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The Soviet Army of the Cold War period (1945-1991) traced its origins to the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army – RKKA which started life as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union and by the 1930s was among the largest armies in history.

The name "Red Army" refers to the traditional colour of the workers' movement. On 25 February 1946, when Soviet national symbols replaced revolutionary symbols, the Red Army was renamed the Soviet Army.

At the start of the First World War in 1914 the Imperial Russian Army mobilised against Germany. By late 1917, during the Russian Revolution, it was in a state of collapse. By that time 23% of the male population of the Russian Empire had been mobilized, numbering about 19 million men. However most of these soldiers were not equipped with any weapons and had support roles maintaining lines of communication and base areas and by the end of the Revolution deserters, dead and wounded and prisoners had reduced that figure to around ten million. The Council of People’s Commissars, which succeeded the government of the Tsar, decided to form the Red Army on 28 January 1918. Their concept was that it should be "formed from the class-conscious and best elements of the working classes" and thus represent the Russian people.

All male citizens of the Russian Republic over the age of 18 years were eligible to enlist. Its specific role was the defence "of the achievements of the October Revolution, Soviet Power and Socialism”.

The Red Army was involved in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21 in which it was defeated; its strength at the time was 6.5 million men. This number was subsequently reduced and then further diminished by Stalin’s purges of the 1930’s when many experienced senior officers were executed. By 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Red Army comprised 5.3 million soldiers organised into 303 divisions and 22 independent brigades. A further 29.6 million men were conscripted during the course of the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet name for the Second World War) of whom 60% were killed, wounded or taken prisoner during the conflict. By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 the Red Army numbered 11.3 million, reduced within a year to 2.9 million following demobilisation.


THE COLD WAR (1945-1991)

The Soviet government decreed that the situation which permitted German forces to attack the country so easily and the resulting devastation of the Great Patriotic War must never happen again. By the end of the War Soviet troops had occupied Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the eastern part of Germany; in 1955 these countries and Albania officially became allies of the Soviet Union under the terms of the Warsaw Pact alliance. Soviet troops remained stationed in all the countries above except Bulgaria, Albania and Romania and were designated Groups of Forces. The Northern Group of Forces was in Poland, the Central Group of Forces in Czechoslovakia, the Southern Group of Forces in Hungary and the Group of Soviet Forces Germany (later renamed the Western  Group of Forces) in what became the German Democratic Republic. During the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union and their Warsaw Pact allies fielded a total of around two million troops in their ground and air forces.

In response to this NATO increased its troop levels in Western Europe, with the British Army and Royal Air Force being responsible for north-western Germany. Each side mistrusted the other and  prepared for hostile attack. It was believed that the Soviet Army and its Warsaw Pact Allies would eventually launch an attack through East Germany and attempt to occupy as much of western Europe as possible. Both sides held major exercises every autumn and it was expected that the offensive by the Warsaw Pact, when it came, would begin under the guise of military manoeuvres in East Germany. (It has since been established that any attack would be directed through Poland, with the East German forces tasked with capturing West Berlin).

The Warsaw Pact survived until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, and many of its former member countries subsequently joined NATO.



While the Warsaw Pact did not carry out any military operations as an alliance, the Soviet Army was used to suppress uprisings in East Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. In December 1979 Soviet forces attacked Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in order to install a Soviet-friendly puppet government and prevent Islamic and anti-Soviet elements from taking over the country. The Soviet government had not reckoned with the fierce opposition of Mujihadeen fighters and withdrew by March 1989, having suffered around 15,000 soldiers killed and 35,000 wounded. The Afghanistan conflict proved that the Soviet Army was not as invincible as propaganda had always claimed.



The Soviet Army of the Cold War period comprised tank units, motor-rifle troops (mechanised infantry), and artillery and rocket units (some nuclear-capable), supported by chemical warfare units, engineers and communications troops. There were in addition airborne and special forces units. In peacetime the forces inside the Soviet Union were organised into 16 military districts, which in wartime would become known as “Fronts”, e.g. on the outbreak of war all units in the Leningrad Military District would be mobilised as the Leningrad Front.

A Front (or in the Warsaw Pact countries outside the Soviet Union, a Group of Forces) was composed of one or more Armies and each Army comprised between eight and 25 divisions. A Tank Army had four tank divisions and one motor-rifle (mechanised infantry) division; a Combined Arms Army consisted of three motor-rifle divisions and one tank division. Each tank division was organised into three tank regiments, one motor-rifle regiment plus supporting artillery, engineers, signals, reconnaissance and chemical defence troops. A motor-rifle division comprised three motor-rifle regiments, a tank regiment and an independent tank battalion and support troops.


