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Encyclopedia > Soviet 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 and RKKA are abbreviations for "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 since its establishment in 1922. "Red" refers to the blood shed by the working class in its struggle against capitalism.

The Red Army was created by a decree of the Council of People's Commissars on January 15 (January 28, O.S.) 1918 from the already-existing Red Guard. The official Red Army Day of February 23, 1918 marks 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 was an important national holiday in the Soviet Union, later celebrated as "Soviet Army Day", and it continues to be celebrated in present-day Russia as Defenders of the Motherland Day. Leon Trotsky, the People's Commissar for War from 1918 to 1924, is generally regarded as the founder of the Red Army.

At the beginning of its existence, the Red Army was a voluntary formation, without ranks and insignia. Officers were democratically elected. However, on May 29, 1918, obligatory military service was decreed for men of ages 18-40. To service the massive draft, regional military commissariats (военный комиссариат, военкомат (voenkomat)) were formed, which existed in this function and under this name till the very last days of the Soviet Union. Military commissariats should not be confused with the institution of military political commissars.

Every unit of the Red Army was assigned a political commissar, or politruk, who was given the authority to override unit commanders' decisions which were in opposition to the principles of the Communist Party. Although this sometimes resulted in inefficient command, the Party leadership considered political control over the military to be 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

The institution of professional officers, abandoned as a "heritage of tsarism", was restored in 1935. A General Staff was created from 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), nearly all senior officers were executed or sent to forced labor camps as potential threats to Stalin's authority.


World War II

At the time of the Nazi Germany assault on the USSR in June 1941, the Red Army numbered around 1.5 million men. Already weakened by the political cleansing of its ranks, the Red Army was taken by surprise by the German invasion. 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.

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 deeper-rooted patriotic feelings of the population, embracing pre-revolutionary Russian history. The War against the German aggressors was proclaimed the Great Patriotic War, in allusion to the Patriotic War against Napoleon in 1812. References to ancient Russian military heroes such as Alexander Nevski and Mikhail Kutuzov were made. Repressions against the Russian Orthodox Church stopped, and priests revived the tradition of blessing arms before battle. The institution of political commissars was abolished, although it was soon restored. Military ranks were introduced. Many additional individual distinctions such as medals and orders were adopted. The Guard was reestablished, with units having shown exceptional heroism in combat being renamed "Guards Regiment", "Guards Army" etc.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army drafted between 15 and 20 million officers and soldiers, of which 7 to 10 million were killed. Red Army soldiers captured by the Nazi armies were frequently shot in the field, or shipped to concentration camps and executed as a part of the Holocaust. Following its costly victory over Germany after the capture of Berlin in 1945, the prestige and influence of the 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 was renamed Soviet Army in 1946.

The Cold War

Soviet army conscript hat insignia.

After the end of the Second World War, the numbers of the Soviet Army were reduced to approximately 5 million. Soviet Army units which had liberated the countries of Eastern Europe from German rule remained in some of them to secure the regimes in what became satellite states of the Soviet Union and to deter and to fend off NATO forces. The greatest Soviet military presence was maintained 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 1950 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 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 respectively supporting loyal regimes 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.

In 1979, however, the Soviet Army itself was sent to intervene in a civil war raging in Afghanistan. The Soviet Army was to back a Soviet-friendly secular government which was 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 was comparable to the American trauma over the lost war in Vietnam. The debacle of Afghanistan, moreover, was a drain on resources at a time when the Soviet Union was straining to keep pace with the West, and would ultimately be a contributory factor in its decay.

The End of the Soviet Union

In 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 was dissolved and its assets divided among the USSR's successor states. The bulk of the Soviet Army, including most of the nuclear missile forces, was incorporated in the Army of the Russian Federation. Military forces garrisoned in Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states) were gradually moved back home between 1991 and 1994.


  • 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.

Related articles

  Results from FactBites:
Front (Soviet Army) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (195 words)
A Front was a major military organization in the Soviet Army, roughly equivalent to an army or army group in British or American miltary terminology.
Soviet fronts were raised during the Polish-Soviet War, Polish September Campaign (Bielorussian and Ukrainian) and the Second World War.
During the Cold War, fronts and their staffs are integrated with various military districts, or become "Group of Soviet Forces" in a Warsaw Pact nation.
  More results at FactBites »



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