Formation of National Military Units Within the Red Army, 1918–1922


  • Igor Kopõtin




The Red Army Armed Forces were formed in 1918 to achieve the revolutionary aims of the Russian Communist Party. Among other things, the Red Army became the tool of the Communist Party to destroy the class-based society in the country. This was the reason for forming the Red Army based on social classes. Unlike regular armed forces, the Red Army preferred to recruit the proletariat – peasants and working class people. As a general rule, the enemies of the proletariat – noblemen and the bourgeoisie were allowed to serve in the Red Army as specialists in a certain field. Due to the fact that Russia remained a multinational country after the revolution in 1917, the question arose as to how representatives of other ethnic groups living in Russia were involved in military service and what their role was. The disposition of the Bolsheviks toward the formation of national military units within the Russian tsarist army was negative. However, they got into a difficult situation as the civil war escalated in the spring of 1918. This required the formation of solid military units to be used to suppress numerous riots and fight against the counter-revolutionary minded White Guard units. The Latvian Red Rifl emen units should be highlighted for their exceptional loyalty to the Red Army and high effi ciency in combat. Estonian Rifl emen units were also relatively effi cient in combat. The Russian Civil War spread throughout the whole territory of the country, involving nations from Ukraine to the Far-East, from the Caucasus to Northern Russia. In Ukraine, the situation became relatively difficult, as there were several parties fighting against one another. However, the Bolsheviks succeeded in gaining Ukrainian communists known as borotbists as their allies, and, as a result, got the local people on their side. At first the Ukrainian national units within the Red Army were formed based on Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine – Tshernigov, Harkov and Donbas, the biggest of them being the Red Cossacks Corps. Among the peoples of the North-Caucasus, the Bolsheviks achieved success by effectively exploiting the traditional controversies among these peoples, and alternately supporting diff erent small ethnic groups. As a result, several irregular units were formed in the region, which kept fi ghting in their home region. Although it was Stalin’s plan to form a mountain division to be sent to the Polish front, ultimately no sizable units were formed in the region. The formation of the Transcaucasian national military units from 1920–22 was based on the reorganization of existing military units. The activity of the national military units of the Bashkirs, Tatars, Udmurts and Tsuvashs within the Red Army turned out to be relatively successful in the years 1919–1920. By successfully exploiting the infl exible ethnic policy of the Russian Whites, the Bolsheviks managed to get the armed formations of Bashkiria and Tatar pursuing ethnic autonomy on their side. Their high motivation made them highly effi cient in the battlefi eld. The combat activity of the Volga-Tatar division against their Muslim coreligionists in Turkestan should be highlighted. However, the Bolsheviks completely failed with recruiting and winning the local people in Turkestan. The reasons for that included not only the Bolsheviks’ ignorance of ethnic tradition, but also the fact that in the Russian Empire the Turkestan people were freed from military service, and therefore had no experience with it. Mobilization in the Red Army in 1920 provoked the resistance of locals, and therefore the formation of national military units was diffi cult and the bulk of the units were formed of Russians. In conclusion, the Bolsheviks managed to form several dozen national military units within the Red Army by successfully exploiting the disorganization of ethnic minorities and the short-sightedness of the Russian ethnic minority policy. These units demonstrated relatively high efficiency in the fronts of the Civil War.


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