Mikhail Tukhachevsky, whose meteoric career illuminates certain episodes of the Soviet past that still have significance today, was born in Penza province of Czarist Russia in 1893. According to a colleague who knew him in the twenties, he came from an impoverished family of aristocrats, originally of Flemish descent: a crusading ancestor had ended near Odessa with a Turkish wife, and been granted lordship of the village of Tukhachev. Entering the Imperial Army at a very early age, Tukhachevsky fought the First World War as a lieutenant in the crack Semenovsky Guards Regiment. Captured by the Germans in 1915, he was incarcerated in the fortress of Ingolstadt: a fellow-prisoner was Charles de Gaulle. After five attempts at escape, he made his way to Petrograd, after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917. Reportedly inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and the Decembrists since his youth, he found no difficulty in entering the service of the Revolution. He joined the Bolshevik Party, and reported to Sklyansky, Trotsky’s right-hand man at the Commissariat of War. Within a few months, he was given command of the famous First Red Army on the Eastern Front, facing the Czechoslovak Legion near Simbirsk. He revealed himself a brilliant officer, and was responsible for the decisive breakthrough that shattered Kolchak’s line near Samara in May 1919, beginning an advance which rolled up the White Armies all the way to Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk within a few months. Transferred by Trotsky to the Caucasian Front, then menaced by Denikin’s regroupment, Tukhachevsky’s performance was equally swift and effective. His troops rapidly swung past Denikin’s flank and swept them into the sea at Novocherkassk and Tuapse in March 1920.

Two months later, Tukhachevsky was made Commander-in-Chief of the Western Front in the new war of the young Soviet Republic against Poland, which had invaded Russia. Upsetting international expectations, Tukhachevsky rapidly reversed fortunes in Belorussia, pushing the enemy back into ethnic Poland. After eight weeks of advance, he crossed the Bug and approached the Vistula. The Polish military dictator Pilsudski recalled the moment: ‘This unceasing, wormlike advance of a huge enemy horde, which went on for weeks, with spasmodic interruptions here and there, gave us the impression of something irresistible rolling up like some terrible thunderclouds that brooked no opposition. . . . By this march on Warsaw, Tukhachevsky gave proof that he had developed into a general far above the average commonplace commander.’ At twenty-seven, the same age as Napoleon at Lodi, Tukhachevsky was at the gates of Warsaw. On July 26th 1920, the architect of the Reichswehr in post-war Germany, Von Seeckt, wrote: ‘The complete victory of Russia can no longer be called into question.’

Von Seeckt proved to be wrong. A catastrophic military blunder deprived the Soviet armies of the great victory that Lenin was predicting on an operations map to Comintern delegates in Moscow while the battle raged. The South-Western Command, under Yegorov, Budyenny and Stalin, which by previous instructions had been placed under Tukhachevsky’s jurisdiction after the crossing of the Brest-Litovsk line, refused to obey orders and drive north to close in on Warsaw from below. With crass folly, it pursued an attack on Lvov to the south, opening a vast breach in the arc of the Russian offensive. This act of insubordination, in which both stupidity and jealousy on the part of Stalin and Budyenny played a role, cost the war. Pilsudski immediately poured troops into the gap between the two commands, and turned Tukhachevsky’s armies on the left. A rout followed, aggravated by Tukhachevsky’s cavalier treatment of supplies and transport during his impetuous advance. The Bolshevik Revolution had been contained within its borders.

On his return home, the ominous epilogues of the Civil War awaited Tukhachevsky. In May 1921 the Kronstadt garrison revolted: he was ordered to reduce it. After a lethal fratricidal struggle, the fortress was taken. A few months later, Tukhachevsky was instructed to suppress another rebellion against the Soviet regime—the Tambov peasant uprising of the summer of 1921. After these two episodes, he worked successively as Director of the Military Academy, Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief of Staff. Demoted by Voroshilov, who disliked him, he became Chief of the Operations Department of the Red Army in 1931. In this period he pioneered the use of motorized columns, tank battles and parachute drops. Under his influence, the Red Army was built into a formidable modern military machine in the thirties. Tukhachevsky, however, never lived to see the fruits of his work. Stalin probably decided to eliminate him as early as 1936; at any rate a nkvd conspiracy against him was woven in that year. Learning of this, the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst forged documents purporting to prove Tukhachevsky’s collusion with the German High Command to betray the ussr, and passed them into Russia, with the deliberate aim of destroying the commander the Wehrmacht feared most in Russia. The forgeries were promptly used as evidence by the nkvd in secret charges against Tukhachevsky and his closest military colleagues (Yakir, Uborevitch, Putna, Gamarnik and others) for treason. On July 12th 1937, Tukhachevsky was shot. Today, he has been ‘rehabilitated’ in the ussr: that is, the charges of treason have been dropped and two books have now been published about him.footnote1 No enquiry, however, has been made into the reasons for his death and no critical discussion of his historical role has been permitted.

Tukhachevsky’s life and work raise two major historical questions, both of contemporary political significance. The first concerns the whole character of the Russian Civil War which followed the Bolshevik seizure of power. What was its military and social nature? It is a paradox that there exists a vast and rich literature on the October Revolution itself, much of it produced by Marxists and most of it of a high scientific standard (Trotsky, Sukhanov, Deutscher, Carr, Liebman and others), while there exists virtually nothing of value on the Civil War which was its momentous consequence. Yet the first was, as Lenin always emphasized, in a sense mere ‘hurrah socialism’: the conquest of power was relatively easy and painless.footnote2 The real history of the ferocious class struggles which decided the destiny of the Russian Revolution began not in October 1917 but March 1918, when the Czechoslovak Legion ran up the white banner of counter-revolution along the Volga. The three terrible years of war which ensued determined the final shape of the revolution far more than its innocent and euphoric birth, twisting it into the mould that later became Stalinism.