Red Army

The Red Army (Russian: Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Армия, Raboche-Krest'yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya; RKKA, full translation the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army) was the armed force first organized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in 1918 and, in 1922, became the army of the Soviet Union.

"Red" officially refers to the blood of the working class in its struggle against capitalism, and to the belief that all are equal—except for the social classes of the bourgeois, the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat. The appellation "Red" was dropped after World War II, when national symbols replaced those connoting the old revolutionary fervor, and it was officially renamed the Soviet Army (Russian: Советская Армия, Sovetskaya Armiya). The Red Army eventually grew to form the largest army in history from the 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, although China's People's Liberation Army may have exceeded the Red Army in size during some periods.

This article focuses upon the land force element of the Soviet Army, later called the Ground Forces. See Soviet Armed Forces for a description of the Soviet armed forces as a whole.


Russian Civil War

As the Russian Civil War became a reality, the Bolshevik government saw the need to replace the provisional Red Guards with a permanent force. The Council of People's Commissars set up the Red Army by a Decree on January 28, 1918, basing it initially on the Red Guards. 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. The burgeoning Civil War rapidly intensified after Lenin's dissolution of the Russian Constituent Assembly and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, as the nascent Communist forces faced off against loosely allied anti-Communist forces known as the White Armies.

The founder of the Red Army is often seen as Leon Trotsky, the People's Commissar for War from 1918 to 1924, who deserves much credit for creating a disciplined military force from the early motley volunteers. Trotsky decided to provide officers for the fledgling force by allowing former officers and NCOs of the army of Imperial Russia to join. The Bolshevik authorities set up a special commission chaired by Lev Glezarov, and by mid August 1920 had drafted about 48,000 ex-officers, 10,300 administration staff, and 214,000 ex-NCOs. Most held the position of "military specialist". A number of prominent Soviet Army commanders had previously served as Imperial Russian generals. Another important move was the unification of the Bolshevik military effort from several former organizations with the formation of the Revolutionary Military Council or Revvoensoviet, established on 6 September, 1918. Trotsky became president of the Revvoensoviet, while under him Ioakhim Vatsetis, a Latvian ex-Colonel of the Imperial army, became first Soviet Commander-in-Chief. Trotsky then had to make considerable efforts to root out the 'military anarchism' of the first chaotic months of the Red Army, adopting the slogan of 'exhortion, organization, and reprisals', and in some cases having to resort to firing squads to punish deserters. To ensure the loyalty of the ex-Imperial military specialists, and to bind the disparate elements of the new Red Army together, the military commissars were introduced.

The first period of the Civil War lasted from the 1917 Revolution until the November 1918 Armistice. First, in late November 1917 the new Bolshevik government declared that traditional Cossack lands were now to be run by the state. This provoked a revolt in Don region headed by General Kaledin, where the Volunteer Army began amassing support. The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also resulted in direct Allied intervention in Russia and the arming of military forces opposed to the Bolshevik government. There were also many German commanders who offered support against the Bolsheviks. Most of the fighting in this first period was sporadic, involving only small groups (including the Czechoslovak Legion, the Polish 5th Rifle Division and the pro-Bolshevik Red Latvian Riflemen) amid a fluid and rapidly shifting military scene.

The second period of the war was the key stage, which lasted from January to November 1919. At first the White armies' advances from the south (under Denikin), the east (under Kolchak) and the northwest (under Yudenich) were successful, pushing back the new Red Army on all three fronts. But Leon Trotsky reformed the Red Army and pushed back Kolchak's forces (in June) and Denikin's and Yudenich's armies (in October). The fighting power of all the White armies was broken almost simultaneously in mid-November, and in January 1920 cavalry under Budenny entered Rostov-on-Don. In 1919-1921 the Red Army was also involved in the Polish-Soviet war, in which it reached central Poland in 1920, but then suffered a defeat there, which put an end to the war. During the Polish campaign the Red Army numbered some 5.5 million men, of which the Army had difficulty supporting, around 581,000 in the two operational fronts, Western and Southwestern. Around 2.5 million men were 'immobilised in the interior' as part of reserve armies. Following the defeat of Pyotr Wrangel in the south, the Communists had won after four years of savage fighting, and established the Soviet Union in 1922. On 1 February 1924 Mikhail Frunze was appointed head of the Red Army Staff, and historian John Erickson dates the rise of the General Staff, which came to dominate Soviet military planning and operations, to that date. By 1 October 1924 the army's strength dropped to 530,000. This list of divisions expands on the fortunes of the individual formations of the Red Army during that period.

