Russian Army

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Russian Army


the ground forces of Russia until the Great October Socialist Revolution.

The Russian Army was an arm of the foreign and domestic policy of the ruling classes. It improved in organization and the art of war during the centuries of stubborn struggle by the Russian people for the integrity and independence of the Russian state. The Russian Army did not develop in isolation from the armies of neighboring European and Asian countries. However, the Russian Army had much that was original and different and often was more advanced than the armies of other countries.

Kievan Rus’ and the period of feudal fragmentation (ninth to 15th centuries). Organized armed forces originated among the Eastern Slavs in the sixth to eighth centuries as the tribal system declined. At that time tribal leaders sought to protect their lands, bolster their rule, and organize campaigns to seize booty by creating fighting druzhiny, which became their political and military base. With the formation of Kievan Rus’ in the ninth century, the druzhina became the permanent nucleus of the armed forces of the grand princes of Kiev. For major campaigns the home guard of towns and villages would be called up and mercenaries would be hired in the form of military detachments of Turkic nomads and individual Varangian bands (primarily in Novgorod). As feudal relations developed, the armed forces of Kievan Rus’ included the druzhiny of the local princes, who were vassals of the prince of Kiev. The army usually had 15,000 to 25,000 men and only rarely reached 40,000 to 60,000 (for example, during Sviatoslav Igorevich’s campaign into Bulgaria in the tenth century).

Infantry was the principal combat arm. Weapons included swords, battle knives, spears, battle-axes, bows and arrows, and stone catapults. The great combat effectiveness of Russian warriors was noted in the Russian chronicles and in reports by foreign historians (for example, Leo Diaconus and ibn Rusta, tenth century; Michael Psellus, 11th century). During the period of feudal fragmentation in Rus’ in the 12th to 15th centuries, each separate principality formed its own independent host, which consisted of the grand prince’s druzhina, detachments of vassals, temporary home guards, and mercenaries. In the 12th century the host was already divided into regiments. The dispersal of military forces and the internecine wars of the princes weakened the ability of the Russian principalities to defend themselves, making it easier for the Mongols and Tatars to conquer Rus’ in the 13th century despite the heroism and self-sacrifice of Russian fighting men.

During the struggle against the Golden Horde in the 14th century, there appeared the category of military-service cos-sacks (divided into city and outpost cossacks) to defend cities, frontier sentry posts, and abatis. In the 12th to 14th centuries the cavalry played the main role, although infantry did not lose its importance. The chief battles (the Battle on the Ice of 1242 and the Battle of Kulikovo of 1380) were won through the joint actions of cavalry and infantry. Weapons became more varied, consisting of bows and arrows, crossbows, sabers, swords, spears, battle-axes, chevaux-de-frise, bludgeons, ordinary and spiked maces, and daggers. The appearance of firearms in Rus’ was first noted in the chronicles in 1382, and by the late 14th century artillery had become part of the armed forces.

Centralized Russian state (15th to 17th centuries). The unification of the Russian lands into one centralized state and the liberation from the Mongol-Tatar yoke in the late 15th century were accompanied by a concentration of the armies of the separate principalities under the overall leadership of the grand princes of Moscow. A new pomeshchik (fief holder) home guard was formed of dvoriane (nobility or gentry) and deti boiarskie (second-rank nobility), who received land in return for their service. The military service of the pomeshchiki was for life and began at age 15. A pomeshchik was obligated to appear at the first summons for military service, and he was to come on horseback, with his weapon, and accompanied by his kholopy (enslaved serfs). The pomeshchik home guard consisted primarily of mounted warriors armed with sabers, bows and arrows, and matchlock (later, flintlock) guns and pistols. Its size reached 40,000 to 50,000. There were serious problems with the pomeshchik home guard—it was slow to assemble, it did not engage in regular military training, its weapons were not standardized, and it was poorly disciplined.

The tiagloe population (“men of burden,” that is, persons bound to their urban or rural communities who were obliged to pay taxes and perform work for the government) that was subject to enlistment in military service made up the pososhnaia rat’ (troops of the sokha, the basic tax-territorial unit of Muscovy), which was called up in time of war. From the 16th century, free cossacks (such as the Don, Volga, and Iaik cossacks) were used by the Russian government to defend its frontiers and fight the nomadic peoples. At the same time abatis lines were built and later developed into a system of fortified frontier lines. Central agencies of army control called prikazy were formed; the supreme military body was the Razriadnyi Prikaz (War Office).

The spread of firearms necessitated the formation of pomeshchik infantry; in the 15th century the harquebusiers appeared, and in the mid-16th century came the permanent army of strel’tsy (semiprofessional musketeers). Artillery became much stronger in the 16th century, with as many as 2,000 guns. The first military engineers, called rozmysly, appeared with the development of military engineering. In 1571 the first manual was compiled, the Rules of Guard and Stanitsa Service. In the mid-16th century the numerical strength of the Russian Army could be brought to 300,000 men.

The development of the art of war and the broadening foreign policy interests of the feudal state in the 17th century required more efficient army organization. In the 1630’s a military reform was begun; following the example of the Western European armies, in addition to the pomeshchik home guard and the strel’tsy, “regiments of the new order” were formed and by the end of the century constituted more than half of the army. In 1681 the Russian Army (excluding cossacks) had more than 180,000 men. A reform in 1682 concentrated military administration in three prikazy: the Razriadnyi, Reitarskii (Cavalry Prikaz) and Inozemskii (Foreign Affairs Prikaz). In the late 1630’s, Sloboda (tax-exempt settlement) Cossacks who had resettled from the Ukraine joined the Russian Army. (Five regiments were formed in the 1650’s.) After the Ukraine was reunited with Russia in 1654, ten regiments of Ukrainian cossacks were formed, subordinate to the hetman and including as many as 60,000 men.

Creation of the regular army. Despite significant advances in building the Russian Army in the second half of the 17th century, the existing military system could not successfully meet the then foreign policy demands. In the late 17th century and early 18th, Peter I the Great carried out a fundamental reorganization of the armed forces and created a regular army. The “play” regiments, which later became guards regiments, were the army’s nucleus and a training school for officers. In 1698 a significant number of the strel’tsy regiments were abolished, and from 1699 regular army regiments were formed. The rekrutskaiapovinnost’ (recruitment obligation) was instituted in 1705 to fill the ranks of the army. Officers were taken from the dvoriane, and their service was for life.

The army was given a clearly defined, standardized organization, which was fixed in the Regulations of War of 1716. The army consisted of the field army (112,000 men, including 70,000 infantry, 38,000 cavalry, and 4,000 artillery and engineers), local forces (garrison forces, 68,000, and land militia 10,000), and irregular forces (cossacks, Kalmyks, and others—30,000–35,000 men). A field headquarters headed by a quartermaster general was established; this was an embryonic general staff. The army was made up of divisions and brigades of irregular composition; only the regiments had a permanent composition (42–51 infantry regiments and 33 cavalry regiments).

By 1709 the army had been reequipped. The infantry received smoothbore guns with bayonets, standard swords and broadswords, and hand grenades; the cavalry (dragoons) were supplied with carbines, pistols, and broadswords. The artillery was divided into siege, fortress, field, and regimental artillery. Systematic combat training (individual soldier training, field exercises, and camp assemblies) was conducted in the units.

At first, administration was handled by the Prikaz Voennykh Del (Bureau of Military Affairs) and the Pushkarskii Prikaz (Office of Field Ordnance), and in 1719 it was taken over by the Military Collegium, the highest agency of military administration. In 1722 the hierarchy of military ranks was fixed by law in the Table of Ranks. The Artillery and Engineer schools were founded from 1712 to 1719 during the reign of Peter I. The reorganized regular Russian Army demonstrated great fighting efficiency during the Northern War of 1700–21.

