The Red Guards in Russia had a long revolutionary tradition. As far back as the revolutionary days of 1906 the Russian working classes formed their own fighting units in the factories, whereupon the victorious counterrevolution discovered that one of its chief tasks would have to be the disarmament of the workers and the destruction of these units. But the workers re-established their defence forces or ‘Red Guards’ during the February Revolution of 1917.
The development of these Red Guards was at first hindered by the fact that the Soviets were still dominated by the influence of the Menshevists and Social Revolutionaries. These parties were of opinion that the Revolution must not be allowed to destroy the framework of bourgeois democracy, for they feared that in view of Russia’s backwardness and the general international situation any transformation of the democratic into a socialist revolution was bound to be disastrous. They thought this would lead to a reactionary movement and the ultimate victory of the militarist-monarchist counter-revolutionaries.
On February 28, 1917, the general meeting of the Petrograd Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets was led in a first flush of enthusiasm to vote for the establishment of a ‘workers’ militia.’ But several days later, on March 7, the executive committee of the Soviets suspended this resolution, and issued a decree whereby the workers’ militia was compelled to amalgamate with the ordinary citizen militia. The enforcement of this decree assured to the bourgeoisie the control of the unified militia, and the separate militia of the workers ceased to exist as an independent class organization of the proletariat.
The military organization of the Bolshevists, which had hitherto been mainly employed in work amongst the troops, was now quickly transformed into a directing centre for the activities of the workers’ militia or Red Guards. The first period of the Red Guards’ illegal existence is described by M. G. Fleer, a prominent member of the Petrograd military organization:
“The Red Guard organizations which were not in close contact with the party, such for example, as the armed workers’ units in the factories, were comparatively easy to camouflage, for they needed only to play the part of factory militia formations officially entrusted with the task of defending the factory buildings. These legal duties gave the workers’ militia scope for much activity. We must not forget that the factories were glad to pay for the maintenance of this factory militia before becoming aware of its real nature, since they felt themselves safer under the protection of their ‘own’ workers than under that of the citizen militia, which could not enforce any authority over the factory hands. The proletarian factory militias soon became a general and inevitable phenomenon in the factories of Petrograd, Moscow, and all other centres of Russian industry.”
The Red Guards then gave themselves a constitution of a purely military nature, which divided them into decads, corporals’ squads, companies, etc., along with special technical units, such as dynamiters, cyclists, telegraphists, machine-gunners, artillerymen, and so on. The smallest fighting unit of the Red Guard was the decad, which consisted of 13 men. Four decads formed a corporal’s squad (53 men), three corporals’ squads a company (160 men), three companies a battalion, consisting of 480 men, plus technical units which made the total strength from 500 to 600; all the battalions of a district formed the district division, which, if numerous enough, was subdivided into regiments. After the Korniov putsch the Red Guards in Moscow and the other Russian industrial centres were legalized and armed by the same procedure as in Petrograd.
The Red Guards were equal to their task of defending the new Soviet homeland until the counter-revolutionaries coalesced and sent properly organized troops against them. But the Guards, mainly drawn from the towns and industrial centres, were found wanting as a defence for the dictatorship of the proletariat when called upon to face attacks by White armies consisting of regulars. Yet, as the Historical Section of the War Academy notes, they acted in the first months of the Civil War as “the shield of the Russian proletariat against the enemy operations of foreign and native counter-revolutionaries. Using them as a basis, the Soviet homeland began to build up its armed forces, and the first fighting formations of the Red Army were grouped round the Red Guard divisions.”