The Red Army (Russian: Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Армия, Raboche-Krest'yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya; RKKA, full translation Workers' and Peasants' Red Army) were the armed forces first organized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in 1918 and that, in 1922, became the army of the Soviet Union. 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. "Red" refers to the blood shed by the working class in its struggle against capitalism. From 1946, the Red Army was officially renamed the Soviet Army, though people in the West commonly used the term Red Army to refer also to the Soviet military after that date.

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


The Russian Civil WarEdit

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As the Russian Civil War became a reality, the Bolshevik hierarchy 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,[1] 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.

[2] 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.[3] Trotsky decided to provide officers for the fledgling force by allowing former officers and NCOs of the army of Imperial Russia to join.[4] 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.[5] 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 organisations 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, organisation, and reprisals', and in some cases having to resort to firing squads to punish deserters.[6] 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 Czech 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).[7] 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, what put an end to the war. Following the defeat of Pyotr Wrangel in the south,[8] the Communists had won after four years of savage fighting, and established the Soviet Union in 1922. This list of divisions expands on the build up of the Soviet Army from that period.

Deep OperationsEdit

Later in the 1920s and during the 1930s, Soviet military theorists introduced the concept of deep battle.[9] 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 IIEdit

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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.[10] 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 North-Western Front, the Western, and the South-Western, 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 pockets and the loss of major equipment, tanks, and artillery. Stalin and the Soviet leadership responded by stepping up the mobilisation 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.[11]

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, disorganisation as a result of a partially completed mobilization, and the reorganisation the Army was undergoing.[12] 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 favourably for the Germans.[13] 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.[14]

A generation of Soviet commanders (most notably Zhukov) learned from the defeats,[15] 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.

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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 a Guard re-appeared: units which had shown exceptional heroism in combat gained the names of "Guards Regiment", "Guards Army", etc.[16]

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 comprised ethnic Russians (5,756,000), followed by ethnic Ukrainians (1,377,400).[17] However, as many as 8 million of the 34 million mobilised were non-Slavic minority soldiers, and around 45 divisions formed from national minorities served from 1941 to 1943.[18]

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.[19]

Reichstag flag

Red Army soldiers Mikhail Yegorov and Meliton Kantaria of the 756th Rifle Regiment raising the Flag of the Soviet Union over the Reichstag building during the Battle of Berlin, April 30, 1945.

When the Red Army entered German territory it exacted often brutal revenge for German atrocities. While the laws of the Red Army officially prohibited such activities, the leadership nonetheless tolerated them. Note however that some historians say they refuted allegations that Soviet officials actively encouraged such behaviour.

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.[20]

After World War II the Soviet Army had the most powerful 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,[21] to destroy Stalin's government and drive the Red Army out of Europe.[22]

The Cold WarEdit



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'.[23]

The size of the Soviet Armed Forces declined from around 11.3 million to approximately 2.8 million men from 1945 to 1948.[24] In order to control this demobilisation process, the number of military districts was temporarily increased to thirty-three, dropping to twenty-one in 1946.[25] The size of the Armed Forces throughout the Cold War remained between 2.8 million and 5.3 million, according to Western estimates.[26] 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.[27] 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 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.[28]

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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.

The Soviet Union reorganised 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.[29] The General Staff maintained plans to invade Western Europe whose massive scale was only discovered after German researchers gained access to National People's Army files following the collapse of the Soviet Union.[30]

The end of the Soviet Union Edit

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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. By 1989 Soviet troops had completely left their Warsaw Pact neighbors to fend for themselves. That same year 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 March 1990, nationalism in Lithuania caused that republic to declare its independence. A series of out-lying republics would also declare their independence that year. 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.[31]

According to the official commission (the Academy of Soviet Scientists) appointed by the Supreme Soviet (the higher chamber of the Soviet parliament) immediately after the events of August 1991, the Army did not play a significant role in what some describe as coup d'état of 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.[32]

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).[33] 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 defence, 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 reorganised as a staff for facilitating CIS military cooperation.[34]

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, where the Russian military presence was deeply resented, 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.[35] To service the massive draft, the Bolsheviks formed regional military commissariats (военный комиссариат, военкомат (voenkomat)), 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.

