|Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Vasilevsky|
|September 30, 1895–December 5, 1977|
|Place of birth||Novaya Golchikha, Russia|
|Place of death||Moscow, USSR|
|Allegiance|| Russian Empire (1915-1917)
Soviet Union (1917-1959)
|Years of service||1915–1959|
|Rank||Marshal of the Soviet Union|
|Commands held||Chief of General Staff,
Minister of Defense
|Battles/wars||World War I,
Russian Civil War,
Great Patriotic War,
Operation August Storm
|Awards||Order of Victory (×2),
Order of Suvorov, First Class
Hero of the Soviet Union (×2),
Order of Lenin (×8),
Order of the Red Banner (×2),
|Other work||Memoirs: The Matter of My Whole Life, 1973.|
Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Vasilevsky (Russian: Алекса́ндр Миха́йлович Василе́вский, September 30 1895 – December 5 1977) was a Soviet military commander, promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1943. He was the Soviet Chief of the General Staff and Deputy Minister of Defense during World War II, as well as Minister of Defense from 1949 to 1953. As the Chief of the General Staff, Vasilevsky was responsible for the planning and coordination of almost all decisive Soviet offensives, from the Stalingrad counteroffensive to the assault on East Prussia and Königsberg.
At the beginning of the October Revolution and the Civil War he was conscripted into the Red Army, taking part in the Polish-Soviet War. After the war, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a regimental commander by 1930. In this position, he showed great skill in the organization and training of his troops. Vasilevsky's talent did not go unnoticed, and in 1931 he was appointed a member of the Directorate of Military Training. In 1937, following Stalin's Great Purge, he was promoted to General Staff officer. At the start of the 1943 Soviet counteroffensive of the Second World War, Vasilevsky coordinated and executed the Red Army's offensive on the upper Don, in the Donbass, Crimea, Belarus and Baltic states, ending the war with the capture of Königsberg in April 1945. In July 1945, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Soviet forces in the Far East, executing Operation August Storm and subsequently accepting Japan's surrender. After the war, he became the Soviet Defense Minister, a position he held until Stalin's death in 1953. With Khrushchev's rise, Vasilevsky started to lose power and was eventually pensioned off.
Vasilevsky was born on September 30 [O.S. September 18], 1895 in Novaya Golchikha in the Kineshma Uezd (now part of the city of Vichuga in the Kostroma Oblast). Vasilevsky was the fourth of eight children. His father, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vasilevsky, was a priest to the nearby St. Nicholas Church. His mother, Nadezhda Ivanovna Sokolova, was the daughter of a priest in the nearby village of Ugletz. Vasilevsky reportedly broke off all contact with his parents after 1926 because of his VKP(b) membership and his military duties in the Red Army; three of his brothers did so as well. However, the family resumed relations in 1940, following Stalin's suggestion that they do so.
According to Vasilevsky himself, his family was extremely poor. His father spent most of his time working to earn money, while the children assisted by working in the fields. In 1897, the family moved to Novopokrovskoe, where his father became a priest to the newly-built Ascension Church, and where Aleksandr began his education in the church school. In 1909, he entered Kostroma seminary, which required considerable financial sacrifice on the part of his parents. The same year, a ministerial directive preventing former seminarists from starting university studies initiated a nationwide seminarist movement, with classes stopping in most Russian seminaries. Vasilevsky, among others, was expelled from Kostroma, and only returned several months later, after the seminarists' demands had been satisfied.
After completing his studies in the seminary and spending a few years working as a teacher, Vasilevsky intended to become an agronomist or a surveyor, but the outbreak of the First World War changed his plans. According to his own words, he was "overwhelmed with patriotic feelings," deciding to become a soldier instead. Vasilevsky took his exams in January 1915 and entered the Alexander Military Law Academy in February. As he recalls, "I did not decide to become an officer to start a military career. I still wanted to be an agronomist and work in some remote corner of Russia after the war. I could not suppose that my country would change, and I would." After four months of courses that he later considered to be completely outdated, theoretical, and inappropriate for modern warfare, he was sent to the front with the rank of praporshchik (the highest non-commissioned rank in the Russian infantry) in May 1915.
