Sunday, March 15, 2015

Marshal Vasily Konstantinovich Blyukher, (1890–1938)

Blyukher (a Russian despite his German- sounding name) was a military organizer and leader of the highest caliber and the first Soviet soldier to be awarded the prestigious Order of the Red Banner. But like his contemporary Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, he proved to be too outspoken and independent a force in the military for Stalin to tolerate indefinitely.

Blyukher joined the revolutionary cause as a young factory worker and spent time in prison for organizing a strike. He served in the Russian army during World War I. He joined the Bolsheviks in 1916 and fought with distinction during the civil war, fighting the Whites in the south of Russia and leading his troops in a legendary march across Cossack-held territory in the Ural Mountains. At the end of the war, he was given a post in the Far East to oversee the final expulsion of the Whites and the Japanese from Soviet soil. In 1929, by now commander-in-chief of the Far Eastern Army, he reestablished Soviet control of the Far Eastern Railroad from the Chinese and later led Soviet forces against Japanese incursions into Manchuria, gaining a crucial military victory for the Soviets and laying the foundations of a powerful Soviet fighting force in that region.

In 1937 Blyukher, a man of some political influence who was held in high regard by his peers, was compelled along with other leading military men, as friends and colleagues of an accused (a favorite ploy of Stalin's), to sit on the tribunal that condemned Marshal Tukhachevsky and others to be shot. It is said that Blyukher actually commanded the firing squad at Tukhachevsky's execution. In a grim but typical twist to events at this high point of the Great Terror, even as Blyukher ordered this execution, he was himself being marked by Stalin for the same fate.

Along with most of his staff and commanders, Blyukher was rounded up in a major purge of Stalin's Far Eastern Army in 1938 and allowed a long enough reprieve to travel back to the Far East to command the final military repulsion of the Japanese in July-August at Lake Khasan. On his return in October, Blyukher and his immediate family (including his first wife) were arrested, and he was charged with being a Japanese spy, a favorite accusation at this time. He refused to trade a confession for a ten-year sentence despite long hours of torture in Lefortovo prison. Perhaps this final act of bravery was for him a way of redeeming himself morally for having been a party to the condemnation of his military comrades a year earlier. In any event, it was revealed in the late 1980s that Blyukher had not, in fact, been shot but that he died as a result of the severe beatings he received under torture. His wife was sent to the Gulag for eight years.