In 1918, Leon Trotsky founded the Red Army. Before long, the army would be used not only against the outside world, but also against the Soviet people. Worried about the great power of the army, Stalin initiated purges in 1937 and 1938.
By 1918, Soviet Russia was waging all-out war — against both foreign enemies and its own people. Soon, the Red Army, founded by Trotsky, had to abandon its noble ideals of equality and democracy. When food rationing was ordered during the civil war, the rural population revolted against the fledgling communist state. To put down the peasant uprising in Tambov, former tsarist officer Mikhail Tukhachevsky used poison gas against the villagers on Lenin's orders in 1920.
The Red Army emerged stronger and more confident as a result of its victory in the civil war against the "Whites" and Tsarist Russia. However, Stalin, who came to power after Lenin's death in 1924, feared the increasing influence of the army as well as the popularity of commander Marshal Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky. He had him executed on June 12, 1937, and ordered purges. Those years, 1937 and 1938, went down in history as the time of the "Great Terror".
When the German Wehrmacht invaded Russia, the Red Army was only a shadow of its former self. In addition to Tukhachevsky, another three marshals, 13 generals and some 5,000 officers had been executed as part of Stalin’s purges. Nearly half of the leadership of the Red Army were dead, murdered by their own leader.
To counter the German attack, Stalin ordered general mobilization. In November 1941, the Germans were at the gates of Moscow. General Zhukov managed to force them to retreat at the last moment. The Red Army received help from the partisan movement, which had grown as a result of the genocide of the Jews, and succeeded in weakening German fighting morale through targeted attacks.
At Stalingrad, Zhukov was able to wear down the enemy. Thanks to the anti-Hitler coalition the USSR had formed with the US and Britain, the Red Army was able to launch a counteroffensive. On its triumphal march to Berlin, the Red Army discovered the concentration and extermination camps, which ignited the soldiers' desire for revenge. Widespread looting and rape ensued. Stalin's main men, Generals Zhukov and Konev, captured the German capital. Nazi Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, and the surrender document was signed in Karlshorst on the night of May 9, 1945.
After the Second World War ended, the glory of the Red Army waned. Then, as the Cold War raged, Khrushchev burnished the army’s reputation once more. But from then on, the army had a purely repressive function.
After World War II, the Red Army’s activities were primarily directed against popular uprisings in the USSR's sphere of influence. These were brutally put down. Today, the Red Army is primarily a symbol of nostalgic nationalist aspirations.
Following the victory over fascism in the summer of 1945, nine million Soviet soldiers returned home. But prisoners of war who had survived the German camps were often accused of treason when they finally reached their motherland, and sent to gulags. Others were forced to beg, as their war pensions were cut, or found themselves banished from major cities. Stalin had decided to put an end to the glorious days of the Red Army, after the victory against Hitler's Germany. As the Cold War began, the Red Army‘s only function was to maintain public order and security.
But after Stalin's death in 1953, the cards were reshuffled. The new strongman Nikita Khrushchev had gotten rid of his rival, interior ministry chief Lavrenti Beria, with the help of the Red Army. After taking power, Khrushchev initiated a program of de-Stalinization. He appointed Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who had fallen out of favor with Stalin, as defense minister. Khrushchev then reorganized and modernized the Red Army. He restored its prestige and reintroduced a pension for wartime service.
With the support of Soviet tanks, the Red Army was instrumental in bloodily crushing the uprisings in Poland and Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968. And they played a role in the ongoing Cold War battles being waged with the West.
By the 1970s, the living conditions of Red Army soldiers had deteriorated drastically. Many conscripts tried to avoid military service. But there was often no escape from the nightmarish mission in Afghanistan. The Red Army was increasingly weakened and demoralized as dislike for the Soviet system grew. In 1989, ten years after the conflict in Afghanistan began, President Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the Red Army to withdraw from that country and bring its soldiers home. This defeat played a role in the disintegration of the USSR, which took place in the wake of Gorbachev’s resignation on December 25, 1991.