The Buzz

How Russia Kept Reinventing the Red Army

What do you do when your army is destroyed, over and over again? For Russia in the mid-twentieth century, the best answer was “build a new army.”

Between 1918 and 1942, Russia’s army was torn down and rebuilt four times: once at the end of World War I, once at the end of the Russian Civil War, once during the Great Purge, and once during the first six months of Operation Barbarossa. Some of the best recent work on the Red Army has dispelled long-term myths, demonstrating the resilience and innovativeness of the organization in the face of often-horrific political headwinds.

But the cycle of death and rebirth of the Red Army continues to hold lessons for the study of modern military organizations. The Red Army endured and prevailed for several reasons: it preserved (often at great cost and difficulty) the military traditions of its social base; it borrowed liberally (but not too liberally) from the experiences and technologies of others; and it adapted (sometimes clumsily, but at other times with great shrewdness) to the idiosyncratic political conditions of Soviet Russia. These lessons remain useful for the United States, as it continues to rebuild foreign militaries under the mantle of “partnership.”

The Cauldron

The Imperial Russian Army performed more effectively in the latter half of World War I than is commonly understood, especially considering the quality of the German forces it fought. The 1916 Brusilov offensive highlighted some exceptionally innovative tactics, in many ways outpacing developments on the Western Front. But the czarist state lacked the political capacity to survive the rigors of war. Kerensky’s Provisional Government couldn’t do much better, and the army descended into mutiny and defeat by 1917.

Revolution and civil war ensued. The early Red Army included large numbers of czarist officers, who (often a great risk) imparted a degree of professionalism into the force. But the Russian Civil War would have little of the industrial character of World War I; cavalry ranged across the plains in fluid engagements, often with minimal artillery or air support. To be sure, the period of the civil war also included traditional conventional combat, as characterized the Soviet-Polish War of 1919–21. When the civil war ended, the struggle over the nature of the army had only begun. The political demands of maintaining the Bolshevik hold on power sometimes ran counter to the need of the army to maintain and modernize itself. Officers with czarist experience remained politically untrustworthy. Nevertheless, many key figures (including most notably Mikhail Tukhachevsky) helped combine czarist military traditions with the experience of the civil war and the demands of the new Soviet state.

Reform and Reconstruction

Soviet industry emerged from a very low base at the end of the Russian Civil War. The chaos of war and revolution had led to the physical destruction of much industrial infrastructure, as well as disruptions in resource and investment flows. The Soviet elite put much faith in the idea that the liberation of the proletariat would result in massive increases in production and innovation, but these expectations went largely unmet across wide swaths of the economy.

But in large part because of the heavy commitment of state investment, and because of enduring concerns over the security of the USSR’s border, the Soviet defense industrial base did become surprisingly innovative and productive in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Indeed, by the early 1930s, Soviet industry was capable of producing equipment capable of competing with any army in the world. In fairness, several other major powers were effectively taking a break from investment in defense technology during this period: Germany was forbidden from heavy investment, while France, Britain and the United States all preferred to focus on civilian aspects of the economy. And Soviet industry also borrowed heavily from the West, purchasing military equipment, machine tools and licenses at a time before the existence of restrictive export controls on military technology.

The technological revolution was accompanied by considerable doctrinal progress. The Red Army that came out of the cauldrons of World War I and the Civil War was deeply flawed in many ways, but it did have a nearly unique appreciation of the need to combine mass and maneuver. Cooperation with the German Reichswehr between 1927 and 1933 gave Soviet officers the opportunity to test many of their most radical ideas against formidable, experienced opponents. By the end of this period, the doctrine of “Deep Battle” had emerged, a doctrine that strongly featured elements of offensive maneuver warfare that could be found all the way down to the U.S. Army’s AirLand Battle of the 1980s.


And then came the purges. After developing a sensible, indeed radical, system of warfare that united both mass and maneuver, and combining that doctrine with equipment capable of handling the stresses of modern combat, the Red Army was probably the most effective land fighting force in the world.

And then Stalin decided he needed to settle scores. The exact toll of the Great Purge on the Red Army remains uncertain; many of the purged officers eventually returned to service, while others were quickly executed. There is little doubt, however, that many of the most innovative thinkers in the Army fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia, including those who had worked hard to learn as much as possible from the Reichswehr.