Red Guard

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Red Guard


the basic form of organization of the armed forces of the proletariat during the preparation and execution of the Great October Socialist Revolution and during the initial period of the Civil War of 1918–20.

The prototype of the Red Guard consisted of the detachments (druzhiny and otriady) of armed workers that arose and developed during the Revolution of 1905–07 and that played an important role in the December armed uprisings of 1905. Detachments of armed workers appeared in the first days of the bourgeois democratic revolution of February 1917. They were formed by the Bolsheviks of Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, Kharkov, and other cities. They continued to grow in the form of workers’ and plant militia detachments in the factories and plants to guard and defend the enterprises. At the time, V. I. Lenin considered the most important task of the party to be the creation and consolidation of the workers’ militia (see Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 31, p. 41). In many enterprises, workers forced the owners to pay for the upkeep of the detachments.

The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s) almost everywhere opposed the creation of the Red Guard, alleging that where there was already a revolutionary army (that is, the former tsarist army) there was no need for the proletariat to create its own fighting organization. Moreover, the SR and Menshevik leadership of the Petrograd Soviet tried to organize a bourgeois “people’s militia” and to incorporate the workers’ militia into it. An edict subordinating the worker’s militia to the “people’s militia” was issued on March 7 (20). The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, strove to defend the independence of the workers’ armed detachments. They urged the workers to retain their arms and to form detachments of the Red Guard as the revolutionary army of the proletariat. On April 17 (30) an assembly of representatives from the detachments of armed workers in Petrograd created a commission for the formation of a red guard, the basis of the guard being workers’ detachments of the Petrograd plants. In Moscow the decision to create the Red Guard was taken by the Moscow Committee of the Bolshevik Party on April 14 (27). The draft of a charter for the Red Guard was discussed at an assembly representing all of Petrograd on April 28 (May 11); present were 156 delegates from plants and armed detachments of workers and representatives from political parties. However, the schismatic activity of the SR’s and Mensheviks prevented the creation of a unified Red Guard organization for the whole city.

By the summer of 1917, Red Guard units had appeared in almost all major cities and industrial centers of the country. As a rule, they were based on enterprises, although in some cities there were district and even city detachments. There were also detachments of workers formed around party committees. The training of the Red Guard was carried out, as a rule, on workers’ free time. Workers were instructed in the handling and care of firearms, drilled, and given rifle practice. From March to July 1917 the Red Guard existed alongside the workers’ militia. As the latter declined, the Red Guard recruited its ex-members. In Petrograd the Red Guard was active in the April, June, and July demonstrations of 1917. After the July Days of 1917, the Provisional Government tried to disarm the workers and disband their fighting organizations. The Red Guard was forced underground for a time. However, in many cities, including Ekaterinoslav, Aleksandrov in Vladimir Province, and Kovrov, and in many enterprises the formation of the Red Guard went on even in July. Increased training was carried on by the Red Guard in Odessa.

In response to the resolutions of the Sixth Congress of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks), which directed the proletariat to undertake an armed rebellion, the Red Guard came out of the underground in early August and began to arm itself and train in earnest. Its ranks were broadened and it prepared for the decisive struggle. At an assembly of delegates of Red Guard detachments in Petrograd that met August 2 (15), a five-man leadership was created to run the Red Guard. This was to become the core of the central command and headquarters. Concurrent with the suppression of the Kornilov affair, the Red Guard detachments grew quickly. In Petrograd alone, several thousand workers enrolled in the detachments in a short time. The Military Organization under the Central Committee of the RSDLP (B) played a major role in training the Red Guards in the use of weapons. By September, this group organized regular training programs at 79 enterprises in Petrograd. By the start of the October armed uprising, the Red Guard of Petrograd numbered about 20,000 men.