Deep Operations

Later in the 1920s and during the 1930s, Soviet military theorists introduced the concept of deep battle. It was a direct consequence from the experience with wide, sweeping movements of cavalry formations during the Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War. Deep Operations encompassed multiple maneuver by multiple Corps or Army sized formations simultaneously. It was not meant to deliver a victory in a single operation, but rather multiple operations conducted in parallel or successively were meant to guarantee victory. In this, Deep operations differed from the usual interpretation of the Blitzkrieg doctrine. The objective of Deep Operations was to attack the enemy simultaneously throughout the depth of his ground force to induce a catastrophic failure in his defensive system. Soviet deep-battle theory was driven by technological advances and the hope that maneuver warfare offered opportunities for quick, efficient, and decisive victory. The concurrent development of aviation and armor provided a physical impetus for this doctrinal evolution within the Red Army. Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky stated that airpower should be "employed against targets beyond the range of infantry, artillery, and other arms. For maximum tactical effect aircraft should be employed in mass, concentrated in time and space, against targets of the highest tactical importance."

Deep Operations were first formally expressed as a concept in the Red Army's 'Field Regulations' of 1929, but was only finally codified by the army in 1936 in the 'Provisional Field Regulations' of 1936. However the Great Purge of 1937–1939 removed many of the leading officers of the Red Army (including Tukhachevsky), and the concept was abandoned - to the detriment of the Red Army during the Winter War - until opportunities to use it evolved later during World War II. At that time, the Red Army fought in major border incidents against the Japanese, in 1938 and 1939.

World War II

Despite the USSR remaining initially neutral in World War II, the Red Army carried out an invasion of the Polish eastern territory in September 1939, with little resistance, and fought in a Winter War against Finland 1939-1940. By the autumn of 1940 the Third Reich had an extensive land border with the Soviet Union, but the latter remained neutral, bound by a non-aggression pact and by numerous trade agreements. For Hitler, no dilemma ever existed in this situation. Drang nach Osten (German for "Drive towards the East") remained the order of the day. This culminated, on December 18, in the issuing of ‘Directive No. 21 – Case Barbarossa’, which opened by saying “the German Armed forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign before the end of the war against England”. On February 3, 1941, the final plan of Operation Barbarossa gained approval, and the attack was scheduled for the middle of May, 1941. However, the events in Greece and Yugoslavia necessitated a delay — to the second half of June.

At the time of the Nazi assault on the USSR in June 1941, the Red Army's ground forces had 303 divisions and 22 brigades (4.8 million troops), including 166 divisions and 9 brigades (2.9 million troops) stationed in the western military districts. Their Axis opponents deployed on the Eastern Front 181 divisions and 18 brigades (5.5 million troops). Three Fronts, the Northwestern Front, the Western, and the Southwestern, controlled the forces defending the western border. However the first weeks of the war saw major Soviet defeats as German forces trapped hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers in vast encirclements, causing the loss of major equipment, tanks, and artillery. Stalin and the Soviet leadership responded by stepping up the mobilization that was already under way, and by 1 August 1941, despite the loss of 46 divisions in combat, the Red Army's strength stood at 401 divisions.

Soviet forces suffered heavy damage in the field as a result of poor levels of preparedness, whose primary causes were inadequate officers, as a result of the purges, disorganization as a result of a partially completed mobilization, and the reorganization the Army was undergoing. The hasty pre-war growth and over-promotion of inexperienced Red Army officers as well as the removal of experienced officers caused by the Purges offset the balance favorably for the Germans. The sheer numeric superiority of the Axis cannot be underestimated, though the combat strength of the two opposing forces appears to have been roughly equal in numbers of divisions.

A generation of Soviet 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 became known to the Soviets as the Great Patriotic War.

