Peter Petroff 1941

The Red Army

Source: Empire Review and Magazine, no 485, June 1941, pp. 259-63. This article was written prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 (the copy of the issue of this journal in the LSE Library is stamped as received on 10 June 1941).

Every period of great revolutionary change has also revolutionised the structure of the armed forces of its time. The French Revolution of 1789 produced a new army of liberated peasants, and its great military leader, Napoleon, who upset all prevailing conceptions of warfare and introduced a new strategy. The Russian Revolution of 1917 also produced a new type of armed force and new methods of warfare. The formation of the Red Army dates back to February 1918, when a German army marched on defenceless Petrograd. ‘With the transfer of power to the toiling and exploited classes’, reads the decree inaugurating the Red Army, ‘it became essential to create a new army to be a rampart of Soviet power in the present, a basis for the replacement of the standing army by the people in arms in the near future, and to serve as a support for the approaching Socialist revolution in Europe.’

In a poor and backward country ruined by misrule and war, this army gained victory over a world of well-equipped internal and external enemies besetting it from north and south, east and west. At the end of the Civil War, in December 1920, the Red Army had attained a strength of 5,300,000 men.

After three years of civil war following upon the World War the country was exhausted. The year 1921 was a year of devastating famine. Drastic cuts in the expenditure on defence had to be made; yet the international situation did not warrant any slackening of defence. In this dilemma the introduction of the militia system seemed the obvious solution. However, the Soviet Government was very cautious and hesitating in introducing it. In the great army of the Civil War the workers had formed only about 20 per cent – four-fifths were peasants. ‘If in a district there is antagonism, dissatisfaction, the local solidarity might turn against the regime’, was the warning of Trotsky.

In 1923 the first serious experiment in building up part of the army on a militia or territorial basis was made. It proved a great success. In 1927 the standing army or ‘field army’ reached its lowest number – 562,000 men. Since the reduced field army could pass through its mill only a quarter of the fit conscripts, the remaining three-quarters had to get their training in the militia or through a network of short military courses and exercises. These new developments in the defence system of the Soviet Union found their expression in the Military Service Acts of 1925 and 1930. A basis had been created for a system of militarisation of the whole nation such as had not existed anywhere in the world before.

In the Soviet Union every male worker and peasant is obliged to present himself for military service at the age of twenty-one; but already on reaching the age of nineteen he comes under the legal obligation for ‘pre-military training’ during a period of two years. For a considerable proportion of the young generation pre-military training begins at school. Particularly pupils of secondary schools (from whose ranks the young officers are recruited), and students of technical and other high schools, have to pass through serious theoretical military courses compulsory for both boys and girls. The period of active military service used to be two years in the Army and four years in the Navy. Since the new Military Service Law of September 1939, it is in the Army, two years; in the Air Force, three years (extended to four years since January 1941); in frontier and coast defence, four years; and in the Navy, five years. Every citizen, regardless of social origin, is now liable for military service. Soviet military authorities always considered that in a future war ‘not the Red Army alone will fight, but the entire people’. Therefore the ‘militarisation of the whole country’ became a watchword of Russian military policy.

The country is covered with a network of institutions catering for the military education of adults and young people of both sexes, urban and rural. Voluntary organisations with millions of members, such as Osoaviakhim, develop a feverish activity. Military study circles, technical circles, circles for rifle practice, flying and parachute circles grew up like mushrooms after rain. A popular military press with mass circulation, and popular booklets on technical and tactical military problems, are published and widely read. ‘Red Army Houses’ and clubs serve as centres of military education. Practically all universities, technical and other schools are holding military courses of some kind as part of their normal curriculum. Osoaviakhim supplies lecturers on military subjects to Party, League of Youth and Trade Union branches, Clubs and Circles. Women are by no means excluded from military activities. They may join the armed forces as volunteers, and those possessing special qualifications may be conscripted.

