"For the faith, the Tsar and the fatherland!"
—Russian Imperial Army motto
"The bullet's a fool, the bayonet's a fine lad."The Beginning The regular Russian military was created by Peter the Great. Before him, the Muscovite army was a patchwork of feudal levies, uncontrollable, wild Cossack allies and a semi-regular, but quite small military organization of Streltsy (Musketmen) - the Moscow city guard. Under the tsars Alexis I and Feodor III a Western-esque, mostly mercenary army of "new formation regiments" was slowly formed in addition to this, but it was Peter who decided to ditch the whole thing and start to build a modern (by his times) regular army with a chain of command. He started it when he was a boy by creating himself some "Entertainment Regiments" of teenage boys armed with real muskets and setting up battles with live ammunition. Those of the boys who survived to adulthood formed the core of the new Russian army: the Guards regiments. Using techniques and discipline tested on the "entertainment regiments", Peter created a large, modern army and immediately began to field-test it, first on the Turks than on then-powerful Swedish kingdom, starting a campaign to put an end to the landlocking of Russia and conquer some seaside land to build at least one decent sea port. St.Petersburg was founded, and the Russian Empire began. The Napoleonic Wars The first major international military victory that made Russia a great power was against Napoleon. Field Marshal Kutuzov (portrait on the page picture) used what some military historians call "strategical ju-jitsu": he lured Napoleon's army deep into Russia, waited for the supply lines to stretch thin, and counterattacked when winter was closing in. Europe's greatest army was reduced to freezing, hungry crowds of deserters fleeing Russia as fast as they could. note The next two years Russians were pursuing Napoleon over all Europe, securing help of allies such as Prussia and Britain. In 1814 the Napoleonic wars were over and Russia earned itself a place among the great European powers. From Glory to Ruin: Crimean War The nineteenth century was the time of rapid military development, but Russia retained an army that was unchanged from the Napoleonic War and was dominated by "paradomia"—the Tsar's obsession with drill regulations and rigidity. Because of that, when the next major conflict happened, Russia lost it. That conflict was the Crimean War (against Turkey, France, Britain, and the tiny Kingdom of Sardinia), of Thin Red Line and Charge of the Light Brigade fame. Well, initially this looked like everything was beginning well — Russia took on its traditional whipping boy, Turkey, looking for a quick little skirmish and freeing Turkey's Slavic subjects. But the Turks managed to enlist the help from the other European powers not wanting the increase in Russia's influence. Losses in the war demonstrated that progress was essential for an army to stay effective. Alexander II's military reforms were motivated by Russian inferiority demonstrated in this war. The Army of Milyutin and Dragomirov: Reform The main man behind the Russian Army's post-Crimea reform was Dmitriy Milyutin. As Alexander II's Minister of War, he and other reformers believed that the Russian Army could only be effective through a revolutionary reform. Under Milyutin's leadership the War Ministry was restructured to increase its efficiency. Milyutin established Russia's first general staff institutions (the Main Staff) and implemented universal military service—13 years after the serfs were regarded as freemen. Russia's ground forces themselves were restructured to make them more compatible with the War Ministry's cadre and reserve systems. Cavalry establishments were increased and a special fortress troop section was created so that regular infantry units were free from manning fortresses. Milyutin also oversaw the army's rearmament. Initially, muzzle-loading rifles replaced the old smoothbore muskets used since Peter the Great's time. When the Austro-Prussian War showed that breech-loading rifles were superior, the Russians chose to adopt new rifles and turn their existing rifles into breech-loaders. The weapons adopted (Austrian Krenk, American Berdans 1 and 2) would be Russia's main rifles until the 1890s. The Russians also adopted a Smith and Wesson revolver as their main pistol. For artillery, rifled breech-loading field guns were adopted in 1867, which were made of bronze and used the German Krupp breech system. Tactical development during this time was dominated by M. I. Dragomirov. As a pragmatist he disliked science and theory, and believed in Suvorov's maxim that soldiers would only be taught only that was necessary to fight. He also believed that successful infantry tactics laid in closed formations and the bayonet attack. In Russia's post-Crimean tactical regulations, attacking formations placed 4/5 on cold steel and only 1/5 on firepower. Cavalry still