A Legendary Marshal and His… Women

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Semyon Budyonny (1883 – 1973) was a legendary cavalryman in Russian army, who became famous for his bravery during World War I, then defected to the Bolsheviks, continued his glorious military career to become an iconic figure of revolutionary Red Army, and later, he became a friend of Joseph Stalin and was promoted to the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1935. In World War II, he took the blame for many of Stalin’s misjudgements, but was retained in high command because of his bravery and popularity. He was a notable horse-breeder, who declared that the tank could never replace the horse as an instrument of war. However, Budyonny’s brilliant military career did not fit with his love for the family hearth, so he managed to find family happiness only on the third attempt.

The Kossak

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He married for the first time in 1903, at the age of twenty. His wife Nadezhda, a kossak’s daughter from a neighboring village was the first beauty throughout the district. They married in winter, and in autumn of the same year Budyonny joined the army. His military career progressed rapidly. The best rider of the regiment quickly earned the respect of superiors and was promoted to an officer rank. During World War I, Budyonny was awarded St. George Cross four times. But real fame came to Budyonny with the Bolsheviks. When the Civil War broke out in 1918, Budyonny organized a Red Cavalry force in the Don region, which eventually became the 1st Cavalry Army. This Army played an important role in winning the Civil War for the Bolsheviks, driving the White General Anton Denikin back from Moscow. Budyonny joined the Bolshevik party in 1919 and formed close relationships with Joseph Stalin and Klim Voroshilov. «I decided that it was better to be a marshal if the Red Army than an officer in the White Army», he used to joke later.

During the Civil War, his wife Nadezhda was always with him. Since 1917, she was in charge of the infirmary in his squad, helping to produce food and medicines for the soldiers. After the war they settled up in Moscow, in an elite multi-apartment house where only government families resided. Some rumors of that time said that “first class” life in Moscow did not work in favor of Semyon and Nadezhda’s relationship. Surrounded by the glitter of Moscow elite Nadezhda looked a bit too rustic. But the real reason was the fact that the young family did not have children, and Semyon passionately wanted tohave kids. Nadezhda used to accuse her husband of having some health problem, and finally both started having little affairs on the side and became quite indiferent to each other. An absurd tragic accident put an end to their relationship. In 1924, during a home party, Nadezhda accidentally shot herself from her husband’s gun. The tragedy occurred in the presence of several witnesses. Budyonny was deeply shocked by the death of his wife.

The Actress

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A few months after the death of his wife, a new mistress turned up in Budyonny’s home – an opera singer (at that time a student of the Conservatory), Olga Mikhailova, a beautiful, elegant young woman who knew very well what she wanted from her life. She wanted to become a famous actress, to shine and conquer all around her. She reasonably decided that a famous husband was exactly what she needed, and very soon she became a prima at the Bolshoi Theatre. But this was not Budyonny’s dream of a family life: he wanted a cozy, friendly home, with quiet evenings and, of course, children. To Olga, however, kids were a catastrophy, which would men a long break in her singing and acting career, she could not even think about turning into a housewife. And again, Budyonny was accused of inability to have kids, and the old story repeated itself. They lived together for almost 14 years, though. They would probably live longer, but suddenly, politics intervened in the case.
In the winter of 1937, Stalin called for Budyonny. He told that Olga was not behaving appropriately, compromising Budyonny and the Revolution itself. Stalin recommended Budyonny to meet with the NKVD (former name of KGB) Head, Nikolai Yezhov. Yezhov announced that, to his knowledge, Olga Mikhailova was having an intimate relationship with the artist of the Bolshoi Theatre Alexeyev; she had also been frequently seen around in the foreign embassies of Moscow, and noticed gambling at the races. Yezhov insisted that it was necessary to arrest her, interrogate and find out the details of her relationships with foreigners. Budyonny tried to intercede for his wife by saying that it was not a political case, but rather a relationship issue, but the KGB officers decided otherwise. In August of 1937, while Budyonny was away from Moscow inspecting military districts, Olga was arrested.

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She was sentenced to eight years in labor camps. Budyonny did not try to get her out of prison anymore: what he had learned about his wife from NKVD officers must have been really bewildering. During the whole time in imprisonment, Olga was treated very badly. She was hated by both, the administration and the other prisoners. In their eyes, she was a traitor, who deceived people’s hero and even more: attempted to slander him. In 1945, they added three more years to her imprisonment, and in 1948 she was sent to Krasnoyarsk region (Siberia), where the former prima of the Bolshoi worked as a cleaner in a local school.

In 1955 (after Stalin’s death in 1953), Budyonny sent a letter to KGB requesting to review the case of his second wife. Olga was released, and in 1956 she finally returned to Moscow. But after 19 years of prison she was not the same person anymore – she was old, very ill, weak, and mentally unhealthy. Her stories about how she had been raped by whole groups of NKVD officers due to the accusations of attempting to poison Marshal Budyonny, Semen always felt very uncomfortable. Olga rarely visited his house after her return to Moscow.

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The marshal himself was lucky to escape Stalin’s repressions. Once, there was an attempt to arrest him, but the brave commander opened fire, shot the officers who came to arrest him, and immediately dialed Stalin’s number. “Josef, there’s the counter-revolution taking place here! Some people just came to arrest me! I am not giving up alive!”. After this, Stalin ordered to leave Budyonny alone. He said, “This old fool is of no danger to us.”

Semyon Budyonny had never been a fool, though. He was smart and inventive enough to get along with colleagues who hated each other. He was smart enough to pretend being a fool when facing Stalin, because he needed to take care of himself and his family.

The True Love

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Right after Olga’s arrest in 1937, Budyonny took her mother Varvara Ivanovna to Moscow. It was probably the feeling of guilt for Olga which made him settle his mother-in-law to live under the same roof with him. Now and then, Varvara Ivanobvna had a guest – her young niece, Maria, who was a medical student then. From time to time, she used to help her aunt with housework. Semyon was enchanted by the girl and soon, despite the shocking difference in age (34 years), proposed to Maria.

Their marriage turned out to be surprisingly happy. At fifty, Budyonny finally got what he had always wanted: the quiet family happiness and a friendly, cozy home. When a year later, Maria gave him a gift of the first son, Semyon was literally going crazy of happiness; having been accused of inability to have children by two previous wives, he had stopped dreaming about ever having kids at all.

Another year passed, and a girl, Nina, was born. By Semyon’s 60-th birthday, Maria made him another wonderful gift – the second child, Mikhail.

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Budyonny literally dotted his wife and kids. He took all possible care to protect them, and never took Maria to the Kremlin receptions and parties. The happy family life made him youthful again. Till the end of his life he remained resilient, energetic, and healthy. At sixty, he could go down a stairs on his hands and he always remained an excellent rider. The legendary Red Army Marshal lived a long life, he died at 90 of a brain hemmorage.

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Jerry Jay Carroll

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