Epaulettes Back on Uniforms

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

In the dark days leading up to the Battle of Stalingrad, British embassy staff were confounded to receive a massive order for gold braid from the Soviet government. Perhaps that would hold off the tanks? Frivolous though it seemed, the request presaged a campaign to revitalize military morale, beginning with the officer corps. Massacred in the purges of 1938-1939, battered by the German onslaught of 1941, and undermined since the Revolution by the hated political commissars, Soviet officers received not only lavish braid for their parade uniforms, they received their pride and authority back.

Changes came in fits and starts. Although the institution of commissar had been abolished in 1940, it was reinstated during the post-invasion panic of 1941, when military loyalty came under doubt. The armed forces were still led by Stalin’s cronies, the Civil War heroes Voroshilov and Budennyi, whose refusal to heed younger professionals left the Soviet Army unprepared for blitzkrieg. In 1942 Aleksandr Korneichuk, a journalist, playwright and mouthpiece for high government circles, had his Front, a thinly veiled attack on the old civil war horses, produced in Moscow’s Red Army Theater. The prestigious stage, and the fact that the script was printed in Pravda, were unmistakable signs of a shift. Elevation of the brilliant commander Georgii Zhukov to deputy commander of Soviet armed forces in August 1942, now outranked only by Stalin, was another sign of professional ascendancy. From his new post, Zhukov oversaw the defense of Stalingrad and the great counteroffensive that crushed the Germans, and he soon played an important role in the Battle of Kursk. Morale amongst officers soared, as well as among enlisted men, who gained confidence that their commanders were as good as those of the Germans.

Revered ancestors included Generalissimo Aleksandr Suvorov, conqueror of Poles, Turks, and equal to Napoleon in Italy, whose title Stalin himself assumed in 1943; and Mikhail Kutuzov, who had used the mud and winter to defeat Napoleon outside Moscow, just as Stalin defeated the Germans at Stalingrad. In gratitude for the hope they offered during the dark early days of war, these military leaders were honored in plays, movies, biographies and even hagiographies. Military orders of great prestige were founded in their honor. With gold braid on their shoulders, and new military orders on their breasts, officers recovered so much prestige as to form a separate caste. Aided by the creation of the Suvorov Institutes, military academies open only to the sons of fallen officers, and of special stores stocking prized consumer items, the military ensured the well-being of its officers. The arrangement served the country well until victory in 1945 and beyond. Only after the war did Stalin, fearful that Zhukov (and by implication the military) might rival his own prestige, demote him to command of the Odessa military district.

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