Soviet military hero of World War II.
A member of the Communist Party from 1938, Alexander Mikhailovich Vasilevsky was born in the village of Novo-Pokrovka, now Ivanovo Oblast. He graduated from military school in 1914. He served as a junior officer in the tsarist army during World War I. From 1918 to 1931 he commanded a company, then a battalion, then an infantry regiment in the Red Army. From 1931 to 1936 Vasilevsky held executive posts in combat training organs within the People’s Commissariat of Defense and Volga Military District. From 1937 to 1941 he served on the General Staff, from 1941 to 1942 as deputy chief, and from 1942 to 1945 (during World War II or the Great Patriotic War) as Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces and concurrently, deputy people’s commissar of defense of the USSR.
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.
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. 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 (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 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.
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.
Upon instructions from the Supreme Command Headquarters, Vasilevsky helped to elaborate many major strategic plans. In particular, Vasilevsky was among the architects (and participants) of the 1943 Stalingrad offensive. He coordinated actions of several fronts in the Battle of Kursk and the Belorussian and Eastern-Prussian offensive operations. Under Vasilevsky’s leadership, a strategic operation aimed at routing the Japanese Kwantung army was successfully carried out between August and September of 1945.
Increasingly, after the German invasion of June 1941, officers with world-class military skills, who either emerged unscathed by Stalin’s purges or were retrieved from Stalin’s prisons and camps, came to the fore. Vasilevsky was among these men. Although Stalin was loath to trust anyone fully, this innate distrust did not prevent him from tapping the resources of his most talented military strategists during World War II. In the first year of the war, when the USSR was on the defensive, Stalin often made unilateral decisions. However, by the second year, he depended increasingly on his subordinates. As Marshal Vasilevsky has recalled,
He came to have a different attitude toward the General Staff apparatus and front commanders. He was forced to rely constantly on the collective experience of the military. Before deciding on an operational question, Stalin listened to advice and discussed it with his deputy [Zhukov], with leading officers of the General Staff, with the main directorates of the People’s Commissariat of Defense, with the commanders of the fronts, and also with the executives in charge of defense production.
His most astute generals, Vasilevsky and Georgy Zhukov included, learned how to nudge Stalin toward a decision without talking back to him. While serving as a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party between 1952 and 1961, Vasilevsky also held the post of first deputy minister of defense from 1953 to 1957. Twice named Hero of the Soviet Union, he was also twice awarded the military honor, the Order of Victory, and was presented with many other orders, medals, and ceremonial weapons. He retired the following year and died fifteen years later.