The Red Army

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Red Army uniforms from the Civil War period

The Red Army was the military force of the Soviet regime. It was formed in 1918, called into action to defend the new regime during the Russian Civil War. When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 their only military force was the Red Guards. Comprised mainly of armed industrial workers and former soldiers, the Red Guards numbered as many as 200,000 men, one-sixth of this number located in Petrograd. Though loyal to the Bolshevik cause, the Red Guards were nevertheless untrained and lacking both military discipline and combat readiness. The threat of continued war with Germany, along with rising opposition to the new regime, required a larger, more professional standing army. In January 1918 the Sovnarkom issued a decree forming the Red Army. In its first weeks, the new Red Army was a volunteer force, organised along socialist lines; its members wore no ranks or insignia and its officers were elected democratically. Needless to say, this did little to improve control, organisation or discipline.

The transformation of the Red Army began in March 1918 with the appointment of Leon Trotsky as war commissar. Historians generally agree that Trotsky’s leadership was instrumental in crafting the Red Army into a professional and effective military force. This transformation involved some measures that at the time seemed risky or potentially dangerous. One of the most controversial was Trotsky’s decision to raid the military stocks of the old tsarist regime. Shortly after taking control Trotsky conscripted thousands of ex-officers and former NCOs (non-commissioned officers) from the now-defunct Imperial Army. His justification was that the new nation had no time to train and educate new officers; it needed the experience and expertise of military specialists immediately, regardless of their origins. These tsarist officers, Trotsky claimed, would be “squeezed like lemons, then thrown away”.

“With all his brilliance at organisation and his genius for leading men, Trotsky understood that Russia’s embryonic Red Army could not develop without a large corps of officers trained in the methods of modern warfare.”
W. Bruce Lincoln, historian

By 1920 more than 250,000 Imperial Army veterans had been drafted into the Red Army. Many of these soldiers, once loyal to the Romanov monarchy, had no political allegiance or affection for the Bolsheviks. As the Civil War unfolded, the risk of desertion, defection to the Whites or anti-Bolshevik espionage increased. Trotsky ensured the obedience and good conduct of higher ranking officers by ordering party commissars by attached to every military unit. These commissars were little more than Bolshevik watchdogs. They shadowed officers in positions of command, from high-ranking generals down to company level, and reported back to the party on their loyalty, efficiency and enthusiasm. Obedience was also guaranteed by the ominous CHEKA and, in some individual cases, threats to the families of officers if they showed any signs of disloyalty. In December 1918 Trotsky ordered a group of commissars to “establish the family status of former officers among command personnel and inform each of them, by signed order, that any treachery or treason will cause the arrest of their families… They are each taking upon themselves responsibility for their families”.

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A poster depicting Trotsky guarding Soviet Russia from the White armies

As in the Tsarist Imperial Army, the rank and file of the Red Army were largely comprised of conscripted peasants. Conscription was introduced by the Sovnarkom in May 1918, as the Civil War was beginning to escalate. Red Army numbers spiralled, leaping from 800,000 in 1918 to more than three million by 1920, at which point the army was engaged in battle on sixteen different fronts. Realising the Red Army’s enormous size and reliance on conscripted peasants might create disciplinary problems, Trotsky implemented strategies to increase morale. Propaganda was distributed within the ranks of the Red Army; its soldiers were constantly reminded of their importance to the revolution and the consequences should they fail. The Komsomol, the Bolshevik party’s youth league, was also targetted as a source of idealistic young recruits.  During the Civil War, Trotsky himself lived almost permanently on an armoured train, travelling from one front to the next, supervising progress, meeting officers and delivering rousing speeches to Red Army soldiers. The train also carried a radio transmitter, a printing press for on the spot production of propaganda, a generous supply of tobacco and even a brass band, all to boost morale.

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Trotsky addresses Red Army soldiers during the Civil War

But Trotsky could be as determinedly brutal as he was motivating and uplifting. Following a string of defeats in mid-1918, when the Red Army was still undermanned and inexperienced, Trotsky was confronted by reports of desertion, cowardice and retreat among Red Army units. He responded by ordering the formation of ‘blocking units’. These special squads were placed at the rear of the front line and given orders to shoot any deserters or soldiers seen retreating without authorisation. It was a tactic later used by Trotsky’s nemesis Stalin during World War II. Trotsky’s ruthlessness, combined with his planning, his attention to detail and his ability to unify disparate forces, helped harden the Red Army into a formidable military force.

red army bolsheviks

1. The Red Army was the organised military force of the new Soviet regime. It was formed by decree in January 1918.

2. Trotsky was appointed war commissar in March 1918 and played a pivotal role in reorganising, shaping and toughening the Red Army.

3. Trotsky filled the ranks of the Red Army with conscription, including thousands of former tsarist officers, claiming to need their experience and expertise.

4. He was notoriously ruthless about enforcing loyalty and discipline, using threats against families and deploying party commissars and ‘blocking units’.

5. Trotsky also worked to raise morale in the Red Army, reminding soldiers of their importance in history, utilising propaganda and personally travelling around Russia to supervise and speak.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Red Army” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].