Ivan Khristoforovich Bagramyan (2 December [O.S. 20 November] 1897 – 21 September 1982), was a Soviet-Armenian military commander and Marshal of the Soviet Union.
During World War II, Bagramyan was the first non-Slavic military officer to become a commander of a Front. He was among several Armenians in the Soviet Army who held the highest proportion of high-ranking officers in the Soviet military during the war.
Bagramyan’s experience in military planning as a chief of staff allowed him to distinguish himself as a capable commander in the early stages of the Soviet counter-offensives against Nazi Germany.
He was given his first command of a unit in 1942, and in November 1943 received his most prestigious command as the commander of the 1st Baltic Front. As commander of the Baltic Front, he participated in the offensives which pushed German forces out of the Baltic republics.
He did not immediately join the Communist Party after the consolidation of the October Revolution, becoming a member only in 1941, a move atypical for a Soviet military officer.
After the war, he served as a deputy member of the Supreme Soviets of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and was a regular attendee of the Party Congresses. In 1952, he became a candidate for entry into the Central Committee and, in 1961, was inducted as a full member.
For his contributions during the war, he was widely regarded as a national hero in the Soviet Union, and continues to hold such esteemed status among Armenians.
Ivan Bagramyan was born to Armenian parents in the village of Chardakhlu, near Yelizavetpol (modern Ganja, Azerbaijan), then a part of the Russian Empire. Hamazasp Babadzhanian, a fellow Armenian who was to become the chief marshal of the Soviet Armor corps, was born in the same village.
While Bagramyan’s father, Khachatur, went to work all day at the railway station in Yelizavetpol, his mother, Mariam, stayed at home to take care of her seven children. Because his parents could not afford to send him to the local gymnasium, they decided to enroll him at a recently opened two-year school in Yelizavetpol.
Graduating in 1912, Bagramyan, whom everyone affectionately called Vanya, followed his father and his brothers in a path in rail work, attending the three-year railway technical institute located in Tiflis. He graduated with honors and was slated to become a railway engineer within a few years when events in the First World War changed his life.
Bagramyan was well aware of the military situation at the Caucasus front during the first months of the world war. In the winter of 1914-15, the Imperial Russian Army was able to withstand and repel the Ottoman Empire’s offensive at Sarikamish, and to take the fight to its territory.
Bagramyan also began reading harrowing reports in the Russian press of what was taking place against his fellow kinsmen across the border: the Ottomans had embarked on a campaign to annihilate systematically their Armenian subjects.
He desperately attempted to join the military effort but because he was only seventeen and a railway mechanic, he was not liable to be drafted. This did not dissuade him from trying, as he later remarked, “My place was at the front.”
His opportunity came on 16 September 1915, when he was accepted by the Russian Army as a volunteer. He was placed in the 116th Reserve Battalion and sent to Akhaltsikhe for basic training.
With his training complete in December, he joined the Second Caucasus Frontier Regiment of the Russian Expeditionary Corps, which was sent to dislodge the Ottoman Turks in Persia. Bagramyan participated in several battles in Asadabad, Hamedan and Kermanshah, the Russian victories here sending Ottoman forces reeling toward Anatolia.
Learning about the exploits of the men in the outfit, the chief of staff of the regiment, General Pavel Melik-Shahnazaryan, advised Bagramyan to return to Tiflis to enroll in the Praporshchik Military Academy.
But in order to attend the school, Bagramyan needed to satisfy the academy’s requirement of having completed school at a gymnasium. This did not deter him and, after preparing for the courses in Armavir, he passed his exams and began attending the academy on February 13, 1917.
He graduated in June 1917 and was assigned to the Third Armenian Infantry regiment stationed near Lake Urmia. But with the overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government in the midst of the October Revolution of 1917, his unit was demobilized.
However, with the creation of the newly established First Republic of Armenia in 1918, Bagramyan enlisted in the Third Armenian Regiment of that country’s armed forces.
From 1 April 1918, that is, after the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918) with the Russian SFSR, he was in the First Armenian Cavalry Regiment, which put a halt to the Ottoman 3rd Army, which was bent on conquering the remains of the republic, in Karaurgan, Sarikamish and Kars.