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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 unit, which comprised about half the Army's strength, each year, for five years.[36] 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 stints. The territorial system was finally abolished, with all remaining formations converted to the other 'cadre' divisions, in 1937 and 1938.[37]

Slowly developing their mechanised forces, in 1930 the Army formed its first mechanized unit, the 1st Mechanized Brigade, which consisted of a tank regiment, a motorized infantry regiment, and reconnaissance and artillery battalions.[38] 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.[39] There were actually only 17,000 tanks available at the time, meaning several of the new mechanized corps were under-strength, and the sheer majority of these were obsolete designs. 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.[40] To put this into perspective, the 3rd Mechanized 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.[41] 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.[42]

War timeEdit

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War experience prompted changes to the way front-line forces were organised. 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.[43] Following victory in the Battle of Moscow in summer of 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 Year's Day 1944. Actual strengths of front-line divisions, authorised to contain 11,000 men in July 1941, were mostly no more than 50% of established strengths during 1941,[44] 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 mechanised corps and tank divisions whose development has been described above. The German attack battered many severely, and in the course of 1941 all were disbanded.[45] 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 armour en masse 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.


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.[46] 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 motorised 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.[47] 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 had 80%+ manpower and were fully equipped. B and V divisions were lower-readiness, 50–70% and 10–33% respectively.[48] 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[49] 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.[50]

Ranks and TitlesEdit

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. In 1924 it supplemented this system with "service categories", from K-1 (lowest) to K-14 (highest). The service categories essentially operated as ranks in disguise: they indicated the experience and qualifications of a commander. The insignia now denoted the category, not the position of a commander. However, one still had to use functional titles to address commanders, which could become as awkward as "comrade deputy head-of-staff of corps". If one did not know a commander's position, one used one of the possible positions - for example: "Regiment Commander" for K-9.[51]

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.

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. On November 2, 1940, the system underwent further modification with the abolition of functional ranks for NCOs and the introduction of the Podpolkovnik (sub-colonel) rank.[52]

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

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. The old functional ranks of Combat (Battalion or Battery Commander), Combrig (Brigade Commander) and Comdiv (Division Commander) continue in informal use.[53]

General StaffEdit

On September 22, 1935, the authorities renamed the RKKA Staff as the General Staff, which essentially reincarnated the General Staff of the Russian Empire. Many of the former RKKA Staff officers had served as General Staff officers in the Russian Empire and became General Staff officers in the USSR.[54]

Military EducationEdit

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During the Civil War the commander cadres received training at the General Staff Academy of the RKKA (Академия Генерального штаба РККА), an alias of the Nicholas General Staff Academy (Николаевская академия Генерального штаба) of the Russian Empire. On August 5, 1921 the Academy became the Military Academy of the RKKA (Военная академия РККА), and in 1925 the Frunze (М.В. Фрунзе) Military Academy of the RKKA. The senior and supreme commanders received training 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 establishment of an Operations Faculty at the Frunze Military Academy supplemented these courses. April 2, 1936 saw the re-instatement 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 centre for advanced military studies. Eventually, most General Staff officers gained extensive combat experience and solid academic training.

One should note that Red Army (and later Soviet Army) educational facilities called "academies" do not correspond to the military academies in Western countries. Those Soviet Academies were the post-graduate schools, mandatory for officers applying for senior ranks (e.g., the rank of Colonel since 1950s). While a basic officer education in the Red Army was provided by the facilities named военная школа or военное училище - which may be generally translated as "School" and compared to Western "academies" like West Point or Sandhurst.[55]


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.[56]

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.[57]

Manpower and Enlisted MenEdit


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.[58] 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[59] 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.[60]

Weapons and EquipmentEdit

The Soviet Union established an 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.