From June to September, Vasilevsky was assigned to a series of reserve regiments, finally arriving at the front in September as a half-company commander (polurotny) in the 409th Novokhopersky regiment, 109th division, 9th Army. In the spring of 1916, Vasilevsky took command of a company, which eventually became one of the most recognized in the regiment. In May 1916, he led his men during the Brusilov offensive, becoming a battalion commander after heavy casualties among officers, and gaining the rank of captain by age 22.
In November 1917, just after the Russian Revolution, Vasilevsky decided to end his military career. As he wrote in his memoirs, "There was a time when I led soldiers to battle, thinking I was doing my duty as a Russian patriot. However, I understood that we have been cheated, that people needed peace … Therefore, my military career had to end. With no remorse, I could go back to my favorite occupation, working in the field." He travelled from Romania, where his unit was deployed in 1917, back to his own village.
In December 1917, while back at home, Vasilevsky learned that the men of the 409th regiment, which had been relocated to Ukraine, had elected him as their commander (at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, commanders were elected by their own men). However, the local military authorities recommended that he decline the proposal because of the heavy fighting taking place in Ukraine between pro-Soviet forces and the pro-independence Ukrainian government (the Central Rada). He followed this advice and became a drill instructor in his own Kineshma uezd. He retired in September 1918, becoming a school teacher in the Tula Oblast.
In April 1919, Vasilevsky was again conscripted into the Red Army and sent to command a company fighting against peasant uprisings and assisting in the emergency Soviet policy of prodrazvyorstka, which required peasants to surrender agricultural surplus for a fixed price. Later that year, Vasilevsky took command of a new reserve battalion, and, in October 1919, of a regiment. However, his regiment never took part in the battles of the Russian Civil War, as Denikin's troops never got close to Tula. In December 1919, Vasilevsky was sent to the Western front as a deputy regimental commander, participating in the Polish-Soviet War.
As deputy regimental commander of the 427th regiment, 32nd brigade, 11th division, Vasilevsky participated at the battle of Berezina, pulling back as the Polish forces had been slowly but steadily advancing eastward, and in the subsequent counterattack that started on May 14, 1920, breaking through Polish lines before being stopped by cavalry counterattacks. Later, starting from July 4, 1920, he took part at the Soviet offensive towards Wilno, advancing to Neman river despite heavy Polish resistance and German fortifications erected in the region during World War I. Vasilevsky's regiment arrived near Wilno by mid-July and stayed there on a garrison duty until the Treaty of Riga.
After the Treaty of Riga, Vasilevsky fought against remaining white forces and peasant uprisings in Belarus and in the Smolensk Oblast until August 1921. By 1930, he had served as the regimental commander of the 142nd, 143rd, and 144th rifle regiments, where he showed great skill in the organization and training of his troops. In 1928, he graduated from the Vystrel regimental commander's course. During these years, Vasilevsky established friendships with higher commanders and Party members, including Kliment Voroshilov, Vladimir Triandafillov and Boris Shaposhnikov. Shaposhnikov, in particular, would become Vasilevsky's protector until the former's death in 1945. Vasilevsky's connections and good performance earned him an appointment to the Directorate of Military Training in 1931.
While at the Directorate of Military Training, Vasilevsky supervised the Red Army's training and worked on military manuals and field books. He also met several senior military commanders, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Georgy Zhukov, then the Deputy Cavalry Inspector of the Red Army. Zhukov would later characterize Vasilevsky as "a man who knew his job as he spent a long time commanding a regiment and who earned great respect from everybody." In 1934, Vasilevsky was appointed to be the Senior Military Training Supervisor of the Volga Military District (Privolzhsky voyenny okrug). In 1937, he entered the Academy of the General Staff, where he studied important aspects of military strategy and other topics under experienced generals, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky.