He most notably took part in the May 1918 Battle of Sardarapat, where the Armenian military scored a crucial victory against Turkish forces. He remained in the regiment until May 1920.
In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Unlike many of the border troops who were caught off guard by the offensive, Bagramyan and his commander, General Mikhail Kirponos, believed an invasion by Germany was inevitable.
However, Kirponos chose to ignore Bagramyan’s viewpoint that the German offensive would employ the lightning speed Blitzkrieg tactics like those seen in the campaigns in Poland in 1939 and Western Europe in 1940. Since the winter of 1939–40, Bagramyan had been busy devising a battle plan that would counter threats from the western Ukraine, which was approved after numerous revisions on 10 May 1940.
On the morning of 22 June, he was tasked with the overseeing of a transfer of a military convoy to Ternopol. While his column was passing the Soviet airfields near the city of Brody, German air strikes hit the aircraft on the ground. Several hours later, they arrived in Ternopol, having been strafed twice by the planes.
Three days after the invasion, the plans for the counter-offensive were implemented, but disorder engulfed the troops, and the counter-attack collapsed. Bagramyan took part in the great tank battles in western Ukraine and the defensive operation around Kiev, in which Kirponos was killed and the entire Front captured by the Germans. He was one of a handful of senior officers who escaped from the encircled Front.
Bagramyan was then appointed chief of staff to Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and along with future Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, then a political officer, coordinated the fighting around Rostov. In his memoirs, Khrushchev described Bagramyan as a “very precise person who reported on everything just as it was. How many troops we had, their positions, and the general situation.”
Khrushchev went on to detail an account where Marshal Semyon Budyonny, sent by the chief of the operations department from Moscow as a representative of STAVKA, arrived in Kiev to courtmartial Bagramyan, who vigorously protested and said that if he was an incapable staff officer, then he should instead be given a field unit to command. To Bagramyan’s astonishment, Budyonny went on to attempt to convince him to agree to his execution.
Khrushchev remarked that the argument was sparked arbitrarily and had taken place after an “abundant feast with cognac” and that “in those days we didn’t take that kind of conversation seriously.” According to him, at the time however, the Soviet military was especially suspicious of the men in its ranks, itself judging that there were “enemies of the people…everywhere, especially the Red Army.”
Bagramyan was instrumental in the planning of two Soviet counter-offensives against the Germans, including the major push made by Soviet forces in December during the Battle of Moscow, and for this was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General.
In the same month, he was made the chief of staff of a military operations group that would oversee three Army Groups: the Southern, the Southwestern and Bryansk Fronts. In March 1942, he went along with Khrushchev and Timoshenko to Moscow to present the plans of a new counter-offensive in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov to Stalin.
Stalin, impressed with his plan, approved the operation and on April 8, promoted Bagramyan as Chief of Staff of the Southwestern Front. On 12 May 1942, armies of the Southwestern Front attacked Kharkov but the launch of the offensive came at an inopportune moment since they were attacking from the Barvenkovo Salient, a region that German forces were near closing.
While Soviet forces were initially successful in recapturing Kharkov, they found themselves trapped by the German army after the closing of Barvenkovo. On 18 May, Bagramyan asked Timoshenko to alter the plans but Timoshenko along with Stalin refused to approve his request.
Soviet losses were heavy as the 6th, 9th and 57th armies (approximately 18–20 divisions) comprising a large portion of the Southwestern Front, were all destroyed and Bagramyan was removed from his post on 28 June by STAVKA. According to Khrushchev, Bagramyan was so devastated from the immense loss of men that after the operation was called off, “he burst into tears. His nerves cracked…He was weeping for our army.”
Held responsible for the failure of the operation and “poor staff work”, he was demoted to chief of staff of the Soviet 28th Army.
Several days later, he wrote a letter to Stalin asking to “serve at the front at any capacity, however modest.” British military historian John Erickson contends that Bagramyan was unfairly scapegoated by Stalin in his attempts to “hunt for [the] culprits” of the mismanagement of operations.