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Red Army
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Red Army

This article is about the armed forces of the Soviet Union. See Red Army Faction for the German militant group; Japanese Red Army for the Japanese militant group; and People's Liberation Army for the Chinese Red Army.

Red Army is short for Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, (Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Армия - Raboche-Krest'yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya in Russian), the armed forces organised by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in 1918. This organisation became the army of the Soviet Union from its establishment in 1922. "Red" refers to the shed blood of the working class.

The Red Army was created by a decree of the Council of People's Commissars on January 15 (January 28, O.S) 1918 from the already-existing Red Guard. The official "Red Army Day" of February 23, 1918 marks the day of the first mass draft of the Red Army in Petrograd and Moscow, and of the first combat action against the occupying imperial German army. February 23 was an important national holiday in the Soviet Union, later celebrated as "Soviet Army Day", and it continues to be celebrated in present-day Russia as "Defenders of the Fatherland Day". Leon Trotsky, the People's Commissar for War from 1918 to 1924, is generally regarded as the founder of the Red Army.

At the beginning of its existence, the Red Army was a voluntary formation, without ranks and insignia. Officers were democratically elected. However on May 29, 1918, obligatory military service was decreed for men of ages 18-40. To service the massive draft, regional military commissariats (военный комиссариат, военкомат (voenkomat)) were formed, which existed in this function and under this name till the very last days of the Soviet Union. Military commissariats should not be confused with the institution of military political commissars.

Every unit of the Red Army was assigned a political commissar, or politruk, who was given the authority to override unit commanders' decisions which were in opposition to the principles of the Communist Party. Although this sometimes resulted in inefficient command, the Party leadership considered political control over the military to be necessary as the Army relied more and more on experienced officers from the pre-revolutionary Tsarist period.

A General Staff was created from officers trained by German experts during the period of Soviet-German cooperation betwen the two World Wars.

The institution of professional officers, abandoned as a "heritage of tsarism", was restored in 1935. During the Great Purges of 1937-1939 (and later), nearly all senior officers were executed or sent to forced labor camps as potential threats to Stalin's authority.

Table of contents
1 World War II
2 The Cold War
3 The End of the Soviet Union
4 Literature
5 Related articles

World War II

At the time of the Nazi Germany assault on the USSR in June 1941, the Red Army numbered around 1.5 million men. Already weakened by the political cleansing of its ranks, the Red Army was taken by surprise by the German invasion. The first weeks of the War saw the annihilation of virtually the entire Soviet air force on the ground, and major Soviet defeats as German forces trapped hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers in vast pockets.

The Soviet government adopted a number of measures to improve the state and morale of the retreating Red Army in 1941. Soviet propaganda turned away from political notions of class struggle, and instead invoked deeper-rooted patriotic feelings of the population, embracing pre-revolutionary Russian history. The War against the German aggressors was proclaimed the Great Patriotic War, in allusion to the Patriotic War war against Napoleon in 1812. References to ancient Russian heroes such as Alexander Nevski and Mikhail Kutuzov were made. Repressions against the Russian Orthodox Church stopped, and priests revived the tradition of blessing arms before battle. The institution of political commissars was abolished, although it was later restored. Military ranks were introduced. Many additional individual distinctions such as medals and orders were adopted. The Guard was reestablished, with units having shown exceptional heroism in combat being renamed Guards Regiment, Guards Army etc.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army drafted between 15 and 20 million officers and soldiers, of which 7 to 10 million were killed. Red Army soldiers captured by the Nazi armies were frequently shot in the field, or shipped to concentration camps and executed as a part of the Holocaust. Following its costly victory over Germany after the capture of Berlin in 1945, the prestige and influence of the Army in post-war Soviet society increased greatly.

To mark the final step in the transformation from a revolutionary militia to a regular army of a sovereign state, the Red Army was renamed Soviet Army in 1946.

The Cold War

After the end of the War, the numbers of the Soviet Army were reduced to approximately 5 million. Soviet Army units which had liberated the countries of Eastern Europe from German rule remained there to secure Soviet influence in what became socialist satellite states of the Soviet Union. The greatest Soviet military presence was maintained in East Germany, in the so-called Western Group of the Armed Forces, to deter and to fend off NATO forces.

The trauma of the devastating German invasion influenced the Soviet cold-war military doctrine of fighting enemies on their own territory, or in a buffer zone under Soviet hegemony, but in any case preventing any war to reach Soviet soil. In order to secure that Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Army moved in to quell anti-Soviet uprisings in the German Democratic Republic, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950 and 1960s.

The confrontation with the US and NATO during the Cold War mainly took the form of mutual deterrence with nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union invested heavily in the Army's nuclear capacity, especially the production of ballistic missiles and of nuclear submarines to deliver them. Open hostilities took the form of wars by proxy, with the Soviet Union and the US respectively supporting loyal regimes or rebel movements in Third World countries.

In 1979, however, the Soviet Army itself was sent to intervene in a civil war raging in Afghanistan. The Soviet Army was to back a Soviet-friendly secular government which was threatened by Muslim fundamentalist guerillas (including Osama bin Laden) equipped and financed by the United States. In spite of technical superiority, the Soviets could not establish control over the country and suffered heavy losses in guerilla attacks and ambushes, which led Gorbachev finally to withdraw the Soviet forces from the country. The blow to the Army's pride suffered in the debacle of Afghanistan was comparable to the American trauma over the lost war in Vietnam, which was fought for similar motives.

The End of the Soviet Union

In 1991, the Army played a decisive role in the coup d'etat of reactionary communists and senior military commanders, who sent tanks into the streets of Moscow to overthrow Gorbachev and his reform-minded government. The coup failed as citizens took to the streets and tank crews refused to shoot at their compatriots.

After the following collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Army was dissolved and its assets divided among the USSR's successor states. The bulk of the Soviet Army, including the nuclear rocket forces, was incorporated in the Army of the Russian Federation. Military forces garrisoned in Eastern Europe (including the Baltic states) were gradually moved back home between 1991 and 1994.


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