By mid-1937, Stalin's Great Purge eliminated a significant number of senior military commanders, vacating a number of positions on the General Staff. To his amazement, Vasilevsky was appointed to the General Staff in October 1937 and held "responsible for operational training of senior officers." In 1938, he was made a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (a sine qua non condition for a successful career in the Soviet Union); in 1939, he was appointed Deputy Commander of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff, while holding the rank of divisional commander. While in this position he and Shaposhnikov were responsible for the planning of the Winter War, and after the Moscow peace treaty, for setting the demarcation line with Finland.
As a senior officer, Vasilevsky met frequently with Joseph Stalin. During one of these meetings, Stalin asked Vasilevsky about his family. Since Vasilevsky's father was a priest and thus a potential "enemy of the people," Vasilevsky said that he had ended his relationship with them in 1926. Stalin, surprised, suggested that he reestablish his family ties at once, and help his parents with whatever needs they might have.
By June 1941, Vasilevsky was working around the clock in his General Staff office. On June 22, 1941, he learned of the German bombing of several important military and civilian objectives, starting the Great Patriotic War (as the Soviets called World War II). In August 1941, Vasilevsky was appointed Commander of Operations, Directorate of the General Staff and Deputy Chief of the General Staff, making him one of the key figures in the Soviet military leadership. At the end of September 1941, Vasilevsky gave a speech before the General Staff, describing the situation as extremely difficult, but pointing out that the northern part of the front was holding, that Leningrad still offered resistance, and that such a situation would potentially allow some reserves to be gathered in the northern part of the front.
In October 1941, the situation at the front was becoming critical, with German forces advancing towards Moscow during Operation Typhoon. As a representative of the Soviet General Staff (______ or Stavka), Vasilevsky was sent to the Western Front to coordinate the defense and guarantee a flow of supplies and men towards the region of Mozhaisk, where Soviet forces were attempting to contain the German advance. During heavy fighting near the outskirts of Moscow, Vasilevsky spent all of his available time both in the Stavka and on the front line trying to coordinate the three fronts committed to Moscow's defense. When most of the General Staff (including its chief Marshal Shaposhnikov) was evacuated from Moscow, Vasilevsky remained in the city as liaison between the Moscow Staff and the evacuated members of the General Staff. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev described Vasilevsky as an "able specialist" even so early in the war. On October 28, 1941, Vasilevsky was promoted to Lieutenant General.
The Battle of Moscow was a very difficult period in Vasilevsky's life, with the Wehrmacht approaching close enough to the city for German officers to make out some of Moscow's buildings through their field glasses. As he recalls, his workday often ended at 4:00 a.m. Moreover, with Marshal Shaposhnikov having fallen ill, Vasilevsky had to make important decisions by himself. On October 29, 1941, a bomb exploded in the courtyard of the General Staff. Vasilevsky was slightly wounded but continued working. The kitchen was damaged by the explosion, and the General Staff was relocated underground without hot food. Nevertheless, the Staff continued to function. In December 1941, Vasilevsky coordinated the Moscow counteroffensive, and by early 1942, the general counteroffensive in the Moscow and Rostov directions, further motivated in his work by the return of his evacuated family to Moscow. In April 1942, he coordinated the unsuccessful elimination of the Demyansk pocket, the encirclement of the German 2nd Army Corps near Leningrad. On April 24, with Shaposhnikov seriously ill again, Vasilevsky was appointed as acting Chief of Staff and promoted to Colonel General on April 26.
