At 8 AM on the cold, blustery morning of Nov. 7, 1941---the 24th anniversary of the fabled Russian Communist Bolshevik Revolution of 1917---a dashing-looking lone horseman galloped out of the Spassky Gate of the Kremlin in Moscow onto snow-covered Red Square. Inspecting the assembled troops waiting to go directly to the front to halt the advancing German Army in its relentless march on the capital, Marshal of the Soviet Union Semen Mikhailovich Budenny (also spelled Budyonny) received their acclamations of “Hurrah!” then spurred his horse to the base of the Lenin Mausoleum, dismounted and strode up the steps to join his master, dictator Josef Stalin.
The legendary Commander of the Red Cavalry during the Russian Civil War of 1918-20 against the defeated White armies of the fallen Tsar Nicholas II, the colorful, swashbuckling, walrus-moustachioed Budenny was a sort of latter day Prussian Marshal Gebhard von Blucher and Nazi Waffen (Armed) SS Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich (both of whom he strongly resembled in character) combined.
Wearing a Sam Browne belt over his ground length greatcoat and with the peculiar “pixie” type cap that he popularized on his head, Budenny and his horse at the head of thousands of charging steeds crashing over the steppes of Mother Russia seemed to be the very embodiment of the renowned Soviet cavalry sweeping all aside with the fury of their thundering hooves. Indeed, this was the actuality until the mechanized warfare of the summer and fall of 1941 put him and them into partial eclipse, seemingly for good.
As with any controversial wartime commander, later opinions and views of him were mixed, but always spirited. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov stated in his 1991 memoirs that “Budenny’s conduct was praiseworthy, but at the same time one could not demand too much of him. He was meritorious and popular with the people,” like their common mortal enemies, Adolf Hitler and Reich Marshal Hermann Goring.
Soviet military writer Viktor Anfilov characterized Budenny as “A patriot, brave man, talented military leader of the Civil War and a national hero. He had a long record of indiscipline, was ignorant and limited, a man without pretensions.”
The former Tsarist cavalry sergeant major was both dashing and a heavy drinker, to which he added a liberal dose of incompetence, character traits common to many soldier leaders, both then and now. The holder of the Order of Suvorov 1st Class and three times a declared Hero of the Soviet Union, Budenny was 62 in 1945 at the end of the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II), and went on to become Deputy Minister of Agriculture in the postwar USSR.
A later foe, who knew him in Moscow during 1931-32---German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein---described Budenny as “Entirely natural and uninhibited in his coarseness.”
His former subordinate and later commander, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, said of his one-time boss that he was “Hot tempered, but always objective. I gave him assignments that he always carried out in good faith.” Their colleague Marshal Ivan Konev was much more harsh, however, calling Budenny “A man with a past, but no future. He never knew much and never studied anything.”
What he did know, however, was how to be slavishly loyal and utterly devoted to Generalissimo Stalin, to carry out his orders ruthlessly and to inspire others to do the
same. Arriving at one embattled position during the German onslaught of 1941, Budenny yelled, “We shouldn’t be defending ourselves, but defeating the enemy! We’re a strong
fist! “ During another tense encounter, Budenny screamed at fellow Marshal Ivan K. Bagramyan, “I think we’d better have you shot!” but didn’t.
According to Anfilov, the man who was a serving soldier to both the Tsar and Stalin had “Beaten the best of the White cavalry” as commander of the lst Cavalry Corps of the Red Army during the Civil War, and also that his renowned “cavalry army” was “Ready to follow wherever Budenny led.”
He rose to become the preeminent horse specialist in the USSR, and even General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Stalin deferred to him in all things equestrian. In September 1923, he appointed the future marshal Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Cavalry Forces, then to the top post of Inspector of Cavalry later. Six years afterwards, Stalin even went so far as to proclaim that “Aircraft will not replace the cavalry” for reconnaissance purposes as a further sop to Budenny’s vanity, one of the first mistakes that led to the mammoth defeats of 1941 by the Germans.
