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Talking Strategy

Nov 15, 2022

Aleksandr Andreevich Svechin was an ethnic Russian born in Odessa in 1878. He became an officer of the imperial Russian army and then of the Red Army, where he rose to the rank of general and wrote a definitive manual on strategy.

A ‘Clausewitzian’ in approach, stressing the uniqueness of each war and rejecting one-size-fits-all principles, Svechin advocated the defence in depth of the young USSR. This idea was abhorrent to Stalin who, in the 1930s, dismantled the homeland defence structures in favour of an offensive posture for the Red Army, which in turn directly contributed to the catastrophic effects of the German surprise attack of 1941. But by then Svechin was long dead, executed on Stalin’s personal orders in 1938 during the Great Purge.

Like Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, Svechin was sceptical about theories and very much agreed with Clausewitz that what strategic studies can do is reflexive: ‘Theory is capable of benefitting only those who have raised themselves above the fray and have become completely dispassionate... A narrow doctrine would probably confuse us more than guide us.’ His reading of ‘bourgeois’ authors was held against him as the USSR entered into a phase of great intolerance under Stalin, culminating in the Great Purge. Svechin’s good name was restored under Gorbachev, and he was even praised in 2013 by Russian General Staff Chief Army General Valery Gerasimov.

Professor Gudrun Persson joins Paul and Beatrice for this week’s episode. She is deputy research director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) and associate professor at the Department of Slavic Studies, Stockholm University. She holds a PhD from LSE and has published widely on Russian affairs, including Learning from Foreign Wars: Russian Military Thinking 1859–73 (Helion, 2013), and is working on a further book on Russian strategic thought.