“Voroshilov is the first Red Officer! He can stand up for the USSR!”
That is the line from one of the Soviet songs of the 1920s. It was originally written in 1919 and there was no such line at all. It would be added later on – in the 1920s after Kliment Voroshilov became one of the chief military executives in the Red Army. In 1950 he was appointed the Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet. He made one of the most brilliant careers in the history of the country. But some historians view him as one of the most controversial figures of the time and as someone who lacked military expertise.
Kliment Efremovich Voroshilov was born in 1881 in the city of Lysychansk. At that time it was located in the coalmining and the iron ore region of the Russian Empire (now in south-east Ukraine). His father worked in a railway department and his mother was a part-time cleaner. The family was poor so young Kliment went to work in the neighboring mines. At the age of seven he was picking up pyrite that was used in iron ore production. At the age of 12 he went to a local school but he finished just two grades. He decided to go to the factory in the city of Alchevsk in the same area, after which he never attended any educational institution.
At the factory young Kliment heard about Karl Marx and his ideas. He joined the workers’ club where they studied key elements of the social-democratic movement. After that he took an active part in the organization of strikes at the factory. Soon the management of the plant got fed up with his activities and fired Voroshilov. For more than five years he was moving from one place to another in the south of Russia, doing part-time jobs and studying the works of Marx and his followers.
He returned to his native region in 1903 and went to work at the Lugansk locomotive factory. That was the year he joined the Bolsheviks – the faction of Russian Social-Democratic Party chaired by Vladimir Lenin. He was again taking care of various workers’ rallies and protest actions in the cities. The police arrested Voroshilov in 1905 but he was soon released. Thousands of his fellow workers came to the prison gate and demanded that he should be set free. He was now one of the most prominent figures of the workers’ movement in the south of Russia.
In 1906 Voroshilov took part in the work of the 4th Bolshevik Party Congress in Stockholm, Sweden. There he met the leaders and activists of the faction – among them Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. He was a frequent guest at other Party Congresses held outside Russia. For several years, from 1908 till the Bolshevik Revolution he kept travelling to various destinations across the Russian Empire to promote the ideas of the Communist Party. He worked in St. Petersburg, Baku and Tsarytsin (during WWII Stalingrad, now Volgograd). During these years the police kept a close eye on the young activist and arrests and interrogations became frequent procedures for Voroshilov. In 1913 he was sentenced to be exiled but then he was put on parole because Russia was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Tsar’s family that year.
In 1917, after the Tsar was toppled in February, Kliment Voroshilov was elected a member of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) Wworkers’ Committee. Later on he was sent to his native Lugansk Region, where he became Chairman of the Regional Parliament.
In October, 1917 Voroshilov returned to Petrograd and took an active part in the organization of the Bolshevik Revolution. Right after the Provisional Government of Russia was arrested, he was put in charge of city’s infrastructure. At the request of Lenin he assisted Felix Dzerzhinsky in setting up All-Russian Emergency Commission – the Bolshevik Secret Service. At the beginning of 1918 he was back in his native Ukraine. Voroshilov was a member of the Ukranian provisional government and Commissar for Internal Affairs. He was also the commander of “The First Lugansk Socialist Labor Brigade”. They were heroically defending the industrial centre of Kharkov from the attack of German and Austrian forces until the Peaceful treaty between Germany and Bolshevik government was signed.
Kliment Voroshilov took an active part in setting up the Red Army. He was helping Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky to form the Military Council. Then he was sent to the South of Russia to command the Red Army units in the early stages of the Civil War. Soon after that there came the first loss for Voroshilov – his units were defeated by the Cossack Troops that were still loyal to the Tsar.
According to military historians, that defeat showcased Voroshiliov’s personality at its full swing. They say that he was a brave and a very passionate commander but, at the same time, he could not take good decisions due to the lack of education and experience. The opposition forces of “The White Guard” described Voroshilov’s military abilities in the following way: “He is definitely not a strategist. But he is capable of setting up fierce resistance”. Even Vladimir Lenin stressed once that Voroshilov should learn more about the Military Craft. There came another defeat – in 1919 Voroshilov’s Ukrainian Army lost to the troops of the “White Guard” General Anton Denikin. Leon Trotsky was furious: “Voroshilov is a “fiction”. His heroic deeds are always exaggerated by our propaganda. That’s what brings him fame”.
During Civil war Kliment Voroshilov was considered a “hardliner” by many Bolsheviks. He was against the service of the former Tsarist officers in the Red Army. He was afraid that they would keep the spirit of the troops low. Later on in 1919 he became the Political Commissar of the 1-st Cavalry Army led by Semyon Budyonny. Vososhilov’s mission was to boost the morale of the troops. The Army mostly consisted of peasants from southern Russia. The success of Budyonny’s Army boosted Voroshilov’s career in spite of the fact that at that time he was “a soldier of ideological front”. He became a recipient of the “Gun of Honor” for his “contribution” to the Red Army’s victory during the Civil War in Russia. After that people started to call him by the title of “The First Red Officer” – even military historians can’t determine who pronounced this title first.