adhered to the idea of battlefield shock, though in the late 1870s there was more emphasis on dismounted combat in anticipation that they would be used in a more flexible role. In artillery, while the gunners were equipped with modern pieces, they still used them against close range targets in direct fire. As we've seen, Milyutin's military reforms were tremendous, but they weren't complete when Russia went to war in 1877. Bloody Plevna: Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 A map to follow the narrative◊ By the 1870s, Russia started reasserting its power in Europe. A series of Slavic uprisings on the Balkans, cruelly quelled by Turks, provided a casus belli for the biggest Slavic country to intervene. This narrative will only cover the land actions in Bulgaria. The Turkish Army by the beginning of the war was a mess; while in theory 400,000 men could be called to arms, the Ottoman military lacked the organization and institutions to equip and mobilize such an army into war. Though the Turks did manage to get some excellent weapons like the Peabody-Martini rifle and Krupp field gun (some of the pieces Turkey bought proved themselves in the Franco-Prussian War. The first significant land action was the crossing of the Danube River. Russian forces were concentrated in Romania and had to cross the Danube to get into Ottoman-occupied Bulgaria. In two days the Russians forced the river at Svishtov and defeated Turkish forces defending the opposite shore. Pontoon bridges were constructed and 120,000 men were across by the beginning of July. At this time, Turkish forces were caught by surprise. The original Russian war plan drawn up by the Main Staff envisioned a bold thrust straight to Constantinople, but the Russian field commanders decided to be more cautious and concentrated on securing enemy strongpoints that could have flanked and threatened the Russian advance. Consequently, the Russians slowed down their advance and gave the Turkish forces breathing space. On the other hand, a combined detachment (5800 infantry, 5000 cavalry, 32 guns) led by General I.V. Gurko advanced south at the general's own initiative throughout July. In Bulgaria, the Balkan mountain range split the country horizontally on a north-south axis. There were four major passes through these mountains and any force that managed to cross them would be free to march straight to Constantinople. Gurko seized the major town of Turnovo on the north side with the intention of seizing a passage through the Balkan mountains. He then crossed the mountains through Hainkioi Pass in order to prepare for an attack to seize the bigger Shipka Pass (which was later abandoned by the Turks). Gurko wanted to continue his advance south, but the arrival of reinforcements under Suleiman Pasha made his plan unfeasible. But his cavalry managed to disrupt Turkish rail and telegraph lines, and caused panic in southern Bulgaria. To some observers, Gurko's actions demonstrated how cavalry retained their usefulness on a late 19th century battlefield. As we've said before, the Russians were also fighting to eliminate Turkish strongpoints in northern Bulgaria. After Russian forces seized the riverside town of Nikopol (4 July) the next objective was Plevna. The Russians and Turks arrived in Plevna on the same day, but the Turks commanded by Osman Pasha were faster and dug in to await the Russians. The Russians (later assisted by the Romanian Army) launched three attacks (first and second on July, third in August), but they all failed. In combat that looked like something out of Port Arthur and World War I, massed infantry assaults were thrown against Turkish trenches and redoubts and all of them were driven back. While it is tempting to use Plevna as a case that all combat in the late 19th century was trench warfare, it must be noted that Russian tactics relied too much on the bayonet and fire support was absent. After the third attack failed the Russians decided to besiege and blockade Plevna. Russian forces were put under the command of siege engineer Totleben. In order to complete the blockade he decided seal off the town by capturing three strongpoints (Dolni Dabnik, Gorni Dabnik, Telish) along the road to Sofia (the Bulgarian capital was located to the west of the Plevna). The combat to seal the road resembled Plevna—bayonet assaults launched with scant artillery support. Russian bayonet assaults were actually successful in taking Gorni Dabnik (albeit with heavy casualties) but they did not work at Telish. The Russians then concentrated ten artillery batteries on Telish and fired 3,000 rounds to force the defending Turks to surrender. When the two towns fell the Turkish commander at Dolni Dabnik decided to abandon his positions and joined Osman Pasha's forces. By the end of November, the Turks at Plevna began to run low on supplies; the Osman Pasha launched a breakout attack to the northwest but Russian counterattacks forced him back