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Lev Mekhlis: Interference by the Grand Inquisitor

Pictured: (left to right) L. Z. Mekhlis, Komkor V. I. Chuikov, and Red Star journalist and chief editor D. I. Ortenberg in Finland during the Winter War of 1939-1940.

In considering topics for my blog on Marshal Chuikov’s authentic leadership practice, life, and work, I began to research Red Army Commissar of the First Rank Lev Mekhlis and his actions during the Russo-Finnish War and beyond. Known as "Stalin's Grand Inquisitor," Mekhlis was famously photographed with Komkor Chuikov and Red Star journalist Ortenburg in early 1940 in Finland during the Winter War. Vasily Ivanovich did not initially participate in the Winter War but was eventually transferred to command the 9th Army in December 1939 to replace Komkor Dukhanov. Although he was brought in to try to stabilize the dire situation of the 9th Army and to turn things around, Chuikov’s soldiers suffered crushing defeats. During the Winter War, Mekhlis was requested to report to Stalin personally why the Red Army was being beaten soundly by the Finnish Army.

In a Red Army debriefing with Stalin which took place in April 1940, Chuikov was questioned directly about the situation at the front, specifically whether someone had interfered with his leadership. In a later discussion during the inquest, it was stated that Mekhlis completely interfered with Chuikov to the point that his leadership of the 9th Army was undermined.

As I proceeded to dig into the past, I quickly discovered that Mekhlis was a controversial figure in Stalin’s regime. As with much of history, it depends upon who you ask as to the response you will receive. There are some who view Mekhlis as a very honest man and a fanatical communist. He has been described as a prominent statesman who was brought into challenging military situations to address serious strategic issues and exact justice as needed. For example, prominent Russian historian Alexey Isaev shared the following anecdote from the time when Mekhlis was brought in during the difficult days in the defense of Crimea in early 1942:

“The arrival in the Crimea of ​​such a high-ranking figure as Mekhlis meant, if not unlimited, then very wide opportunities for knocking out everything necessary from the center. So he managed to get 3 thousand brand new PPSh assault rifles for the Crimean Front at once. For comparison: at the time of the arrival of the representative of the Headquarters of the Supreme High Command, the 44th and 51st armies of the front had only about 500 PPSh assault rifles. Also, thanks to the efforts of Mekhlis, the Crimean Front received heavy KV tanks.”

A dimmer view of Mekhlis focuses on his despotic leadership and lack of military training, often undermining commanders and reversing their decisions to the detriment of the Red Army. During Mekhlis’ time in Crimea, he was responsible for removing the brilliant Major-General (later Marshal) Fyodor Tolbukhin from his position of Chief of Staff from the Crimean Front after the fall of the city of Feodosia to the Germans. (More on the situation in Crimea during early 1942 is located here.) There is a point of view that Stalin, after the crushing accusation of Mekhlis, did not trust Tolbukhin. Due to this assumption, Tolbukhin was the only Marshal of Victory who did not receive the title of Hero of the Soviet Union during his lifetime. In 1965, twenty years after the end of the Great Patriotic War, Fyodor Ivanovich was honored with the award posthumously.

Back to the situation with Chuikov… Yuri Rubtsov’s book titled Mekhlis: Shadow of the Leader sheds light on what happened with the 9th Army in Finland:

“At the April [1940] meeting of the leadership of the Armed Forces, [Stalin] made a remark to Mekhlis. The reason was the remark of the Colonel of the Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff Khadzhi-Umar Mamsurov (in the future - Colonel General, Deputy Head of the GRU), who stated that the 9th Army was not led by Commander V.I. Chuikov, the army commander, but a member of the Military Council of the army Mekhlis. The latter, acting as a member of the Armed Forces of the army, but being a representative of the center and having broad powers, tried to replace the commander of the army and at the same time did not bear any responsibility for the outcome of military operations. ‘It seems to me,’ Mamsurov said with the necessary degree of caution, since he was treading on thin ice, ‘what is the situation.’

Having information about this from other sources, Stalin, according to the memoirs of Admiral N.G. Kuznetsov, once said to the head of the Red Army PD: ‘You there, on the spot, had the habit of putting the commander in your pocket and disposing of him as you please.’ And [Mekhlis] ‘took this reproach rather as praise.’

That's right—as a praise, as an encouragement deliberately stern teacher beloved student. For even the Great Patriotic War, […] for a very long time could not force Lev Zakharovich to abandon incompetent interference in the activities of the commanders, accompanied by enormous strong-willed pressure and arrogance. Well, the one who could put a limit to this militant incompetence, objected to it more for appearance than in essence. It is quite obvious that in the eyes of Stalin, these ‘shortcomings’ of Mekhlis faded into the shadows of the ‘virtues’ that were much more in demand even during the period of repression.”

