Red Army

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Template:Armies of Russia

A Red Army is a communist army. This article is about the armed forces of the Soviet Union. See People's Liberation Army for the Chinese Red Army, Red Army Faction for the German insurgent group, and Japanese Red Army for the Japanese group.

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.

File:Red Army recruitment poster.jpg
"Have you signed up as a volunteer?" Red Army recruitment poster during the Russian Civil War.

Early history

1918 Bolshevik propaganda poster depicting Trotsky slaying the reactionary dragon

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 had 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.

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

Officer Corps

Ranks and Titles

The institution of a professional officer corps was abandoned as a "heritage of tsarism" in the Revolution. In particular, the word officer was condemned and the word commander was used instead. Epaulettes and ranks were abolished, and the titles were purely functional, e.g. “Division Commander”, “Corps Commander”, etc. In 1924, the system was supplemented with “service categories”, from K-1 (lowest) to K-14 (highest). The service categories were essentially ranks in disguise, they were indicative of the experience and qualification of a commander; the insignia now denoted the category, not position of a commander. However, the functional titles still had to be used to address commanders, which could be as awkward as “comrade deputy head of staff of corps” and was simply impossible if the position was not known, in which case one of the possible positions was used, e.g., “Regiment Commander” for K-9.

On September 22, 1935 the service categories were abolished and personal ranks introduced. These ranks, however, were a peculiar mix of functional titles and “normal“ ranks. For example, there was a rank of Lieutenant and there was a rank of “Comdiv” (Комдив, Division Commander). It was further complicated by 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.

On May 7, 1940, the system was modified again. The senior functional ranks of Combrig, Comdiv, Comcor, Comandarm were replaced with General or Admiral ranks; the other senior functional ranks (“Division Commissar”, “Division Engineer”, etc.) were not affected. On November 2, 1940, the system was further modified by abolishing functional ranks for NCOs and introducing the Podpolkovnik (sub-colonel) rank.

In early 1942 all the functional ranks in technical and administrative corps were replaced with regularised ranks (e.g., “Engineer Major”, “Engineer Colonel”, “Captain Intendant Service”, etc.). On October 9, 1942 the system of military commissars was abolished, together with the commissar ranks. The functional ranks were only retained in medical, veterinary and legislative corps.

In early 1943, the system was unified and all the remaining functional ranks were abolished. The word “officer” was officially endorsed, together with 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. The old functional ranks of Combat (Battalion or Battery Commander), Combrig (Brigade Commander) and Comdiv (Division Commander) are still used informally.

General Staff

On September 22, 1935, the RKKA Staff was renamed as the General Staff, which was essentially a reincarnation of the General Staff of the Russian Empire. Many of the former RKKA Staff officers had been General Staff officers in the Russian Empire and became General Staff officers in the USSR. General Staff officers typically had extensive combat experience and solid academic training.

Military Education

During the Civil War, the commander cadres were trained at the General Staff Academy of RKKA (Академия Генерального штаба РККА), which was an alias for the Nicholas General Staff Academy (Николаевская академия Генерального штаба) of the Russian Empire. On August 5, 1921 the Academy was renamed as the Military Academy of RKKA (Военная академия РККА), and in 1925 as the Frunze (М.В. Фрунзе) Military Academy of RKKA. The senior and supreme commanders were trained at the Higher Military Academic Courses (Высшие военно-академические курсы), renamed in 1925 as the Advanced Courses for Supreme Command (Курсы усовершенствования высшего начальствующего состава); in 1931, the courses were supplemented by establishing an Operations Faculty at the Frunze Military Academy. On April 2, 1936, the General Staff Academy was re-installed, and it was to become a principal school for the senior and supreme commanders of the Red Army, as well as a centre for advanced military studies.


Late 30s were marked by so-called Purges of the Red Army cadres, in the historical background of the Great Purge. The objective of the Purges was to cleanse the Red Army of the “politically unreliable element”, mainly among the higher-ranking officers, which inevitably provided a convenient pre-text to settle personal vendettas and eventually resulted in a witch hunt. The Purges are believed by some to have weakened the Army considerably, but this remains a hotly debated subject. A consideration often neglected is that the Army grew significantly while the Purges were in full swing. In 1937, the Army numbered around 1.3 million, and it grew almost three times that number by June 1941. This necessitated quick promotion of junior officers, often despite their lack of experience or training, with the obvious grave implications. Another important consideration is that by the end of the Purges the pendulum swung back, and many of the officers were restored and promoted.

Recently declassified data indicate that in 1937, the culmination of the Purges, the Army had 114,300 officers, of which 11,034 were repressed and not rehabilitated until 1940. Yet, in 1938, the Red Army had 179,000 officers (56% more compared to 1937), of which further repressed and not rehabilitated until 1940 were 6,742.

In the highest echelons of the 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.

