The Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, seized power in November 1917. It immediately began peace negotiations with the Central Powers and took control of the armed forces. Once peace was concluded in March 1918 by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the demobilization of the old Russian imperial army began.
THE RED ARMY
Adhering to Marxist doctrine, which viewed standing armies as tools of state and class oppression, the Bolsheviks did not plan to replace the imperial army and intended instead to rely on a citizens’ militia of class-conscious workers for defense. The emergence of widespread opposition to the Bolshevik seizure of power convinced Lenin of the need for a regular army after all, and he ordered Trotsky to create a Red Army, the birthday of which was recognized as February 23, 1918. As the number of workers willing to serve on a voluntary basis proved to be insufficient for the needs of the time, conscription of workers and peasants was soon introduced. By 1921 the Red Army had swelled to nearly five million men and women; the majority, however, were engaged full-time in food requisitioning and other economic activities designed to keep the army fed and equipped as Russia’s beleaguered economy began to collapse. Because they lacked trained leadership to fight the civil war that erupted in the spring of 1918, the Bolsheviks recruited and impressed former officers of the old army and assigned political commissars to validate their orders and maintain political reliability of the units.
The civil war raged until 1922, when the last elements of anticommunist resistance were wiped out in Siberia. In the meantime Poland attacked Soviet Russia in April 1920 in a bid to establish its borders deep in western Ukraine. The Soviet counteroffensive took the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw before it was repelled and pushed back into Ukraine in August. The Red Army forces combating the Poles virtually disintegrated during their retreat, and the Cossacks of the elite First Cavalry Army, led by Josef Stalin’s cronies Kliment Voroshilov and Semen Budenny, staged a bloody anti-Bolshevik mutiny and pogrom in the process. The subsequent peace treaty gave Poland very favorable boundaries eastward into Ukraine.
The onset of peace saw the demobilization of the regular armed forces to a mere half million men. Some party officials wanted to abolish the army totally and replace it with a citizens’ militia. As a compromise, a mixed system consisting of a small standing army and a large territorial militia was established. Regular soldiers would serve for two years, but territorial soldiers would serve for five, one weekend per month and several weeks in the summer. Until it was absorbed into the regular army beginning in 1936, the territorial army outnumbered the regular army by about three to one. For the rest of the decade the armed forces were underfunded, undersupplied, and ill-equipped with old, outdated weaponry.
During the 1920s most former tsarist officers were dismissed and a new cadre of Soviet officers began to form. Party membership was strongly encouraged among the officers, and throughout the Soviet period at least eighty percent of the officers were party members. At and above the rank of colonel virtually all officers held party membership.
A unique feature of the Soviet armed forces was the imposition on it of the Political Administration of the Red Army (PURKKA, later renamed GlavPUR). This was the Communist Party organization for which the military commissars worked. Initially every commander from battalion level on up to the Army High Command had a commissar as a partner. After the civil war, commanders no longer had to have their orders countersigned by the commissar to be valid, and commissars’ duties were relegated to discipline, morale, and political education.
During the 1930s political officers were added at the company and platoon levels, and during the purges and at the outset of World War II commanders once again had to have commissars countersign their orders. Commissars shared responsibility for the success of the unit and were praised or punished alongside the commanders, but they answered to the political authorities, not to the military chain of command. Commissars were required to evaluate officers’ political reliability on their annual attestations and during promotion proceedings, thus giving them some leverage over the officers with whom they served.
The First Five-Year Plan, from 1928 to1932, expanded the USSR’s industrial base, which then began producing modern equipment, including tanks, fighter aircraft and bombers, and new warships. The size of the armed forces rapidly increased to about 1.5 million between 1932 and 1937. The rapid expansion of the armed forces led to insurmountable difficulties in recruiting officers. As a stopgap measure, party members were required to serve as officers for two- or three-year stints, and privates and sergeants were promoted to officer rank. The training of officer candidates in military schools was abbreviated from four years to two or less to get more officers into newly created units. As a result the competence and cohesion of the leadership suffered.
In the 1930s Soviet strategists such as Vladimir K. Triandifilov and Mikhail Tukhachevsky devised innovative tactics for utilizing tanks and aircraft in offensive operations. The Soviets created the first large tank units, and experimented with paratroops and airborne tactics. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) Soviet officers and men advised the Republican forces and engaged in armored and air combat testing the USSR’s latest tanks and aircraft against the fascists.
The terror purge of the officer corps instituted by Josef Stalin in 1937–1939 took a heavy toll of the top leadership. Stalin’s motives for the purge will never be known for certain, but most plausibly he was concerned about a possible military coup. Although it is very unlikely that the military planned or hoped to seize power, three of its five marshals were executed, as were fifteen of sixteen army commanders of the first and second rank, sixty of sixty-seven corps commanders, and 136 of 199 division commanders. Forty-two of the top forty-six military commissars also were arrested and executed. When the process of denunciation, arrest, investigation, and rehabilitation had run its course in 1940, about 23,000 military and political officers had either been executed or were in prison camps. It was long believed that perhaps as many as fifty percent of the officer corps was purged, but archival evidence subsequently indicated that when the reinstatements of thousands of arrested officers during World War II are taken into account, fewer than ten percent of the officer corps was permanently purged, which does not diminish the loss of talented men. Simultaneous with the purge was the rapid expansion of the armed forces in response to the growth of militarism in Germany and Japan. By June 1941 the Soviet armed forces had grown to 4.5 million men, but were terribly short of officers because of difficulties in recruiting and the time needed for training. Tens of thousands of civilian party members, sergeants, and enlisted men were forced to serve as officers with little training for their responsibilities. Despite the USSR’s rapid industrialization, the army found itself underequipped because men were being conscripted faster than weapons, equipment, and even boots and uniforms could be made for them.
The end of the decade saw the Soviet Union involved in several armed conflicts. From May to September 1939, Soviet forces under General Georgy Zhukov battled the Japanese Kwantung Army and drove it out of Mongolia. In September 1939 the Soviet army and air force invaded eastern Poland after the German army had nearly finished conquering the western half. In November 1939 the Soviet armed forces attacked Finland but failed to conquer it and in the process suffered nearly 400,000 casualties. Stalin’s government was forced to accept a negotiated peace in March 1940 in which it gained some territory north of Leningrad and naval bases in the Gulf of Finland. Anticipating war with Nazi Germany, the USSR increased the pace of rearmament in the years 1939–1941, and prodigious numbers of modern tanks, artillery, and aircraft were delivered to the armed forces.
WORLD WAR II
In violation of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact signed in 1939, Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941. Much of the forward-based Soviet air force was destroyed on the ground on the first day of the onslaught. All along the front the Axis forces rolled up the Soviet defenses, hoping to destroy the entire Red Army in the western regions before marching on Moscow and Leningrad. By December 1941 the Germans had put Leningrad under siege, came within sight of Moscow, and, in great battles of encirclement, had inflicted about 4.5 million casualties on the Soviet armed forces, yet they had been unable to destroy the army and the country’s will and ability to resist. Nearly 5.3 million Soviet citizens were mobilized for the armed forces in the first eight days of the war. They were used to create new formations or to fill existing units, which were reconstituted and rearmed and sent back into the fray. To rally the USSR, Stalin declared the struggle to be the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, comparable to the war against Napoleon 130 years earlier.
At the outset of the war, Stalin appointed himself supreme commander and dominated Soviet military operations, ignoring the advice of his generals. Stalin’s disastrous decisions culminated in the debacle at Kiev in September 1941, in which 600,000 Soviet troops were lost because he refused to allow them to retreat. As a result, Stalin promoted Marshal Georgy Zhukov to second in command and from then on usually heeded the advice of his military commanders.
The Soviet Army once again lost ground during the summer of 1942, when a new German offensive completed the conquest of Ukraine and reached the Volga River at Stalingrad. In the fall of 1942 the Soviet Army began a counteroffensive, and by the end of February 1943 it had eliminated the German forces in Stalingrad and pushed the front several hundred miles back from the Volga. July 1943 saw the largest tank battle in history at Kursk, ending in a decisive German defeat. From then on the initiative passed to the Soviet side. The major campaign of 1944 was Operation Bagration, which liberated Belarus and carried the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw by July, in the process destroying German Army Group Center, a Soviet goal since January 1942. The final assault on Berlin began in April 1945 and culminated on May 3. The war in Europe ended that month, but a short campaign in China against Japan followed, beginning in August and ending in September 1945 with the Japanese surrender to the Allies.
THE COLD WAR
After the war, the armed forces demobilized to their prewar strength of about four million and were assigned to the occupation of Eastern Europe. Conscription remained in force. During the late 1950s, under Nikita Khrushchev, who stressed nuclear rather than conventional military power, the army’s strength was cut to around three million. Leonid Brezhnev restored the size of the armed force to more than four million. During the Cold War, pride of place in the Soviet military shifted to the newly created Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), which controlled the ground-based nuclear missile forces. In addition to the SRF, the air force had bomber-delivered nuclear weapons and the navy had missile-equipped submarines. The army, with the exception of the airborne forces, became an almost exclusively motorized and mechanized force.
The Soviet army’s last war was fought in Afghanistan from December 1979 to February 1989. Brought in to save the fledgling Afghan communist government, which had provoked a civil war through its use of coercion and class conflict to create a socialist state, the Soviet army expected to defeat the rebels in a short campaign and then withdraw. Instead, the conflict degenerated into a guerilla war against disparate Afghan tribes that had declared a holy war, or jihad, against the Soviet army, which was unable to bring its strength in armor, artillery, or nuclear weapons to bear. The Afghan rebels, or mujahideen, with safe havens in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, received arms and ammunition from the United States, enabling them to prolong the struggle indefinitely. The Soviet high command capped the commitment of troops to the war at 150,000, for the most part treating it as a sideshow while keeping its main focus on a possible war with NATO. The conflict was finally brought to a negotiated end after the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, with nearly 15,000 men killed in vain.
Gorbachev’s policy of rapprochement with the West had a major impact on the Soviet armed forces. Between 1989 and 1991 their numbers were slashed by one million, with more cuts projected for the coming years. The defense budget was cut, the army and air force were withdrawn from Eastern Europe, naval ship building virtually ceased, and the number of nuclear missiles and warheads was reduced—all over the objections of the military high command. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, exposed the horrible conditions of service for soldiers, particularly the extent and severity of hazing, which contributed to a dramatic increase in desertions and avoidance of conscription. The prestige of the military dropped precipitously, leading to serious morale problems in the officer corps. Motivated in part by a desire to restore the power, prestige, and influence of the military in politics and society, the minister of defense, Dmitry Iazov, aided and abetted the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. The coup failed when the commanders of the armored and airborne divisions ordered into Moscow refused to support it.