Russian cavalry commander Semyon Mikhailovich Budyonny (1883–1973) became a celebrated military figure during the early years of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A close ally of Communist dictator Josef Stalin, Budyonny survived the Great Terror of the 1930s and maintained his high-ranking stature for decades, making him one of the handful of Bolshevik revolutionary veterans of 1917 to expire in peace in old age.
For much of the 20th century, schoolchildren and military cadets in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) recited song lyrics written in tribute to Semyon Budyonny. Honored on multiple fronts for his heroic deeds during the Russian Civil War of 1917–22, Budyonny was named among the first marshals of the newly formed USSR when that military rank was created in 1935. His most enduring contribution to Russian history came while commanding one of the last horse-mounted cavalry regiments to be deployed in battle; during World War II, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Budyonny distinguished himself while overseeing crucial defensive cordons. A breed of horse was also named to honor his role as a cavalry leader, one of the last ever to achieve a crucial, game-changing victory in battle before the regal but easily decimated animals were replaced by armor-clad mechanized tanks.
Semyon Mikhailovich Budyonny was born during the reign of autocratic Russian ruler Tsar Alexander III, on April 25, 1883. His parents were peasant farmers living in the Don River basin, a region known for being a stronghold of the Don Cossacks, an ethnic group famous for their long tradition of horse-mounted warfare. Budyonny entered the workforce as a farmhand before his tenth birthday and ten years later, in 1903, donned his first military uniform to participate in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. His first unit assignment was the 46th Cossack Regiment of the Imperial Russian army. After the end of Russia's war with Japan, Budyonny decided to remain in the military, joining the Primorsk Dragoons. In 1907 he won a coveted spot at the military riding academy in St. Petersburg. He proved adept at this centuries-old style of mounted combat and graduated first in his class.
Around 1910 Budyonny married a Cossack woman named Nadezhda, who was reportedly illiterate when they wed but later learned to read and write. According to historian Larissa Vasilieva, whose book Kremlin Wives: The Secret Lives of the Women behind the Kremlin Walls—From Lenin to Gorbachev benefited from her access to newly released Soviet intelligence files, the couple spent a long period apart because of his military deployments during World War I and the Russian Civil War.
After the outbreak of World War I in the late summer of 1914, Budyonny distinguished himself during an attack on German forces in Brzezina, located in present-day Poland. He then served with a cavalry unit sent to roust Ottoman Empire-allied forces in the Caucasus, earning several honors for valor in battle in the process, among them the Cross of St. George. Budyonny's fortitude elicited genuine fellowship among his fellow non-commissioned servicemen but apparently roiled his superiors; one notable detail from his official biography claims that in 1916 he narrowly avoided a court-martial and potential death sentence after attacking a commanding officer who had insulted him. The testimony of other infantry soldiers forestalled any official prosecutorial action.
A finicky adherence to protocol, rank, and archaic customs divided millions of the tsar's subjects into dramatically disparate groups during the late 19th century, and the recalcitrance this inspired among the lower ranks ultimately proved utterly ruinous to the imperial power base in St. Petersburg. At the apex were the tsar and his extended family, followed by the aristocratic families that controlled the majority of wealth and resources in the Russian Empire. Budyonny was born just 22 years after Tsar Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs, the vast population of farmhands who were legally bound to landowning families for the entirety of their able-bodied work years. In the military, as elsewhere in imperial Russia, rigid codes of conduct governed all interactions between these classes. As Budyonny rose up through the ranks, Russia's emerging urbanized middle class began agitating for basic political rights, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 hastened this clash. The war pitted tsarist Russia against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Fueled by the political theories of Karl Marx, Russia became a tinderbox of external conflict and internal crises, including food shortages, and Marxist revolutionaries forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in early 1917. Later that year, a leftist faction of Communist Party agitators seized control of the provisional government in St. Petersburg and began a reform process that ultimately led to the establishment of the USSR in 1922.
As a decade-long veteran of the armed forces, Budyonny was among the millions of low-status servicemen who cast their lot with the revolutionaries, and he allied himself with the Bolsheviks when that faction took power in October of 1917. Inside his cavalry unit, Budyonny was elected leader by his fellow infantry fighters and led a military detachment to his home region in the Don River basin. There they carried out a particularly ruthless expulsion of the White Guards, the pro-tsarist forces hoping to restore Nicholas or another member of the royal family to the throne.
Budyonny's actions in battle against the Whites garnered him favor with Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin, and his victories were an effective recruiting tool for new Red Army brigades. The cavalry forces he led gained a reputation for ruthlessness in the early years of the Russian Civil War, in part due to their successful routs of the Whites at Volgograd in late 1918 as well as in the Crimea in 1919. Eventually, Budyonny was granted formal authorization for a formidable new mounted regiment, the 1st Cavalry Army, also known as the Konarmia, or Horse Army.