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 Communist Party abolished the institution of political commissars — although it soon restored them. The Red Army re-introduced military ranks and adopted many additional individual distinctions such as medals and orders. The concept of the Imperial Guard re-appeared: units which had shown exceptional heroism in combat gained the designation of Guards unit (for example 1st Guards Special Rifle Corps, 6th Guards Tank Army). This designation was more than symbolic, as Guards units had a more effectice TOE (table of organisation & equipment), and were thus allowed to draw better equipment, and drew the best recruits from training grounds and academies. Guardsmen also drew higher pay, and outranked non-guardsmen of the same nominal rank.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army conscripted 29,574,900 men in addition to the 4,826,907 in service at the beginning of the war. Of these it lost 6,329,600 KIA, 555,400 deaths by disease and 4,559,000 MIA (most captured). Of these 11,444,100, however, 939,700 re-joined the ranks in the subsequently-liberated Soviet territory, and a further 1,836,000 returned from German captivity. Thus the grand total of losses amounted to 8,668,400. The majority of the losses, excluding POWs, being ethnic Russians (5,756,000), followed by ethnic Ukrainians (1,377,400). However, as many as 8 million of the 34 million mobilized were non-Slavic minority soldiers, and around 45 divisions formed from national minorities served from 1941 to 1943.

The German losses on the Eastern Front comprised an estimated 3,604,800 KIA within the 1937 borders plus 900,000 ethnic Germans and Austrians. Approximately 1,800,000 MIA and 3,576,300 captured (total 9,881,100); the losses of the German satellites on the Eastern Front approximated 668,163 KIA/MIA and 799,982 captured (total 1,468,145). Of these 11,349,245, the Soviets released 3,572,600 from captivity after the war, thus the grand total of the Axis losses came to an estimated 7,776,645. As regards prisoners of war, both sides captured large numbers and had many die in captivity - one recent Russian figure says 3,6 of 6 million Soviet POWs died in German camps, while 300,000 of 3 million German POWs died in Soviet hands.

In the first part of the war, the Red Army fielded weaponry of mixed quality. It had excellent artillery, but it did not have enough trucks to maneuver and supply it; as a result the Wehrmacht (which rated it highly) captured much of it. Red Army T-34 tanks generally outclassed other tanks until 1943, yet most of the Soviet armored units were less advanced models; likewise, the same supply problem handicapped even the formations equipped with the most modern tanks. The Soviet Air Force initially performed poorly against the Germans. The quick advance of the Germans into the Soviet territory made reinforcement and replacements much more difficult since much of the Soviet Union's military industry lay in the west of the country. Until the Soviet authorities re-established the industry east of the Urals, much improvisation was necessary, and Soviet units were routinely far below their weapons establishment levels.

After World War II the Soviet Army had the largest land army in history. It had more tanks or artillery than all other countries taken together, more soldiers, and large numbers of greatly experienced commanders and staffs. The British Chiefs of Staff Committee rejected as militarily unfeasible a British contingency plan, Operation Unthinkable, to destroy Stalin's government and drive the Red Army out of Europe.

The Cold War

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. Georgi Zhukov took over as chief of the Soviet Ground Forces in March 1946, but was quickly succeeded by Ivan Konev in July. Konev held the appointment until 1950, when the position was abolished for five years. Scott and Scott speculate that the gap 'probably was associated in some manner with the Korean War'.

The size of the Soviet Armed Forces declined from around 11.3 million to approximately 2.8 million men from 1945 to 1948. In order to control this demobilization process, the number of military districts was temporarily increased to thirty-three, dropping to twenty-one in 1946. The size of the Armed Forces throughout the Cold War remained between 2.8 million and 5.3 million, according to Western estimates. Soviet law required all able-bodied males of age to serve a minimum of three years until 1967, when the Ground Forces draft obligation was reduced to two years. 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 Warsaw Pact satellite states of the Soviet Union and to deter NATO forces. The Soviet Army may also have been involved alongside the NKVD in suppressing Western Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule. The greatest Soviet military presence was in the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, but other Groups of Forces were also established in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary (the Southern Group of Forces). In the Soviet Union itself, forces were divided by the 1950s among fifteen military districts, including the Moscow, Leningrad, and Baltic Military Districts. As a result of the Sino-Soviet border conflict, a sixteenth military district was created in 1969, the Central Asian Military District, with headquarters at Alma-Ata.

In order to secure Soviet interests in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Army broke up 1950s anti-Soviet uprisings in the German Democratic Republic (1953), and Hungary in 1956. Soon afterward, Nikita Khrushchev started reducing the Ground Forces, placing more emphasis on the Armed Forces' nuclear capability, and building up the Strategic Rocket Forces. In doing so he ousted Zhukov, who had opposed the reductions, from the Politburo in 1957. The Soviet Ground Forces again crushed an anti-Soviet revolt in Czechoslovakia in 1968, bringing the Prague Spring to an untimely end. In 1979 the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in support of a Communist government, a move that sparked a ten-year guerilla resistance.

