Preobrazhensky Guards

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The Preobrazhensky Regiment and its slightly junior counterpart, the Semenovsky Life Guard Regiment, trace their histories to 1683, when Peter the Great as tsarevich created two "play regiments." Named after villages near Moscow, the regiments initially consisted of Peter's boyhood cronies and miscellaneous recruits who engaged in war games in and around the mock fortress of Pressburg. The regiments attained formal status in 1687, followed in 1700 by official appellation as Guards. More than guarantors of the tsar's physical security, these regiments served as models for the emergence of a standing regular Russian army. With adjustments, Peter structured them on the pattern of European-style units that Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich had first introduced into Russian service. As they evolved, the guards became officer training schools for an assortment of gentry youths and foreigners who remained reliably close to the throne. In setting the example, the tsar himself advanced through the ranks of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, serving notably in 1709 as a battalion commander at Poltava. Non-military missions for guards officers and non-commissioned officers often extended to service as a kind of political police for the sovereign. By 1722, Peter's guards (with cavalry) numbered about three thousand troops, and his Table of Ranks recognized their elite status by according their complement two-rank seniority over comparable grades in the regular army.

During the half-century after Peter's death, a mixture of tradition, proximity to the throne, elite status, and gentry recruitment propelled the Preobrazhensky Regiment into court politics. Every sovereign after Peter automatically became chief of the regiment; therefore, appearance of the ruler in its uniform symbolized authority, continuity, and mutual acceptance. Meanwhile, because Peter had made gentry service mandatory, noble families often registered their male children at birth on the regimental list, thus assuring early ascent through the junior grades before actual duty. In effect, the Guards became a bastion of gentry interests and sentiment, and various parties at court eventually drew the Preobrazhensky Regiment into a series of palace intrigues and coups. Officers of the regiment played conspicuous roles in the palace coups of 1740 and 1741 that overthrew successive regents for the infant Ivan VI in final favor of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Members of the regiment displayed an even higher profile during the coup of July 1762 that deposed Peter III in favor of his German-born wife, who became Empress Catherine II. She counted prominent supporters within the regiment, and she pointedly dressed as a Preobrazhensky colonel during the campaign on the outskirts of the capital to arrest her husband. On re-entry into St. Petersburg, Catherine personally rode at the head of the regiment. Yet, whatever the level of guards' participation in this and previous coups, there was never any genuine impulse to create an alternative military government; solicitous attention from the traditional monarchy seemed adequate recompense for guards' conspiratorial complicity.

The onset of Catherine II's reign marked the zenith of the Preobrazhensky's role as power broker, although association with the regiment continued to retain symbolic significance. To forestall repetition of events, a new generation of military administrators increasingly recruited non-noble subjects with outstanding physical characteristics as rank-and-file guards, while Tsar Paul I subsequently diluted the guards with recruits from his Gatchina corps. Moreover, other sources of officer recruitment, including the cadet corps, soon supplanted the guards. Only in 1825, during the Decembrist revolt, when a Preobrazhensky company was the first unit to side with Tsar Nicholas I, was there more than brief allusion to a political past. Subsequently, the Preobrazhensky Regiment remained the bearer of a proud combat tradition that included distinguished service in nearly all of imperial Russia's wars. The sons of illustrious families vied for appointment to its officer cadre, while the tsars continued to wear its distinctive dark green tunic on ceremonial occasions.

See also: catherine ii; military, imperial era; peter i


Alexander, John T. (1989). Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keep, John. L. H. (1985). Soldiers of the Tsar: Army and Society in Russia, 14621874. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bruce W. Menning