Inside the Soviet Army
In June 1921, after the Civil War had been won and Soviet power consolidated, Mikhail Frunze, one of the leading Red commanders, urged that a military doctrine be formulated, in order to give direction to the development and training of the Red Army. Trotsky, still the commissar for war, rejected Frunze’s argument, on the grounds that doctrine would degenerate into “doctrinairism.” For him the immediate tasks facing the Red Army were more mundane and practical—“to teach how to oil rifles and grease boots”—than the abstractions of doctrine.
Trotsky lost the argument, and Frunze’s view of military doctrine and its role is accepted in the Soviet Union today. But Trotsky’s warning proved correct. In the 1930s a huge gulf opened up between the pretensions of doctrine and the performance of the Red Army. On the eve of the German invasion of June 22, 1941 the three basic principles of Soviet military doctrine were: readiness to repel any aggressor; defeat of the enemy on his own territory; victory with little bloodshed. But when the Germans attacked, the Red Army was not ready and could not stop their advance. By the end of November the Soviet state had lost control of 40 percent of its population and grain production, and 60 percent of its coal, iron, and steel output. Millions of Soviet soldiers were killed or taken prisoner before the end of the year. The German invasion had exposed, in a cruel and brutal fashion, the gap between doctrine and performance.
The Soviet Union pulled itself together and stopped the German advance. By the end of 1942 arms were beginning to pour out of Soviet factories, and a high command of great ability emerged from the early battles. The arms and the men were now available to put into practice the military concepts that had been adopted before the war. The Red Army pushed the German forces out of the Soviet Union, and back to Berlin. After 1945 Stalin ignored the early disasters and claimed that the war had demonstrated the superiority of the Soviet social order. Despite this, the failure to translate doctrine into practice in 1941 has troubled the Soviet leaders ever since.
Since 1945 a “revolution in military affairs” (to use the Soviet expression) has transformed the armed forces. The Ministry of Defense has published thousands of books and articles to expound the Soviet conception of war in the nuclear age, and of the methods by which it should be fought and won. But Trotsky’s question is still valid. Is Soviet military doctrine doctrinaire? In his reply to Frunze, Trotsky quoted Clausewitz’s warning that “in the practical arts the theoretical leaves and blossoms must not be allowed to grow too high, but must be kept close to experience, their proper soil.” There is evidence that the Soviet High Command worries about the armed forces’ ability to put doctrine into practice. The victory over Germany may have allayed some doubts, but Soviet forces have …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.