Voroshilov was an active participant in the suppression of the uprising of the sailors in Baltic Naval Base of Kronstadt. In 1921 Kliment Voroshilov was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1921 – he would be a member of the Party’s top body for 40 years in a row – till 1961. At the same time he was coordinating the stationing of the Red Army Forces in the North Caucasus. In 1925, after the death of Mikhail Frunze, Voroshilov was appointed to the top military post in the country. He became People’s Commissar for Military and Navy Affairs and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the USSR. In 1934 after the restructuring of the top military institutions Stalin appointed Voroshilov as a People Commissar for Defense. Later on Kliment Efremovi?h was given the title of “Marshal of the Soviet Union”.
No other Defense Minister in the history of the USSR was able to hold his post for 15 years. The reason for this was total loyalty to Joseph Stalin and the Orders of Central Committee of the Communist Party. Even before Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin had begun to consolidate his power base and to institute his severely repressive type of leadership. Stalin relied heavily on the military as well as the secret police to speed the industrialization of the Soviet economy and the collectivization of its agriculture. Therefore, as early as 1924, Stalin promoted the replacement of Frunze as military leader with the more malleable Voroshilov.
Voroshilov participated in the demise of Leon Trotsky’s political influence. That was a response to Trotsky’s criticism in 1919. Kliment Voroshilov carefully executed all the orders during the “Stalin's Purge” in the middle of the 1930s. Thousands of high-ranked officers were either executed or sent to prison camps. Voroshilov denounced many of his colleagues and subordinates. All in all, he personally signed 185 execution lists.
In November, 1939, when the military conflict between USSR and Finland broke out, Voroshilov was commanding Soviet units. The resistance of the Finnish troops lasted till the beginning of March – much longer than Stalin expected. He was outraged by Voroshilov’s incompetence and poor planning that resulted in the loss of 125 thousand soldiers. Finnish troops lost 3 times less. When the leadership of the country was discussing this loss at Stalin’s dacha near Moscow Voroshilov lost his temper. He openly blamed the leadership of the country of having killed the Red Army's best generals during the years of the purge. Voroshilov even smashed a platter of roast pig that was served for dinner. He was later replaced as Defense Commissar with Semyon Timoshenko. After that Voroshilov appointed the Deputy Premier whose job was to be in charge of culture – that was more than an insult for the “Marshal of the Soviet Union”.
When Germany invaded the USSR in June, 1941, Voroshilov was dispatched to the north-west to set up the defense of Leningrad. The Nazis were trying hard to cut off the city from the rest of Soviet territory. Again Voroshilov displayed his bravery. He personally led the counter-offensive while armed only with a pistol. In September, 1941, he was replaced with the promising military commander Georgy Zhukov.
For the rest of WWII Voroshilov was used as a personal envoy of the Supreme Commander. First, he was dispatched to the north-west, after which he returned to Moscow to coordinate the activities of the partisans beyond the frontlines. Stalin took Voroshilov to the 1943 Conference in Tehran. His name became internationally known due to an unfortunate incident. When Winston Churchill was presenting the “Sword of Stalingrad”, the gift of the King George VI to recognize the heroic deeds of the Red Army, the award was passed on to Voroshilov. A minute later he accidentally dropped it in front of Big Three wartime leaders.
Immediately after WWII Voroshilov was dispatched to Hungary to supervise the establishment of the Communist state there and the Hungarian Peoples’ Republic.
But in 1953 Voroshilov returned to power. He became Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet. He was backed by the Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov. They viewed Voroshilov as the man to help them denounce their political opponent Lavrenty Beria – one of the masterminds of the purges of the 1930s. Kliment Efremovich willingly agreed to do so, He was one of the few “Stalinists” kept by Khrushchev in the top echelons of the power. However, he did not have the influence he used to enjoy under Stalin. Voroshilov started to feel that some of the Politburo members were ignoring him more and more. He especially felt it during one of the dinners for the members of Central Party Committee in 1960. He decided not to wait any longer and later that year he resigned from his post.
Even during his retirement he enjoyed all the privileges of having been a Communist statesman. He twice received the title “Hero of the Soviet Union” - in 1956 and in 1968. In 1960 he received another sign of honour, the Gold Star of “Hero of Socialist Labour”. The country did not forget the myth of the “First Red Officer”. Leonid Brezhnev, the Secretary General of the Communist Party, brought Voroshilov back to the Central Party Committee.
Kliment Efremovich Voroshilov died in 1969 in Moscow at the age of 87. The city of Lugansk, the center of the region he was born, was renamed Voroshilovgrad. The original name was returned to the city after the collapse of the USSR.
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