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From Red Cavalry Sabre to Soviet Atomic Bomb
In late 1941, Stalinís crony, Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov---the hero of the Russian Civil War---became the disgraced First Marshal of the Soviet Union, but always survived

by Blaine Taylor

Photo: Soviet Marshal Voroshilov (center) stands between Churchill (left) and Stalin (right) during the presentation of the Sword of Stalingrad (left on table) by former to latter at British Embassy, Tehran. Inset: The Marshal (left) confers with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (right) postwar.


In the summer of 1941, as the Nazi German panzer blitzkrieg rolled over the Russian Red Army defenses at the embattled city of Leningrad (today once more St. Petersburg), a short, squat figure with pale blue eyes, cherubic face, and gray-blond hair stood erect atop a parapet, seemingly oblivious to the exploding enemy shell bursts all around him, bullets whizzing by his head.

One young amazed soldier in the trench below turned to another and said, "Look! It's him! Klim! Look how he stands as if he grew out of the earth!" Klim was the derivative Christian name of the legendary Commissar of the Russian Civil War of 1918-20, the Battle of Warsaw that latter year, the disastrous but still victorious Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, and now of the German Operation Barbarossa/Red Beard attack on the Soviet Union.

The renowned Hero of Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) with the famed 1st Cavalry Army, the man who quelled the naval uprising at Kronstadt in 1921, the First Marshal of the Land of the Soviets from 1935---Voroshilov was one of only two from the original five who survived the Stalinist Great Purge of the Red Army in 1937.

He was also a member of Stavka (the Supreme Command) during the Great Patriotic War (the official Russian name for World War II). In addition, Voroshilov was author of the 1937 book Defense of the USSR, which lauded dictator Josef Stalin as a preeminent military genius.

The man who called Stalin by the nickname of Koba---and was in turn termed by him the Soviet Union's "Top Marksman" for his prowess with firearms---was also a member of both the Presidium and Politburo, the ruling bodies of the Communist Party; a member of the GKO, or State Committee of Defense; and People's Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs during 1925-40.

Termed "A political general rather than a professional soldier," by noted English Kremlinologist author Edward Crankshaw, "he had a long career, marked by vainglory, folly, and durable good luck." Within high Communist Bolshevik circles, many called him "the Party boy," due to his long ties to Stalin, whom he claimed to have met at a C Party Congress at Stockholm in 1906.

Stalin himself said that he didn't remember, and in his more famous paranoid years toward the end of his life, asserted that his deputy had actually been an English spy during the period of 1938-48, which Nikita S. Khrushchev called "stupidity."

Nevertheless, Stalin took the man whom Red leader Lazar Kaganovich called "That sly old bastard" with him to the Big Three Conference at Teheran in Iran in 1943 where British Prime Minister Winston Churchill presented the Soviet Vozhd/World Leader with the famed Sword of Stalingrad, given to the Russian people by King George VI in honor of their incredible valor against and sufferings under the Germans.

Stalin picked up the sword with both hands and---holding it horizontally---kissed the scabbard. He then handed it to Marshal Voroshilov, as the blade slid from its sheath and clattered loudly onto the floor. It was considered to be a bad omen, and yet the man whose military codename was Yefremov, managed to survive the incident, just as he did everything else over the course of his remarkable career under Stalin and his volatile successors.

The most incredible aspect about Marshal Voroshilov's meteoric career was that he began it with no military experience at all, having spent the First World War during 1914-16 as an exempt armaments factory lathe worker who was an undercover Bolshevik agent while singing in one company's choir and working as a machinist at several other locations, too.

After the Bolsheviks succeeded in taking over the government following the November Revolution of 1917, Voroshilov allied himself to Stalin in the Battle of Tsaritsyn during the subsequent Civil War, and served as a cavalry commander under his later fellow Marshal, Semyon Budenny, another longtime Stalinist crony.

With the breaking of the siege of the rival right wing White Army, Voroshilov found himself an enduring hero of the Civil War, even though he was defeated outside Warsaw in 1920 by Polish Marshal Josef Pilsudski.

Called "the child of Stalin's military genius," Voroshilov sang (literally!) his master's praises, and survived with him along with Budenny long after the Generalissimo's death in 1953. Their rival Leon Trotsky called Voroshilov "A hearty and impudent fellow, not overly intellectual, but shrewd and unscrupulous, a conscientious worker with an excellent understanding of the organization of the 10th Army."

