Despite the Civil War and the repression of the 1930s, a significant number of former officers of the Russian Imperial Army and the Russian Army of the Provisional Government survived both the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War to serve under the Soviet regime during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45).
They played an important role as “military specialists” who trained the new generation of the Soviet military, transferring the traditions and spirit of the old Russian Imperial Army to the Red Army. Up to 40% of the entire officer corps of pre-revolutionary Russia joined the Bolsheviks and forge their victory. The head of the Revolutionary Military Council, Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), believed that without the tsarist officers, the victory of the Reds in the Civil War would have been impossible.
Tsarist officers contributed to the victory of the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War, by contributing to the training of the armed forces and commanding the Red Army. Statistically – about 35% of all commanders of the Red Army divisions during the Great Patriotic War were officers of the old Imperial Army, 35% of the commanders at the fronts in 1941-1945, a third of the commanders and 13% of the comcors had become officers before 1917. Their presence in the infantry was especially great.
Many famous Soviet marshals and generals who impressed the world with their victories, were former officers of the Imperial Army. Among those were Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov (1896-1974) who was awarded the St. George Cross twice for military merit, and promoted to the rank of non-commissioned officer for his bravery in battle. There were also men of higher rank, such as Apollon Yakovlevich Kruse (1892-1967), who served as Lieutenant General of the Red Army corps. The legendary Lieutenant General Dmitry Karbyshev (1880-1945), and Lieutenant General Alexander Bakhtin (1885-1963) had both sworn allegiance to Emperor Nicholas II.
But the most illustrious commanders of the Red Army in the war against Germany, consisted of five marshals of the USSR.
Alexander Mikhailovich Vasilevsky (1895-1977) had a strong Orthodox upbringing, his father was a priest, his mother was the daughter of a priest. He began his education in the local church school, and in 1909, he entered Kostroma seminary.
Vasilevsky began his military career during World War I, earning the rank of captain by 1917. Noted for his energy and personal courage, he took part in the famous Brusilov Offensive in 1916. After the October Revolution of 1917 and the start of the Civil War of 1917–1922 he was conscripted into the Red Army, taking part in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1921.
Vasilevsky served as a Russian career-officer in the Red Army, attained the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1943. He served as the Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces (1942-1945) and Deputy Minister of Defense during World War II, and as Minister of Defense from 1949 to 1953. As the Chief of the General Staff from 1942 to 1945, Vasilevsky became involved in planning and coordinating almost all the decisive Soviet offensives in World War II, from the Stalingrad counteroffensive of November 1942 to the assaults on East Prussia (January–April 1945), Königsberg (January–April 1945) and Manchuria (August 1945).
Fedor Ivanovich Tolbukhin (1894-1949) volunteered for the Imperial Army in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. He was steadily promoted, and appointed to captain by 1916 under Emperor Nicholas II. He was also decorated for bravery multiple times.
In August 1918 Tolbukhin joined the Red Army, where he served as the chief of staff of the 56th infantry division. After the Russian Civil War ended (1921), Tolbukhin was given a number of staff positions.
Tolbukhin took part in the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa until August 1941, when he was made the chief of staff of the Crimean Front, which he held until March 1942. From May to July 1942, he was the assistant commander of the Stalingrad Military District. After that, he was the commander of the 58th Army until March 1943, and was involved in the Battle of Stalingrad, where Tolbukhin’s superior, Colonel-General Andrei Yeremenko, praised his command organization and military prowess. On September 12, 1944, Tolbukhin was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union.
Tolbukhin is generally regarded as one of the finest Soviet generals of World War II. Meticulous, careful, and not overly ambitious like some Soviet commanders, Tolbukhin was well respected by fellow commanders and also his men, especially since he had a dedication to keeping casualty rates low. Tolbukhin was the recipient of numerous awards and medals including the highest Soviet medal and rank, the Victory Order and Hero of the Soviet Union, respectively.
Colonel Boris Mikhailovich Shaposhnikov (1882-1945) joined the army of the Russian Empire in 1901 and graduated from the Nicholas General Staff Academy in 1910, reaching the rank of colonel in the Caucasus Grenadiers division in September 1917 during World War I. Also in 1917, he supported the Russian Revolution, an act unusual for an officer of his rank, and in May 1918 joined the Red Army.
Shaposhnikov was one of the few Red Army commanders with formal military training, and in 1921 he became 1st Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army’s General Staff, where he served until 1925. He was appointed commander of the Leningrad Military District in 1925 and then of the Moscow Military District in 1927. From 1928 to 1931 he served as Chief of the Staff of the Red Army.