Tank Division

  Motor-Rifle Division
6 Gaz 69 light vehicle 6
19 PT-76 amphibious tank 19
77 BRDM armoured recce vehicles 105
9 BRDM with Sagger ATGW 27
316 Main battle tanks (T62/T64/T72) 188
162 BTR-50 tracked APC 25
0 BMP tracked infantry fighting vehicle 327
988 Officers 1,079
8,342 Other ranks 10,538

A tank regiment consisted of three battalions plus support troops; each battalion comprised a headquarters, three tank companies and support services (medical, maintenance and supply). A tank company was equipped with nine main battle tanks organised into three platoons each of three vehicles.

A motor-rifle regiment comprised three battalions, each of which was organised into a headquarters, three companies and support services. A company was divided into three platoons, and each platoon into three sections of ten men each carried in a BMP infantry fighting vehicle.


Every able-bodied male citizen in the Soviet Union was liable to be called up for two years’ compulsory military service on reaching the aged of 18 years. Preliminary military training was given during the last two years at school. Call-ups took place in the spring and autumn, and following a medical examination and assessment interviews the conscript would be posted to his unit, possibly a long way from his home area. Life as a conscript was hard and often brutal, the culture of dedovshchina - insitutional bullying by long-serving conscripts – was rife, and there were violent and sometimes fatal clashes between members of different ethnic groups.

After four weeks of basic training the recruit took the oath of allegiance to the Soviet Union and was then legally considered to be a soldier. The main training periods were between January and May, and July to September. Between those times, if not deployed on operations, the daily routine in barracks comprised physical training, drill, political lectures and some free time. Soldiers could be drafted to assist with the harvest on state farms and work in factories. No leave was granted during the two-year period of national service, except occasionally as a reward for exceptional service.

Discipline was strict and comradeship affected by the knowledge that in every unit down to platoon level there was a stukach, or paid informer, who would report any colleagues who appeared to violate the political and moral code of the Soviet Army. The most serious and most frequent violation of discipline was drunkenness: an offender would be placed in the cells for ten days. Persistent offenders could be sent to a disciplinary unit for hard labour.


Daily timetable for a motor-rifle unit in barracks, summer 1990

Event Time
Reveille for senior NCO’s 05:50

General reveille                         

Physical training 06:10-07:00
Cleaning barracks/bedmaking/washing 07:00-07:20
Room check by NCO’s 07:20-07:30
Breakfast 07:30-08:00
Collective listening to news on radio 08:00-08:15
Political information period 08:20-08:50
Preparation for training/lessons 08:50-09:00
First training period 09:00-09:50
Second training period 10:00-10:50
Third training period 11:00-11:50
Fourth training period 12:00-12:50
Fifth training period 13:00-13:50
Sixth training period 14:00-14:50
Lunch 15:00-15:30
Personal admin period 15:30-16:00
Maintenance of weapons and equipment 16:00-17:30
Individual preparation for classes 17:30-18:20
As above 18:30-19:20
Political-educational work or sports 19:20-20:00
Evening meal 20:05-20:25
Vremya current affairs TV programme 20:30-21:00
Personal admin period 21:00-21:30
Evening walk 21:30-21:40
Evening roll-call 21:40-21:50
Lights out 22:00

Political education was supervised by the Zampolit, the Assistant Commander for Political Affairs, and was aimed to convince the soldier that the Soviet Army was the best in the world, that NATO intended to attack the Soviet Union, and that he should love and defend his commander. Most soldiers believed what they were told  because they had never experienced anything different.


Cookhouse menu, 1990

Meal type Contents of meal

Kasha (buckwheat porridge)

Two pieces of black bread

One piece of white bread

Three lumps of sugar

Unlimited tea


Soup containing pieces of meat or potatoes

Meat with rice or kasha

Bread as at breakfast

No tea, and no meat on Fridays


Macaroni or mashed potato

Bread as at breakfast



Various forms of cabbage could be served when available, but never milk, cheese, eggs or ham. In some units soldiers could purchase milk, extra white bread and cigarettes. Food parcels form home were permitted and often contained illicit alcohol and occasionally drugs.