The famed First Marshal was widely lauded by Soviet propagandists as unafraid of bullets, enjoying the company of writers and artists, Hero of the Soviet Union and Hero of Labor (for which he was decorated), known as one of Stalin's "Magnates," hailed as a knight in ballads, had the novel The Red Eagle written about him, was portrayed on Russian trading cards for children like an American baseball star, and was touted as "The most popular hero in the Bolshevik pantheon, the most illustrious of the Soviet grandees," according to Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore.

British Field Marshal Alan Brooke rightly called Voroshilov "An attractive personality who owed his life to his wits," and that was definitely true, while his Kremlin colleague (and later boss) Khrushchev admitted that "He certainly was loyal and honest," particularly to and with Stalin.

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyachelsav Molotov---who outlived all the old Bolsheviks of the Lenin-Stalin era---asserted that the Soviet dictator never completely trusted Voroshilov (nor anyone else, for that matter), and "the top marksman" in his turn was never completely sold on Stalin, either.

Nevertheless, Molotov concluded, "He performed well at critical moments," such as being Stalin's closest aide during the purges against the peasant Kulak class, and later in decimating the upper officer tiers of the Red Army.

Indeed, First Marshal Voroshilov helped Stalin kill fully 4,000 of his own officer corps, crippling it just before the onset of a series of wars with the fascist powers.

Stalin's secretary B. Bashanov characterized him as "Quite a man, full of himself," and indeed he was that, too, basking in the full glare of the public limelight with his many medals and decorations, swilling vodka with artists, and generally living the high old life of the former Tsarist landed gentry. The First Marshal had a "huge, ostentatious dacha" (country home) that was modeled on the Livadia Palace at Yalta in the Crimea on Black Sea---as, indeed, all the top Soviet leaders did during the Stalin era. He was certainly not unique in that aspect, as should be stated in his defense.

"Klim" loved being painted in full-length, life-sized portraits on horseback---flashing saber in hand---by the Kremlin's court painter, Gerasamlinov, and critics charged that he spent more time thus portrayed than doing his job at the Commissariat of Defense.

Gen. Sergei M. Shtemenko---a later Chief of Staff of the Warsaw Pact alliance of Soviet post-World War II client states---called Voroshilov "A man of education and culture, something of a showman, exuding cordiality and bonhomie, making a parade of his courage, and thinking that he would be better received by the Terek and Kuban Cossack infantry by riding out to inspect them on a horse."

Like his fellow Marshals Budenny and Stalin, Voroshilov comprehended the infantry, cavalry, and armored train tactics of the Civil War era and Russo-Polish War of 1920 far better than he did that of the mechanized warfare of tanks and armored divisions, and therein lay the seeds of his defeats in both the Russo-Finnish War and the Second World War.

A successful practitioner in the latter---Marshal Ivan Konev---said of his former chief that he was "A man of inexhaustible courage, but incapable of understanding modern warfare." Far more harshly criticized than that both during and after the wars, Voroshilov always landed on his feet, however, and was always assigned to other serving posts.

As a sort of Soviet Hermann Goring and Albert Speer combined, the First Marshal in his pre-World War II years was responsible for building up the Army and Navy as well as industry with Stalin, to prepare for what both saw as the inevitable war against fascism.

Noted Soviet military writer Dmitri Volkogonov was very critical, defining Voroshilov as mediocre straight out, having but two years of formal schooling, beginning as a Chekist secret policeman during the Revolution, and becoming Stalin's willing stooge and toady, thus being placed in important high military commands "with having never worn a uniform... and lacking the least military knowledge".

The latter charge was also true of American Gen. Andrew Jackson, however, when he took up his first Indian wars command in the United States.

What mattered first and always to Stalin was loyalty to him and getting the desired results. Voroshilov excelled in the former, and produced admirably in the latter category, too---at least until the Japanese killed 3,000 soldiers in the Far East in August 1938, the USSR stumbled badly during the 105-day war with tiny Finland during 1939-40, and the Red Army was smashed to bits by the German Wehrmacht/Armed Forces during 1941-43.

Asserted Volkogonov, First Marshal Voroshilov was also the father of both chemical and biological warfare in Russia. His house of cards began collapsing in 1939, though, with the stunning initial defeats of the Red Army by far outnumbered Finland during the early stages of the Winter War debacle that left 70,000 known dead Red Army soldiers in the frozen snow and ice---a harbinger of what later happened to the German Army in Russia as well.

Born Jan. 23, 1891 as the son of a railway worker and a milk maid, the future First Marshal came out of the Russian Civil War with a strong belief in irregular partisan forces, as opposed to a regular army, and found his resurrection militarily by the end of 1942 by being appointed head of all Partisan Forces fighting behind enemy lines of the vast German invasion front that extended across the width of the USSR and for hundreds of miles back toward the borders of the Third Reich. He had thus reinvented himself once more.

Having concluded the unsuccessful 1939 diplomatic negotiations with the lukewarm British and French for an alliance with the USSR against Hitler that didn't materialize, after the 1941 German invasion, the First Marshal conducted vastly positive Lend-Lease talks with the United States that greatly aided Russia in the war.

Indeed, in 1954, then-Party General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev included Voroshilov in his first summit talks with the West at Geneva.

As Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and Head of State, President Voroshilov was present five years later during the famous Moscow "kitchen debate" between NSK and American Vice President Richard M. Nixon, seen worldwide on television.

According to author Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-43 , during the cataclysmic Winter War against Finland's Marshal Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim, Voroshilov showed "An astonishing lack of imagination."

NSK was an even more vocal, scathing critic in his 1970 memoirs Khruschchev Remembers: "I put the principal blame on Voroshilov for the Finnish War... His negligence was criminal... As Commissar of Defense, he was ill prepared, careless, and lazy," much like the later Reich Marshal Goring, whom the "top marksman" closely resembled as a pompous showoff in many respects.

NSK was quick to remind his readers that the also ballyhooed "leader of the peoples" was equally at fault: "Stalin got all his information from Voroshilov, who was also out of touch with reality" as regards modern weapons and their necessary logistical requirements.

Once, Voroshilov lamented aloud at a conference before the Finnish War---according to Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics in 1991---"If we switch to submachine guns, where on earth will we find so many bullets? We'll never have enough!" The bullets were found, stated Molotov drily, adding of Voroshilov, "He lagged behind the times."

In the end, he was relived of command, and his post of Commissar of Defense was given instead to Marshal Semen K. Timoshenko on May 8, 1940, two days before Nazi Germany launched its Western Offensive against the Allies. The Finns were defeated and the war brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Stalin, asserted NSK, kept Voroshilov "around as a whipping boy," but the latter stood his ground, as Khrushchev vividly recalled.

"Stalin jumped up in a white-hot rage and started to berate Voroshilov (who) was also boiling mad. He leaped up, turned red, and hurled Stalin's accusations back into his face. 'You have yourself to blame for all this! You're the one who annihilated the Old Guard of the Army; you had our best generals killed!' Stalin rebuffed him, and at that Voroshilov picked up a platter with a roast suckling pig on it, and smashed it on the table. It was the only time in my life that I witnessed such an outburst."

Yet again the First Marshal survived, however, and next turned up as Chief of the Leningrad High Command during the summer battles with the Germans during July-September 1941, with Andrei Zhadanov as his Communist Party Political Commissar, the joint commander who had to endorse all his military decisions in a cumbersome dual command process that existed throughout the Red Army at that time.

Thus, the 60-year-old Marshal could be found---pistol in hand!---personally leading the feared Red Marines with their famed black wool capes into repeated actions against the enemy, only to be repulsed by the Germans time and again. Once more Stalin, who generally called Voroshilov's headquarters at Smolny after midnight, relieved him for what he claimed was his "passiveness," replacing him with Marshal Georgi Zhukov.

In 1975, stated Molotov in an interview, "I dismissed Voroshilov. He spent all his time in the trenches," instead of at Smolny, much like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the Western Desert of North Africa, always up front with his men, and out of touch with his staff in the rear.

In his swan song, former choirboy and polka/gopak dancer Voroshilov told his staff officers, "Farewell, comrades! They have called me to headquarters. Well, I'm old, and it has to be. This isn't the Civil War! It has to be fought another way, but don't doubt for a minute that we are going to smash those fascist bastards right here! Their tongues are already hanging out for our city, but they will choke on their own blood!"

In the end, he was right, and the siege of Leningrad was lifted after 900 days in 1944 by the resurgent Red Army.

Following the end of the war and Stalin's death in March 1953, Voroshilov played a waiting game at first to see who would emerge as his successor: NKVD Secret Police Chief Laventi P. Beria, or NSK. In the end, he joined with the latter and Marshal Zhukov, after which the brutal, murderous Beria was removed from power and shot for his crimes. (The First Marshal, however, wanted Beria banished back to Baku, not shot, and was often seen to be "soft-hearted" when dealing with Kremlin wives and children as well.)