In May 1942 one of the most controversial episodes in Vasilevsky's career occurred: the Second Battle of Kharkov, a failed counteroffensive that led to a stinging Red Army defeat, and ultimately to a successful German offensive (Operation Blue) in the south. After repelling the enemy from Moscow, Soviet morale was high and Stalin was determined to launch another general counteroffensive during the summer. However, Vasilevsky recognized that "the reality was more harsh than that." Following Stalin's orders, the Kharkov offensive was launched on May 12, 1942. When the threat of encirclement became obvious, Vasilevsky and Zhukov asked for permission to withdraw the advancing Soviet forces. Stalin refused, leading to the encirclement of the Red Army forces and a total defeat. In his memoirs, Khrushchev accused Vasilevsky of being too passive and indecisive, as well as being unable to defend his point of view in front of Stalin during that particular operation. He wrote, "It was my view that the catastrophe. . . . could have been avoided if Vasilevsky had taken the position he should have. He could have taken a different position. . . . but he didn't do that, and as a result, in my view, he had a hand in the destruction of thousands of Red Army fighters in the Kharkov campaign."
In June 1942, Vasilevsky was briefly sent to Leningrad to coordinate an attempt to break the encirclement of the 2nd Shock Army led by General Vlasov. On June 26, 1942 Vasilevsky was appointed Chief of the General Staff, and, in October 1942, Deputy Minister of Defense. He was now one of the few people responsible for the global planning of Soviet offensives. Starting from July 23, 1942, Vasilevsky was a Stavka representative on the Stalingrad front, which he correctly anticipated as the main axis of attack.
The Battle of Stalingrad was another difficult period in Vasilevsky's life. Sent with Zhukov to the Stalingrad Front, he tried to coordinate the defenses of Stalingrad with radio links working intermittently, at best. On September 12, 1942, during a meeting with Stalin, Vasilevsky and Zhukov presented their plan for the Stalingrad counteroffensive after an all-night brainstorming session. Two months later, on November 19, with Stalingrad still unconquered, Operation Uranus was launched. Since Zhukov had been sent to near Rzhev to execute Operation Mars (the Rzhev counteroffensive), Vasilevsky remained near Stalingrad to coordinate the double-pincer attack that ultimately led to the German defeat and annihilation of the armies entrapped in the cauldron, all a result of the plan he had presented to Stalin on December 9. This plan sparked some debate between Vasilevsky and Rokossovsky, who wanted an additional army for clearing Stalingrad, which Rokossovsky continued to mention to Vasilevsky even years after the war. The army in question was Rodion Malinovsky's 2nd Guards' which Vasilevsky committed against a dangerous German counter-attack launched from Kotelnikovo by the 57th Panzer corps and designed to deblockade the Stalingrad pocket. This attack, hitherto, had enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority.
In January 1943, Vasilevsky coordinated the offensives on the upper Don near Voronezh and Ostrogozhsk, leading to decisive encirclements of several Axis divisions. In mid-January, Vasilevsky was promoted to General of the Army and only 29 days later, on February 16, 1943, to Marshal of the Soviet Union.
In March 1943, after the creation of the Kursk salient and the failure of the third battle of Kharkov, Stalin and the Stavka had to decide whether the offensive should be resumed despite this setback, or whether it was better to adopt a defensive stance. Vasilevsky and Zhukov managed to persuade Stalin that it was necessary to halt the offensive for now, and wait for the initiative from the Wehrmacht. When it became clear that the supposed German offensive was postponed and would no longer take place in May 1943 as expected, Vasilevsky successfully argued that they should continue to wait for the Wehrmacht to attack, rather than making a preemptive strike as Khrushchev wanted. When the Battle of Kursk finally started on July 4, 1943, Vasilevsky was responsible for the coordination of the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts. After the German failure at Kursk and the start of the general counteroffensive on the left bank of the Dnieper, Vasilevsky planned and executed offensive operations in the Donbass region. Later that year, he developed and executed the clearing of Nazi forces from Crimea.
At the beginning of 1944, Vasilevsky coordinated the Soviet offensive on the right bank of the Dnieper River, leading to a decisive victory in eastern Ukraine. On April 10, 1944, the day Odessa was retaken, Vasilevsky was presented with the Order of Victory, only the second ever awarded (the first having been awarded to Zhukov). Vasilevsky's car rolled over a mine during an inspection of Sevastopol after the fighting ended on May 10, 1944. He received a head wound, cut by flying glass, and was evacuated to Moscow for recovery.
