Red Army

This article is about the armed forces of the Soviet Union. See Red Army Faction for the German militant group; Japanese Red Army for the Japanese militant group; and People's Liberation Army for the Chinese Red Army.
Red Army flag
Red Army flag

The short forms Red Army and RKKA refer to the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Army", (Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Армия - Raboche-Krest'yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya in Russian), the armed forces organised by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in 1918. This organisation became the army of the Soviet Union after its establishment in 1922. "Red" refers to the blood shed by the working class in its struggle against capitalism. Although it was officially known as the Soviet Army from 1946, the term Red Army is commonly used in the West to refer to the Soviet military after that date, i.e., during the Cold War.


Early history

The Council of People's Commissars set up the Red Army by decree on January 15 1918 ( Old Style) (January 28, 1918), basing it on the already-existing Red Guard. The official Red Army Day of February 23, 1918 marked the day of the first mass draft of the Red Army in Petrograd and Moscow, and of the first combat action against the occupying imperial German army. February 23 became an important national holiday in the Soviet Union, later celebrated as "Soviet Army Day", and it continues as a day of celebration in present-day Russia as Defenders of the Motherland Day. Credit as the founder of the Red Army generally goes to Leon Trotsky, the People's Commissar for War from 1918 to 1924.

At the beginning of its existence, the Red Army functioned as a voluntary formation, without ranks and insignia. Democratic elections selected the officers. However, a decree of May 29, 1918 specified obligatory military service was decreed for men of ages 18 to 40. To service the massive draft, the Bolsheviks formed regional military commissariats (военный комиссариат, военкомат (voenkomat)), which existed in this function and under this name till the very last days of the Soviet Union. (Note: do not confuse military commissariats with the institution of military political commissars.)

Following Aleksei Brusilov's offering his professional services, Bolsheviks decided to permit conscription of officers of the army of Imperial Russia. A special commission under the chair of Lev Glezarov (Лев Маркович Глезаров) was set, and by August 1920, about 315,000 of them have been drafted. Most often they held a position of military advisor (voyenspets: "военспец" for "военный специалист", i.e., "military specialist"), and a number of prominent Soviet Army commanders were former Imperial generals. In fact, a number of former Imperial military men, notably, a member of the Supreme Military Council Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich, joined Bolsheviks earlier.

The Bolshevik authorities assigned to every unit of the Red Army a political commissar, or politruk, who had the authority to override unit commanders' decisions if they ran counter to the principles of the Communist Party. Although this sometimes resulted in inefficient command, the Party leadership considered political control over the military necessary, as the Army relied more and more on experienced officers from the pre-revolutionary Tsarist period.

Missing image
Lenin, Trotsky, and soldiers of the Red Army in Petrograd

The institution of a professional officer corps, abandoned as a "heritage of tsarism" in the Revolution, returned in 1935. The Red Army acquired a General Staff made up of officers trained by German experts during the period of Soviet-German cooperation between the two World Wars. During the Great Purges of 1937-1939 (and later), the NKVD executed nearly all senior officers or sent them to forced labor camps as potential threats to Stalin's authority.

World War II

At the time of the Nazi assault on the USSR in June 1941, the Red Army numbered around 1.5 million men, but political cleansing of its ranks had weakened it. The German invasion took the Red Army cadres by surprise. The first weeks of the War saw the annihilation of virtually the entire Soviet Air Force on the ground, and major Soviet defeats as German forces trapped hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers in vast pockets.

Soviet forces were destroyed in the field as a result of poor levels of preparedness (defences in territory recently annexed from Poland were poor), a rejection of the earlier Soviet offensive doctrine of deep operations which resulted in static formations being overwhelmed and a refusal of Stalin to authorise preparations in case these were regarded as provocations by Hitler.

However, a generation of brilliant commanders, most notably Zhukov learned from the defeats and Soviet victories in the Battle of Moscow, at Stalingrad, Kursk and later in Operation Bagration proved decisive in what was known as the Great Patriotic War. But Soviet military conditions were brutal and losses were higher than in any other combatant nation's armed forces.

The Soviet government adopted a number of measures to improve the state and morale of the retreating Red Army in 1941. Soviet propaganda turned away from political notions of class struggle, and instead invoked the deeper-rooted patriotic feelings of the population, embracing pre-revolutionary Russian history. Propagandists proclaimed the War against the German aggressors as the Great Patriotic War, in allusion to the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon. References to ancient Russian military heroes such as Alexander Nevski and Mikhail Kutuzov appeared. Repressions against the Russian Orthodox Church stopped, and priests revived the tradition of blessing arms before battle. The Party abolished the institution of political commissars -- although it soon restored them. Military ranks were introduced. Many additional individual distinctions such as medals and orders were adopted. The Guard was re-established: units which had shown exceptional heroism in combat gained the names of "Guards Regiment", "Guards Army" etc.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army drafting helped bring the ranks up to a high point of about 20 million at the end of 1941, of which an estimated 7 million died by the end of the war, though some cite this number to be as high as 10 million. Nazi troops who captured Red Army soldiers frequently shot them in the field or shipped them to concentration camps and executed them as a part of the Holocaust. Hitler's notorious Commissar Order implicated all the German armed forces in the policy of war crimes.

