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The Russian Army

Frederick Engels

At the time the war between the Western Powers and Russia was declared, the Anglo-French press was of opinion that Russia would have no lack of men to fight, but that she would soon be short of money. Financial difficulties were counted on to counteract the strength and to impede the movements of those millions of soldiers which Russia could, it was said, send forth at any time against her enemies. But what has been the actual fact? Russia, though ostensibly banished from all the great European Stock exchanges, has found no difficulty in contracting a loan[395]; her paper money, in spite of repeated fresh issues, maintains its credit; and her troops on their marches are fed, and the means of transport are furnished by the population in a manner impossible in any other less exclusively agricultural country. Blockaded as her ports are, she has managed hitherto to weather all those financial shoals upon which the London wiseacres were sure she would founder. As to the inexhaustible supply of men, however, matters look far different. While England with voluntary enlistment at home and abroad has managed gradually to increase her Crimean army to some forty thousand men, while France has only called in for the present year one hundred and forty thousand men instead of eighty thousand, and yet could send to the East an army numerous enough for more work than Pélissier could cut out for it, what has Russia had to do? Two general levies have been ordered on the whole extent of territory subject to the conscription, each averaging ten men to every one thousand male souls; then a general levy for the militia of twenty-three men to each one thousand souls, and now a fresh general levy for the line of ten men to each one thousand souls is again decreed. The average levy, in time of peace, is about five per one thousand for one-half of the empire, the other half furnishing recruits the year following. Thus two-and-a-half per one thousand male souls on the whole empire (except, of course, in the provinces not subject to conscription) is the yearly average. The two years of war, however, have now already caused levies to be made amounting in the whole to fifty-three to each one thousand souls, or about two-and-a-half per cent of the entire population, male and female—that is, in each of the two years, ten times the amount of the regular peace recruiting. If we suppose France to have, during the two years of the war, recruited for her army altogether three hundred thousand men, which is certainly beyond the mark, that would make, for a population of thirty-six millions, five-sixth per cent in two years, or five-twelfths per cent per annum—that is, just one-sixth of the numbers which Russia has had to incorporate in her army. It is true that in Russia about one-ninth per cent, and in France two-ninths per cent, of the entire population are taken annually in time of peace, for military service; but then, as the time of actual service in Russia is more than twice as long as in France, that circumstance is more than balanced.

That this continuous drain upon the able-bodied male population begins to tell in Russia, while its counterpart is hardly felt in France, we learn from all quarters. In Poland particularly we are informed that hands are wanted for the tillage of the soil; and the great discontent of the nobles at the general abstraction of their most valuable serf-property is another proof of the fact. The appointment of an out-and-out aristocrat, Lanskoy, to the ministry of the Interior, and his circular to the nobility[a], stating that the Emperor Alexander, by a ukase, has guaranteed to them all their rights and privileges, shows how seriously alarmed the Court is at these symptoms of discontent among the owners of serfs.

The most remarkable feature, however, in these quickly-renewed recruitings, is the insignificance of the actual numerical increase gained, through them, for the army. Reckoning the total number of male souls subject to conscription at twenty-two millions, which is certainly low, in two years no less than six hundred and sixty thousand men have been enrolled in the ranks of the line, and five hundred and six thousand in those of the militia. Of the latter, indeed, a portion only have been mobilized, amounting perhaps to two hundred thousand men; so that the actual drain on the able-bodied male population has been about eight hundred and sixty thousand men. Beside these should be counted the soldiers of the reserve, dismissed on furlough for the last five or ten years of their term of service, and called in before the war broke out; but as most of these were called in as far back as 1853, we will not take them into account here.

In spite of these reserves, forming the fifth and sixth battalions of each infantry regiment—in spite of the six hundred and sixty thousand recruits incorporated partly in the first four line-battalions of each regiment, partly in the newly-formed second reserve (seventh and eighth) battalions of these regiments, the various bodies of the line are still far short of their full complement of men. The most curious proof of this is afforded by a proclamation issued at Nikolaieff, by the commander of the army of the south, Gen. Lüders[b]. He declares that by imperial order, twenty-three druginas[c] of the militia (twenty-three thousand men) attached to the army of the south, are to be incorporated with the line, and that they are to join the third and fourth battalions of each regiment. Now this measure cannot possibly have any other signification than that the regiments forming the army of the south are so reduced in numbers, that the mass of the soldiers of the third and fourth battalions are to be transferred to the first and second battalions while their places are to be filled by the militia. In other words, before the incorporation of the militia with them, the four battalions of these regiments were scarcely as strong as two battalions of the full complement. If such losses have taken place in an army the greater portion of which has never been before the enemy, and no portion of which has been engaged since Silistria, what must have been the losses in the Crimea and in Asia! We gain at once an insight into the actual state of the Russian army, and the conjecture which this insight allows us to make as to its wear and tear, explains the possibility of two-thirds of a million of men being absorbed into it without visibly increasing its numbers.