During Operation Bagration, the general counteroffensive in Belarus, Vasilevsky coordinated the offensives of the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts. When Soviet forces entered the Baltic states, Vasilevsky assumed complete responsibility for all the Baltic fronts, discarding the 3rd Belorussian. On July 29, 1944, he was made Hero of the Soviet Union for his military successes. In February 1945, Vasilevsky was again appointed commander of 3rd Belorussian Front to lead the East Prussian Operation, leaving the post of General Chief of Staff to Aleksei Antonov. As a front commander, Vasilevsky led the East Prussian operation and organized the assaults on Königsberg and Pillau. He also negotiated the surrender of the Königsberg garrison with its commander, Otto Lasch. After the war, Lasch claimed that Vasilevsky did not respect the guarantees made during the city's capitulation. Indeed, Vasilevsky promised that German soldiers would not be executed, that prisoners, civilians and the wounded would be treated decently, and that all prisoners would return to Germany after the end of the war. Instead, Lasch remained in prison for 10 years and returned to Germany only in 1955, as did many of the Wehrmacht soldiers and officers, while all German population was expelled from Eastern Prussia. For the brilliant successes at Königsberg and in Eastern Prussia, Vasilevsky was awarded his second Order of Victory.
During the 1944 summer offensive, Stalin announced that he would appoint Vasilevsky Commander-in-Chief of Soviet Forces in the Far East once the war against Germany was over. Vasilevsky started drafting the war plan for Japan by late 1944 and began full-time preparation by April 27, 1945. In June 1945, Stalin approved his plan. Vasilevsky then received the appointment of Commander-in-Chief of Soviet Forces in the Far East and flew to Chita to execute the plan.
During the preparation phase, Vasilevsky further rehearsed the offensive with his army commanders and directed the start of Operation August Storm, also known as the Battle of Manchuria. In 24 days, from August 9 to September 2, 1945, the Japanese armies in Manchukuo were defeated, with just 37,000 casualties out of 1,600,000 troops on the Soviet side. For his success in this operation, Vasilevsky was awarded his second Hero of the Soviet Union decoration on September 8.
Between 1946 and 1949, Vasilevsky remained Chief of Staff, then became Defense Minister from 1949 to 1953. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Vasilevsky fell from grace and was replaced by Bulganin, although he remained deputy Defense minister. In 1956, he was appointed Deputy Defense Minister of Military Science, a secondary position with no real military power. Vasilevsky would occupy this position for only one year before being pensioned off by Khrushchev, thus becoming a victim of the bloodless purge that also saw the end of Zhukov's career. In 1959, he was appointed General Inspector of the Ministry of Defense, an honorary puppet position. In 1973, he published his memoirs, The Matter of My Whole Life. Aleksandr Vasilevsky died on December 5, 1977. His body was cremated and his ashes immured in the Kremlin wall.
Vasilevsky was regarded by his peers as a kind and soft military commander. General Shtemenko, a member of the General Staff during the war, described Vasilevsky as a brilliant, yet modest officer with outstanding experience in staff work. Shtemenko pointed out Vasilevsky's prodigious talent for strategic and operational planning. Vasilevsky also showed his respect for subordinates and demonstrated an acute sense of diplomacy and politeness, which Stalin appreciated. As a result, Vasilevsky enjoyed almost unlimited trust from Stalin. Several years before the war, Zhukov described Vasilevsky as "a man who knew his job as he spent a long time commanding a regiment and who earned great respect from everybody." During the war, Zhukov described Vasilevsky as an able commander, enjoying exceptional trust from Stalin, and able to persuade him even during heated discussions. Vasilevsky never mentioned his awards (including the two orders of Victory) in his memoirs, attesting to his modesty.
