When the Red Army was first formed in the years following the Revolution of 1917, it defied many precepts of a modern, European military. Lenin wanted “the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the entire people,” and this “people’s” militia become the Red Army (The Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution). This army was far less stratified than the Imperial Army had been, when the officers were Noblemen and the enlisted soldiers . The Red Army was free of the Western rank structure and elected it “commanders” at various levels.
During World War II, the Soviets introduced epaulettes and authoritarian ranks to the Red Army (Establishment of Military Ranks). This was an attempt to re-energize the officer corps and reinstate their authority. The Red Army had been devastated by the Great Purge of the late 1930s, leaving officer corps shrunken and weak. Many of the highest ranking and most experienced officers had been killed off during the purge, which left the Red Army unable to resist the advancing Germans in the opening years of World War II. Some officers, following the 1939-1940 “Winter War” with Finalnd, were released from prison camps and allowed back into the army, but a vast majority of commanders still had little experience (Freeze, 37. The ranks and uniforms that were brought into the Red Army were very similar to those seen in the Russian Imperial Army. As seen in the portrait below, Georgii Zhukov looks more like a Field Marshall of the Russian Imperial Army, than the head of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.
Marshall of the Soviet Union Georgii Zhukov was appointed to his position at the head of the Red Army in 1943. He was born as a poor peasant, before being conscripted into the Imperial Army and fighting in World War I. He joined the Bolsheviks and fought in the Russian Civil War. He was a military professional who remained in the Army through multiple conflicts and used military education to his advantage. He is often credited with the successful defense of Stalingrad and the counteroffensive that led to the sacking of Berlin in 1945.
The Red Army that Zhukov led following World War II looked much like a more conventional military. From the uniforms to the portrayal of the Imperial military heroes, the army was transformed from the “militia” it had been in 1917. The great Russian military heroes of the Empire were revived as models of Russian strength and heroism. Red Army officers began to receive benefits for themselves and their families, along with their “prestigious” uniforms, which began to separate the officer corps from enlisted troops. With exception of the role of Military Commissars, the Red Army looked and operated much differently after the Second World War than they did before.
Seventeen Moments: Epaulettes Back on Uniforms
Seventeen Moments: Establishment of Military Ranks
Vladimir Lenin: The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution
Gregory Freeze: Russia: A History, pg. 378, 380.