Following its costly victory over Germany after the capture of Berlin in 1945, the prestige and influence of the Red Army in post-war Soviet society increased greatly.

To mark the final step in the transformation from a revolutionary militia to a regular army of a sovereign state, the Red Army gained the official name of the Soviet Army in 1946.

The Cold War

Missing image
Soviet army conscript hat insignia.

After the end of the Second World War, the numbers of the Soviet Army dropped from around 13 million to approximately 5 million. The size of the Army throughout the Cold War remained between 3-5 million, depending on Western estimates. This was due to Soviet law, which required all able-body males of age to serve a minimum of 2 years. As a result, the Soviet Army was the largest active army in the world from 1945 to 1991. Soviet Army units which had liberated the countries of Eastern Europe from German rule remained in some of them to secure the régimes in what became satellite states of the Soviet Union and to deter and to fend off NATO forces. The greatest Soviet military presence based itself in East Germany, in the so-called Western Group of the Armed Forces.

The trauma of the devastating German invasion influenced the Soviet cold-war military doctrine of fighting enemies on their own territory, or in a buffer zone under Soviet hegemony, but in any case preventing any war from reaching Soviet soil. In order to secure these Soviet interests in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Army moved in to quell anti-Soviet uprisings in the German Democratic Republic, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s.

The confrontation with the US and NATO during the Cold War mainly took the form of mutual deterrence with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union invested heavily in the Army's nuclear capacity, especially in the production of ballistic missiles and of nuclear submarines to deliver them. Open hostilities took the form of wars by proxy, with the Soviet Union and the US supporting loyal client régimes or rebel movements in Third World countries.

"You were born under the red banner in the stormy year of 1918", a poster produced for the annual Red Army Day holiday.
"You were born under the red banner in the stormy year of 1918", a poster produced for the annual Red Army Day holiday.

In 1979, however, the Soviet Army intervened in a civil war raging in Afghanistan. The Soviet Army came to back a Soviet-friendly secular government threatened by Muslim fundamentalist guerillas (including Osama bin Laden) equipped and financed by the United States. In spite of technical superiority, the Soviets could not establish control over the country and suffered heavy losses in guerilla attacks and ambushes, which led Gorbachev finally to withdraw the Soviet forces from the country. The blow to the Army's pride suffered in the debacle of Afghanistan parallels the American trauma over the lost war in Vietnam. The débacle of Afghanistan, moreover, drained away military resources at a time when the Soviet Union had to strain to keep pace with the West. The enormous cost to maintain a 5 million-man peacetime army, as well as wage a 10 year war with Afghanistan would prove to be a major factor that contributed to the decay of the Soviet economy and the Soviet Union as a whole.

The end of the Soviet Union

From around 1985 to 1990, the new leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reduce the strain the Army placed on economic demands. The Army was slowly reduced in size. By 1989, Soviet troops had completely left their Warsaw Pact neighbors to fend for themselves. That same year, the war with Afghanistan ended and all remaining Soviet troops were extracted. By the end of 1990, the entire Eastern Bloc had collapsed under the wake of democratic revolution. As a result, Soviet citizens quickly began to turn against the Communist government as well. In March 1990, nationalism in Lithuania caused the republic to declare its independence. A series of outer-lying republics would also declare their independence that year. Gorbachev's reaction was limited and the Army was not fully turned against its citizens and a crisis was developing. By mid-1991, the nation was in a state of emergency.

In August 1991, the Army played a decisive role in the coup d'état of reactionary communists and senior military commanders, who sent tanks into the streets of Moscow to overthrow Gorbachev and his reform-minded government. The coup failed as citizens took to the streets and tank crews refused to shoot at their compatriots.

After the following collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Army dissolved and the USSR's successor states divided its assets among themselves. The bulk of the Soviet Army, including most of the nuclear missile forces, became incorporated in the Army of the Russian Federation. Military forces garrisoned in Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states) gradually returned home between 1991 and 1994.

Further reading

  • Roter Stern über Deutschland, Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk und Stefan Wolle, Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin, 2001, ISBN 3-86153-246-8. This German book, The Red Star over Germany, without excessive hatred presents 49 years of the Soviet Army stationed in East Germany. The 256 pages of the book cover it all: from 49,000 who perished in prison camps of the Soviet zone, to the 18 Russian soldiers who refused to shoot unarmed Germans.
  • The Warsaw Pact: Arms, Doctrine and Strategy, Lewis, William J.; Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis; 1982. ISBN 0-07-031746-1. This book presents an overview of all the Warsaw Pact armed forces as well as a section of Soviet strategy, a model land campaign the Soviet Union could have conducted against NATO, a section on vehicles, weapons and aircraft, and a full color section of the uniforms, badges and rank insignias of all Warsaw Pact nations.

See also

External links

de:Rote Armee eo:Ruĝa Armeo es:Ejército Rojo fr:Armée rouge it:Armata Rossa he:הצבא האדום ja:赤軍 nl:Rode Leger nn:Den raude arméen pl:Armia Czerwona pt:Exército Vermelho ro:Armata Roşie fi:Puna-armeija sl:Rdeča armada sv:Röda armén zh-tw:紅軍 cs:Rudá armáda


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