The clothing and personal equipment of the Soviet soldier during the Cold War period was basic and crude compared to that of NATO forces. For example, the soldier still wore traditional peasant-style foot-cloths instead of socks until the early 1980’s. Experiences during the Afghanistan conflict of 1979-1989 led to improvements in clothing and footwear.



The basic fatigue uniform comprised a cotton drill jacket and trousers, a side-hat and calf-length boots. Arm of service (e.g. engineers, armoured troops) was denoted by a sleeve badge and small metal insignia on the collar patches. Rank was denoted by insignia on the epaulettes. For parades and formal occasions the soldier was issued with a service dress uniform and peaked cap.

Until combat experience in Afghanistan during the campaign of 1979-1989 showed the need for camouflage clothing the only personnel to wear camouflage were snipers and special forces units. Camouflage clothing took the form of either a one-piece overall or a smock and trousers in a hessian-like material. Tank crews wore black overalls, while airborne troops wore a one-piece green coverall with a blue-and-white striped woollen shirt beneath, and a blue beret.

A one-piece rubberised over suit (NBC suit) was provided for protection against radiation and chemical and bacteriological weapons. It was extremely hot and uncomfortable to wear.

The following pictures show examples of everyday uniform, camouflage clothing, the special airborne coverall and striped shirt and the standard boots worn by all branches of the army.























Basic equipment comprised a leather belt with brass buckle (sometimes painted green), to which were attached a magazine pouch, water bottle, small entrenching shovel, grenade pouch and bayonet. A Y-shaped webbing yoke supported the load and the  rolled-up groundsheet cape was attached to this. Spare clothing, NBC suit and rations were carried in a separate simple rucksack (the veshchmeshok) which was normally not carried in combat. A canvas haversack worn on the left hip contained the respirator.

Airborne troops were issued with a specially-designed webbing set which featured an integral small rucksack; its position could be adjusted after landing to sit higher on the back. They were also given a special combined mess-tin and water bottle.

In combat a steel helmet virtually identical to that used during the Great Patriotic War was worn. Armoured vehicle crews wore a padded cloth protective helmet with integral earphones.

The following pictures show basic and airborne field equipment, respirator, headgear and field rations – black bread and tinned meat and fish.



















On the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) the infantryman of the Soviet Army was principally armed with the Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle. During the course of the war the PPSh-41 sub-machine gun was increasingly issued which gave the infantry platoon increased firepower during the assault. This was augmented by the 1910 model Maxim machine gun and the Degtyarev light machine gun, both of which fired the same long 7.62mm cartridge as the Mosin-Nagant rifle. A semi-automatic rifle, the SVT-40, was issued in limited numbers but found to be less robust than required.

Captured German ammunition inspired Soviet designers to develop a short 7.62mm round, and in 1946 the Simonov carbine which used the new ammunition went into production. It was a semi-automatic weapon with a ten-round magazine and a permanently-fixed bayonet which folded back under the barrel when not in use. The next development was the well-known Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle which took the same cartridge as the Simonov and was capable of semi-automatic and fully-automatic fire. It marked the start of a long line of assault rifles all based on the original design,  manufactured in variants in many countries of the world and exported in great quantities. The RPK light machine gun was developed from the AK-47.




Technical specifications


Weight unloaded 4.30Kg (9.7lb)
Magazine 30-round box magazine
Muzzle velocity 2330 feet per second
Cyclic rate of fire (theoretical continuous rate)

800 rounds per minute



Various types of Soviet ammunition



Numbered from left to right

1. 14.5mm heavy machine gun round (used in anti-aircraft weapons)
2. 12.7 mm heavy machine gun round (used in tank and heavy fire-support machine guns)
3. Single long 7.62mm round (used in Degtyarev SVD sniper rifle and PK general-purpose machine gun)
4. Short 7.62 mm round
5. Clip of 5 x long 7.62mm rounds
6. Clip of 10 x short 7.62mm rounds for Simonov carbine
7. Belt of short 7.62mm rounds for RPD light machine gun





Krasnaya Zvezda was a four-page daily newspaper and cost 15 Kopeks. It was published from 1924 to 1991 and during the Cold War period always featured dramatic photographs of troops in training (many of them fabricated), anti-NATO propaganda articles, tales of heroism during the Great Patriotic War, and sports news.
Article copyright Callsign Alpha

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Call Sign Alpha was last updated 04/23/18