Guards, Regiments of
GUARDS, REGIMENTS OF
The Russian Imperial Guards regiments originated in the two so-called play regiments that the young Tsar Peter I created during the 1680s. They took their names, Preobrazhensky and Semonovsky, from the villages in which they had originally taken form. Peter used those regiments to seize power from Sophia Alexeyevna, then ruling as regent, and establish himself in sole rule. Unlike the streltsy musketeer units that had been the elite element in the Russian army to that point, the guards were trained and equipped in the style of Western European armies, and drilled by Western officers.
Their original complements were entirely noble, including the enlisted ranks, and the guards regiments served as the principal training ground for officers for the line units. The guards, especially the Preobrazhensky regiment, often provided escorts for the tsar, even accompanying him on his tour of Europe. They also fought in his wars, playing an important role at the Battle of Narva in 1700 and throughout the Northern War. The guards served a political function under Peter as well, participating in the arrests of nobles and other governmental activities.
With Peter's death, the guards regiments increased in political significance. A demonstration by both regiments played a role in bringing Peter's wife, Catherine I, to power peacefully. They also brought Anna and Elizabeth to power through forceful coup d'état, and participated in Catherine II's seizure of the throne and murder of her husband, Peter III. Although they continued to participate in the smaller wars of the eighteenth century against Poland, Sweden, and Turkey, they did not play an important role in the Seven Years' War. Their numbers were nevertheless expanded, including the formation of the Izmailovsky Regiment by Anna and the Cavalier-Guard Cavalry Regiment, as well as the Guard Horse Regiment, among others.
The political significance of the guards regiments fell between Catherine the Great's reign and the end of the Napoleonic wars, while the guards' combat role increased. They accompanied Alexander I to battle in the war of 1805 and played an important role on the Austerlitz battlefield. They also participated in the 1812 campaign, including a prominent role in the Battle of Borodino, and they fought throughout the following two years of conflict against France. The Napoleonic Wars saw a significant reorganization of the guards similar to that which occurred throughout the Russian army at that time. In 1806 a guards division was formed of the three guards infantry regiments. In 1811 an Independent Guards Corps was formed, which persisted in various forms until the end of the empire.
The years after Napoleon's defeat saw a resurgence in the guards' political importance. In 1820 the Semenovsky Guards Regiment mutinied, and the rebellion had to be suppressed by other, loyal, troops. And in 1825, during the interregnum following the death of Alexander I, guards troops participated in the abortive Decembrist Rebellion, likewise suppressed by troops loyal to Nicholas I, the new tsar. Although the individuals who participated in the rebellions were punished, the guards as a whole were not. Indeed, the number of guards units mushroomed through the nineteenth century, so that in 1914 there were seventeen infantry and fourteen cavalry regiments with four artillery brigades, in addition to smaller detachments. The guards also spread into the navy in the form of individual units and ships.
Guards units participated in the Russo-Turkish Wars of 1828–1829 and 1877–1878, and individual guards officers participated as volunteers in the Russo-Japanese War. The guards units were used to help put down the Revolution of 1905. The guards regiments then played a prominent role in all of the major campaigns of World War I. Their ranks were decimated by the casualties they incurred, however, and by 1917 most guards units were filled with simple conscripts. Their political reliability, therefore, was no greater than that of any other army units. As a result, guards regiments garrisoned in Petrograd participated in the February Revolution against the government and helped bring down the tsarist regime. Guards units also helped the Bolsheviks to power in October.
Throughout the imperial period, members of the guards units received a number of significant privileges. In particular, guards officers were granted an additional one or two steps on the Table of Ranks, depending upon which units they belonged to (this benefit was reduced by one step toward the end of the nineteenth century). The tsars and tsaritsas and their favorites frequently served as the colonels of the guards regiments, and appointments in those regiments were keenly sought as a step toward political, social, and, of course, military advancement. On the whole, guards regiments did not perform better in combat than most good, well-trained regiments of the regular army.
With the advent of communist rule the guards regiments were disbanded. In 1941, however, Josef Stalin reestablished the concept of "guards" in a new form. Following the Battle of Smolensk, five rifle divisions were redesignated the First through the Fifth Guards Infantry Divisions for extraordinary valor as units in combat. Thereafter other units, including divisions, corps, and armies, received the designation "guards" as a reward for valor in battle.
See also: military, imperial era; peter i
Frederick W. Kagan