Should a small but victorious war be waged? How could it even be done if the armed forces is constantly shrinking and will soon be reduced to the size of the army of some tribe? Or perhaps stage a grandiose show, such as a training with missile launches and airborne landing? But then again, there are not enough troops for any large-scale performance. Second, the missiles have been reduced to a minimum. Worse still, there is no money in the budget for anything grand.
At this point, after many sleepless hours the right idea finally dawned on him. “If I can’t equal Guderian or Montgomery, I will at least put myself next to Blyukher!” Dmytro Salamatin thought as he came up with a strategic defence initiative in the form of Cabinet of Ministers regulation “On Making Amendments to the List of Economic Activities Permitted to Military Units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. He signed this draft regulation and sent it out to 11 ministers and government bodies.
The document is truly monumental. In it, Salamatin proposes adding 78 types of economic activities to those the Ukrainian armed forces are already allowed to engage in. The new additions include breeding dairy cattle, other cattle, bison, horses and “other animals of the family Equidae (zebras?), domestic fowl, pigs, sheep and goats”, as well as growing “berries, nuts and other fruit”. Moreover, the army would grow crops, including industrial crops (but not rice, for some reason), fish in freshwater (why not in the sea?) and engage in decorative horticulture. Now, where there is agricultural production, there is commerce. Thus, army units will be tasked with selling grain, processed tobacco and mixed fodder. Add to this the production of peat, the manufacture of confectioneries, working outfits and block parquet (and the sale of all this, of course), wholesale trade in livestock and retail trade in alcohol beverages and foodstuffs and, to top it all, the restaurant business. Now the positions of “Salamatin’s strategic plan” are all filled. I almost forgot to mention “the production of pharmaceutical materials and drugs” in combination with the “organisation of burials and provision of accessory services” and the mysterious “activity to secure physical comfort”.
No doubt, anyone who reads the complete “Salamatin list” will savour linguistic morsels like the above-mentioned “berries, nuts and other fruit”. But the important thing is not the bureaucratese but what is hidden under it. It conceals an attempt of Ukraine’s Minister of Defence to become another Vasily Blyukher by putting into life the designs put forward by the Red Army marshal.
When he was put in command of the Special Eastern Army in 1929, Blyukher set up a “farming corps” made up of 60,000 men (a third of his army’s total). The corps was to “cultivate the rich virgin and fallow soil and provide the population and the army with food supplies”. Other army units were also economically active, in fact spending much more time on economic activities than on military training. History is silent on the question of how big the harvests were and how many piglets were farrowed by sows kept by Blyukher's troops, but we do know what it led to when serious conflicts erupted with the Japanese troops who had occupied Manchuria.
For example, on 1 February 1936, the Soviet command decided to dispatch a tank unit to a point on the border where the situation had become tense in order to show to the Japanese that the border was locked. The best tanks (top-of-the-line T-26s) and the best crews were picked for the mission. As a result, the tanks covered 150 kilometres in 56 hours; all of them repeatedly broke down on the way; only four out of six reached their destination, but even on these “the weapons were poorly prepared” (that is, they were evidently unable to fire).
In late July and early August 1938, tens of thousands of infantry and hundreds of tanks and planes engaged in real battles, not skirmishes, near Lake Khasan. At this point, the real value of Blyukher’s troops became apparent. After the battles, People’s Commissar for Defence Kliment Voroshylov issued Order No. 0040 which said: “The troops came out to the border on battle alarm absolutely unprepared. … In many cases, entire artillery batteries found themselves on the front line without shells; spare barrels for machine guns were not selected in advance; guns sights were ill-adjusted; and many fighters and even one rifle unit of the 32nd Division came to the front line without any guns or gas masks whatsoever. Despite huge quantities of stocks, many soldiers were sent into battle in threadbare shoes, semi-barefoot, and a number of Red Army men did not have overcoats.” Moreover, Voroshylov pointed out the “unacceptably criminal reallocation of soldiers from military units to all kinds of extraneous work.” Brigade Commissar Telegin, a participant in the events, noted the same, albeit without euphemisms: “We didn’t do military training, because we have turned into farming commanders. We are procuring hay, firewood and vegetables; we are doing construction work; we are washing dirty linen…”
Did the organisation of the Red Army become different in any essential aspect between 1938 and 1941? Despite the menacing orders of two commanders – the old Voroshylov and the new Semyon Tymoshenko – few things changed. As before, a mere 0.3-0.4 per cent of the military budget went to military training, which was half of what was being spent on political training and maintaining morale. Was it then surprising that the Red Army showed it was unable (and not too willing) to fight on 22 June 1941?
Nevertheless, the USSR kept a large army and colossal reserves of military equipment and ammunition. It had vast human reserves, and its generous allies kept providing it with a constant flow of lend-lease
And what would the agricultural and trade forces of Ukraine do today in case of a conflict with some unrecognised quasi-state in the Black Sea region? In a couple years, they will hardly outsize Blyukher’s “farming corps”. What will they do? Saddle horses, zebras and bison? Take up “products made out of cork, straw and weaving plants”? Drink a shot or two of the “basic pharmaceutical products” and charge ahead with a song?
I am afraid that their potential enemy would not be able to adequately appreciate this high level of military training.
But a man can go to great lengths to put himself next to an outstanding Soviet military commander!
In addition to the “farming corps” Blyukher’s know-how included a very efficient and cheap quartering method – foxholes. His men would dig holes in the clay ground, set up stoves and put up chimneys for ventilation, and this was where soldiers and their commanders lived. If an alarm was sounded, they would sprint from their holes as squirrels to line up nicely in one place. (General Chistiakov wrote in his memoirs that nearly an entire division lived like that. The fortunate ones lived in barracks made from rocks picked up in the vicinity.) Wouldn’t that be a nice solution to all housing problems Ukrainian officers have been suffering from? There is another, equally good one. In forested areas, Red Army commanders used to make large nests with walls and roofs made of branches and secure them high up on trees. That’s the way to go, Mr. Salamatin!
Blyukher was also exemplary in one other aspect: he never forgot about his own needs or those of his multiple wives and lovers or close relatives. They did not live in foxholes or eat dark, dry bread with smelly salted meat – far from it! But this is where the powers that be and the military commanders of Ukraine do not need to be taught anything: they have diligently learned the lessons of Blyukher and others of his kind.
One issue remains outstanding: How about defending the Ukrainian state? Then again, why should that concern the Kazakhstan-born son-in-law of Russia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets who acquired Ukrainian citizenship several years ago for reasons about which we know nothing?
Vasily Blyukher was a soviet military commander and a victim of Stalin’s purge wave in the 1930s.