school under shellfire. The commissars, especially those of higher rank, had participated in every strategic decision; had been in daily contact with commanders with twenty or more years of experience behind them; had seen which operations succeeded and which failed, and could judge why.
Thanks to the commissar system, then, the Red Army possessed the finest battle-tried reserve of officer material of any army in the present war. All the commissars lacked was certain specialized technical instruction. The October decree therefore provided that the most capable commissars should be withdrawn for courses of three or six months at officers' training schools. By the spring of 1943 the Red Army had them back again in active service, their experience at the front supplemented by new technical knowledge. Meanwhile the remaining commissars, and other new ones, continued their former work. Now, however, there was a single military command in every unit.
Following the reorganization of the Red Army after the Finnish war and the revision of the commissar system in July 1941, Stalin found himself confronted with the need of making changes in his high command. During the Finnish campaign he had relied upon his old comrade of civil war days, Marshal Klementy Voroshilov. The results had been disappointing. In the first months of the Nazi invasion Marshal Semion Budenny, another of his close friends, had failed disastrously to hold up the German advance across the Ukraine. In late October 1941 both Voroshilov and Budenny were withdrawn to train new armies in the rear. This was the first step toward the building of the present high command. Stalin must have found the decision difficult to take. The fact that even in the case of these old friends he acted so impartially testifies to his peculiar value as a supreme commander. Later he took the same stern line with Marshal Semion Timoshenko.
From the time of the eclipse of Voroshilov and Budenny until the Russians launched their offensive of November 19, 1942, the commanders of the Red Army remained cloaked in anonymity. The Soviet press rarely published the names of army corps commanders or other generals, though occasionally they appeared in lists of those receiving high decorations. Younger men -- many of them surprisingly young -- were becoming major generals, lieutenant generals or colonel generals, and were distinguishing themselves. But month after month they were denied the privilege of becoming popular heroes. Sometimes in Moscow we used to wonder why there were so few names on the Russian side of the war. Eventually we learned that the Government's policy barred publicity until commanders had completely proved themselves in battle and until victories on a great scale could be celebrated. In the long interim the sifting out of colonels and generals and the advancement of the ablest continued unheralded to the Russian people or to foreign correspondents. When at last the Russian people learned the names of the new marshals and generals these were already turning the Nazi tide at Stalingrad or throwing back the German invaders.
The first evidence of important changes in the Soviet high command came in August 1942, when General Gregory K. Zhukov was appointed vice-commissar of national defense directly under Stalin. Until then this important post had been held by Marshal Timoshenko -- although the Moscow newspapers carefully failed to mention that fact. Rostov had just fallen, suddenly and without the customary yard-by-yard Russian resistance. Timoshenko commanded all the troops in that lower Don area. The censorship did not permit us to point out the fact that Zhukov had succeeded Timoshenko as Stalin's right-hand military man -- and American editors forgot to inquire who had been Zhukov's predecessor. So American newspapers for the next five months continued to comment on Marshal Timoshenko's defense of Stalingrad, unaware that the third old-time Red commander had been relegated to a comparatively unimportant zone of activity because of the catastrophically swift German break-through at Rostov on July 25.
It was not until September 13, when the battle for Stalingrad was just beginning, that correspondents in Moscow got their first inkling of the dimensions of the collapse which had occurred at Rostov. The second and most drastic reorganization of the Red Army general staff and field command which it had precipitated had of course also been unknown to us. But on that day Krasnaya Zvezda, the Red Army official newspaper, made the following revealing declaration: "We have everything to mince Fascist forces at approaches to any town. All these possibilities were available during the defense of Novocherkassk and the German drive on Rostov. But they were not fully utilized. Some cowards and panic-mongers fled the field of battle and leaders lacked the decision to deal mercilessly with the cowards and faithless. Novocherkassk and Rostov, prepared for impregnable defense, were captured by the enemy." To the best of my knowledge, this is the only case to date in the Russian war where important towns have not been defended with savage stubbornness. The commanders involved were held rigidly responsible. Timoshenko was probably saved from complete disgrace by Stalin's remembrance of the elderly Ukrainian warrior's past services to the Soviet Union.
The disaster at Rostov revealed where fatal weakness still existed in the Red Army machine and paved the way for the great comeback between November 1942 and February 1943. Immediately the defense of Stalingrad was entrusted to younger generals, men of strong physique and greater competence in modern warfare. Lieutenant General Vassili Chuikov, who commanded the 62nd Army inside Stalingrad itself, later gave Henry Shapiro of the United Press a vivid account of the fighting in the Volga city. Chuikov said that when he took command Stalingrad was already a flaming inferno. "Our units were tired," he said. "There were many whining pessimists in the army. I threw these panicky people out of the army right away and set to work. I told our men we could not retreat beyond the Volga. . . . I believe that nowhere in this war was there such bloody hand-to-hand combat. Nowhere else were bayonets and hand grenades used so widely as in Stalingrad . . . . Lieutenant General Rodimtzev's division was first to arrive there and received the fierce German blow. Rodimtzev told me, 'We will fight to the last man but we shall not leave the city.' . . . Our soldiers had only one idea. Stalin had ordered us not to retreat."