But how is this immense and disproportionate wear and tear brought about? First, by the enormous marches the recruits have to make from their respective homes to the chief towns of the provinces, thence to their depots, and finally to their regiments—not to count the marches these regiments have to make afterward. It is no trifle for a recruit to march from Perm to Moscow, from Moscow to Wilna, and finally from Wilna to Odessa or Nikolaieff. And if such interminable marches are hurried on by the supreme will of a man like Nicholas, who fixes the hour of arrival as well as the hour of departure, and punishes every deviation from his order; if brigades, divisions, army-corps, are precipitated in hot haste from one end of the empire to the other, regardless of the numbers left behind on account of sickness and fatigue; if a march from Moscow to Perekop has to he made at the rate of an ordinary forced march, which elsewhere is never continued beyond two days—a great deal of this wear and tear is explained. But to this overstraining of the physical powers of the soldier must be added the confusion necessarily arising from the notorious mal-administration of every department in the Russian service, especially in the army commissariat. Then comes the method of having the soldiers fed on the march as far as possible. by the inhabitants of the country on the line of march—a method quite practicable if well managed, in an exclusively agricultural country, but illusory and open to the greatest inconvenience wherever, as in Russia, the commissariat and the commanding officers make good their embezzlements out of the stores stolen from the peasantry. And finally come the formidable miscalculations which necessarily must occur wherever armies disseminated over such a vast -extent of ground are made to move by orders from one center, and are expected to execute them with the regularity of clockwork, while all the premises upon which these orders are based are false and unreliable. It is not the sword and the shot of the enemy, it is not the sickness inevitable in many parts of Southern Russia, it is not even the necessity of long marches which so decimates the Russian army; it is the special circumstances under which the Russian soldier is enlisted, drilled, marched, treated, fed, clad, lodged, commanded and fought, which can account for the terrible fact that very nearly the whole of the Russian army, as it existed in 1853, has already disappeared from the face of the earth without having made its opponents suffer more than one third of such a loss.

The order of the day of General Lüders is remarkable for another circumstance. It confesses openly that the militiamen are anything but fit to be led against the enemy. It implores the old soldiers not to laugh at or despise these young troops for their awkwardness under arms; it admits that they hardly know anything about drill, and introduces an alteration in the drill-regulations which must have been expressly sanctioned by the Emperor. The men are not to be "disgusted" by useless parade-drill; the most indispensable movements only are to be practiced with them; handling, loading, firing their muskets, firing at the target, movements in column, and skirmishing—everything else is declared to be useless parade-drill. Thus a Russian general, under the express sanction of the Emperor, condemns two-thirds of the whole Russian drill-regulations as useless stuff, fit for nothing but to disgust the soldier with his duties; and these regulations were the very work of which the late Emperor Nicholas was most proud!

The "young soldiers", whose very gesture and step are thus described as provoking the laughter of their comrades, would not in any other country be called recruits. They have been under arms from six to ten months, and yet they are as clumsy as if they came straight from the plow. It cannot he said that the long marches they have had to make have left them no time for drill. Napoleon in his latter campaigns incorporated his recruits in their respective battalions after a fortnight's drill, and then dispatched them to Spain, to Italy, to Poland; they were drilled during the march, both while marching and when arrived in quarters; and when they joined the army, after six or eight weeks' marching, they were expected to be fit for active service. Never did Napoleon allow his recruits more than three months' drill to become soldiers; and even in 1813, when he had to create a fresh army, fresh cadres, and everything, he brought his conscripts down to the battlefields of Saxony in three months from the time they had joined their depots; and his opponents soon learned what he could do with these "raw recruits." What a difference between this quickness of adaptation with the French and this clown-like clumsiness of the Russian! What a certificate of incapacity in the officers of this Russian militia! And yet, Lüders says, these officers have nearly all served in the line, and many of them have smelt powder.

The restriction of the drill to the most indispensable movements, too, shows what Lüders expects from his new reenforcements. Skirmishing and movements in column alone are to be practiced; no deployments into line, no formations of columns out of the line. The Russian soldier, indeed, is of all the least fit for line movements, but he is quite as unfit for skirmishing. Close column-fighting is his forte, that formation in which blunders of commanding officers are followed by the least possible disorder and derangement of the general order of battle, and where the cohesive instinct of the brave but inanimate mass may make up for these blunders. The Russian soldiers, like the wild horses of the steppe when persecuted by wolves, throng together in a shapeless mass, immovable, unmanageable, but which will hold its ground until a supreme effort of the enemy forces it asunder. But, anyhow, line formations are necessary in many circumstances, and even the Russians have recourse to them, though in a moderate degree. What then is to become of an army which cannot form in line at all, or which when got into line with a deal of trouble, cannot reform in column without throwing everything into confusion?

Written about November 2, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4548, November 16, 1855,
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1094, November 20, 1855 as a leading article
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune.


[a] Issued on August 28, 1855.—Ed.

[b] Lüders' proclamation was reported in The Times, No. 22200, November 1, 1855.—Ed.

[c] See this volume, p. 440.—Ed.

[395] In June 1854 Russia contracted a 50 million silver rubles loan at 5 per cent interest through the St. Petersburg bank of Stieglitz & Co. It was mainly intended to finance the Crimean War.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.575-580), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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