Doctrines and Weapons

Major Conflicts

Civil War

See Russian Civil War

Central Asia

Far East

Battle of Halhin Gol

In 1934, Mongolia and the USSR, recognising the threat from the mounting Japanese military presence in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, agreed to co-operate in the field of defence. On March 12, 1936, the co-operation was enhanced with the ten-year Mongolian-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, which included a mutual defence protocol.

In May 1939, a Mongolian cavalry unit clashed with Manchukuoan cavalry in the disputed territory east of the Halha River (also know in Russian as Халхин-Гол, Halhin Gol), which was followed by a clash with a Japanese detachment, who drove the Mongolians over of the river. The Soviet troops quartered there in accordance with the mutual defence protocol intervened and obliterated the detachment. Escalation of the conflict was imminent, and both sides spent June amassing forces. On July 1, the Japanese force numbered 38 thousand troops. The combined Soviet-Mongol force had 12.5 thousand troops. The Japanese crossed the river but after a three-day battle were thrown back over the river. The Japanese kept probing the Soviet defences throughout July, without success.

On August 20, Zhukov opened a major offensive with heavy air attack and three hours of artillery bombardment, after which three infantry divisions and five armoured brigades, supported by a fighter regiment and masses of artillery (57 thousand troops total), stormed the 75,000 Japanese force deeply entrenched in the area. On August 23, the entire Japanese force was encircled, and on August 31 largely destroyed. Those refusing to surrender were wiped out with artillery and air attacks. Japan requested a cease-fire. The conflict was concluded with an agreement between the USSR, Mongolia and Japan signed on September 15 in Moscow.

In the conflict, the Red Army losses were 9,703 KIA and MIA and 15,952 wounded. The Japanese lost 25 thousand KIA; the grand total was 61 thousand killed, missing, wounded and taken prisoner.

Shortly after the cease-fire, the Japanese negotiated access to the battle fields to collect their dead. Finding thousands upon thousands of dead bodies was a further shock to the already shaken morale of the Japanese soldiers. The scale of the defeat was probably a major factor in preventing a Japanese attack on the USSR during World War II, which allowed the Red Army to switch a large number of its Far Eastern troops onto the European Theatre in the desperate fall of 1941.

World War II

The Beginning

On September 1, 1939 Germany attacked Poland. On September 17, the government of Poland escaped to Romania. On that same day the Red Army marched its troops into Poland, with the objective of securing the Western Ukraine and the Western Byelorussia, annexed by Poland at the break-up of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The advance halted at roughly the Curzon Line, which is believed to have been preconditioned by a secret protocol annex to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The Red Army troops faced little resistance, having 1,475 killed and missing and 2,383 wounded. The losses of the opposing Polish troops are unknown; the Red Army reported that it had “disarmed” 452,536 men but probably a great deal of them were not regular Polish Army servicemen. The Red Army force in Poland numbered 466,516; the strength of the opposing force is unknown.

The Finnish Campaign

The Great Patriotic War

At the time of the Nazi assault on the USSR in June 1941, the Red Army had 303 divisions and 22 brigades (4.8 million troops), of which 166 divisions and 9 brigades (2.9 million troops) were in the western military districts. Their Axis opponents had at the Eastern Front 181 divisions and 18 brigades (5.5 million troops). The first weeks of the War saw the annihilation of virtually the entire Soviet Air Force on the ground, as well as major equipment, tanks, artillery, and major Soviet defeats as German forces trapped hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers in vast pockets.

Soviet forces suffered heavy damage in the field as a result of poor levels of preparedness, which was primarily caused by a reluctant, half-hearted and ultimately belated decision by the Soviet Government and High Command to mobilize the army. Equally important was a general tactical superiority of the German army, which was conducting the kind of warfare that it had been combat-testing and fine-tuning for two years. The hasty pre-war growth and over-promotion of the Red Army cadres as well as the removal of experienced officers caused by the Purges offset the balance even more favourably for the Germans. Finally, the sheer numeric superiority of the Axis cannot be underestimated.

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.

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 drafted a staggering 29,574,900 in addition to the 4,826,907 in service at the beginning of the war, of which lost were 6,329,600 KIA 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 further 1,836,000 were recovered from German captivity. Thus the grand total of losses is 8,668,400. The majority of the losses were ethnic Russians (5,756,000), followed by ethnic Ukrainians (1,377,400). See Г. Ф. Кривошеев, “Россия и СССР в войнах XX века: потери вооруженных сил. Статистическое исследование” (G.F. Krivosheev, “Russia and the USSR in the XX century wars: losses of the Armed Forces. Statistical Study”, in Russian).

The German losses at the Eastern Front are estimated at 3,604,800 KIA/MIA (most killed) and 3,576,300 captured (total 7,181,100), the losses of the German satellites at the Eastern Front at 668,163 KIA/MIA and 799,982 captured (total 1,468,145). Of these 8,649,300, 3,572,600 were released from captivity after the war, thus the grand total of the Axis losses is estimated at 5,076,700.

