The Red Army was the military force of the Bolshevik regime and the Soviet republic. It was formed in 1918 to defend the new regime during the Russian Civil War. In its formative years, the Red Army was assembled, organised and shaped by Leon Trotsky, who served as the Soviet commissar for military affairs between March 1918 and January 1925.
Forming a Soviet army
When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, the Red Guards constituted their only military force. Comprised mainly of armed industrial workers and former soldiers, the Red Guards contained as many as 200,000 men with one-sixth of this number located in Petrograd.
Though loyal to the Bolshevik cause, the Red Guards were untrained and lacking in military discipline and combat experience. The threat of continued war with Germany, combined with rising opposition to the new regime, demanded a larger, more professional standing army. The Sovnarkom responded by decreeing the formation of the Red Army in January 1918.
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.
Trotsky takes charge
The transformation of the Red Army began in March 1918 with the appointment of Leon Trotsky as war commissar. Most historians agree that Trotsky’s leadership was instrumental in crafting the Red Army into a professional military force. This transformation included some measures that, at the time, seemed risky or potentially dangerous.
One of Trotsky’s more controversial strategies was to exploit the military stocks of the old tsarist regime. Shortly after taking over as war commissar, Trotsky conscripted thousands of ex-officers and former NCOs (non-commissioned officers) from the Imperial Army. The new nation had no time to train and educate new officers, Trotsky argued. It needed the experience and expertise of military specialists immediately, regardless of their origins. These tsarist officers, he said, would be “squeezed like lemons, then thrown away”.
By 1920, more than 250,000 Imperial Army veterans had been drafted into the Red Army. Needless to say, most of these soldiers were tsarist loyalists with no allegiance or affection for the Bolsheviks. As the Civil War unfolded, the dangers of desertion, defection to the Whites or anti-Bolshevik espionage became apparent.
Trotsky ensured the obedience and good conduct of higher-ranking officers by ordering party commissars be attached to every military unit. These commissars were little more than Bolshevik watchdogs. They shadowed officers in positions of authority, from high-ranking generals down to company level commanders, then 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 families if officers 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”.
As in the Tsarist Imperial Army, the rank and file of the Red Army was comprised mainly 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.
A propaganda force
Realising the Red Army’s vast size and reliance on conscripts 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.
For all this, Trotsky could be as 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.
His response was 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.
“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
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 conscripts. This included thousands of former tsarist officers, called on for 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.