1917: Red Guard into Army

State-Building: the Red Army

Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Lenin and his closest comrades believed that one of the characteristic features of modern "bourgeois" states, a standing army, was undesirable and inappropriate for the Workers' and Peasants' Republic over which they presided. Thus, even as negotiations with the Central Powers were underway at Brest Litovsk, the old Imperial Russian Army was being dismantled. At the same time, however, it became apparent that the rag-tag Red Guard units and elements of the imperial army who had gone over the side of the Bolsheviks were quite inadequate to the task of defending the new government against external foes. Thus, on January 15, 1918 Sovnarkom decreed the formation of the Worker-Peasant Red Army, to consist of volunteers from among "the most class-conscious and organized elements of the toiling masses."

The architect of the Red Army's formation was Trotsky who was appointed People's Commissar for the Army and Navy in March 1918 and remained in that position until 1925. Assisted by General M.D. Bonch-Bruevich, a former Imperial Guard officer who served as head of the new Soviet Supreme Military Council, Trotsky assiduously recruited and defended the use of former tsarist officers, euphemistically known as "military specialists." While few officers identified with Soviet power, many were willing to lend their services in the defense of Russia against foreign (initially German and Austro-Hungarian) forces. The introduction of politically reliable military commissars in April 1918 helped both to ensure the loyalty of the military commanders and to overcome resistance from rank-and-file soldiers to their commands. Abandoning the principle of a volunteer army, the Soviet government also introduced in April universal military training (Vsevobuch). Local call-ups and later in the year a general mobilization of conscripts aged 18-25 followed. Despite draft evasions and defections to the emerging White armies, the Red Army contained about 700,000 soldiers by the end of 1918. A year later its strength stood at nearly three million.

During the civil war, the Red Army saw action on a wide variety of fronts, mostly in the south and east. Relying heavily on the Imperial Army's arsenals of weapons and drawing on food supplies and horses from the interior, it vastly outnumbered its foes. The Red Army's soldiers, overwhelmingly peasant in origin, received pay but more importantly, their families were guaranteed rations and assistance with farm work. This, plus literacy and political education classes, served to limit desertions and forge an esprit de corps that carried over into the years after the civil war. The army's uniform, the long overcoat that overlapped at the front and the pointed cloth cap with red-star badge, were reminiscent of Muscovite-era warriors' garb and proved to be among the civil war's most enduring symbols.