When Khrushchev gave his famous "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalinist crimes at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in 1956, the old First Marshal vigorously berated the new leader, NSK, for fear that the retribution for the former evil would redound onto the rest of the Soviet leadership, including them: "We'll be taken to task!" he wailed. "We'll still be made to pay!" but no one came to arrest, try, and shoot the former cavalry general. Once again, the wily old First Marshal had survived.

Although he was made to admit many of his past "errors" publicly in true Communist Party style and kowtow to NSK in private, Voroshilov remained titular President of the Soviet Union and therefore Head of State on par with US Presidents and the King and Queen of England until 1960; it was in this capacity that the President of the USSR traveled to confer with Premier Chou En-lai of the Peoples' Republic of China at Beijing.

In April 1962, President Voroshilov was reelected to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet yet again, and remained to the end an unrepentant Stalinist politically. He was also an un-contrite international mass murderer, since he signed the death warrants on March 8, 1940 of 22,000 murdered Polish officers found by the Nazis in the Katyn Forest in 1943.

The old Bolshevik died at age 89 on Dec. 2, 1969, having outlived both Lenin and Stalin, and also witnessed the fall of NSK in 1964 in a bloodless Kremlin coup. He had survived them all, and died in bed, too---of natural causes, so far as is known---no mean feat during his bloody era.

Since his death, historians of both east and west have been uniformly critical of the proud First Marshal, who once suffered a cowed subordinate to kiss his boots in fear on the latter's command train.

Authors Gorlizki and Khlevniuk panned Voroshilov as "a redundant Politvuro leader," who brayed, "If everyone is in favor, then so am I.," while Pleshakov chimed in with a description of him as "useless... hysterical... Voroshilov could barely read a map." He was a mere "poster general."

Military author Seaton noted that Voroshilov had "A reputation for cruelty and atrocities among the Whites;" his cavalry army was undisciplined, and noted for its drunkenness, as was he, Stalin's "pliant puppet." His break-up of the large Red Army tank formations in 1939 led to the disaster of 1941, he asserted.

Author Rayfield stated that the Red Army officer corps held Voroshilov in contempt, knowing as it did "That he coped as best he could with generals more distinguished than he," while literary giant Maxim Gorky referred to him as "camp following trash." The later postwar lord of occupied Hungary was scorned as "The butcher of the Red Army" and a "loyal robot."

The dean of modern Soviet historiography---Montefiore---noted that Stalin treated Voroshilov "like a dog" at Tehran (but was jealous of his popularity nonetheless.) Calling him "ever the simpleton," he added that Klim loved playing tennis and parading in his resplendent white summer First Marshal's dress uniform---and planned two Soviet invasions of Poland.

"Dapper, good-natured, envious and brutal," the "immaculate" Voroshilov was "dim, but congenial," when he wasn't signing the death warrants of families of Russian soldiers captured by the Germans. "A genial and swaggering cavalryman... with an elegant, almost d'Artagnanish moustache," Voroshilov epitomized "amorality, cruelty, fear, and cowardice,"---moral, not physical.

Dmitri Volkogonov had the harshest barbs: "The most mediocre, faceless, and intellectually dim... no intellectual power, genuine civic feeling, vision, or moral stature... An historical accident raised him to the highest level of State power... lacking in the least military knowledge... He blamed others... Had neither strategic thinking, nor operational vision, nor organizational ability."

Because of the purges of 1937-39, "On the eve of the Great Patriotic War, regimental commanders were yesterday's company commanders." On the professional side of Voroshilov's martial ledger, moreover, there was "No training of forces, no raising of the operational skills of the officer corps, no ensuring of the technical equipping of the units."

As for Finland, "Everyone was guilty but him... He was a talent-less, unattractive mediocrity," and yet the man who began war with a saber to hand, ended it in command of the atomic bomb.

He had many mistresses (his wife died in 1959), and at his retirement in 1960, President Voroshilov was succeeded by a later Marshal---Leonid Brezhnev. The pensioner retained his Moscow apartment, a country dacha/house, chauffered limousines, bodyguards, doctors, and servants.

All things considered, the non-soldier had not done entirely badly for himself.

Ⓒ 2017 International Historic Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


From Red Cavalry Sabre to Soviet Atomic Bomb


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