The 18th century and first half of the 19th. Throughout the 18th century the Russian Army remained strongly influenced by the reforms of the first quarter of the century. In the mid-18th century, the ground forces had 330,000 men, including 172,000 in field units. The army consisted of divisions and brigades that had become permanent units with varied compositions. Corps and armies were formed during wartime. The light jaeger infantry appeared in the second half of the century and numbered more than 40 battalions by the end of the century. The 1753-model flintlock gun was adopted. Cuirassier and hussar (light cavalry) regiments were formed in the cavalry in addition to dragoons.

The Charter of 1762 freed the dvoriane from compulsory service, but officers continued to be members of the dvorianstvo (nobility and gentry). Officers were trained in the guards or at military schools, such as the First Cadet Corps, founded in 1732, and the Artillery and Engineer schools, which were united in 1758. The General Staff was formed in 1763. (From 1796 until 1827 it was called His Majesty’s Suite for Quartermaster Affairs.) Military training was carried out according to the Infantry Drill Regulations of 1763 and the Troop and Cavalry Exercise Regulations of the same year. P. A. Rumiantsev-Zadunaiskii and A. V. Suvorov introduced many innovations in troop training and education; their military writings were used as semiofficial regulations and manuals. In 1793 a 25-year term for the rank and file was substituted for lifetime service. In the second half of the 18th century the Russian Army scored a series of brilliant victories in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 and the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1768–74 and 1787–91.

During the reign of Paul I (1796–1801) there was an abrupt increase in parade drills, and Prussian ways were introduced, which had a negative effect on the fighting efficiency of the Russian Army. In the early 19th century, especially after the defeat at Austerlitz in 1805, many of the principles of the Prussian system of troop training and education were discarded and the Russian Army returned to the ways of Peter I, Rumiantsev, and Suvorov. Soldiers were taught how to fire accurately and wage combat on rugged terrain, and field exercises and maneuvers were reinstituted. The Ministry of War was formed in 1802. In 1811 the Military Regulations on Infantry Service were published. By 1812 the field armies had about 500,000 men, and there were about 100,000 irregulars, primarily cossacks.

Important organizational changes made from 1806 to 1810 included the establishment of a permanent composition for divisions, which became organic parts of infantry and cavalry corps, and an increase in the number of jaeger battalions to 52. The artillery was formed into companies, with 12 guns apiece. In 1806 artillery brigades were formed, consisting of five artillery companies apiece (three after 1811), and were attached to the divisions. In 1809 an improved 7-line flintlock gun was adopted. Headquarters staffs were formed as bodies of troop control. Before the Patriotic War of 1812 the manual Foundations for Control of a Large Active Army was developed.

During the Patriotic War of 1812 the Russian Army under the command of M. I. Kutuzov demonstrated great battle skill and crushed Napoleon’s mighty army. After the war a reaction set in; discipline of the rod and senseless drills were reinstituted. Part of the army was transferred to military settlements for purposes of economy. The arakcheevshchina evoked agitation and rebellion among military units and in the military settlements. The Decembrists called for transformation of the feudal absolutist army into a bourgeois mass army, including the replacement of the rekrutskaia povinnost’ with universal military obligation and the elimination of the military settlements.

By the mid-19th century the economic, political, and technical backwardness of the country was increasingly reflected in the state of the Russian Army. In 1834 the term of service was shortened to 20 years, but attempts to establish an army reserve made up of soldiers discharged with indefinite leaves proved unsuccessful, and during the Crimean War of 1853–56 the home guard had to be called up. After the reorganization of the early 1830’s, the troops were divided into line, local, and auxiliary forces, and the corps was the highest military unit.

By 1853 the Russian Army had about 28,000 officers and generals and more than 911,000 soldiers in the regular army and 3,500 officers and generals and about 250,000 soldiers in the irregular forces. Military schools (cadet corps) provided only 12–15 percent of the army’s need for officers; in 1832 the Military Academy was founded. (It was renamed the Nicholas Academy of the General Staff in 1855.) At a time when rifled weapons were becoming widespread in foreign armies, most Russian forces were armed with smoothbore muzzle-loading flintlock guns. Combat training was based on out-of-date military regulations. As a result, despite the heroism of the troops, in the Crimean War of 1853–56 the Russian Army suffered a defeat that demonstrated the decay of the system of autocracy and serfdom and the lack of talent in the tsarist command.

