Air University Review, March-April 1968

The Story of the Soviet Red Army—
 or at Least Half the Story

Dr. Kenneth R. Whiting

Full-dress histories of the Soviet Armed Forces are not as plentiful as the importance of the subject would seem to warrant. D. Fedotoff White’s The Growth of the Red Army, published by the Princeton University Press way back in 1944, was a pioneering work and is still a landmark in the field of Soviet military history. In fact, White’s book held its pre-eminence until the publication of John Erickson’s comprehensive volume in 1962.1 Both of these scholarly tomes, however, leave off just as the Red Army was getting its real baptism of fire in World War II, or, as the Soviets call their part of that war, “The Great Fatherland War.” In 1959 Michel Garder’s Histoire de L’Armee Sovietique brought the story up to 1958,2 but the lack of any citations for M. Garder’s sometimes fascinating statements was enough to drive any self-respecting student of the Red Army to drink.

For those who read Russian, there has been a veritable deluge of memoirs, histories, and specialized articles dealing primarily with the Great Fatherland War. The Soviets have even produced a six-volume work, Istoriya Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voyny Sovetskogo Soyuza, 1941-1945 (“The History of the Great Fatherland War of the Soviet Union, 1941-1945”), written by a horde of Soviet scholars and published between 1960 and 1965. This work has enabled the historian, carefully discounting Soviet biases, to get a better-rounded picture than when he was entirely dependent upon the German accounts of the war. Finally, in the last few years a Soviet journal, Voenno-Istoricheskiy Zhurnal (“Military-Historical Journal”), has provided much excellent material with which to fill in many gaps.

Any enumeration of all the books and articles available in English which deal either with the Great Fatherland War as a whole or with some aspect of it would run into the hundreds. They range from Raymond Garthoff’s classic analysis of Soviet tactics and strategy in his Soviet Military Doctrine to Alexander Werth’s Russia at War, 1941-1945, which almost uncritically accepts the Russian version of the conflict.

The development of the Soviet Armed Forces since 1945 has received far less coverage, which is understandable although regrettable. The fact is that the Russian armies have not been engaged in hostilities, with the exception of a rather inglorious escapade in Hungary in 1956, and “peacetime” armies are not as exciting to write about as those which are at war. However, the works of Garthoff, Dinerstein, Wolfe, and others in the last two decades provide excellent analyses of Soviet military doctrine, strategy, and weapons development in the postwar period.

The point I am making is this: To get a complete picture of the development of the armed forces of the Soviet Union from 1918 to the present, one has to consult a veritable library of books and articles. With the exception of Garder’s slight volume, the whole story was just not available in a single book. This is the vacuum which Malcolm Mackintosh has attempted to fill with his latest book.*  On the dust jacket of the book are the dates “1918-1966,” which one assumes is a promise, or at least an implication, that the two decades since 1945 would finally get a more adequate historical coverage. Upon examination of the book, however, the coverage of the last two decades turns out to be skimpy, to say the least. Only fifteen percent of the book (44 of 312 pages) is devoted to the 1945-1966 period, while thirty-five percent ( 110 pages) goes to the two decades before 1939, already so well done by Erickson, and fifty percent (158 pages) is taken up with World War II, about which there is already a plethora of accounts. In short, Mr. Mackintosh’s publishers have whetted the reader’s appetite with those nice dates on the dust jacket, but the contents of the book do not live up to the billing. Furthennore, like M. Garder’s opus, the book is almost entirely lacking in such scholarly apparatus as citations of sources to back up the narrative (about thirty all told) and has a meager bibliography of twenty-eight items, although the author does enumerate his main sources in the preface. Much of this criticism is unfair, however, as Mr. Mackintosh makes no pretense that this is a work of original research aimed at a scholarly audience. On the contrary, it is frankly a short history of the Soviet Red Army based on the standard accounts available in Russian and English, and it should be judged as such.

Mackintosh shortchanges the Civil War, especially the momentous events of the key year 1919, but he does an excellent job in describing the war with Poland in 1920. He also points out that the bitter feuds which emerged as a result of the catastrophe before Warsaw were to have ominous repercussions in later years when Stalin and his buddies, Voroshilov and Budenny, got Tukhachevsky’s head on a platter.