On October 23 (November 5), a Petrograd city conference called by the central command of the Red Guard adopted a charter and formed a main headquarters and district headquarters of the Red Guard. Thus, the Red Guard received an integrated military organization. The primary unit of the Red Guard was a 13-man group (desiatka); next came the platoon (vzvod), then the druzhina and the battalion (batal’on; up to 600 men). Battalions were combined to form district detachments. The Red Guard was built by voluntary enrollment and was a public organization. It had a territorial-production basis and the command staff was elected. It had an openly class character: only workers who were members of the socialist parties or labor unions and were recommended by such organizations could be members of the Red Guard. In Moscow a conspiratorial Bolshevik headquarters of the Red Guard was created even before the Kornilov affair; after the affair was suppressed, a struggle started for leadership in the Red Guard. Bolsheviks came out in the minority in the elected central headquarters. Consequently, at first the Red Guard detachments grew slowly. By October 20, they numbered about 6,000 men. Later, when the October armed uprising was already under way, their number grew to 10,000-12,000.

Important roles in the organization and development of the Red Guard were played by I. I. Iurenev (chairman of the main headquarters of the Red Guard), V. A. and E. A. Trifonov, V. N. Pavlov, A. Bodrov, V. F. Malakhovskii, K. Orlov, N. I. Podvoiskii, V. I. Nevskii, and A. A. Iurkin in Petrograd and by A. S. Vedernikov, la. la. Peche, P. K. Shternberg, Em. Iaro-slavskii, V. A. Avanesov, V. P. Faidysh, P. G. Dobrynin, G. A. Usievich, I. Ia. Slesarev, and la. M. Poznanskii in Moscow.

The development of the Red Guard outside the capitals proceeded in a variety of ways, although everywhere the Bolsheviks played the decisive role in organizing and commanding the detachments. In industrial regions the Red Guard units were formed chiefly as workers’ guards at the enterprises. In the Urals the Red Guard was shaped as fighting party druzhiny. In a number of central provinces and in the Urals, detachments of rural Red Guards were also organized among agricultural laborers, the poor, and soldiers. By the start of the October armed uprising in Petrograd, the Red Guard had over 26,000 men in the 53 cities and workers’ settlements for which historians have collected sufficiently precise data. Together with the Red Guard of Petrograd and Moscow, they constituted the core of the army of the Revolution. According to the reckoning of some historians, there were about 200,000 men in all in the Red Guard detachments during October and November 1917.

During the October armed uprising in Petrograd and Moscow, the Red Guard acted as the guiding force of the rebellion. It had the active support of the revolutionary soldiers and sailors. On October 28 (November 10), the Soviet government proposed that all soviets establish workers’ militia to ensure revolutionary order and defense. Until the Red Army was created, the Red Guard was the main armed force of the revolution. Unlike the Red Army, which formed on a national basis, the Red Guard continued to consist of factory, plant, and labor union contingents; it had its district and central headquarters, which coordinated their activities with the military administration.

Detachments of the Red Guard participated in the storming of the Winter Palace and in the suppression of the Kerensky-Krasnov mutiny and the mutiny of the Junkers of October 29 (November 11) in Petrograd. They helped to crush centers of counterrevolution, including the Kaledin and Dutov groups and the Central Rada. Thus they ensured the triumphal march of Soviet power. In doing battle with the counterrevolution for the establishment of the Soviet regime, the Red Guard in Petrograd, Moscow, and other cities and villages suffered heavy losses. The military actions of the Red Guard were noted for their scope, boldness, and decisiveness. As Lenin wrote, “the Red Guards fought in the noble and supreme historical cause of liberating the working and the exploited people from the yoke of the exploiters” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 177). With the formation of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, which began in March 1918, the Red Guard was dissolved and its best commanders and soldiers were taken into the ranks of the army.


Lenin, V. I. “Predpisanie shtabu Krasnoi gvardii.” Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 35; vol. 31, pp. 20, 30, 32–33, 34, 47; vol. 36, pp. 265–66.
Tsypkin, G. A. Krasnaia gvardiia ν bor’be za vlast’ Sovetov. Moscow, 1967.
Startsev, V. I. Ocherki po istorii Petrogradskoi Krasnoi gvardii i rabochei militsii (mart 1917-aprel’ 1918). Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Khokhlov, A. Krasnaia gvardiia Belorussii ν bor’be za vlast’ Sovetov (Mart 1917–mart 1918). Minsk, 1965.
Tsypkina, R. G. Sel’skaia Krasnaia gvardiia ν Oktiabr’skoi revoliutsii. Moscow, 1970.


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