The Red Army of the Russian Civil War

The supreme achievement of the Soviet government in the civil-wars years: the creation of the Red Army. Much of the credit for this has, rightly, been apportioned to war commissar L. D. Trotsky.

The foregoing account of the 1919 campaigns concentrated on the White advances because the Reds tended not to make grand strategic decisions in that year. Rather, they reacted to the probings of their opponents and took advantage when the latter collapsed. That, however, is not to downplay the supreme achievement of the Soviet government in the civil-wars years: the creation of the Red Army. Much of the credit for this has, rightly, been apportioned to war commissar L. D. Trotsky.

The Red Army was born out of the disintegration of the Imperial Russian Army, which the Bolsheviks had done so much to foster (regarding the army as a nest of real and potential counterrevolutionaries). Prior to October 1917, the party’s propagandizing among troops fostered disorder and desertion; after October, Sovnarkom issued an avalanche of decrees canceling all ranks and titles, permitting the election of officers, expanding the competences of soldiers’ committees, and ordering the demobilization of successive classes of conscripts. All this culminated in the order for a general demobilization of the old army on 29 January 1918. However, the disintegration of the old army did not necessarily imply the creation of a new one.

Like most socialists, the Bolsheviks generally despised militarism and regarded the standing army as the chief instrument of state oppression of the working class. For them, especially those consolidating around N. I. Bukharin, A. S. Bubnov, and V. M. Smirnov as the nucleus of the Left Bolsheviks within the party, one of the essential purposes of the revolution was to destroy the army and to replace it with a democratic militia system. As advocates of the untapped potential for revolutionary creativity of the proletariat, the Left further considered that any subsequent conflict, either domestic or international, would be conducted according to quite different principles of organization and strategy—a concept they dubbed “revolutionary war”—in which what would count would not be military training or experience but the unstoppable and incorruptible élan of the workers-in-arms. However, the militia system failed at the first hurdle, during the German invasion of Soviet territory in February 1918 that was occasioned by Sovnarkom’s initial reluctance to accept the peace terms on offer at Brest-Litovsk. It had been expected that at least 300,000 recruits would come forward for this partisan army, but only around 20,000 were mustered (a third of them from Petrograd). Consequently, the German advance was virtually unopposed during the “Eleven-Days War,” and the Soviet government had to accept the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

All this had an immediate impact on Trotsky, who resigned as foreign commissar and became People’s Commissar for Military Affairs on 14 March 1918. A dedication to order, routine, hierarchy, and discipline was central to his character and style as a revolutionary, and he soon began to impose those characteristics on the Red military. Within a week of becoming war commissar, he was telling the Moscow Soviet, “Comrades! Our Soviet Socialist Republic needs a well-organized army,” and went on to assert:

While we were fighting with the Kaledinites we could successfully remain content with units which had been put together in haste. Now, however, in order to cope with the creative work of reviving the country . . . , in order to ensure the security of the Soviet Republic under conditions of international counter-revolutionary encirclement, such units are already inadequate. We need a properly and freshly organized army!

But how was such an army to be organized and led? Certainly Trotsky knew such a task would be beyond his own capabilities and those of the other journalists and activists who led the Bolshevik party. So, in a leap of faith that must be regarded as one of the key moments in the civil wars, Trotsky grasped the nettle and, in address of 28 March 1918 to a Moscow city conference of the party, he focused on what he termed the “sore point” in party discussions, which for him had to be at the heart of the new army:

the question of drawing military specialists, that is, to speak plainly, former officers and generals, into the work of creating and administering the Army. All the fundamental, leading institutions of the Army are now so constructed that they consist of one military specialist and two political commissars. This is the basic pattern of the Army’s leading organs. . . . Given the present regime in the Army—I say this here quite openly—the principle of election is politically purposeless and technically inexpedient, and it has been, in practice, abolished by decree.

