HomeThe ArchivesThe GalleryF.A.Q.Search Site

Yuri Gagarin

Soviet Propaganda

A Romanov Album


Listening Station

Oriental Art


Terms of Use
Privacy Statement


Early History

The Russian imperial army and navy disintegrated after the outbreak of the Revolution of 1917, so the Council of the People's Commissars created the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army on a voluntary basis. The first units, fighting with a revolutionary fervor, distinguished themselves against the Germans on February 23. This day became the "Day of the Soviet Army". On April 22 the Soviet government decreed compulsory military training for workers and peasants who did not employ hired labour. This was the beginning of the Red Army. Its founder was Leon Trotsky, with the title People's Commissar, which he lost in the power struggle against Stalin in 1924.


soldiers behind gun

Red Army soldiers man the artillery.

The Red Army faced the problem of creating a competent and reliable officers' corps, leading Trotsky to mobilize former officers of the imperial army. In the years of the Civil War, up to 50,000 such officers served for the Soviet cause. While they mostly remained loyal to the Soviets, political officers, called "advisors" were attached to all units. They watched over the reliability of the officers and provided propaganda.

By the late twenties only a handful of imperial officers remained in the corps, while the new military schools were educating young recruits. Admission to these schools was restricted to those recommended by the Communist Party, ensuring the army of politically loyal future officers.

Soviet generals World War II Looms...


In 1937 a drastic purge crippled the Red Army, reducing its morale and efficiency just before the world war. In June, Marshall Tukhachevsky, first deputy commissar of war, who, despite his rich family background served the Soviet cause with much success from the beginning, and seven other generals were found guilty of plotting to betray the Soviet Union to Japan and Germany. All were shot. Many other high-ranking officers accused of involvement were sent to labour camps. This " betrayal" has since been found to have been entirely fabricated by Stalin and not one officer was guilty.

After initial setbacks in the war, the army was reorganized, aided by the enormous number of recruits and the vastness of the territory. Penal battalions were given suicidal tasks. By the end of the war the Soviet Army numbered more than 11 million officers and men.

The Post-War Era

In 1946 the word "red" was removed from the name of the armed forces. The already high social and moral position of officers only increased during the Cold War. Officers were well paid, enjoyed special apartments, and were given other privileges. The recruits were kept in severe conditions, and subjected to ruthless discipline, combined with political persuasion. New recruits were subject to the so-called "dedovschina", an initiation rite of beatings and abuse administered by older soldiers. ('Ded' - grandfather in Russian, a soldier in his last year of service).

On the steps in Red Square
Soviet Military Commanders Kori, Voroshilov, Uborevich, Kamenev, & Gamarnik during a parade, Moscow 1936

During the demise of the Soviet Union, the army played some role in the changes more than once, for better or worse. During the 1991 attempted coup against President Gorbachev, left wing politicians found allies in army officials who were unhappy with the changes. Thousands of Soviet officers lost their privileged positions in Eastern Europe due to GorbachevÍs withdrawal of troops stationed there since WWII -- losing their high salaries, access to foreign stores, and easy lifestyle. However, in 1993 the army stayed loyal to President Yeltsin, defended the television, and attacked the Parliament, when the left-dominated legislature wanted to oust the President.

Soldiers jumping off tank
Russian soldiers approaching Budapest,
December 1944
Today, the army's position is still sometimes unclear. Officers' pay is relatively low, wage arrears make things difficult time and time again, while many units have been demobilized. The Russian army's numbers keep going down but it is still a force the world has to reckon with.
Did you know:

....in the days of the Civil War, in 1918-20 Reds often apprehended their Tsarist White enemies by examining their hands. Soft hands meant 'burzhui' and were shot on the spot at checkpoints. The burzhui learned to soak their hands in alcohol to crack the skin and to rub dirt into them. The bolsheviks also killed civil bourgeoisie and intelligensia for wearing white collars. A revolutionary soldier could easily shoot such a "white collar" person on the street without any legal proceedings.

....Trotsky's approach to the former imperial officers was to 'squeeze them like lemons and then throw them away'. Every professional officer down to company commander was shadowed by a commissar. No order was valid unless it was signed by both. When they retreated in flight, first the commissar, then the officer were shot.

....Trotsky was commanding during the Civil War from his armored train. He traveled 100,000 kilometers in it over three years. It had mounted machine-guns, light artillery, a printing press, a radio for broadcast and a flatbed for his Rolls Royce command car. He carried a large amount of tobacco and a brass band on the train to heighten morale of the troops.


Photos copyright the Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive Krasnogorsk

RAO > The Gallery > The Red Army


Russian Archives Online: www.abamedia.com/rao/