into the town. After the failure of the breakout Turks surrendered. One notable engagement happened at the town of Lovech (south of Plevna), before the third attack on Plevna. Here, General M. D. Skobelev overran the Turkish defenders with light casualties by using his artillery in close coordination with his infantry, and having his infantry use fire-and-maneuver techniques. Unlike at Plevna, Skobelev's tactics were effective against an entrenched enemy. After Plevna the Russian army was free of its troubles in northern Bulgaria. In December the Russians sent three columns to defeat the Turks south of the Balkan mountains. The western column under Gurko seized Sofia and joined up with the center column for an attack on Philippopolis; a third column exited the Shipka Pass and defeated a large Turkish force at Sheinovo. After the new year, Gurko's forces took Philippopolis after a battle and the Russian army was only fifteen kilometers from Constantinople before hostilities ended. The war resulted in Romania and Bulgaria regaining independence and Serbia increasing its territory. However, the war had drained Russian coffers, and the appearance of the Royal Navy south of Constantinople implied British intervention if the Russians attacked the Turkish capital. Campaigning on the Oxus: The Conquest of Central Asia Outside of Europe, the army played a significant role in Russia's imperial expansion in Central Asia. This was the time of the Great Game and the place where painter Vasily Vereshchagin got inspiration for many of his works. Russia was already involved in Central Asia as far back as the 18th century, but the active phase of expansion really happened beginning in the 1860s, when M. G. Cherniaev seized Taskhent in 1865. The khanate of Bukhara would fall under Russian influence in 1868 after the khan's army was defeated by Konstantin von Kaufman. A large expedition captured Khiva in 1873. General Skobelev of Russo-Turkish War fame led a successful campaign to capture Geok Tepe in 1880-1. All this expansion raised alarm bells in Britain, when there was a real fear that the Russians would use their Central Asian gains as a springboard to conquer the British Raj. As documented in eg . The Russians also briefly seized a chunk of land on the Chinese border in 1871, when the Sinkiang region rebelled against Chinese rule. After a Chinese force under Zuo Zongtang defeated the rebels a war seemed certain when Russia refused to give up the occupied land to Zuo in 1881. The Russians eventually backed down because they had no desire to fight an expensive war so soon after the war with Turkey. Once Again Into the Breach: Russo-Japanese War The Russo-Japanese War was forced upon Russia when Japan attacked, seemingly out of the blue but really for reasons of geopolitical security. Russia's minister of police, von Plehve, stated that "Russia needs a small victorious war to stave off the threat of revolution". This was the time when Tsarist Russia seemed to truly become a Vestigial Empire, losing international reputation, getting mired in civil unrest and not knowing what to do with their own future, and the revolution lurked somewhere very close. So, as many people today see the matter, Tsarist Russia tried to choose the weakest possible enemy to fight, and chose Japan: it was just a feudal Asian state that only recently got out of Medieval Stasis, what could possibly go wrong? As we said, though, that's not how it happened at all. While it was true that the Japanese took their modernization very seriously, the fact was that the war was an enormous gamble. By the war's end, 84% of the total paid-up (cash) capital held in Japan's banks had been given to the government as war-loans, and the Japanese government was entirely reliant upon foreign loans to fund the warnote , despite having doubled taxation without printing money. The result was exponentially increasing prices, which had risen by some 10-30% on pre-war levels even for basic goods like rice. Russia had lost battle after battle, but the strategic situation was looking rosy as Japan was just months - if not weeks - away from at least a morale collapse, with all Japan's strategic reserves depleted and the country teetering on the verge of a price-increase spiral. Russia didn't know all this, however, so the peace-loving Tsar Nicholas II sued for peace on the grounds that too many people had died already and it wasn't worth the effort for Russia to continue (and win) the war. The long series of tactical setbacks and defeats looked very bad, however, and many people took it as a sign that Nicholas II was incompetent and should step down. Which he was, of course, but many other parties also took the opportunity to kick the government while it was down and there were numerous strikes as peasant campaigned for the abolition of the village-commune system and workers at government firms went on strike to get higher wages. The Final Clusterfuck: WWI