The Soviet Union reorganized the Ground Forces for war involving nuclear weapons, though Soviet forces did not possess sufficient theatre nuclear weapons to meet war planning requirements until the mid 1980s. The General Staff maintained plans to invade Western Europe whose massive scale was only made publicly available after German researchers gained access to National People's Army files following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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. His government slowly reduced the size of the army. In 1989 Soviet forces left Afghanistan. By the end of 1990, the entire Eastern Bloc had collapsed in the wake of democratic revolutions. As a result, Soviet citizens quickly began to turn against the Communist government as well. In 1990 the Baltic republics began declare their independence. Gorbachev reacted in limited fashion, declining to turn the Army against the citizenry, and a crisis developed. By mid-1991, the Soviet Union had reached a state of emergency.

According to the official commission, the Academy of Soviet Scientists, immediately after the Soviet coup attempt of 1991, the Armed Forces did not play a significant role in what some describe as coup d'état by old-guard communists. Commanders sent tanks into the streets of Moscow, but (according to all the commanders and soldiers) only with orders to ensure the safety of the people. It remains unclear why exactly the military forces entered the city, but they clearly did not have the goal of overthrowing Gorbachev (absent on the Black Sea coast at the time) or the government. The coup failed primarily because the participants didn't take any decisive action, and after several days of their inaction the coup simply stopped. Only one confrontation took place between civilians and the tank crews during the coup, which led to the deaths of three civilians. Although the victims became proclaimed heroes, the authorities acquitted the tank crew of all charges. Nobody issued orders to shoot at anyone.

Following the coup attempt of August 1991, the leadership of the Soviet Union retained practically no authority over the component republics. Nearly every Soviet Republic declared its intention to secede and began passing laws defying the Supreme Soviet. On December 8 1991 the Presidents of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine declared the Soviet Union dissolved and signed the document setting up the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev finally resigned on December 25, 1991, and the following day the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body, dissolved itself, officially ending the Soviet Union's existence. For the next year and a half various attempts to keep its unity and transform it into the military of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) failed. Steadily, the units stationed in Ukraine and other breakaway republics swore loyalty to their new national governments.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Army dissolved and the USSR's successor states divided its assets among themselves. The divide mostly occurred along a regional basis, with Soviet soldiers from Russia becoming part of the new Russian Army, while Soviet soldiers originating from Kazakhstan became part of the new Kazakh Army. As a result, the bulk of the Soviet Ground Forces, including most of the Scud and Scaleboard Surface-to-surface missile (SSM) forces, became incorporated in the Russian Ground Forces. (1992 estimates showed five SSM brigades with 96 missile vehicles in Belarus and twelve SSM brigades with 204 missile vehicles in Ukraine, compared to 24 SSM brigades with over 900 missile vehicles under Russian Ground Forces' control, some in other former Soviet republics). By the end of 1992, most remnants of the Soviet Army in former Soviet Republics had disbanded. Military forces garrisoned in Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states) gradually returned home between 1991 and 1994. This list of Soviet Army divisions sketches some of the fates of the individual parts of the Ground Forces.

In mid-March 1992, Yeltsin appointed himself as the new Russian minister of defense, marking a crucial step in the creation of the new Russian armed forces, comprising the bulk of what was still left of the military. The last vestiges of the old Soviet command structure were finally dissolved in June 1993, when the paper Commonwealth of Independent States Military Headquarters was reorganized as a staff for facilitating CIS military cooperation.

In the next few years, the former Soviet Ground Forces withdrew from central and Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states), as well as from the newly independent post-Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. Now-Russian Ground Forces remained in Tajikistan, Abkhazia, Georgia, and Transnistria.


At the beginning of its existence, the Red Army functioned as a voluntary formation, without ranks or insignia. Democratic elections selected the officers. However, a decree of May 29, 1918 imposed obligatory military service for men of ages 18 to 40. To service the massive draft, the Bolsheviks formed regional military commissariats (voyennyy komissariat, abbr. voyenkomat), which as of 2006 still exist in Russia in this function and under this name. Military commissariats however should not be confused with the institution of military political commissars.

