Review of Thomas G. Butson, The Tsar's Lieutenant: The Soviet Marshal. New York: Praeger, 1984

By Grover C. Furr

Originally published in The Russian Review, Vol. 44, No. 4 (1986), pp. 427-8.

This work is a popular biography of M.N. Tukhachevsky. Butson has stitched together a narrative that is readable and, at times, exciting. A student of Tukhachevsky's career is, however, confronted with an abundance of sources of doubtful trustworthiness, a problem to which Butson devotes little attention. As a result, the value of his account is fatally compromised.

Some of Butson's favored sources, such as the works by Lidia Nord and "A. Uralov," are the most worthless. These are farragoes of rumor and outright fabrication, replete with "confidential conversations" of Stalin, Tukhachevsky, and others. Nord vehemently attacked Uralov in 1951 (see Chasovoi [Brussels] for March 1951). At that time she did not know whether Tukhachevsky was guilty of plotting against the Soviet government. By 1957, Nord not only "knew" there was no plot, but quoted at length from the transcript of Tukhachevsky's trial! A large part of Butson's book consists of citations from such material.

Central to any interpretation of Tukhachevsky's life is the question of its end. The "Tukhachevsky Affair" has never received the meticulous study it warrants. The German accounts of the purported SD-NKVD plot to frame Tukhachevsky (Hagen/Hoettl, Schellenberg, Naujocks) are both mutually and self-contradictory. Butson does not even refer to them, relying upon summaries by Robert Conquest and John Erickson, neither of whom was able to resolve the problem (Erickson admits as much). Krivitsky's book, upon which the German versions draw, has been devastatingly criticized by Elizabeth Poretsky and Gordon Brook-Shepherd.

Thus the very existence of the frame-up plot may be doubted. A careful study of the best scholarship, such as Erickson or Georges Castellan, would have shown the author that little about Tukhachevsky's end can be affirmed with certainty.

Butson notes only a few of the numerous reports of suspect behavior on Tukhachevsky's part and fails to examine these. He scarcely notices Czech President Benes' account, perhaps because it contradicts his own view in suggesting that Tukhachevsky was guilty after all. When he states (p. 238) "there is no strong evidence to support the plot thesis," Butson reveals that he knows some evidence does exist, but the reader never learns what it is.

The author relies heavily upon Khrushchev-era works, which glorify Tukhachevsky to serve Khrushchev's own political interests. Nikulin's book, which Butson often cites, is an admittedly fictionalized account (povestvovanie). Its treatment of the "plot," like Khrushchev's own, is plagiarized from Western sources, distorting them to remove any hint Tukhachevsky might have been guilty.

Often Butson fails to use the most recent and best scholarship. More than one-third of the book is devoted to the Civil War, but Kenez's books are not cited. In his long chapter on the Warsaw campaign, Butson fails to consult Norman Davies' careful study. While Rémy Roure's reminiscences are cited, Butson omits the dramatic account of the young Lieutenant Tukhachevsky's anti-semitism and cynical, opportunistic attitude towards Bolshevism, which are significant in light of later suspicions.

Butson should have done better. His book, though an entertaining tale, is unsatisfactory scholarship.

Grover C. Furr
Montclair State College

Back to Grover Furr's Home Page. / last modified 22 Jan 98/