Red Guards (also called Workers' Militia) were volunteer armed bands formed by industrial workers in the cities during the Russian Revolution of 1917. They played an important role in the turmoil of 1917, in the Bolshevik seizure of power, and in securing the new Soviet government. The term Red Guard originated in Finland during the Revolution of 1905 and reemerged in 1917, especially after April, to signify the more politically militant armed workers.
Volunteer armed workers' bands were formed during and after the February Revolution by industrial workers at factories to protect and advance the interests of the industrial workers during the revolution, to maintain public safety, and to guard against counterrevolution. They were loosely organized (mostly self-organized), chose their own leaders, and were independent of all political parties and the new Provisional Government. They attracted the more militant members of the working class and gravitated politically toward the radical end of the spectrum (thus the tendency in later writing to associate them with the Bolsheviks, even though Socialist Revolutionaries [SRs], anarchists, and even Mensheviks participated, along with non-party elements). Indeed, they were a symbol of the most emphatic worker self-organization and self-assertion. Their organizational base was the factory, and their loyalty was to it and to the factory committees and the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies, in Petrograd (the capital) and other cities. The government and more moderate socialists were suspicious of them but unable to suppress them.
The Red Guard grew in size and militancy during the summer and early fall as political tensions increased, the economic situation worsened, and workers sensed that the gains they had made after February were slipping away. Industrial workers increasingly saw the Red Guards as essential to protecting their economic and political interests. By the October Revolution, Red Guard detachments totaled about 150,000 to 175,000 men across the country, about 25,000 to 30,000 of them in Petrograd. The Red Guards and the Bolsheviks found common ground in the slogan "All Power to the Soviets" and the call for radical social reforms and an end to the war. As a result, a close working relationship developed between them.
The Red Guards played an important role in the October Revolution and the first few months of the new Bolshevik regime. In Petrograd they joined with soldiers to secure the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the proclamation of "Soviet power"—the new Bolshevik government. Red Guard bands played a similar role in the transfer of power in Moscow and provincial cities. They fought the initial armed efforts to overthrow the Bolsheviks and provided the new government with much-needed armed coercion. The Red Guards were an important part of expeditionary forces sent from Petrograd and Moscow in late 1917 and early 1918 to secure control over outlying regions. Some Red Guard detachments were incorporated into the new Red Army in 1918, others withered away, and the Soviet government formally abolished the Red Guard in April 1918. The essential features of the Red Guard and workers' militias—self-organization, local orientation, and elected leaders—were not suited to the demands of civil war or the new Communist era.
See also: bolshevism; february revolution; october revolution; workers
Wade, Rex A. (1984). Red Guards and Workers' Militias in the Russian Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Rex A. Wade