This being said, Vasilevsky's actions and personality were sometimes the object of dispute, while less controversial than those of Zhukov. In particular, Nikita Khrushchev defined Vasilevsky in his memoirs as a passive commander completely under the control of Stalin, and blamed him for the Kharkov failure in Spring 1942. Among Vasilevsky's strongest critics was Rokossovsky, who criticized Vasilevsky's decisions during the Stalingrad counteroffensive, especially his refusal to commit the 2nd Army to the annihilation of the encircled German divisions, and for general interference with his own work. Rokossovsky even wrote in his memoirs: "I do not even understand what role could Zhukov and Vasilevsky play on Stalingrad front.". In fairness to Vasilevsky it needs noting that he only diverted the 2nd army from the assault on the Stalingrad pocket in order to commit it against a dangerous German counter-attack from Kotelnikovo, designed to deblockade the pocket, which was enjoying great numerical superiority. Vasilevsky, it seems, was dismayed by Rokossovsky's opposition to the transfer.
On the other hand, the controversial historian Victor Suvorov held up Vasilevsky over Zhukov. According to him, Vasilevsky was the only officer responsible for the successful planning and execution of the Soviet counteroffensive at Stalingrad, and Zhukov played no role whatsoever in it. He claimed that Vasilevsky was the best Soviet military commander and that Soviet victory was mainly due to his actions as the Chief of Staff. According to Suvorov, Zhukov and the Soviet propaganda machine tried, after the war, to reduce the role of the General Staff (and thus Vasilevsky's importance) and to increase the role of the Party and Zhukov.
A more balanced post-1991 view on Vasilevsky was elaborated by Mezhiritzky in his book, Reading Marshal Zhukov. Mezhiritzky points out Vasilevsky's timidity and his inability to defend his opinions before Stalin. Reportedly, Vasilevsky was appointed to such high military positions because he was easy to manage. However, Mezhiritzky recognizes Vasilevsky's intelligence and assumes that Vasilevsky was indeed the main author of the Stalingrad counteroffensive. He also points out that Vasilevsky and Zhukov probably deliberately under-reported the estimated strength of the 6th Army in order to have Stalin's approval for that risky operation.
In his memoirs, Vasilevsky recalls Stalin's astonishment when, at a ceremony taking place in the Kremlin on December 4, 1941, the Soviet leader saw just a single Order of the Red Star and a medal on Vasilevsky's uniform. However, Vasilevsky eventually became one of the most decorated commanders in Soviet history.
Vasilevsky was awarded the Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union twice for operations on the German and Japanese fronts. He was awarded two Orders of Victory for his successes in Crimea and Prussia (an achievement matched only by Zhukov and Stalin). During his career, he was awarded eight Orders of Lenin (several of them after the war), the Order of the October Revolution when it was created in 1967, two Orders of the Red Banner, a first class Order of Suvorov for his operations in Ukraine and Crimea, and his first decoration, an Order of the Red Star, earned in 1940 for his brilliant staff work during the Winter War. Finally, he was awarded a third class Order for Service to the Homeland as recognition for his entire military career when this order was created in 1974, just three years before Vasilevsky's death.
Vasilevsky was also awarded 14 medals. For his participation in various campaigns, he was awarded the Defense of Leningrad, Defense of Moscow, Defense of Stalingrad and Capture of Königsberg medals. As with all Soviet soldiers who took part in the war with Germany and Japan, he was awarded the Medal For the Victory Over Germany and the Medal For the Victory Over Japan. He also received several commemorative medals, such as Twenty, Thirty, Forty, and Fifty Years Since the Creation of the Soviet Armed Forces medals, Twenty and Thirty Years Since the Victory in the Great Patriotic War medals, the Eight Hundredth Anniversary of Moscow medal (awarded in 1947 for his participation in the battle of Moscow) and the Hundredth Birthday of Lenin medal. In addition to Soviet orders and medals, Vasilevsky was awarded several foreign decorations such as the Polish Virtuti Militari Order from the Polish communist government.
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