His fame hit its peak on Nov. 20, 1935 when Stalin created him one of the first five Marshals of the Soviet Union, leading little boys playing in the streets to boast proudly that they were “Budenny’s men.”
The bedrock of both his moral authority within the Red Army and his ability to survive the defeats of 1941 was the person of Stalin, whom he served “body and soul,” and who
in turn honored the Marshal by seeing him “Privately and individually in his own office,” according to Anfilov. Time and again throughout his long career, no matter what the Generalissimo would order him to do, Budenny would snap to attention and answer, “Comrade Stalin, my task is clear !” then proceed. No doubt their enemy Hitler wished that he had men like Marshal Budenny under him rather than on the opposite side.
The cavalry marshal’s loyalty to Stalin continued long after his death, moreover, as reflected in his memoirs that were published in 1968. He never forgot that his superior would turn to him and say in the middle of conferences, “You are the most competent man in this matter. Let me have your proposals.”
He was also loyal to other old Bolsheviks after their fall, as noted by Molotov in a 1978 interview: “Despite my expulsion from the Party, Budenny would always send me greetings on national holidays. His handwriting grew shaky, and yet he would keep mailing me his postcards.”
He was born into a peasant farm family on Apr. 25, 1883 near Platovskaya on the Don River and was drafted for military service at 20 in 1903, serving in the Russo-Japanese War in the 46th Dragoon Regiment. A courageous horseman who was wounded, he nevertheless remained with his unit until the end of the war. When he was asked if he had heard about the uprising in St. Petersburg against “our little father, the Tsar” as a result of discontent with the war with far-off Japan, Budenny answered “How could I not, your excellency ? Nobody talks about anything else!” Asked his opinion of it, the young dragoon replied, “My job is to serve.”
Unlike many others who deserted the Tsar to join the Revolution, Budenny remained true to the colors until they were replaced by the Red Banner of the Bolsheviks, then served them as well until his death. In this regard, the marshal was an apolitical soldier of the state.
Having completed the St. Petersburg Cavalry School in 1907, Budenny was promoted to sergeant, serving in that capacity with a platoon in the Caucasus Cavalry Division during September 1914 to October 1917, being awarded four St. George Crosses and the full ribbon of a St. George Cavalryman, the highest decoration he could win.
After World War I ended and the Germans worked with the White forces at the start of the Civil War, he joined the Reds and served as the brigadier in command of Special Cavalry Division Budenny in the 10th Army under his later fellow marshal, Kliment Y. Voroshilov. He also won his first Order of the Red Banner, and was soon signing a letter to Vladimir I. Lenin as “Cavalry Corps Commander Budenny,” as meteoric a military rise as there has ever been within the short space of a few years.
On Nov. 17, 1919, he was named commander of the first Cavalry Army that the Soviets formed. Stated Anfilov, “In maneuverability and speed of attack, the Cavalry Army had no equal, and according to former German Chief of Staff Gen. (Franz) Halder, its experience was not lost on the Wehrmacht.” Transferred to the Caucasus, it was there that Budenny began a tendency not to follow the orders of his immediate superiors if he disagreed with them. Both he and Voroshilov began taking their complaints direct to Stalin, whom Budenny first met in July 1918.
Nor was Budenny always victorious, having been beaten in battles by both the Cossacks and the Poles, two peoples who also boasted some of the finest cavalrymen on earth who were at least the equal, if not the better, of his own. He also found himself at odds in August 1920 with both his own West Front and Stalin’s fiercest rival, Red Army organizer Leon Trotsky. In addition, Budenny---the former sergeant of the 18th Seversky Dragoons---and Voroshilov have been accused by later writers of being responsible for “cruelty and atrocities” against captured White prisoners-of-war.
Another man who served under Budenny during the Civil War in 1919 was Nikita S. Khrushchev, Stalin’s ultimate successor in the mid-Fifties.