Capitalist period (second half of the 19th century and early 20th). Defeat in the Crimean War hastened the abolition of serfdom and the introduction of bourgeois reforms, which included reforms in the Russian Army. The purpose of the military reforms of the 1860’s and 1870’s carried out by Minister of War D. A. Miliutin was to increase the fighting efficiency of the Russian Army by establishing an adequate number of trained reserves for the deployment of a mass army. The reforms also sought to improve military administration by the creation of military districts, improve combat training by the institution of new regulations, and improve officer training by the establishment of military Gymnasiums and military and Junker schools. The army was also reequipped with rifles and rifled breech-loading cannon. The main element of the reforms was the institution of universal military obligation in 1874, which led to the rapid accumulation of a trained reserve (more than 750,000 in 1876). The Russian Army consisted of regular troops, who were divided into field, rear (fortress, reserve, and local), wartime reserve, and auxiliary (for example, training and gendarme) forces; irregular forces (primarily cossacks); and the state home guard, which was only to be called up under extraordinary circumstances.

By 1877 the field forces had 48 infantry and 19 cavalry divisions, which included artillery brigades, horse-drawn batteries, and engineer brigades and parks. In the 1870’s the corps that had been abolished in the 1860’s were restored (there were 16 of them, consisting of two or three infantry divisions and one cavalry division apiece). In peacetime the army had 760,000 men. The first mobilization schedule was compiled. In 1855 the Artillery and Engineer academies were founded, and in 1867 the Military Law Academy was founded. In 1868 the new Regulations on the Control of Troops in the Field During Wartime was published.

As a result of the military reforms of the 1860’s and 1870’s, the Russian Army became a modern bourgeois-type mass army. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, which ended in a Russian victory, demonstrated the expediency of the military reforms. At the same time, the war also uncovered major flaws in the organization and combat training of the troops, the weakness of the supreme command, and the inadequacy of certain types of armament. This was all a result of the conservatism and backwardness of the autocratic pomeshchik state. During the period of reaction in the 1880’s and 1890’s these weaknesses not only continued but grew even greater.

With the transition of capitalism into its imperialist stage there were major changes in the armed forces of the most developed countries, based on rapid growth of industry, science, and technology. With its relatively backward industry and its rotten autocratic pomeshchik system, Russia could not keep up with the leading imperialist countries. This backwardness manifested itself in both the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 and in World War I.

At the start of the 20th century the peacetime Russian Army had more than 1 million men, with a trained reserve of 3.75 million. The country was divided into 12 military districts—St. Petersburg, Moscow, Finland, Vilnius, Warsaw, Kiev, Odessa, Kazan, Caucasus, Turkistan, Siberia, and Amur; in 1906 the Finnish and Siberian districts were abolished and the Omsk and Irkutsk districts were established; the Oblast of the Don Host was not included among the districts. The infantry was armed with the 1891 S. I. Mosin five-shot magazine-type rifle; the artillery received rapid-firing 3-inch (76-mm) cannon. There was little mountain, howitzer, and heavy field artillery, and there were few machine guns. Troop combat training was out of date, the experience of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 was not adequately considered, preference was given to the outdated close combat order, and there was no individual training for riflemen. The new regulations drawn up from the experience of the Russo-Turkish War were introduced among the troops very slowly by the reactionary generals. Because Russia had not waged war for 25 years, promotion in the service was slow and a large proportion of the officers were quite old, especially the generals. At the same time the educational level of half the officer corps was low, and most of the generals did not have any talent as military leaders. The army was educated in a spirit of devotion to the “tsar and the fatherland.” In the late 19th century and early 20th, tsarism used military units extensively to suppress the revolutionary and national liberation movements, especially during the Revolution of 1905–07.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 revealed many defects inherent in the tsarist army, above all the lack of talent among its leaders. “Tsarism has proved to be a hindrance to the organization of up-to-date efficient warfare” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 9, p. 156), and “the generals and commanders in chief proved themselves to be incompetent nonentities” (ibid, p. 155).

Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War forced the tsarist government to take a number of steps to strengthen the armed forces. The military reforms of 1905–12 significantly improved the condition of the Russian Army, although many of its characteristic weaknesses remained because the autocratic system continued and finances were limited. In 1913 the so-called Great Military Program to Build Up the Army was adopted. It was to continue until 1917 and involved increasing the size of the army by 39 percent and significantly strengthening the artillery. However, the start of World War I prevented it from being completely carried out.

In the early 20th century the Maxim heavy machine gun became standard in the Russian Army, and the 76-mm field gun, the 107-mm rapid-firing cannon, and the 122-mm and 152-mm howitzers were adopted by the artillery. In the number of guns (especially heavy guns), however, the Russian Army was significantly behind its potential enemies. (A Russian corps had 108 guns of calibers from 76 to 122 mm; a German corps had 160 guns of calibers from 75 to 150 mm.)

Mobilization at the start of World War I was relatively rapid as a result of the relocation of forces from Poland to internal districts in 1910, construction of new strategic railroads, and previous practice mobilizations and call-ups of reserves. New regulations were instituted that reflected changes in military affairs; on the eve of the war, Russia’s field service regulations were the best. In terms of combat training the Russian Army was not inferior to the armies of the Western European countries, but a major weakness was a shortage of materiel. Great attention was devoted to fire training. Middle-level and junior command personnel were well trained, but most of the senior officers, especially the highest ones, were not sufficiently trained in troop control.

By the start of the war the Russian Army had reached a size of 1,423,000 men, and after the mobilization it had 5,338,000, with 6,848 light and 240 heavy guns, 4,157 machine guns, 263 aircraft, and more than 4,000 motor vehicles. The highest tactical unit was the army corps, consisting of two or three infantry divisions. By the table of organization an infantry division had 21,000 men, 48 76-mm guns, and 24–32 machine guns.

World War I caught the Russian Army in the process of reorganization and deployment. Very soon after the war began, the army experienced a shortage of weapons and ammunition. The Russian Army paid for the country’s economic backwardness and the poor leadership of the high command with the blood of its soldiers and officers. All the same, despite unfavorable conditions, the Russian Army in World War I carried out a number of successful operations, including the major offensive operation in Galicia in 1914, the deep breakthrough of the enemy’s static defense on the Southwestern Front in 1916, the victorious encounter battle in the Warsaw-Ivangorod Operation of 1914, and the Erzurum Operation of 1916 (an offensive in mountain conditions). The Russian Army gave enormous assistance to the Allied forces in France, Italy, and elsewhere.

In the early 20th century the soldiers of the Russian Army took part in the revolutionary movement, from individual actions during the period of the Revolution of 1905–07 to large-scale participation in the February Revolution of 1917. During the Great October Socialist Revolution, the bulk of the Russian Army, influenced by the work done by the Bolsheviks, came over to the side of the Revolution. The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets passed a decision setting up revolutionary committees in the army and navy as full-fledged governing bodies. The old ranks were abolished, and election of commanders was instituted. The old army, however, had lost its ability to fight and rapidly diminished in size; the masses of soldiers, tired of war, came home on their own. The army could not be used to defend the socialist fatherland against the impending military intervention of the imperialist states.

A decision of the Communist Party and the Soviet government led to the formation of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, a new type of army, which was born on Feb. 23, 1918. The old Russian Army ceased to exist. The revolutionary soldiers of the old army and a significant number of Russian Army officers who had come over to the Soviet side, as well as some of the generals, were widely involved in building the Red Army. In its long history the Russian Army had accumulated enormous battle experience. All that was best and still important in this experience was used in building the Soviet armed forces.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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