Rubtsov referred to Stalin’s ‘Meeting of Command Personnel at the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party for the Collection of Experiences in the Military Operations Against Finland’ in his writing. A translation of the discussions which took place during a four-day (14-17 April 1940) meeting arranged by Stalin after the war ended to analyze the Red Army's daily performance in the war was published by Alexander Chubaryan and Harold Shukman under the title Stalin and the Soviet-Finnish War, 1939-1940. The following excerpts reveal Chuikov’s response as well as further conversations about Mekhlis:

[15 April 1940 evening session]

STALIN: Did anyone meddle in your commanding duties?


STALIN: You said ‘no' somewhat hesitantly.

CHUIKOV: I didn't understand the question: who might have meddled?

STALIN: I don't know, I'm just asking you.

CHUIKOV: No. In particular, we worked well, so to say, with the members of the military council.

[17 April 1940 evening session]

KULIK: Comrade Mamsurov has the floor.

MAMSUROV (REGIMENTAL COMMANDER, 5TH DIRECTORATE): I was in command of a special ski detachment of the 9th Army. Before I speak, I would like to make the following point. I heard Comrade Chuikov's report (on 15 April – M.K.), and I cannot understand why Comrade Chuikov gave an untrue answer to Comrade Stalin's question. To my mind, of all those in the 9th Army, very few knew who was in command. To my mind, 90 percent of commanders do not know it to this day. It seems to me, it was wrong that the Deputy People's Commissar was made a member of the military council. The commander made the decision to engage the detachment, but his decision was invalidated upon the arrival of the military council member. In general, the army staff people used to say that the Deputy People's Commissar was the boss, and the army commander had no say.

MEKHLIS: Could you tell us more about that decision?

MAMSUROV: Comrade Nikishov, the army chief of staff, handed me the order issued by the army military council to the effect that I was to support the 54th Division. I was told that the men of the ski battalion would give more muscle to my detachment. The army commander gave this order to me in his office. You entered and said: 'I won't give a single man.' But I had already received the order. The army commander stood up and said: 'Comrade Deputy Peoples' Commissar, you said you would not give a single man.'

MEKHLIS: Nothing of the sort. It's all lies from beginning to end.

MAMSUROV: Comrades Chuikov and Nikishov can confirm it.

MEKHLIS: I knew that Comrade Proskurov was sending you. So, to determine the positive aspects of the detachment, I ordered Comrade Rykov to call a conference and report on the positive aspects of the detachment's work. This is all slander. I saw you once or twice at the most.

MAMSUROV: I have no reason to slander anyone. I'm saying what happened.

MEKHLIS: It's all gossip.

STALIN: Mamsurov is telling the truth. We must trust the word of a front-line comrade. I was told the same thing by another comrade. Do you want me to name him?

MEKHLIS: That would be fine.

STALIN: I will not name him. He spoke in the presence of Molotov and Voroshilov.

MEKHLIS: One must speak openly.

STALIN: It was Rychagov.

MEKHLIS: Why didn't he say anything from the rostrum?

STALIN: He spoke about other things from the rostrum.

MEKHLIS: He wanted to get rid of the heavy machine-guns in the 54th Division. I said I was against it, and I think I was right.

STALIN: Rychagov was a member of the military council, a capable and observant man. He said Chuikov was not in command. That was what he said.

A couple of points to make here… First, as I have explored Chuikov’s personality traits along with his leadership practice and style, it appears that he purposefully misled Stalin in his denial of interference by an outsider, such as Mekhlis, during the April 1940 interview. However, after gaining some insight into Mekhlis’ character and actions before, during, and after the Winter War, I can empathize with Vasily Ivanovich’s situation and stance. Chuikov was actively at the front with his soldiers, long before his experience in Stalingrad. Perhaps Mekhlis’ interference was to the degree that Chuikov was unable to function as he would have wanted. With Mekhlis’ reputation for carrying out repressions and undermining commanders at the front (even having them tried and shot), Chuikov wisely did not draw attention to this fact—there was too much at stake with far-reaching consequences here. Rather than answering out of fear, Vasily Ivanovich demonstrated his deep intuition in deflecting Stalin’s direct question. With his maneuver, Chuikov secured his future fate and military career, proving his leadership every time. In that difficult political period of the USSR, this was a common misfortune in the Red Army, when the military party control intervened and sometimes replaced the military tactics of the commanders of military units. Many commanders simply did not want to complicate relations with political agencies, and therefore followed their lead.

A second point leads me to examine the effectiveness of the Military Council at Stalingrad with Chuikov’s 62nd Army. While Commissar Mekhlis undermined Chuikov’s leadership in the Winter War, there is a stark contrast with the actions of Commissar Major-General Kuzma Gurov, who supported Vasily Ivanovich’s leadership during those crucial days in Stalingrad. True—I recognize that Mekhlis and Gurov served two entirely different purposes with their presence in the military councils of two separate scenarios. However, along with Chief of Staff Major-General Nikolay Krylov, Chuikov and Gurov—all three leaders of the 62nd Army Military Council— worked seamlessly together and were in one accord with tactics, operations, and orders. And though the days of 1942 were extremely difficult, the 62nd Army triumphed in the end.

***A special thank-you goes to Alexander Bogomolov, Rustem Vakhitov, Alexey Korshunov, Evgeny Privalov, and Valery Vasenyov for your contributions!***


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