In the mid-1920s the territorial principal of manning the Red Army was introduced. In each region able-bodied men were called up for a limited period of active duty in territorial units, which comprised about half the Army's strength, each year, for five years. The first call-up period was for three months, with one month a year thereafter. A regular cadre provided a stable nucleus. By 1925 this system provided 46 of the 77 infantry divisions and one of the eleven cavalry divisions. The remainder consisted of regular officers and enlisted personnel serving two-year terms. The territorial system was finally abolished, with all remaining formations converted to the other cadre divisions, in 1937–38.

Under Stalin's campaign for mechanization, the army formed its first mechanized unit in 1930. The 1st Mechanized Brigade, consisting of a tank regiment, a motorized infantry regiment, and reconnaissance and artillery battalions. From this humble beginning, the Soviets would go on to create the first operational-level armored formations in history, the 11th and 45th Mechanized Corps, in 1932. These were tank-heavy formations with combat support forces included so they could survive while operating in enemy rear areas without support from a parent front.

Impressed by the German campaign of 1940 against France, the Soviet NKO ordered the creation of nine mechanized corps on July 6, 1940. Between February and March 1941 another twenty would be ordered, and all larger than those of Tukhachevsky. Although, on paper, by 1941 the Red Army's 29 mechanized corps had no less than 29,899 tanks they proved to be a paper tiger. There were actually only 17,000 tanks available at the time, meaning several of the new mechanized corps were under strength. The pressure placed on factories and military planners to show production numbers also led to a situation where the majority of armored vehicles were obsolescent models, critically lacking in spare parts and support equipment, and nearly three quarters were overdue for major maintenance. By June 22 1941 there were only 1,475 T-34s and KV series tanks available to the Red Army, and these were too dispersed along the front to provide enough mass for even local success. To put this into perspective, the 3rd Mechanised Corps in Lithuania was formed up of a total of 460 tanks, 109 of these were newer KV-1s and T-34s. This division would prove to be one of the lucky few with a substantial number of newer tanks. However, the 4th Army was composed of 520 tanks, all of which were the obsolete T-26, as opposed to the authorized strength of 1,031 newer medium tanks. This problem was universal throughout the Red Army's available armour. This fact would play a crucial role in the initial defeats of the Red Army in 1941 at the hands of the German Armed Forces.

Command, Arms of Service, and Service Corps of the RKKA

Like other armies, the Red Army used administrative departments (called Directorates) to develop, train and equip the many combat Arms of Service troops and their Service Corps support echelons. These were: Headquarters and Staff
Stavka & HQ directorates
Soviet military academies
army map and military survey service
Rear Services ('Tyl')
Construction and administrative troops
Civil defence troops
Combat branches
Rifle Troops
Soviet cavalry
reconnaissance troops
Soviet armoured forces
Soviet artillery troops
The Soviet Airborne Troops
Combat support branches
Soviet sapper troops (combat engineers)
Soviet signals troops
chemical troops
NKVD troops including the blocking detachments (not actually a part either of the RKKA or Soviet Army)
Combat service support branches
medical troops
electrical-technical engineers
military justice and military police
Transport Troops
railway troops
Soviet veterinary troops
supply and administration troops
military music troops


War experience prompted changes to the way front-line forces were organized. After six months of combat against the Germans, STAVKA abolished the Rifle Corps intermediate level between the Army and Division level because while useful in theory, in the inexperienced state of the Red Army, they proved ineffective in practice. Following victory in the Battle of Moscow in January 1942, the High Command began to reintroduce Rifle Corps into its most experienced formations. The total number of Rifle Corps started at 62 on 22 June 1941, dropped to six by 1 January 1942, but then increased to 34 by February 1943, and 161 by New Years' Day 1944. Actual strengths of front-line divisions, authorized to contain 11,000 men in July 1941, were mostly no more than 50% of established strengths during 1941, and divisions were often worn down on continuous operations to hundreds of men or even less.

On the outbreak of war the Red Army deployed mechanized corps and tank divisions whose development has been described above. The German attack battered many severely, and in the course of 1941 virtually all (barring two in the Transbaikal Military District) were disbanded. It was much easier to coordinate smaller forces, and separate tank brigades and battalions were substituted. It was late 1942 and early 1943 before larger tank formations of corps size were fielded in order to employ armor en mass again. By mid 1942 these corps were being grouped together into Tank Armies whose strength by the end of the war could be up to 700 tanks and 50,000 men.

