One of the greatest Soviet commanders of World War II, and among the greatest generals of the war, Konstantin Rokossovsky was not Russian but was born in Poland. At the time, Poland wasn’t an independent nation but was a part of the Russian Empire. When World War I broke out, Rokossovsky volunteered for the Russian Army, then later the Red Army after the Bolshevik Revolution.
By 1937 Rokossovsky was a senior officer in the Red Army when he was arrested as part of Stalin’s Purges. Joseph Stalin was always paranoid about the possibility of assassination or a military coup, so in August of 1937 he ordered the arrest, imprisonment, or execution of thousands of high ranking Soviet officers. Rokossovsky was selected first and foremost because of his Polish background. He was also known to be critical of Soviet battle tactics and was known to criticize the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) for cruelty. He was declared a traitor and foreign spy, and placed in the custody of the NKVD for “interrogation”. Throughout the interrogations Rokossovsky suffered terrible tortures and injuries. His toes were smashed with a hammer, his fingernails were removed with pliers, and his ribs were broken. Randomly he would be forced to endure false executions, where he would be taken to stand in front of a firing squad, only to be removed and placed back in his cell. Among the injuries he sustained, the most permanent resulted when 9 of his front teeth were pulled. The teeth were later replaced with stainless steel dentures, and thus throughout the war Rokossovsky was famous for his steely smile. Few photos of Rokossovsky smiling exist, the photo above is one of them, and if you look closely you can catch a glimpse of his steel teeth (standing far left).
Despite the torture, Rokossovsky never confessed to being a traitor. He would be held in prison until March 22nd, 1940, when he was released without explanation. Throughout the war he would gain much notoriety for his smart tactics and ability to defeat the enemy. In 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union, and was highly decorated.