A comparison of the losses demonstrates the cruel treatment of the Soviet POWs by the Nazis. Most of the Axis POWs were released from captivity after the war, but the fate of the Soviet POWs was quite different. 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.

File:Poster russian.jpg
US-Government poster showing a friendly Russian soldier.

In the first part of the war, the Red Army's weaponry was a mixed success. It had excellent artillery, but it did not have enough trucks to manoeuvre and supply it; as a result, much of it was captured by the Germans (who valued it highly). Its T-34 tanks were the best in the world, yet most of the armour was represented by hopelessly outdated models; likewise, the same supply problem handicapped even the formations equipped with the most modern tanks. Air Force was generally inferior against the Germans. The quick advance of the Germans into the Soviet territory made re-enforcements difficult, if not impossible, since much of the military industry was in the west of the country. Until the industry was re-established in the East, the Red Army had to rely on improvised weapons and partly on the British and American supplies. For example, it employed Sherman tanks (ca. 4100), Valentine Tanks (ca. 3700), M3A1 Stuart (ca. 1700), M17 MGMC (ca. 1000), Bren Carriers (more than 2500), Matilda IIA (ca. 1100) as well as M3A3 Lee and M3A5 Grant tanks, even though they were all inferior to the T-34 or KV-1. On the other hand, the red aviation received several thousand modern planes that were on par or better than the Soviet aircraft; these included various models of P-39 Airacobra fighters (almost 5000), Hawker Hurricane (3000), A-20 Havoc medium bombers (3000), P63 KingCobra (ca. 2400), P40 TomaHawk and P40 KittyHawk (2130), Supermarine Spitfire (ca. 1350). Finally, the Red Army received no less than 9600 pieces of various anti-tank and anti-air guns, as well as millions of tonnes of ammunition, personal weapons and other pieces of war equipment. These latter supplies were probably more important than tanks or aircraft. For example, the trucks received from the USA gave a new degree of mobility to the Red Army, which heavily contributed to its grand successes later in the war. Aluminium and aviation-grade fuel re-vitalized its aviation more readily than aircraft. Food supplies were a welcome addition to the front rations, and so on.

The Manchurian Campaign

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. 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 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 in the 1970s for the annual Red Army Day holiday.

Limited Contingent in Afghanistan

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. Technically superior, the Soviets did not have enough troops to establish control over the country and secure the border. This was a result of the hesitancy in the Politburo, who only allowed a “limited contingent”, averaging between 80 and 100 thousand troops. Consequently, local insurgents could effectively employ hit-and-run tactics, had easy escape routes and supply channels. This made the situation hopeless from the military points of view (short of the “scorched earth” tactics, which the Soviets did not practice except in World War II in their own territory). The understanding of this made the war highly unpopular in the Army. Following Glasnost, Soviet media started to report heavy losses, which made the war very unpopular in the USSR in general, even though actual losses were modest, averaging at 1670 per year. The war was also a sensitive issue internationally, which led Gorbachev finally to withdraw the Soviet forces from the country. The “Afghan Syndrome” suffered by the Army parallels the American Vietnam Syndrome trauma over the lost war in Vietnam.

Eventually, the enormous cost to maintain a 5 million-man peacetime army, as well as wage a 9 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.

According to the official commission (the Acedemy of Science scientists) appointed by the Supreme Council (the higher chamber of the Russian parliament) immediately after the August 1991 events, the Army did not play a significant role in what some describe as coup d'état of old guard communists. Tanks were sent into the streets of Moscow, but according to all the commanders and the soldiers, the orders were only to ensure the safety of the people. It is unclear why exactly the military forces were summoned into the city, but the goal clearly wasn't to overthrow Gorbachev (who was on the Black Sea at the moment) or the government. The coup failed primarily because the participants haven't taken any decisive action and after several days of their inaction the coup kind of stopped. The only confrontation between the citizens and the tank crews happened because of an act of vandalism by some of the people (who threw a Molotov cocktail at one of the tanks after covering it with the tarpaulin to cut of the vision to the tank crew), who were accidentally killed by a tank. The vandals were proclaimed heroes, while the tank crew was acquitted of all charges. There were no orders given to shoot at anyone.

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

cs:Rudá armáda da:Den Røde Hær de:Rote Armee es:Ejército Rojo eo:Ruĝa Armeo fr:Armée rouge ko:붉은 군대 it:Armata Rossa he:הצבא האדום nl:Rode Leger ja:赤軍 nn:Den raude arméen pl:Armia Czerwona pt:Exército Vermelho ro:Armata Roşie ru:Рабоче-крестьянская Красная Армия sl:Rdeča armada fi:Puna-armeija sv:Röda armén zh:苏联红军