In May 1940 he was appointed a Marshal of the Soviet Union. Despite his background as a Tsarist officer, Shaposhnikov won the respect and trust of Stalin. His status as a professional officer—he did not join the Communist Party until 1939—may have helped him avoid Stalin’s suspicions.
Fortunately for the Soviet Union, Shaposhnikov had a fine military mind and high administrative skills. He combined these talents with his position in Stalin’s confidence to rebuild the Red Army leadership after the purges. He obtained the release from the Gulag of 4,000 officers deemed necessary for this operation. In 1939 Stalin accepted Shaposhnikov’s plan for a rapid build-up of the Red Army’s strength. Although the plan was not completed before the German invasion of June 1941, it had advanced sufficiently to save the Soviet Union from complete disaster.
Leonid Aleksandrovich Govorov (1897-1955), was mobilized in December 1916, and sent to the Konstantinovskye Artillery School, from which he graduated in 1917. He became an artillery officer with the rank of podporuchik.
When the Russian Revolution broke out and the Russian Imperial Army disintegrated, Govorov returned home, but was conscripted into the White Guard army of Aleksandr Kolchak in October 1918, serving in an artillery battery in the Russian Civil War. Govorov fought in the Spring Offensive of the Russian Army, a general drive westwards by White forces in the east. He deserted in November 1919, fleeing to Tomsk, where he took part in an uprising against White authorities as part of a fighting squad. Govorov joined the Red Army in January 1920, serving in the 51st Rifle Division as an artillery battalion commander. With the division, he fought in the Siege of Perekop in November, during which Soviet forces drove Pyotr Wrangel’s White Army out of Crimea.
In World War II, Govorov rose to command an army in November 1941 during the Battle of Moscow. He commanded the Leningrad Front from April 1942 to the end of the war. He reached the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1944, was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and many other awards.
Ivan Khristoforovich Baghramyan (1897-1982), joined the Russian Imperial Army as a volunteer on 16 September 1915. He was assigned as a private to the 116th Reserve Battalion and sent to Akhaltsikhe for basic training. With his training complete in December, he joined the 2nd Caucasus Frontier Regiment of the Russian Expeditionary Corps, which was sent to dislodge the Ottomans in Persia. Bagramyan participated in several battles in Asadabad, Hamedan and Kermanshah, the Russian victories here sending Ottoman forces reeling toward Anatolia.
Learning about the exploits of the men in the outfit, the chief of staff of the regiment, General Pavel Melik-Shahnazaryan, advised Bagramyan to return to Tiflis to enroll in the Praporshchik Military Academy. But in order to attend the school, Bagramyan needed to satisfy the academy’s requirement of having completed school at a gymnasium. This did not deter him and, after preparing for the courses in Armavir, he passed his exams and began attending the academy on February 13, 1917. He graduated in June 1917 and was assigned to the 3rd Armenian Infantry Regiment, stationed near Lake Urmia. But with the overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government in the midst of the October Revolution of 1917, his unit was demobilized.
Bagramyan’s experience in military planning as a chief of staff allowed him to distinguish himself as a capable commander in the early stages of the Soviet counter-offensives against Nazi Germany. He was given his first command of a unit in 1942, and in November 1943 received his most prestigious command as the commander of the 1st Baltic Front. As commander of the Baltic Front, he participated in the offensives which pushed German forces out of the Baltic republics.
Bagramyan was a Soviet military commander and Marshal of the Soviet Union of Armenian origin. During World War II, Bagramyan was the second non-Slavic military officer, after Latvian Max Reyter, to become a commander of a Front. He was among several Armenians in the Soviet Army who held the highest proportion of high-ranking officers in the Soviet military during the war.
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It seems ironic that “Nicholas the Bloody” should play a much greater role in the history of 20th century Russia, than the Soviets would ever give him credit for. It is thanks to the excellent training during the reign of Russia’s last emperor, that former soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army should live through the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War to become marshals and generals, who fought heroic battles during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45.
It is important to recognize that each of them committed treason by breaking their oath of allegiance to Emperor Nicholas II and the Russian Empire, but should they be condemned? Certainly not. These marshals and generals, demonstrated sincere patriotism and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the Soviet Union, and saved the country from certain oblivion at the hands of the Nazi war machine. Their acts of bravery saved the lives of millions of Russians, had they not pushed the invaders back to Berlin, we may very well be living in a very different world today.
© Рaul Gilbert. 22 January 2020