Military DoctrineEdit

The Soviet meaning of military doctrine was much different from U.S. military usage of the term. Soviet Minister of Defence Marshal 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 emphasised 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 Bill Gates said, 'best explained Soviet moves in the international arena'.[61]


  1. January 15, 1918 (Old Style)
  2. S.S. Lototskiy, The Soviet Army (Moscow:Progress Publishers, 1971), p.25, cited in Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Eastview Press, Boulder, Co., 1979, p.3. February 23 became an important national holiday in the Soviet Union, later celebrated as "Soviet Army Day".
  3. Scott and Scott, 1979, p.8
  4. John Erickson, The Soviet High Command - A Military-Political History 1918–41, MacMillan, London, 1962, p.31–34
  5. N. Efimov, Grazhdanskaya Voina 1918–21 (The Civil War 1918–21), Second Volume, Moscow, c.1928, p.95, cited in Erickson, 1962, p.33
  6. Erickson, 1962, p.38–9
  7. John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41, p.72–73
  8. Erickson, 1962, p.102–107
  9. Mary Habeck, Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union, 1919–1939, Cornell University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8014-4074-2.
  10. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, American edition, Boston, 1943, p.654, cited in William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, The Reprint Society, London, 1962, p. 796
  11. David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998, p.15
  12. David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998
  13. David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998
  14. David Glantz in Stumbling Colossus discusses the correlation of forces in Appendix D (pages 292–295), and concludes that the Axis forces had a superiority of 1:1.7 in personnel, though the Red Army had 174 divisions to the Axis' 164, a 1.1:1 ratio.
  15. David Glantz, Colossus Reborn, 2005, p.61–62
  16. David Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas, 2005, p.181
  17. 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 wars of the 20th century: losses of the Armed Forces. A Statistical Study, in Russian)
  18. Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas, 2005, p.600–602
  19. Rűdiger Overmans, Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Oldenbourg 2000. ISBN 3-486-56531-1
  20. Antony Beevor, Stalingrad, 1998. ISBN 0-14-024985-0
  21. Operation Unthinkable report - page 2, opening date.
  22. David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998
  23. Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Eastview Press, Boulder, Co., 1979, p.142
  24. William E. Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p.39
  25. Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Westview Press, Boulder, CO., 1979, p.176
  26. Odom, 1998, p.39
  27. Scott and Scott, 1979, p.305
  28. Scott and Scott, 1979, p.176
  29. William E. Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p.69
  30., also see Viktor Suvorov, Inside the Soviet Army
  31. Helene Carrere D'Encausse, The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0-465-09818-5
  32. David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, Vintage Books, 1994, ISBN 0-679-75125-4
  33. IISS, The Military Balance 1992–93, Brassey's, London, 1992, p.72,86,96
  34. Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Random House, 1995, ISBN 0679413766
  35. Scott and Scott, 1979, p.5
  36. Scott and Scott, 1979, p.12
  37. David Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas, 2005, p.717 note 5.
  38. Charles Sharp, Soviet Order of Battle World War II Volume I: "The Deadly Beginning," Soviet Tank, Mechanized, Motorized Divisions and Tank Brigades of 1940–1942 (Privately Published, George Nafziger, 1995), 2–3, cited at
  39. House, p. 96
  40. 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, p. 96
  41. Glantz, pg.35
  42. Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, p. 117
  43. Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–43, University Press of Kansas, 2005, p.179
  44. David Glantz, 2005, p.189
  45. Glantz, 2005, p.217–230
  46. Mark L Urban, Soviet Land Power
  47. M J Orr, The Russian Ground Forces and Reform 1992–2002, January 2003, Conflict Studies Research Centre, UK Defence Academy, Sandhurst, p.1
  48. M J Orr, 2003, p.1 and David C Isby, Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army, Jane's Publishing Company, 1988, p.30
  49. Viktor Suvorov, Inside the Soviet Army, Hamish Hamilton, 1982, gives this title, Odom (1998) also discusses this development
  50. Scott and Scott, The Armed Forces of the USSR, Eastview Press, 1979, p.13
  51. John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41, p.72–73
  52. John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41
  53. David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998
  54. John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41,
  55. Carey Schofield, Inside the Soviet Army, Headline, London, 1991, p.67–70
  56., citing Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 489.
  57. Glantz, David M., Stumbling Colossus, p. 58.
  58. Carey Schofield, Inside the Soviet Army, Headline, London, 1991, p.67–70
  59. Viktor Suvorov, Inside the Soviet Army, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1982, gives the figure of six months with a training division
  60. William E Odom, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p.43
  61. Scott and Scott, 1979, p.37,59
  • Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Stanford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8047-2247-1
  • Helene Carrere D'Encausse, The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0-465-09818-5
  • Nenarokov, Albert P., Russia in the Twentieth Century: the View of a Soviet Historian, William Morrow Co, New York, 1968.

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