After the Second World War

At the end of the Great Patriotic War the Red Army had over 500 rifle divisions and about a tenth that number of tank formations. Their experience of war gave the Soviets such faith in tank forces that from that point the number of tank divisions remained virtually unchanged, whereas the wartime infantry force was cut by two-thirds. The Tank Corps of the late war period were converted to tank divisions, and from 1957 the Rifle Divisions were converted to Motor Rifle Divisions (MRDs). MRDs had three motorized rifle regiments and a tank regiment, for a total of ten motor rifle battalions and six tank battalions; tank divisions had the proportions reversed.

By the middle of the 1980s the Ground Forces contained about 210 manoeuvre divisions. About three-quarters were motor rifle divisions and the remainder tank divisions. There were also a large number of artillery divisions, separate artillery brigades, engineer formations, and other combat support formations. However only relatively few formations were fully war ready. Three readiness categories, A, B, and V, after the first three letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, were in force. The Category A divisions were certified combat-ready and were fully equipped. B and V divisions were lower-readiness, 50–75% (requiring at least 72 hours of preparation) and 10–33% (requiring two months) respectively. The internal military districts usually contained only one or two A divisions, with the remainder B and V series formations.

Soviet planning for most of the Cold War period would have seen Armies of four to five divisions operating in Fronts made up of around four armies (and roughly equivalent to Western Army Groups). In the late 1970s and early 1980s new High Commands in the Strategic Directions were created to control multi-Front operations in Europe (the Western and South-Western Strategic Directions) and at Baku to handle southern operations, and in the Soviet Far East.


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. This system was abolished in 1925, as there were by that time enough trained Communist officers that counter-signing of all orders was no longer necessary.

Ranks and titles

The early Red Army abandoned the institution of a professional officer corps as a "heritage of tsarism" in the course of the Revolution. In particular, the Bolsheviks condemned the use of the word "officer" and used the word "commander" instead. The Red Army abandoned epaulettes and ranks, using purely functional titles such as "Division Commander", "Corps Commander", and similar titles.

On September 22, 1935 the Red Army abandoned service categories and introduced personal ranks. These ranks, however, used a unique mix of functional titles and traditional ranks. For example, the ranks included "Lieutenant" and "Comdiv" (Комдив, Division Commander). Further complications ensued from the functional and categorical ranks for political officers (e.g., "Brigade Commissar", "Army Commissar 2nd Rank"), for technical corps (e.g., "Engineer 3rd Rank", "Division Engineer"), for administrative, medical and other non-combatant branches.

The Marshal of the Soviet Union (Маршал Советского Союза) rank was introduced on the 17th March 1940 as part of the proposal by Voroshilov to rationalise ranks. On May 7, 1940 further modifications to the system took place. The ranks of "General" or "Admiral" replaced the senior functional ranks of Combrig, Comdiv, Comcor, Comandarm; the other senior functional ranks ("Division Commissar", "Division Engineer", etc) remained unaffected. The Arm or Service distinctions remained (e.g. General of Cavalry, Marshal of Armoured Troops). For the most part the new system restored that used by the Imperial Russian Army at the conclusion of its participation in WWI.

In early 1943 a unification of the system saw the abolition of all the remaining functional ranks. The word "officer" became officially endorsed, together with the epaulettes that superseded the previous rank insignia. The ranks and insignia of 1943 did not change much until the last days of the USSR; the contemporary Russian Army uses largely the same system.

Military education

During the Civil War the commander cadres received training at the General Staff Academy of the RKKA, an alias of the Nicholas General Staff Academy of the Russian Empire. In the early 1920s this academy became the Soviet Frunze Military Academy. The senior and supreme commanders received training at the Higher Military Academic Courses, renamed in 1925 as the Advanced Courses for Supreme Command; in 1931, the establishment of an Operations Faculty at the Frunze Military Academy supplemented these courses. April 2, 1936 saw the reinstatement of the General Staff Academy; it would become a principal school for the senior and supreme commanders of the Red Army, as well as a center for advanced military studies. Eventually, most General Staff officers gained extensive combat experience and solid academic training.


