Soviet military commander and marshal of the Soviet Union (1940). Semen Timoshenko was born in Odessa Province of peasant origins. Conscripted at the outbreak of World War I, he served through the conflict as a machine gunner, emerging as a junior officer.
When the czarist army collapsed, Timoshenko returned to Odessa, joining the Red Guards in early 1918 and fighting against the Germans and anti-Soviet forces in the Kuban and Crimea before becoming Cavalry Brigade Commander in the Tenth Army in November, defending Tsaritsyn. Becoming part of Stalin’s “Tsaritsyny” faction, from June 1919, he served as divisional commander in Semen Budennyi’s 1st Cavalry Army, fighting Anton Denikin, Peter Wrangel’, and Poland until 1920.
Timoshenko completed Officers’ Higher Academy Courses (1922, 1927) and graduated from the Lenin Military- Political Academy (1930). During the purges, Stalin dispatched him to occupy numerous short-term command posts, replacing purged commanders.
After commanding on the Ukrainian front in occupied Poland (1939), Timoshenko led the Soviet assault on the Mannerheim Line during the Russo-Finnish War (1939– 1940), achieving victory with appalling losses. Witnessing here the adverse effect of the military purges, from May 1940, as defense commissar, he attempted to strengthen Soviet border defenses against Germany, working with Georgy Zhukov, but Stalin’s vacillations and preparations for the wrong war led to the disastrous Soviet performances during the initial German invasion.
The humiliation in the Winter War prompted reassessment at the highest level. In the middle of April 1940 a special session of the Central Committee and the Main Military Council met to consider steps to improve Soviet fighting power. Voroshilov, who had been a dominant voice as Defence Commissar for fifteen years, was subjected to a hostile cross-examination. Stalin dismissed what he called ‘the cult of admiration for civil war experience’, and finally sacked his civil war comrade, the man Khrushchev regarded as ‘the biggest bag of shit in the army’. In his place Stalin appointed Timoshenko, who had brought the Finnish fiasco to a satisfactory close. Timoshenko’s career had followed the conventional Soviet path. A former peasant labourer, he rose to become an NCO during the First World War, joined the Red Army in 1918, the Communist Party in 1919. He proved an able organizer and was regarded as politically reliable. In 1940 he was commander of the Kiev military district, the key area for the defence of the Soviet frontier. He was summoned to the Defence Commissariat as a reformer.
He set about his task with the urgency it deserved. Where Voroshilov had persisted in viewing the army as a branch of politics, as a revolutionary force, Timoshenko was determined to take up the torch lit by Tukhachevsky before his fall and to turn the Red Army into a professional force. He enjoyed wide support from other commanders, who wanted to abandon the political supervision of the army by Party commissars which Voroshilov had reintroduced in 1937. The ambition was to rely more on military expertise. General Kirill Meretskov, who had commanded an army against Finland, complained openly at a meeting in May 1940 about the sterility produced by political control:
Our people are afraid to say anything directly, they are afraid to spoil relations and get in uncomfortable situations and are fearful to speak the truth.
It was evidence of the changing mood in the Party that Meretskov not only survived this outspoken challenge to Party interference, but was promoted to chief of staff in August. On the twelfth of that month Timoshenko, with Stalin’s approval, reinstituted unitary command, returning the initiative to the military.
This was the most important of the reforms introduced in the summer of 1940, but not the only one. Timoshenko restructured the Defence Commissariat along functional lines; he resurrected the old officer corps. Over 1,000 were promoted to admiral or general, and traditional uniforms were reinstated. The right of junior officers to criticize their superiors was abolished. A tough new code of discipline was introduced, as was a new training regime that cut down on political propaganda, under the slogan ‘Teach the troops what they require in war, and only that.’ Training was altered to reflect more closely the arduous conditions of combat learned in Finland. At the expense of training for open, mobile warfare, every effort was now made to prepare the troops to attack fixed defences. Progress, however, was slow. At the end of the year Meretskov told the annual conference of the Defence Commissariat that training was still inadequate and blamed the failures on a lack of ‘military professionalism’.
The reforms were intended to turn the Red Army and Navy into effective fighting forces, which in 1940 they were not. Timoshenko did not question the wider military strategy adopted in 1939 but concentrated his effort on producing commanders and troops who could carry it out. Like most senior officers, he accepted that modern war would be fought in two stages, a preliminary period following a declaration of war in which the two sides used a screen of forces in forward positions to disrupt the mobilization and deployment of the enemy’s main forces, and a second in which the main forces, concentrated behind the first echelon, would mount a crushing offensive. This strategic outlook emphasized the offensive posture of Soviet forces, which the Finnish war had exposed as flawed. It also flew in the face of the evidence of the German campaign in Poland. Soviet commanders did not draw the obvious lesson that modern mechanized armies could deploy at once with remarkable striking power, without any preliminary skirmishing.
Timoshenko became chairman of the Soviet military command (Stavka) (June–July 1941), commanded the Western Sector (July–September 1941), and directed the battle for Smolensk, crucially delaying the German Center Group. As Southwestern Sector commander (September 1941–May 1942), Timoshenko brilliantly counterattacked at Rostov (November 1941) but was responsible for the Kharkov encirclement (May 1942), where 240,000 Russians were taken prisoner. Never recovering from this debacle, he received only minor postings for the rest of the war, only escaping execution because of his good relations with Stalin.
After the war, Timoshenko again held minor postings, commanding Baranovich, South Ural, and Belorussia Military Districts. He was inspector general of the Defense Ministry from 1960 and chairman of the Soviet War Veterans Committee from 1961. He died in Moscow, neither the best nor the worst, but rather typical of Stalin’s generals.