Concerning the last Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, opinions differ. Communists think he was a bloody tyrant. Monarchists think he was a saint. But two things can be stated about him as hard facts: he was weak-willed and indecisive, and most of the Russian government's problems at this time stemmed from the government not having the loyalty of any one demographic, but the enmity of many if not all of them. Russian involvement in World War One was almost inevitable, unfortunately, and although the regime seemed to weather the first two years of war well enough the economic situation became critical in the winter of 1916; instead of taxing the population harder or using the war as an excuse to institute land-reform, Nicholas had instead 'abolished' the state liquor monopoly (which provided 1/4 of all 1913 government revenue) - to 'ensure' that the grain thus used would be used for bread instead - and tried to fund the war through inflationary policies. Regular income (after the abolition of the liquor monopoly) was only enough to cover some 1/3 of expenses, the other 2/3 coming from the government creating money to pay/loan to itselfnote and printing money with which to pay its personnel. The inflation was made worse by the fact that before the war, the Russian government had insisted on a ridiculously low proportion of cash-in-the-economy-as-a-whole to precious-metals-in-Russian-banks-held-as-reserves ratio: 1:1. That is to say, the value of all the Russian money in the entire 1913 Russian economy was exactly equal to that of all the precious metals in Russia's banks.note The results were predictable; by mid-1916 the country was experiencing high inflation, and the poor-peasant farmers which Russia's big cities relied upon for their grain decided to stop selling or even bartering their surplus grain because they weren't getting good prices, and there wasn't much to buy or barter for anyway - all sorts of goods were in short supply because the expansion of war-industry had come at the expense of consumer-goods-production. This occurred, funnily enough, because the government 'insisted' on over-production of military goods to cover for its past embarrassments. Numerous foreign observers and figures in the Russian Army had tried to cover for the individual pride and incompetence of the Army's leadership by making highly critical comments to the public about weapon and equipment shortages. This was actually all their own damned fault; the army as a whole used 'shell shortage' as an excuse for the logistical nightmare caused by their generals' utter refusal to trust the (relatively powerless) General Staff to send them reinforcements, food, and ammunition. Worse still, this individual pride got in the way of them actually coordinating on overall strategy. Though it was indirectly Nicolas's fault, for not standing up to the army's individual generals and bullying them out of arguing with the General Staff, and repeatedly winning, he quite definitely got the blame for the problems with his out-of-control Generals were causing for the Russian war effort. The shell-shortage was a complete fiction - numerous Russian fortresses were captured with great numbers of the kind of heavy artillery pieces that the army as a whole apparently lacked, and combat-months of ammunition hoarded away inside themnote . While it was true that the army was a little short of ammunition, this was nothing like the problem the army portrayed it is as being. All armies always operate with a limited supply of ammunition; what was really affecting the Russian army's ability to fight the war was not material shortages or morale problems but a godawful eighteenth/nineteenth-century command structure that prevented the war-effort from being coordinated in any meaningful kind of way at any level. Thus, to avoid looking bad, the Russian government set out to solve a problem that didn't actually exist. Up until 1915-16, Russia's state-owned armouries produced all the weapons and ammunition for the army's needs, with some of both being ordered from abroad as the government did not trust Russian businesses one bit. Then, under pressure to 'solve' the 'shell shortage', Russia's government was forced to award numerous lucrative armaments-production contracts to domestic producers. Russia's corporations collectively trampled all over each other to leap, or attempt to leap, on the armaments-contract gravy train. What resulted was a dramatic shortage of consumer goods as all sorts of industries stopped producing mundane goods and produced - or 'tried' to produce, or "tried" to produce - the more-profitable military supplies. This doubled the reluctance of farmers to sell their grain, as the country was quickly running out of things they wanted to buy with their money. The end result of all this was that agricultural output dropped as a result of hoarding (for when consumer goods became available) and the labour shortages