The commanding personnel of the Red Army in the majority are the bearers of the traditions of the Civil War. From its inception the Red Army had been built up as a class army. Consequently the government was faced with a difficult task in solving the officer problem for such an army in the midst of civil war. The problem was solved in a remarkable manner. While all sorts of military courses, schools and academies were opened, and worked feverishly to train commanders from the ranks, the Tsarist officers were mobilised, accepted into the Red Army, and given high responsible positions. But a new institute of ‘military commissars’ was created. Every unit – battalion, regiment, division, etc – had its Commissar, a Party man who was responsible for the morale of the unit and fulfilled a number of administrative and cultural functions. (They were abolished in 1940.) These Commissars were the true backbone of the army. The most difficult and responsible position in the Red Army was that of a regimental commissar. The Commissar had to keep his officer under control. He was held responsible both for the fighting spirit of his unit and for the loyalty of his officer. During the Civil War some 30,000 Tsarist officers were absorbed by the Red Army. At the end of the Civil War the Red Army possessed an experienced united cadre of 130,500 ‘commanders’.

The Revolution had abolished all titles in the army, even the term ‘officer’ had disappeared (just as the term ‘soldier’ had been replaced by ‘redarmist’). Instead, there were various ‘Commanders'; commander of a platoon, of a company, of a regiment, of a division, of an army. The ‘comrade commander’ or the ‘comrade commissar’ were not saluted. On duty – strictest discipline prevailed. Off duty – all were equals. A private redarmist and the commander of his own division might be seen playing games or taking language lessons together. ‘The commander has to be regarded as an elder comrade, the superior is but an authoritative guide and teacher’, reads an army order of 1922. ‘Discipline is based on consciousness and cannot be divorced from the respect of human dignity.

Discipline may be strict, even severe, but never humiliating.’ During the last twenty years the commanding personnel of the Red Army have studied intensively, worked and developed. In view of the rapid numerical growth of the standing army (which was doubled between 1934 and 1939), and also in consequence of the enormous headway in its mechanisation, the number of officers shows a rapid increase from year to year.

In 1939 there were 63 military schools catering for the needs of the army, and 32 aviation schools with more than 20,000 students. Further, there were 14 military academies and six special military faculties at civilian universities with an aggregate of over 20,000 day-students and some 15,000 students attending evening or special courses. Apart from that, many yearly and half-yearly courses for junior commanders were held all over the Soviet Union, training every year several hundred thousand students. In 1933 Stalin reintroduced the military rank titles abolished by the Revolution. However, this change had no immediate effect on the relationship between commanders and rank-and-file redarmists.

Nevertheless, there is a tendency to develop a new officer caste.

When the dictatorship narrowed down and the Stalin regime became more and more autocratic, reactionary changes were effected in the Red Army. If in the revolutionary period it was said that the redarmist carried the rifle in one hand and the torch of liberty in the other, under Stalin’s dictatorship his mission has become more and more limited. The Red Army may perhaps one day exterminate the Junkers in East Prussia as they have killed the shliakhta in Poland, economically and socially liberating the peasants, but, under the Stalin regime, they will not bring political liberty – they can only replace one tyranny by another. The suppression of liberty in the Soviet Union, the growing social inequality, the development of new privileged classes and of an oppressive bureaucracy have alienated the sympathies of the international labour movement and blunted the weapon of Soviet propaganda. The wholesale shooting and defamation of famous old revolutionaries and popular military and political army chiefs as well as the numerous purges have discredited the regime at home and abroad. Stalin’s ‘friendship’ with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy has damped the enthusiasm of Russia’s Red commanders.

The militia system which had functioned so well was abolished in 1939. No doubt military reasons may be adduced for the change, but the growth of class antagonism and internal tension must have influenced Stalin’s decision. If Stalin has weakened the spirit of the Red Army, the industrial development of Russia – now working through her third Five-Year Plan – enabled him to strengthen the Red Army by equipping it lavishly with the most modern armament. The mechanisation and motorisation of the Red Army has made enormous headway. The tank corps and the Air Force developed particularly rapidly.

While the rest of military Europe in its strategic and tactical ideas was swayed by the French General Staff and its ‘Maginot ideology’, the Red Army went its own ways and developed its own military doctrines. The theorists of the Red Army considered that for reasons of the social structure of the Red Army and the geographical conditions of Eastern Europe, the next war in which the Soviet Union might be involved was likely to be a war of movement, not a war of positions. During the Civil War the penetration into the enemy’s rear had been one of the features of Red Army tactics. No wonder that new ideas such as the use of parachutists, large-scale air transport of troops and of light tanks, originated in Russia. The supreme importance of cooperation of various types of arms in battle was first recognised in the Soviet Union – these new methods are certainly not a German invention.