The late 1930s saw the so-called "Purges of the Red Army cadres", occurring against the historical background of the Great Purge. The Purges had the objective of cleansing the Red Army of the "politically unreliable element", mainly among the higher-ranking officers. This inevitably provided a convenient pretext for settling personal vendettas and eventually resulted in a witch hunt. Some observers believe that the Purges weakened the Red Army considerably, but this remains a hotly debated subject. Many commentators overlook the fact that the Red Army grew significantly in numbers during the peak of the Purges. In 1937, the Red Army numbered around 1.3 million, and it grew to almost three times that number by June 1941. This necessitated quick promotion of junior officers, often despite their lack of experience or training, with obvious grave implications. In another important consideration, by the end of the Purges the pendulum swung back, restoring and promoting many of the purged officers.

Recently declassified data indicate that in 1937, at the height of the Purges, the Red Army had 114,300 officers, of whom 11,034 suffered repression and did not gain rehabilitation until 1940. Yet, in 1938, the Red Army had 179,000 officers, 56% more than in 1937, of whom a further 6,742 suffered repression and did not gain rehabilitation until 1940.

In the highest echelons of the Red Army the Purges removed 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 army generals, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps generals, 154 out of 186 division generals, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

The result was that the Red Army officer corps in 1941 had many inexperienced senior officers. While 60% of regimental commanders had two years or more of command experience in June 1941, and almost 80% of rifle division commanders, only 20% of corps commanders, and 5% or fewer army and military district commanders, had the same level of experience.

Manpower and enlisted men

The Ground Forces were manned through conscription, which as noted above was reduced in 1967 from three to two years. This system was administered through the thousands of military commissariats (военный комиссариат, военкомат (voyenkomat)) located throughout the Soviet Union. Between January and May of every year, every young Soviet male citizen was required to report to the local voyenkomat for assessment for military service, following a summons based on lists from every school and employer in the area. The voyenkomat worked to quotas sent out by a department of the General Staff, listing how young men are required by each service and branch of the Armed Forces. The new conscripts were then picked up by an officer from their future unit and usually sent by train across the country. On arrival, they would begin the Young Soldiers' course, and become part of the system of senior rule, known as dedovshchina, literally "rule by the grandfathers." There were only a very small number of professional non-commissioned officers (NCOs), as most NCOs were conscripts sent on short courses to prepare them for section commanders' and platoon sergeants' positions. These conscript NCOs were supplemented by praporshchik warrant officers, positions created in the 1960s to support the increased variety of skills required for modern weapons.

Weapons and equipment

The Soviet Union expanded its indigenous arms industry as part of Stalin's industrialization program in the 1920s and 1930s.

Notable Soviet tanks include the T-34, T-54 and T-55, T-62, T-72, and T-80, as well as post-Soviet variants of the T-72 and T-80 such as the T-90 and T-84. small arms used during the Second World War included, for example, the Mosin-Nagant Rifle, which was also used as a sniper rifle and the PPSh sub-machine gun.. But, throughout the late 1950s to the 1970s, the primary infantry weapon was the AKM (derived from the AK-47), followed by the AK-74, as well as many heavy machine guns.

Military doctrine

The Soviet meaning of military doctrine was much different from U.S. military usage of the term. Minister of Defence of Soviet Union Marshal Andrei Grechko defined it in 1975 as 'a system of views on the nature of war and methods of waging it, and on the preparation of the country and army for war, officially adopted in a given state and its armed forces.' Soviet theorists emphasized both the political and 'military-technical' sides of military doctrine, while from the Soviet point of view, Westerners ignored the political side. However the political side of Soviet military doctrine, Western commentators Harriet F Scott and William Scott said, 'best explained Soviet moves in the international arena'.



  • Helene Carrere D'Encausse, The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0-465-09818-5
  • John Erickson, The Soviet High Command - A Military-Political History 1918–41, MacMillan, London, 1962
  • David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus & Colossus Reborn, University Press of Kansas
  • House, Jonathan M. (1984). Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 66027–6900: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
  • David C Isby, Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army, Jane's Publishing Company, 1988
  • William E Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998
  • Carey Schofield, Inside the Soviet Army, Headline Book Publishing, 1991
  • Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Eastview Press, Boulder, Co., 1979
  • Zaloga, Steven J., James Grandsen (1984). Soviet Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War Two, London: Arms and Armour Press. ISBN 0-85368-606-8.

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