caused by mass-migration to the cities to get work in the war-industries... and thus urban famine in a formerly food-exporting country which still had a healthy food-surplus. Funnily enough the morale of Russia's troops had been alright up 'til 1916, and her equipment was - though slightly dated - pretty good actually because it was both reliable and standardised. The latter was particularly important since it meant that all the ammunition and equipment was compatible (unlike, say, in Austria-Hungary). Though 1914 and 1915 had seen shortages of heavy weapons and a supposedly critical shortage of artillery shells, this problem was entirely solved by 1916 and the economy was booming - having grown by a full 'fifth' during the course of the war (by Alexander Keresnky's own reckoning). It was a 'false' economic boom, however, because it was almost all related to war-industries. What's more, by 1916 the inflation and its effects began to bite and by March 1917 there were actually food shortages in Petrograd and Moscow, even though the country was producing a healthy surplus of grain; the dire economic situation, combined with all the tactical defeats and military setbacks, caused members of the Imperial Government and Duma/Parliament to effectively declare a coup in March 1917. The Provisional Government of the Republic under Alexander Kerensky wasn't much better than that the old regime, however, as the problems caused by inflation continued unabated. Several months of hyper-inflation later, the Communists executed a coup... The Remnant: White Guards The White Movement, founded by General Kornilov in 1918, was an anti-communist resistance consisting mainly of former Tsarist army officers. Most of them were made officers during World War One, with the pre-war, hardline Tsarist career military almost completely wiped. Most of them weren't monarchists, but rather democrats or social-democrats. But they adopted most of the Tsarist army structure, ranks, weapons and regulations and thus are usually viewed as a continuation of the Imperial army rather than a new structure. There were actually several White armies, two "main" ones and several smaller ones, running the gamut from true remnants of the Imperial army to petty warlords' gangs. The two big ones were the Eastern White army, started by the Siberian Directory in 1918 and reorganized by Admiral Kolchak (the formal head of state of White Russia from 1918 to 1920), and the Southern White Army, originally known as the Volunteer Army, founded by General Kornilov and later headed by generals Denikin and Wrangel. Kolchak ended up with a Redshirt Army consisting mostly of fresh recruits and stomach companies headquartered in Siberia far away from the WWI front, with very few capable officers. Kornilov and Denikin had most of the crack troops and veteran officers but kinda short of manpower; if these two armies managed to join their ranks and mingle freely, they could produce a quite capable fighting force and overwhelm the Reds, but this junction never happened: Denikin launched a march to Moscow instead of coming to save Kolchak's army. Two of the lesser White armies, led by generals Yudenich and Miller, were similar in spirit, but some others, mostly Cossack armies of Semyonov, Annenkov and Ungern, were typical warlordships not answering to anyone and not willing to help Kolchak or Denikin, busy mostly with robbing and terrorizing civilians. All this eventually led to the White armies' demise; Kornilov died in battle, Kolchak was arrested and shot, other White leaders eventually fled Russia and founded White Emigre military unions that existed for a long time after the revolution; many tens of thousands of Whites ended up working as mercenaries for various factions of China's Warlord Era, such as the Shandong-province Warlord Zhang Zongchang of the 'Three Don't Knows'note - he hired enough of them (c.5000) to form a cavalry regiment and an armoured-train corps. Some of them inexplicably helped their Red counterparts in the latter's invasion of Xinjiang province in China.  Some still persist to this day. The Table of Ranks Imperial Russia had a united rank system that included military, court and civil service ranks divided in categories, called the Table of Ranks. Its main purpose was a legal mechanism for ennoblement of commoners: upon reaching a certain rank, nobility was granted personally to an officer, and upon reaching a certain other higher rank, it was made hereditary. The military part of the Table, containing the officer ranks, is listed here in comparison to the modern Common Ranks. Note that certain ranks have different terms than ones used today: for example, the rank of Lieutenant only was referred to as "leytenant" in the navy; in the other branches the Polish term poruchik was used instead. The rank praporschik (currently a Warrant Officer rank) was used for the Ensign Newbie, similar to the German rank Fahnrich.
—A. V. Suvorov