At the time they were commanding this battle, perhaps the decisive battle of the war, the names of Chuikov, Rodimtzev and the other generals with them were known only to a few thousands among Russia's many millions of civilians. The most striking feature of these and the other new military commanders was their comparative youth. Very few of them are more than 50; most are in their early or middle forties. Yet most of them are fighting in their third or fourth war. On the Rzhev front, Leliu-shenko was a lieutenant general at the age of 39; Lieutenant General Rodimtzev, one of the heroes of Stalingrad, was only 36. At 50, Colonel General Andrei Yeremenko, who commanded the southern pincers which recaptured Kotelnikovo and liberated Rostov, was one of the oldest army group commanders on the entire Don front. Lieutenant General Malinovski, who served with Yeremenko, was but 44. Such ages have become the norm in the upper hierarchy of the Red Army.
At last when the Red Army had smashed the German and German-satellite armies back across the Donets and virtually to the points where they had started in June 1942, the veil was lifted and the dominant personalities of the new Russian high command became known to the world. Stalin meanwhile had emerged as a marshal, a title which his leadership had unquestionably won, especially since much of the grand strategy of Stalingrad seems clearly to have been his. Zhukov had also become a marshal. Vasilevsky, who had been promoted a marshal in February, was Chief of Staff. These three planned the great counter-offensive. Marshal Alexander Novikov, chief of the Red air force, also had won his final elevation in the Stalingrad operations. Now, like Napoleon, Stalin distributed the greatest laurels after they had been won on the field of battle -- to Marshal Nikolai Voronov, chief of artillery, and to a long and still growing list of generals, men like Rokossovsky, Vatutin, Tulenev and Golikov. It is doubtful that many further substantial changes in the high command will occur in the course of future hostilities. The men were there, and they have been found.
The significance of the victory at Stalingrad and the successful winter offensive which followed can scarcely be exaggerated. The Red Army had already demonstrated its ability at defense in depth. Now it revealed its mastery of great encircling movements and annihilation tactics. Nothing that Hitler's Wehrmacht had achieved in two summer campaigns in Russia outdid the paralyzing speed and sureness of the Red Army's winter blows.
Coincident with its strictly military evolution the Red Army had also undergone other changes of psychological and political importance. Today much less than formerly does it have the conformation and appearance of a "workers' and peasants' army." Stalin has rewarded his victorious officers and soldiers with embellishments which make it more of an élite within the Soviet state than any Soviet body has ever been in the past. Russian officers now wear huge shoulder epaulets adorned with gold stripes. Those above the rank of colonel also have bright red stripes on the sides of their trousers. Dress uniforms have become much more elaborate. During the first eighteen months of the war, officers on leave in Moscow did not have to concern themselves much about personal appearance beyond a reasonable degree of neatness. Often they wore their frontline uniforms and their clumsy but warm felt boots and carried as many bundles as was convenient. These things are now strictly forbidden. A Russian officer must wear his best uniform in the cities; he must be a reminder to the general public that this army represents something special -- that it has class and position.
Russian soldiers still address their commanders as "Comrade Colonel" or "Comrade General." But various developments make the degree of comradeship, to say nothing of equality, rather doubtful. Officers' clubs (as C. L. Sulzberger pointed out recently in the New York Times) have now been established for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union. At the Rzhev front I saw Russian women in uniforms (the WACS of the Red Army) performing many of the duties of orderlies at various headquarters. A few months later, despite the strain on manpower, it was decided that Red Army officers should have male orderlies to serve their meals, polish their boots and perform similar routine services. A few years ago the suggestion of any such development in the proletarian Red Army would have been denounced by most Communist leaders as a betrayal of the Revolution.
The Soviet plan for postwar reconstruction, announced in outline form in Moscow on August 22, 1943, contains provision for nine military schools to train boys between 8 and 17 years of age to become officers in the Red Army. Named in honor of Alexander Suvorov, who defeated Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava, these schools recall in some respects the cadet boarding schools of pre-revolutionary days.
All this indicates that there is a new tone in the Red Army today. It is the tone of an élite military organization which places increasing stress on nationalism and less -- considerably less -- emphasis on revolutionary doctrines. The Red Army man has become the first citizen of the USSR. Indeed, the Red Army officer has probably come to rate more privileges and public distinctions than most representatives of the Communist Party.
Psychologically as well as physically, then, this is a new Red Army. It is adorned with the prestige of great achievements and seems slated for a lifetime of unrivalled power. This development has occurred coincidentally with a steady crescendo of nationalistic faith among the people of Russia as a whole. It was not an accident that the Kremlin, from the beginning, publicized this as "the patriotic war," or that the newest decorations have been named after the great military heroes of Russia's past: the order of Alexander Suvorov; the order of Mikhail Kutuzov, who confounded Napoleon; the order of Alexander Nevsky, who repulsed the Teutonic knights in the battle of Chudskoye Lake some 700 years ago. Among the various revolutionary decorations, including those of the Red Banner and the Red Star, only that of Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin rival or surpass the distinction of these new nationalistic orders.