Within a few weeks, more than 8,000 former officers were serving in the Red ranks, and by the end of 1918, 30,000 of them were employed—not as “officers,” but to spare Bolshevik blushes, as “military specialists” (voenspetsy)—a disproportionate number of them being graduates of the imperial Academy of the General Staff.95 There were, of course, cases of treachery and desertion by voenspetsy (notably when virtually the entire faculty of the Academy of the General Staff itself went over to the enemy on the Volga during the summer of 1918), which fed the fires of opprobrium that leftist party radicals felt for this “treachery” to proletarian principles. Also, Trotsky’s wish—expressed in an article of 31 December 1918 eulogizing “The Military Specialists and the Red Army”—that he was returning to the topic “for the last time, I hope,” was not realized: residual Left Bolshevik resentment at such confounding of revolutionary purity remained widespread (and was voiced with great bitterness at a conference of Bolshevik army delegates in late March 1919). Critics of the employment of voenspetsy could point out that it had, after all, been stated, in the Sovnarkom decree of 3 January 1918, which first mentioned the creation of such a force, that “the Red Army of Workers and Peasants will be formed from the most conscious and organized elements of the working masses”—a definition that hardly encompassed the employment of the military elite of tsarist Russia. Debates on this issue would become particularly vitriolic and divisive at the Eighth Congress of the Bolshevik Party in March 1919, where concessions had to be made to Trotsky’s opponents in order to defuse a sizable “military opposition” within the RKP(b). This loosely organized group was demanding that military commissars be afforded a greater role in decision making within the army and that party institutions should assume a larger role in directing a Red Army that was increasingly manned by conscripted peasants. Although it was claimed at the time, by Trotsky, that only 5 out of 82 voenspetsy army commanders ever deserted, a more recent investigation of materials in the Russian archives has established that some 549 highly valued genshtabisty deserted from the Red Army in the period 1918–1921, and that in total, almost one in three voenspetsy managed to flee to the enemy. Yet despite this debilitating and dangerous hemorrhage, and despite the lingering qualms of the Leftists, at least the principle of utilizing officers and experts had been firmly established, and the majority of officers employed in the Red Army (including 613 genshtabisty) remained at their posts.

Left Bolshevik (and Left-SR) irritations were at least partly salved by a second, truly revolutionary aspect of the new army: the appointment of so-called military commissars to all units. Although this office was based on the far-distant precedent of a similarly named institution at the time of the French revolutionary wars, and while the Provisional Government of 1917 had also named its special plenipotentiaries at the front and in the regions “commissars,” the military (or political) commissar of the Red forces was an original phenomenon. It was, in fact, one of the key martial innovations of the Reds during the civil war. According to an order signed by Trotsky on 6 April 1918:

The military commissar is the direct political organ of Soviet power in the army. . . . Commissars are appointed from among irreproachable revolutionaries, capable of remaining under the most difficult circumstances, the embodiment of revolutionary duty. . . . [They] must see to it that the army does not become disassociated from the Soviet system as a whole and that particular military institutions do not become centers of conspiracy or instruments to be used against the workers and peasants. The commissar takes part in all the work of the military leaders, receives reports and dispatches along with them, and counter-signs orders. War Councils will give effect only to such orders as have been signed not only by military leaders but also by at least one military commissar.

He was equally insistent, though, that “the commissar is not responsible for the expediency of purely military, operational, combat orders.”

In terms of army administration, the aforementioned Supreme Military Council was at the apex of a still nebulous command hierarchy of what was becoming, in the first half of 1918, the “Worker-Peasant Red Army.” This new, revolutionary armed force had been first mentioned by (a similar) name in a Sovnarkom decree of 3 January 1918 (“On the Formation of Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army”), but did not begin to become a living reality until its founding units were mustered from 23 February of that year (a date subsequently celebrated as “Red Army Day” in Soviet Russia). The Supreme Military Council itself replaced the improvised Revolutionary Field Staff and was given the tasks of providing strategic leadership to the armed forces of the Soviet Republic and overseeing the building of the Red Army. Following the setbacks on the Volga during the summer of 1918, however, it was abolished on 6 September 1918 and was replaced by the Revvoensovet (Revolutionary Military Soviet, or Council) of the Republic (RVSR), which restored some of the influence of senior commissars. In the midst of these events, on 2 September 1918, Vācietis was promoted to main commander in chief (Glavkom) of the Red Army (his predecessor, M. D. Bonch-Bruevich, who had failed to recognize the crucial importance of the Eastern Front, was quietly shunted aside). On 11 September 1918, the RVSR then devised a formal structure for the entire Red Army, which was divided (initially) into five armies, each with 11 divisions of between six and nine regiments (plus reserve units), grouped around three fronts (the Northern Front, the Eastern Front, and the Southern Front) and the Western Fortified Area. Revvoensovets were then established for each army (from 12 December 1918), military commissars were assigned to shadow commanders and to offer ideological guidance and motivation to Red forces, and regular units finally displaced almost all irregular (“partisan”) formations. The structure of the Red Army that would eventually emerge victorious from the wars was thus essentially in place before the end of the first year of serious struggle. Moreover, with control of the heartland of the old empire firmly established, the Soviet regime was able to draw upon the stocks of supplies meant for the old army—supplies that had had to be stretched to breaking point in 1916–1917 to maintain the Imperial Russian Army of some 10,000,000 men, but which would provide rich pickings for a Red Army that would never put in the field more than 5 percent of such a figure.