In July 1967, Budenny wrote that “There wasn’t a single small child who didn’t believe that the Germans were getting ready to attack” the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941, and yet---apparently---Stalin himself wasn’t one of them, asserting to the end that Hitler would never break the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed in Moscow in August 1939.
The USSR found itself badly prepared for the onset of mechanized warfare, dating back to Budenny’s insistence as long ago as 1920 for cavalry instead of the tanks and planes for which Trotsky, among others, were clamoring . Even after the Cavalry Army was officially disbanded following the end of the Civil War, some divisions were still kept up to strength at his command.
On June 6, 1937, Marshal Budenny was named as head of the Moscow Military District, and it was in this post that in March 1940 that he was severely criticized for the way in which his troops had conducted themselves during the defeats of the Russo-Finnish War. Still, he refused to change, as evidenced during a military exercise conducted in July 1940 by the new Commissar of Defense, Marshal Semen K. Timoshenko, a former divisional commander in Budenny’s Cavalry Army.
In order to direct a tank attack himself, Marshal Budenny leaped onto the lead tank, causing his driver to panic and almost land the vehicle into a ravine full of water. Timoshenko, who had witnessed the scene, admonished his fellow marshal, “I wouldn’t advise you to sit on a tank, but rather at the command post where you can control your forces. In the Civil War we used to gallop after you with our sabers drawn, but those days are long gone, and a tank is not a horse!”
Stalin removed his crony as Moscow District Commander and reposted Budenny as Deputy Defense Commissar under Timoshenko, leading the old warhorse to admit sheepishly to his staff that “It is we, the senior officers, who need to study” and thus change. It was in this new capacity that he gave Stalin two pieces of advice---one good and the other fatal---at the Council of War the very day before the German invasion of June 22, 1941.
The first was that the ropes that normally tied Red Air Force planes to the ground should be taken off so that they would be on alert in case of attack, but the second was to get all troops moving towards the front so that they would be in place no matter what the future enemy did. This had the effect of putting thousands of Red Army men on roads and railways where they could be attacked by the aircraft of Goring’s Luftwaffe, as they were. Nine hours before the great attack, Marshal Budenny found himself as a member of Stavka (the Supreme Command) with Political Commissar Georgi Malenkov as his joint commander, but without any staff, troops or equipment.
During the period July-September 1941, Marshal Budenny was in command at Kiev---the capital of Ukraine---and later Kharkov, with Khrushchev as his political commissar, their main tasks being to hold the cities while evacuating industrial machinery. Seeing plainly that they were going to be encircled by the Germans, the old cavalryman urged Stalin to allow a retreat, but the latter forbade it. As a result, on Sept. 21st, 665,000 Red Army soldiers were lost as German POWs, a catastrophe that some writers have since blamed on Budenny.
Stalin had relieved him on the 11th, however, and rather than shooting the old horseman, placed him in command of the Reserve and West Fronts
where on Oct. 6th at Vyasma, both he and Marshal Voroshilov lost a combined total of 45 Red Army divisions and 673,000 POWs in a second German encirclement battle. Budenny was fired again, but not shot, two days later.
On May 10, 1942, Stalin sent him to the Crimea, and the following July 28th, Budenny took over the North Caucasus Front from the relieved future marshal. Gen. Rodion K. Malinovksy. Upon returning to Moscow, Budenny ran into Marshal Zhukov, who told him in January 1943, “No doubt you’re going to have to lead the cavalry again,” and that spring, after Stalingrad, the marshal was named Commander of the Red Army Cavalry once more. Restored again to his favorite wartime role, the crusty marshal created “mounted armored groups” and provided aerial cover for his beloved horsemen.
Marshal Semen Mikhailovich Budenny died at age 90 on Oct. 26, 1973 and was buried with full military honors in the Kremlin Wall beside his revered former leader, Generalissimo Josef Stalin, where both remain to this day in Moscow.
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