The great debate over the proper military doctrine for the new Red Army—in other words, what form and size it would take, what its tactics and strategy would be—is handled in a rather cavalier fashion by Mackintosh. On the other hand, he expertly describes the semisecret Reichswehr-Red Army collaboration between 1921 and 1933 in about six pages—a masterly feat of condensation.

His account of the transition of the Red Army from a predominantly militia force (with a regular force of only 563,000) in the 1920s to a multimillion-man regular army in the late 1930s, when the industrial base to make the transformation possible had been erected, is very well done. This was the heyday of Tukhachevsky’s influence on the Red Army’s tactics and strategy—tactics and strategy that took advantage of the mobility engendered by the acquisition of aircraft, tanks, and motor vehicles. He was even the first commander to use airborne forces in maneuvers. But the whole program was nearly wrecked in the 1937-39 period when Stalin’s paranoiac purge of Tukhachevsky and some 35,000 other high-ranking officers in the Red Army brought the whole military machine to the verge of chaos. The results of the Stalinist bloodbath showed up in the poor performance of the Red Army in the winter war with Finland (1939-40): well over a million well-armed men were stalled for months before a thinly defended Finnish line, and the Soviet losses were almost unbelievable. This bitter experience did, however, pinpoint some of the Red Army’s worst shortcomings and resulted in the replacement of Voroshilov as the defense chief, an event long overdue. Mackintosh is at his best in describing the “human” element in the purges, but like all historians he is unable to explain why it happened. This is a task for the student of abnormal psychology, not for the historian.

The heart of the book, the story of the Great Fatherland War, is well written. There is plenty of material for the historian to work with, it is an exciting story, and the author does not let himself get bogged down in irrelevant detail. His own experience with the Red Army during World War II gives an immediacy to his writing; he shows a feel for the magnitude of the conflict as the enormous armies seesawed back and forth over the plains of Russia.

It is the last section of the book, the history of the Red Army since 1945, that is disappointing. The whole saga of the transformation of the enormous ground-force-dominated Red Army that emerged from World War II into the present Soviet Armed Forces, replete with sophisticated weaponry and technologically skilled personnel, is handled in an almost disdainful manner. The reader gets the impression that the author simply tacked this skimpy section onto the main body of the work to give the appearance of completeness—or at least live up to the billing on the dust jacket.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Mackintosh in his dilemma of how to get a half-century of history into a slim volume; I have tried the trick myself with less than magnificent results.3 But in a world that is inclined to look with awful fascination at the enormous military machine now available to the Kremlin rulers, any book that advertises itself as a description of the development of that force up to 1966 and then treats the climax of the story in the last two decades in such a slighting manner is bound to irritate a large number of readers. But for all the weeping and wailing of this one reader about the anticlimax of Mr. Mackintosh’s opus, it is nevertheless a good little history of the Red Army from 1918 to 1945 and is well worth reading for that period.

Aerospace Studies Institute

*Malcolm Mackintosh, Juggernaut: A History of the Soviet Armed Forces (New York: Macmillan, 1967, $6.95), 320 pp.

 

Notes

1. John Erickson, The Soviet High Command: A Military Political History, 1918-1941 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962).

2. The work is now available in English (Michel Garder, A History of the Soviet Army, New York: Praeger, 1966), and the story has been brought down to 1964. John Erickson has inserted some notes and references in this edition.

3. Kenneth R. Whiting, The Development of the Soviet Armed Forces, 1918-1966 (Maxwell AFB: Air University, 1966).

 


Contributor

Dr. Kenneth R Whitting (Ph.D., Harvard University) is a member of the Aerospace Studies Institute and of the faculty, Air University.  He formerly taught Russian history at Tufts College.  Dr. Whiting is the author of  The Soviet Union Today: A Concise Handbook (1962) and of numerous studies and monographs on Russian subjects, including Readings in Soviet Military Theory, Essays on Soviet Problems of Nationality and Industrial Management, Iron Ore Resources of the U.S.S.R, and Materials on the Soviet Petroleum Industry.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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