Commanders in the Red Army

One immediate consequence of the February revolution was that higher ranks became elective. Many officers did keep their positions, being rather more qualified than the alternatives, but their authority was greatly eroded. Ranks were abolished, everyone becoming comrade, and the term "commander" replaced officer. With salaries reduced, the need to be elected and the possibility of being lynched by an mob of angry soldiers, in late 1917 many officers left the army.

As the Red Army formed it became clear that it lacked sufficient commanders, and in particular there were very few high ranking proletarian officers because the Tsarist army recruited Generals almost exclusively from the nobility. Lower grades of officer had increasingly come from the higher middle class and intelligentsia (and most Tsarist warrant officers were literate working class) but not enough volunteered in the early stages of the revolution.

The shortage was felt most keenly in the cavalry, which had been dominated by upper classes and Cossacks, and the technical arms.

The result was that the Red Army was short on officers for most of the war. Several schemes were put in place to rectify that problem.

Red Commanders

In early 1918 an order went out: "On accelerated courses for the training of command personnel of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army", followed in February by the opening of the first thirteen Soviet military educational institutions - most on the establishment of former Tsarist equivalents. The trainers included some Communists, but they were largely apolitical former officers (probably largely attracted by the need for a job in difficult times, since their pensions had been cut in the revolution).

However it was clear that it would be impossible to train sufficient in time, even with massively accelerated courses. At the start of 1919 it was estimated at least 55,000 commanders were required - but there were less than 2,000 kraskomy. Even by the end of 1919 only a small fraction of the commanders had been through the training programs.

As more training courses opened, the quality of them necessarily weakened. Nor was much thought given to the qualities of the cadets – units were simply asked to send in men to be trained.

Voenspetsy / Military Specialists

The very highest ranks of the Tsarist army had remained in their posts throughout both revolutions - there simply were not anywhere near enough sufficiently experienced Bolshevik sympathisers to replace them. These men became known as the voenspetsy, or military specialists. It has been calculated (Kavtaradze) that 85% of front commanders, 82% of army commanders, 70% of divisional commanders and over 50% of division staff officers were voenspetsy over the course of the civil war.

An intense internal struggle broke out between the pragmatists, who recognised that voenspets were needed, and the idealists who rejected them because of their class origins and adherence to traditional military methods. Lenin backed Trotsky and the pragmatists won.

Germany's behaviour drew thousands of patriotically inclined former officers to sign up in early 1918 to protect their country, even if they did not support the Bolshevik regime. By March 1918 the elective principle was removed and the Red Army was on its way to becoming a normal professional operation.

There was naturally concern that former officers of the previous regime would sabotage the war effort, and various stratagems were used to reduce the problem. Firstly, as much as possible they were kept away from the front lines, being used to train "red commanders" and other rear area roles. There were threats to arrest or shoot family members of defectors (see below). In the field the commissar system was used to ensure that the commanders had an eye kept on them.

There were defections, and in a couple of cases they were quite spectacular - former Colonel Vsevolodov, commanding the Soviet 9th Army in the middle of May 1919 rearranged the front in a deliberately substandard manner before defecting to the Whites. However, in general the policy was a resounding success, and the voenspetsy do not seem to have deserted their posts at a higher rate than commanders from other sources.

Research has shown that the idea that the average Tsarist officer was from the nobility was completely false by 1917. Before the war the amount of officers of middle class, or even educated peasant or worker, background had been growing. During the war the massive increase in the army necessitated enrolling significantly different men as officers. Other than the guards, and to an extent the cavalry, the typical Tsarist officer was not of particularly high class. Although most weren't Bolshevik, they weren't natural supporters of the Whites either.

As the war went on, not only were former officers encouraged to enlist, they were frequently drafted – particularly if trained in a technical arm and of non-noble origin.

One source of friction was when the newly trained Red Commanders were placed under the command of a voenspets. Their courses had instilled in them that they were the future of the Red Army, and it rankled when they were put under a man from the old regime. In return, the veteran officers were unimpressed with the new ideologically sound but grossly inexperienced graduates.

Revolutionary Commanders

Another group supplied the remainder of the commanders in the Red Army: men of revolutionary background. Some of them were appointed because of their impeccable political credentials, some of them had been voted in by the soldiers before the Red Army banned it, and others had been the person around whom the whole unit formed.

Many of the famous names of the civil war fall into this category. Some of these men turned out to have genuine talent, such as Frunze and Antonov-Ovseyenko. Many more were charismatic and forceful, but lacking in technical skill, such as Budyonny and Chapayev. Rather too many were well-connected imbeciles, such as Dybenko and Sorokin.

Many of them, unsurprisingly given their origins, were proponents of partizanschshina. This was the preference for revolutionary forms of warfare, at odds with the traditional forms and professionalism that Trotski was trying to bring in. It was to linger for a long time, and was a major problem. I have written about it briefly here.

Ranks and Uniforms

It quickly became apparent even to hardened revolutionaries that ranks were required. Unwilling to use the previous bourgeois ones, a system based on the unit being commanded was instituted. The shortened forms shown below quickly became used:

KomandArm = Commander of an Army

NachDiv = Commander of a Division (also KomDiv)

KomBrig = Commander of a Brigade

KomPolk = Commander of a Regiment

KomBat = Commander of a Battalion

KomRoty = Commander of a Company

Starshina = Sergeant-Major, as before

Likewise, the lack of formal markings could not last. A system of sleeve markings was introduced with diamonds, squares and triangles under a red star. The system can be seen on page 36 of the Osprey Red Army book.

In the loose conditions of the civil war, officers often wore whatever they fancied. Branch of colour trousers seem to have been popular, along with the nicest military jacket they could find. The Osprey and AST books have plenty of pictures, also Wikipedia.


Whether "red commanders" or "military specialists", the tactical command of the Red Army rapidly became quite professional and organised, especially at the higher levels. Indeed, to a very great extent it relied on experienced WWI officers, backed by the most talented of the newcomers.

At lower levels the lack of sufficient trained commanders did affect the artillery and cavalry more, but increasingly less as the war continued.

Though the Soviets had many soldiers who rose to the top via political connections or charisma rather than talent, and who then operated to a large extent outside central control, the same was true of all armies in the civil war. And while the Red Army did lack a bit in numbers of talented officers, it was much more able to effectively control the ones who did serve them.


Kavtaradze, A. G. Military specialists in the service of the Soviet Republic 1917-1920

A book rather spoiled by its political background - Lenin shines heavily, Trotsky is barely mentioned and Stalin all but disappears, which is odd considering their relative roles in the Red Army. However despite that it is a useful corrective to the idea that the Tsarist officers were overwhelmingly in the White armies.

White, D. D. F. Growth of the Red Army

Old, but relatively sound.

Trotsky, L.D. My Life

Especially Chapter 36, on the "Military Opposition".

A. Ganin, "Treason and betrayal will entail the arrest of the family ..."

Ganin shows, quite convincingly, that despite the blood-curdling threats by Lenin and Trotski, that the families of even high-ranking defectors were left unharmed in practice. Given the tens of thousands of military specialists serving, there was no question of hostages actually being held – even registering family members proved too difficult a task during such a chaotic time.

The original article.