However, the extent of the Red Army's power inside the Soviet federation in the next generation may depend in the end on whether it has served chiefly for the protection and security of the Soviet state or whether it has become an instrument for another imperialism. So far, one can say truly that its chief motivating force has been the flame and faith of Russian nationalism.
The true stature of the Red Army is now known throughout the world. What has made it so great? On the technical side I am not qualified to offer judgment. But after experience in seven theaters of war from Norway to China a correspondent may be allowed to mention various important factors which, as he watched the Red Army in training centers and in action around Rzhev, seemed to him of paramount importance to its success:
1. Hard work coupled with intelligent direction. From early days, the training of the Russian Army has been based upon physical endurance, alertness and efficiency.
2. The development of leadership, from the top all the way down. A factor here has been the availability of an exceptional number of officers with more than twenty years of service and combat experience in several wars.
3. Powerful and accurate artillery. It was the Red artillery alone which broke the Mannerheim line at Summa, thereby precipitating the Finnish collapse. Against the mechanized German divisions its devastating fire has again and again played a decisive rôle -- against the German tanks quite as much as against the infantry. A Red artillery general informed me proudly that the Russian artillery school, one of the two oldest in the world, was then celebrating its 138th anniversary.
4. Early concentration upon the designing and development of tanks, with a particular aim of avoiding inflammability.
5. The development of first-class pursuit planes, from the early Yak and Mig to steadily improved models. The progressiveness of Soviet military aviation has been recently demonstrated by the new models produced in the spring of 1943 -- the Yak-7; a new attack bomber known as the Ilyushin-4; a new heavy bomber (the four-motored TB-7); and a dive-bomber called the Petliakov-2. The Red air force, although long outnumbered by the Germans, has seldom been outclassed in its planes.
6. Ruthless elimination of incompetents and a capacity to learn quickly from past mistakes.
7. A willingness to buy time with space and with the bodies of Soviet soldiers so long as this was necessary.
8. An unusual and effective system for building and maintaining the morale of troops. This system, based primarily on the commissars, was greatly aided by the Red Army's belief that its efforts and sacrifices were not being vitiated by graft and incompetence in the Government and in the civil administration behind the lines, a belief absent to a demoralizing degree in the Tsarist armies of 1914-1917.
9. The fact that this is the first Russian army, in modern times at any rate, in which every soldier is well-clad, well-shod and adequately equipped with rifles and small arms.
10. The fact that it is the first Russian army in history consisting of a literate soldiery. The overwhelming majority of Red Army soldiers can read and are fighting for a government which taught them how to read and which has opened the door to officers' commissions to any man of ability, regardless of his humble origins.
11. The transfer, in time, of a large percentage of Soviet industries from western Russia to safer regions further east and the expansion of an "inner industrial citadel" behind the Urals.
12. The gradual arrival of large amounts of American and British war materials. When British and American planes and tanks at last began reaching Russia in important quantities in the spring of 1943 they were of great help to the Red Army in stopping the German offensive along the Kursk salient and in launching its own summer offensive. From early August of 1943 onward, Soviet aviation enjoyed parity in the air with German aviation for the first time, and this parity certainly could not have been achieved without the American and British contribution of several thousand pursuit planes and bombers. The diversion of some enemy air forces to deal with the British and American air attacks in Western Europe and the Mediterranean also helped.
13. The logical development of a broadly-conceived over-all plan, both for defense and offense, under the leadership of Field Marshal Joseph Stalin. An example of Stalin's determination and boldness was the decision to hold Stalingrad at whatever cost, and to sustain any sacrifice in troops however enormous, until the moment came to trap and destroy 250,000 German soldiers.
By now it is clear that the Soviet Union will emerge from this war with the greatest and most efficiently organized army in either Europe or Asia. The Red Army will be enormously powerful and its new military aristocracy will wear an aura of well-earned glory. But it will be standing guard over a country of which vast areas have been ravaged, whose 160,000,000 civilian inhabitants (more or less) are destitute, and whose economy is gravely dislocated. Above everything else Soviet Russia will need a long period of peace for rebuilding and rehabilitation. The Red Army will be able to assure it.
Soviet Russia's present allies may easily become obsessed by fear of the Red military colossus, even though, in the absence of any reliable system of general security, its size cannot really be considered out of proportion to the one-sixth of the earth's surface which it is designed to protect. They must keep in mind the enormous price which the Russian people have paid for their national existence and their form of government, and the saving in British and American lives which their heroism effected. Only in that way will western nations be able to overcome their fear and join with the Soviet Union in confident coöperation. A nation which has sacrificed the lives of from fifteen to twenty million of its soldiers and civilians -- perhaps more -- and has emerged triumphant from the holocaust can scarcely fail to be conscious of its stature. It will require respect and understanding. I think that it will be willing, in turn, to give respect and understanding to others. Success in achieving this relationship may be hard to obtain, but it is indispensable if the world is to know an era of peace.