Budyonny and the Konarmia gained an international reputation during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–21. This conflict pitted Russian Bolsheviks against two main groups working in rare concordance. Although the Ukrainians, as a group, were long predisposed to resist Russian encroachment, they now saw the impressive military power of the newly independent Polish state and formed an alliance. The two-year Polish-Soviet War was a long and grim conflict and one carefully monitored by the rest of Europe for the threat a potential Bolshevik victory posed at the eastern flank of Europe. The Poles went to battle under their revered military commander and political leader, Józef Pilsudski, and were operating out of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev when Pilsudski issued an order to capture the man thought to be Stalin's most reliably fierce military commander in the field.
Showing his reputation to be well founded, Budyonny and his Konarmia successfully penetrated Pilsudski's army in June of 1920, but the tide of the Polish-Soviet War turned against the Bolsheviks following the epic Battle of Komarów in present-day Poland. This three-day clash began on August 30, 1920, and was the largest cavalry-mounted infantry battle to be conducted on European soil since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Budyonny lost that battle but eluded Pilsudski's effort to seize him.
Stalin and other key leaders signaled their trust in Budyonny's ability to maintain order by placing him in charge of the strategic North Caucasian Military District in the early 1920s. In the years before and after the 1924 death of Vladimir I. Lenin, the founding figure of Bolshevism and one of the main forces in shaping Soviet Russia in its first treacherous years, there was an intense power struggle inside the Kremlin, the seat of power in Moscow, where Budyonny and Nadezhda settled around 1923. Budyonny's connections to Stalin proved crucial during this tumultuous era, and he was elevated to chief of the entire Russian cavalry in 1925.
During the early 1920s, the Soviet press would report on the death of Budyonny's wife Nadezhda, who was said to have committed suicide in front of witnesses at their Granovsky Street apartment. According to Vasilieva chronicled in Kremlin Wives, Budyonny's second wife, Olga Stefanovna Mikhailova, was an actress with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and became part of the close-knit social circle surrounding Stalin. Rumors of weekend debaucheries raised concerns among other Communist Party figures and gave rise to internal fissures within Soviet leadership. These personal clashes became enmeshed with short- and long-term political goals and the rivalries ultimately played out in a series of purges instigated by Stalin in the 1930s.
Two months later, Budyonny was away from Moscow when his wife Olga was arrested along with fellow Bolshoi Theater performer Galina Yegorova, the wife of Marshal Alexander Yegorov. The women were accused of consorting with foreign spies during their visits to the Moscowbased embassies of Japan and Italy. Yegorova and her husband were found guilty of treasonous acts and were executed, while Olga Budyonnya was sentenced to almost two decades in a remote penal camp. The couple were divorced by September of 1937, the month Budyonny married third wife Maria Vasilievna, a woman from Kursk who was also Olga's cousin. Budyonny and Maria had three children together: Seryozha, a son, was born in August of 1938; daughter Ninochka was born in September of 1939; and a second son, Mikhail (Misha), was born in 1944.
When World War II erupted in September of 1939, Budyonny was serving as commander of the Moscow Military District. In the summer of 1941 Stalin assigned him to defend Ukraine against an invading army from Nazi Germany, but when Soviet horse-mounted units became surrounded by the Nazis' terrifying new Panzer tank divisions in mid-September, Stalin ordered that Budyonny be replaced. German forces readied for an assault on Moscow, but on November 7, 1941, the 24th anniversary of Bolshevik revolution, Stalin and Budyonny arranged a massive display of manpower as a show of strength for the annual parade. “Fears of a German air raid receded as a heavy snow began to fall from the gray skies, but Soviet fighters continued to patrol overhead,” wrote military historian Andrew Nagorski in the journal World War II. “From the Kremlin gate, Marshal Semyon Budyonny emerged on a white horse with saber drawn and the parade began. Many troops went directly from Red Square to the front as soon as the parade ended. In a speech broadcast the next day, Stalin underscored the message he intended the spectacle to send. ‘Our reserves in manpower are inexhaustible,’ he declared.”
Stalin died in 1953, and his eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, would reveal in later memoirs several intriguing details about the internal struggles involving Budyonny and others inside the Kremlin during World War II. In the mid-1960s, Budyonny penned his own five-volume memoir, published in English translation as The Path of Valour in 1972. In April of 1973, he was awarded the Order of Lenin as part of his official 90th birthday honors. In addition to his military exploits, he served as deputy minister of agriculture in charge of horse breeding for many years, and the Budyonny breed of horse was named in homage to his faith in the superiority of the animal over the indomitable but expensive infantry tank. Budyonny died of a brain hemorrhage in Moscow on October 26, 1973.
Nagorski, Andrew, The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Vasilieva, Larissa, Kremlin Wives: The Secret Lives of the Women behind the Kremlin Walls—From Lenin to Gorbachev, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994.
MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, autumn 2017, Thomas Fleming, “Miracle on the Vistula,” p. 66.
World War II, July-August 2007, Andrew Nagorski, “At the Gates of Moscow,” pp. 28–37.□