Thus, the new Red Army (unlike the Whites) had some central, strategic direction (greatly aided by the fact that the Soviet government had inherited, wholesale, the central administrative apparatus and personnel of the old army—from telegraphists to typewriters).105 The Whites were far less fortunate in this respect, having to rely on the meager resources of the outlying military districts of tsarist times to which they had been confined. The coordinating organs of the Red Army were then topped off, following a VTsIK decree of 30 November 1918, with the formation of the Council of Workers’ and Peasants’ Defense (from April 1920, the Council of Labor and Defense, the STO). This body, which was chaired (ex officio) by Lenin and included Trotsky (as chair of the RVSR, although he was rarely available to attend its meetings), Stalin (as the representative of VTsIK), and several people’s commissars of the most interested commissariats, was created by Sovnarkom but was coequal to it, as STO directives were considered to be the equivalent of state laws. It played no part in the formation of military strategy, but STO sought instead to direct and coordinate the work of all economic commissariats with all institutions having a stake in the defense of Soviet Russia. In the circumstances of a confusion of civil wars, it managed that task with relative success. Again, the Whites had nothing to compare with it.

From May 1918, the nascent Red Army could also begin to draw on a steadier stream of recruits, as a general mobilization was instituted and the volunteer principle was abandoned, although the registration of those eligible was rudimentary and the nonappearance and desertion of mobilized men remained a problem. By late 1918, the Red Army was still a long way from resolving this issue, but it was much closer to doing so than were its rivals, and signs were apparent that a solution acceptable to both sides of this bargaining process—the citizens and the state—was achievable. Back in June 1918, the Bolsheviks had attempted to mobilize all workers and all “nonexploiting” peasants aged 21–25 years in 51 districts of the Volga and the Urals, but in the absence of a functioning central draft organization, impromptu and usually unsuccessful local levées had had to be attempted. Hardly more was achieved by a countrywide draft on 11 September 1918, while even by early 1919 drafts were widely evaded; for example, in May 1919, a month after a draft was initiated, Tambov had produced precisely 24 recruits of the 5,165 anticipated, and by the time this round of mobilizations was called off (in June 1919) just 24,364 of 140,000 expected recruits had been mustered.108 In his examination of this phenomenon, Erik Landis describes “hundreds of thousands” of deserters taking up arms in the Red rear and this “green army” severely compromising the stability of Red fronts from around April to September 1919 (just as Denikin was preparing his advance). According to one pioneering Western study of the phenomenon of desertion, the rate of flight was so great throughout the civil wars that ultimately the Reds were only able to triumph over their enemies by dint of the larger pool of men they could draw upon.

This may well have been the case, but a more recent investigation concludes that retention rates were gradually improving in the Red Army. In the most insightful examination of this process to date, Joshua Sanborn dates the beginning of it to a decree passed at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets on 10 July 1918 that linked citizenship to military service and obliged all healthy men aged 18–40 years to come forward. Improvements thereafter he attributes to the Soviet state building an apparatus that could be seen to apportion the burden of mobilization at least reasonably fairly among its citizens—the crucial factor being that the system was one that was central, not local, and therefore perceived to be less open to abuses. In sum, Sanborn concluded, the Bolsheviks “created a state-sponsored discourse that finally incorporated the idea that soldiers acquired rights when they performed their national duty.” In particular, they were assured that their families would be cared for and that they, as soldiers, would be respected by the state and would acquire privileges above those granted to other citizens. Tied to this, though, was a degree of flexibility in the approach of the state. The Red Army could, of course, unleash terror against those who deserted, and by April 1919 the Anti-Desertion Commission had established numerous branches at local levels, which organized armed patrols to comb the countryside and snare runaways and had the power to confiscate property from the families of known deserters and those suspected of assisting or harboring them. But, as Sanborn notes, commanders actually used a “two-pronged” approach to desertion. This was reflected in an order by Lenin of December 1918 in which, while describing deserters as “heinous and shameful” and representative of “the depraved and ignorant,” he nevertheless offered a two-week amnesty for those absentees who returned to their units. This was accompanied by a nationwide propaganda campaign to convince shirkers and deserters that they could not hide and would be punished, while the Red Army Central Desertion Commission urged that repression be mixed with “proof of concern for the families of Red Army soldiers.” Finally, an intensive and extensive “verification” campaign seems to have been particularly effective throughout 1919, during which all those men of draft age in the Soviet zone were required to attend meetings at which their eligibility for military service would be checked. Of course, given the ongoing chaos, this was never applied universally, but in the second half of 1919, 2,239,604 men attended such meetings and 272,211 of them were then enrolled in the armed forces. By August 1920, a further 470,106 men were recruited by this means. Thus, noted Sanborn, “a military service consensus had been reached and conscription normalized.” Certainly the White forces never came close to emulating this—although their failure to do so had as much to do with a lack of administrative resources in the peripheral areas in which they operated as with ignorance of the importance of such systems of social control. On the Red side, the results were clear: a Red Army of 800,000 men in January 1919 would become one of 3,000,000 by January 1920.