This commander didn't dazzle with his military leadership skills. But, his fanatical loyalty to Stalin ensured his high position in the Soviet state.
"And the first marshal will lead us into battle!" went a popular Soviet song about Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov. Formally, he was not the first Marshal of the Soviet Union, since four other military commanders had also been awarded this high military rank at the same time - on November 20, 1935. Voroshilov, however, took a special place in the popular imagination, enjoying a status that was an order of magnitude higher than that of his colleagues.
Kliment Yefremovich did, indeed, have much greater influence than other military commanders. From 1925, he was in charge of the country's defense department, first as People's Commissar (Narkom) for Military and Navy Affairs of the USSR and, from 1934, as People's Commissar for Defense.
Moreover, since the Civil War, Voroshilov had been a close friend and associate of the "Great Leader and Teacher" Joseph Stalin. The Soviet leader highly valued Kliment Yefremovich's promptness in obeying orders and personal loyalty.
Voroshilov at a meeting with young Communist League members,
Stalin's protection greatly helped Voroshilov in the second half of the 1930s, when the latter was in dispute with his deputy, the extremely ambitious and power-seeking marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The two military leaders had different visions of how to improve the country's defense capabilities and, since each had their own supporters, there was an undisguised split in the Soviet military and political leadership.
In the end, Stalin supported his old friend. In 1937, the 'Red Napoleon' Tukhachevsky and several other military leaders who shared his ideas were arrested, accused of plotting a coup and, shortly afterwards, executed.
Stalin and Voroshilov wearing ethnic costumes presented to them by delegates from a conference of advanced collective farmers of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
In gratitude, Voroshilov took an active part in the mass political repressions against Red Army commanders, which started in the country soon afterwards. He was unwavering when sending lists of commanders to be arrested to the NKVD bodies, issuing instructions that "all the scum" should be rounded up straightaway. When a friend, Komandarm 1st rank (Commanding Officer of the Army 1st class) Iona Yakir, was arrested and wrote to the People's Commissar to convince him of his innocence, the latter proclaimed: "I doubt the honesty of a dishonest man."
Voroshilov personally signed 185 execution lists. By Spring 1939, only two of the original five Marshals of the Soviet Union were still alive and one of them was Kliment Yefremovich.
Leading Soviet military commanders in the 1930s.
State Archives of Film, Video & Photo Records, Krasnogorsk/russiainphoto.ru
With Voroshilov at the head of the People's Commissariat for Defense, the Red Army was fully switched from an outdated territorial-militia principle of recruitment to a system based on regular cadres and it received ongoing supplies of modern weapons. In addition, mass training of the officer corps was launched, a system of pre-conscription military training of young people was put into effect and a big leap forward was achieved in the development of the navy and airborne forces.
The grueling and bloody 1939-1940 Winter War against Finland, however, demonstrated that the Soviet armed forces were not such a formidable force as they wanted people to believe. Colossal problems came to light with the command and control of troops, supply logistics, military training and the operational coordination of units and subunits. The level of training of the officer corps proved inadequate and "major neglect came to light" in the People's Commissariat for Defense itself.
Voroshilov during military drills.
Kliment Yefremovich's ability to run the Defense Commissariat effectively was frequently questioned by other military commanders. For instance, in addition to Tukhachevsky, he was also heavily criticized by marshal Georgy Zhukov.
"It must be said that Voroshilov, the people's commissar [for defense] at that time, was insufficiently competent for the role. He remained a dilettante in military matters to the end and was never deeply or seriously versed in them," the famous commander claimed.
Kliment Voroshilov welcomes the participants of the military parade.
The feeble performance of Soviet troops in the Winter War also compelled Stalin to revise his attitude to the marshal. In May 1940, Kliment Yefremovich was removed from his post, which he had held for almost 15 years.
Nevertheless, the 'Father of Nations' had no intention of removing his loyal favorite from power. Voroshilov took up the post of chairman of the Defense Committee under the USSR Council of People's Commissars, which oversaw the most important matters to do with the defense capability of the state.
Marshal Kliment Voroshilov.
After the start of the war against Nazi Germany, Stalin gave Kliment Yefremovich a chance to demonstrate his worth as a military leader, but his command of the troops of the Northwestern Direction and the Leningrad Front ended up with enemy troops reaching the immediate approaches to the city. Subsequently, the marshal regularly visited the fronts as a representative of the Supreme High Command HQ and assisted in preparations for military operations, but he was no longer involved in commanding troops directly.
Voroshilov was much more effective in the Fall of 1942 in the post of commander-in-chief of the partisan movement. Thanks to his efforts, an effective system for commanding partisan forces was instituted and many problems to do with personnel training, providing back-up, delivering supplies to detachments and so on were resolved. Subsequently, he headed the Trophy Committee and was a participant in the Tehran Conference.
Voroshilov and Nikita Khrushchev in Crimea.
The devoted Voroshilov remained at the Great Leader's side right until the latter's death in 1953, but he did not lose his political clout, even after his sponsor was no longer on the scene. Four years later, he took the side of the so-called anti-party group in an attempt to remove Nikita Khrushchev from office.
The attempt failed, but Kliment Yefremovich was lucky. As an isolated figure, the aging marshal did not present any danger to Khrushchev, who did not seek his expulsion from the Communist Party as had happened with the other members of the defeated group. Shortly afterwards, Voroshilov stepped aside and went into retirement, devoting the final years of his life to writing his memoirs.
Marshal of the Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov.