From Soviet times, the birthday of the Red Army was celebrated on February 23, though the first troops started to organize at the end of January 1918. The first military successes were seen at the end of February, when the Soviet-Russian army stopped the advancing Germans before they reached Petersburg. Many of the first commanders of the Red Army died in horrible circumstances – they were not killed by the enemy, but by the system that gained power with their help.
At the beginning of the Soviet-Russian history, almost all events and dates are uncertain. The formation of the Red Army was deliberately not celebrated when the first units were recruited. It would be difficult to find the “real” starting point, since the situation was so chaotic in early 1918, upon the birth of the new army. However, the date of success is clear, therefore they chose this end-of-February day as their “birthday”. This anniversary is celebrated in Russia even today, after renaming the public holiday several times. Following Vlagyimir Putyin’s order, at present the holiday is named Defender of the Fatherland Day (Gyenyzascsitnyika Otyecsesztva), but it has already been named as the Day of the Red Army and the Fleet as well as the Day of the Soviet Army and the Navy as well.
The formation of the Red Army could also be calculated from the time when the decree of the Council of People’s Commissars was published on January 28, 1918, about the Red Army of Workers and Peasants, which would have been organized on a voluntary basis, but joining would have only been possible with a recommendation. Népszava wrote the following on February 2: “The Council of People’s Commissars has decided to organize a Red Army, which will be the guard of the power of the Soviets, and will at this moment provide a solid basis for supplementing the ordinary army. All citizens of the Russian Republic who are at least 18 years of age may join the Russian Army. All members of this army have to be ready to devote their power and life to the achievements of the October Revolution and the protection of the power of the Soviets and Socialism. In order to join the Red Army, recommendations of military committees or democratic organizations acknowledging the Soviet principles shall be submitted.”
The formation of the Red Army can be best reconstructed with the units near the front line. In order to protect the northern capital, Petersburg, Lenin and his group strived to recruit volunteers already in January, they were at that time simply named Red Guardians. One of the attacks against Lenin also took place at this time, in January 1918, when he just returned to the Smolny from a speech to one of the Red Guard units leaving to the front.
The Red Guard, i.e. Red Guards were formed back in 1917, when volunteer worker militias were organized throughout Russia. They were formed in industrial districts and played a significant role in Bolshevik takeover and then the stabilization of the Soviet power. The Red Guard expression was born during the 1905 revolution and was reborn in 1917 pursuant to the Encyclopedia of Russian History (ERH).
The 1917 Red Guards formed a part of the Red Army units formed in 1918 too. Red Guards were formally dissolved in April 1918. Their principles did not match the new communist era – according to the ERH –, since Guards were active on a local level, they elected their commanders, and were rather self-organized and self-governing worker militias. Another important component of the Red Army was the regular Tsarist army. A prominent unit worth mentioning is the Latvian 5th rifle regiment as well as riffle division and the commander Jukums Vacietis. He reached the rank of colonel in the Tsarist army, but he supported the Bolsheviks already in 1917 – together with his unit –, joining the Red Army – of which he later became the Commander-in-Chief – in 1918. He was one of the main supporters of the Bolshevik power outside of the party, for which he received his “reward” during Stalin: he was executed in a show trial.
It was also Stalin who ordered the execution of the commander of Ukrainian Red Cossacks, Vitalij Primakov, who also took part in the siege of the Winter Palace. In early 1918, Primakov organized the “Red” unit of Cossacks joining the Bolsheviks – which also meant one of the bases of the Red Army – on the Ukrainian front. Primakov was unfortunate enough to become the deputy commander of the Leningrad military district in the thirties. This is where he was reached by the cleansing: He was arrested and tortured in 1938 and executed in 1937.
Among the leaders and main organizers of the Red Army, the most famous victim was Trotsky, who became – after failing to be a politician in foreign affairs (representing, unsuccessfully, the position of “neither peace, nor war”) – a military commissar in March 1918. His fallen politics was described by Népszava on February 1, 1918 as follows: “The Council of People’s Commissars […] decided not to make a resolution on peace but continue the demobilization of the military and attempt to organize a new voluntary troop based on the Red Guard, and not to resist to the advancing German troops against Reval.” (Reval was the contemporary name for Tallinn, which was left indeed by Bolsheviks at the end of the month.) Trotsky was also rewarded with death: he was killed by an assassin upon emigrating to Mexico with an ice axe. The former Tsarist Mihail Broncs-Brujevics, coming from a Lithuanian noble family, who was practically Trotsky’s military deputy, surprisingly survived the Stalinist cleansing. (His brother, Vladimir was Lenin’s personal assistant, many think this explains Mihail’s survival.)
The newly organized Soviet-Russian troops stopped the Germans from advancing in the region of Pskov and at Narva, i.e. before Petersburg, near today’s Estonian-Russian border – this is how this date has become the official birthday of the ed Army.
Merénylet Lenin ellen = Népszava, 1918. január 17.
A szovjet az alkotmányozó gyűlés egybehívását kívánja = Népszava, 1918. február 1.
A vörös hadsereg = Népszava, 1918. február 2.
Red Guards = James E. Millar (főszerk.): Encyclopedia of Russian History. New York, 2004. Vol. 3.
Stephen A. de Mowbray: Key Facts in Soviet History. Vol. I. 1917–1941. London, 1990.
Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő