Military ranks of the Soviet Union

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The military ranks of the Soviet Union were those introduced after the October Revolution of 1917. At that time the Imperial Russian Table of Ranks was abolished, as were the privileges of the pre-Soviet Russian nobility.

Immediately after the Revolution, personal military ranks were abandoned in favor of a system of positional ranks, which were acronyms of the full position names. For example, KomKor was an acronym of Corps Commander, KomDiv was an acronym of Division Commander, KomBrig stood for Brigade Commander, KomBat stood for Battalion Commander, and so forth. These acronyms have survived as informal position names to the present day.

Personal ranks were reintroduced in 1935, and general officer ranks were restored in May 1940. The ranks were based on those of the Russian Empire, although they underwent some modifications. Modified Imperial-style rank insignia were reintroduced in 1943.

The Soviet ranks ceased to be used after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, although the military ranks and insignia of the modern Russian Federation and Ukraine have been largely adopted from the Soviet system.


Army and Air Force Ranks[edit]

The early Red Army abandoned the institution of a professional officer corps as a "heritage of tsarism" in the course of the Revolution. In particular, the Bolsheviks condemned the use of the word "officer" and used the word "commander" instead. The Red Army abandoned epaulettes and ranks, using purely functional titles such as "Division Commander", "Corps Commander", and similar titles. In 1924 it supplemented this system with "service categories", from K-1 (lowest) to K-14 (highest). The service categories essentially operated as ranks in disguise: they indicated the experience and qualifications of a commander. The insignia now denoted the category, not the position of a commander. However, one still had to use functional titles to address commanders, which could become as awkward as "comrade deputy head-of-staff of corps". If one did not know a commander's position, one used one of the possible positions - for example: "Regiment Commander" for K-9.[1] This rank system stayed on for a decade.

On September 22, 1935 the Red Army abandoned service categories and introduced personal ranks. These ranks, however, used a unique mix of functional titles and traditional ranks. For example, the ranks included "Lieutenant" and "Comdiv" (Комдив, Division Commander). Further complications ensued from the functional and categorical ranks for political officers (e.g., "Brigade Commissar", "Army Commissar 2nd Rank"), for technical corps (e.g., "Engineer 3rd Rank", "Division Engineer"), for administrative, medical and other non-combatant branches. Rank insignia then used both upside down chevrons on the sleeve and collar marks. The rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union was also introduced.

On May 7, 1940 further modifications to the system took place. The ranks of "General" or "Admiral" replaced the senior functional ranks of Combrig, Comdiv, Comcor, Comandarm; the other senior functional ranks ("Division Commissar", "Division Engineer", etc.) remained unaffected. The Arm or Service distinctions remained (e.g. General of Cavalry, Marshal of Armoured Troops). On November 2, 1940 the system underwent further modification with the abolition of functional ranks for NCOs and the reintroduction of the Podpolkovnik (sub-colonel) rank.[2] For the most part the new system restored that used by the Imperial Russian Army at the conclusion of its participation in World War I.

In early 1942 all the functional ranks in technical and administrative corps became regularized ranks (e.g., "Engineer Major", "Engineer Colonel", "Captain Intendant Service", etc.). On October 9, 1942 the authorities abolished the system of military commissars, together with the commissar ranks, and they were completely integrated into the regular officer corps. The functional ranks remained only in medical, veterinary and legislative corps and Private became the basic rank for the enlisted and NCOs.

In early 1943 a unification of the system saw the abolition of all the remaining functional ranks. The word "officer" became officially endorsed, together with the epaulettes that superseded the previous rank insignia, styled like the Imperial Russian Army before, and Marshal and Chief Marshal ranks created for the various arms and branch commands of the Red Army and the Red Army Air Forces save for the infantry (even through the Artillery branch was the first to have one in 1942) with all Marshal and Chief Marshal ranks being equal to General of the Army.

The ranks and insignia of 1943 did not change much until the last days of the USSR; the contemporary Russian Ground Forces uses largely the same system. The old functional ranks of Combat (Battalion or Battery Commander), Combrig (Brigade Commander) and Comdiv (Division Commander) continue in informal use.[3]

After the war, the new rank of Generalissimus of the Soviet Union was created for Joseph Stalin in his role as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The rank insignia featured the USSR arms above a large Marshal's Star surrounded by a wreath. The rank became inactive upon his demise in 1953, and inspired similar ranks in North Korea (Dae Wonsu) and the People's Republic of China (Da Yuan Shuai).

1963 saw all Starshina insignia in the Army and Air Force change to their final design.

In 1970 all Starshinas became full-time senior NCOs and enlisted personnel and the new NCO rank of Praporshchik became a Warrant Officer rank, with a new rank of Senior Praporshchik created for senior rank holders later in 1981. And in 1974, Generals of the Army had one star on their shoulder epaulettes rather than four with surrounding wreaths. The final rank structure from these reforms stayed well until the Union's dissoution and are the basis for the current ranks of the Russian Ground Forces.

These ranks also became the basic ranks for the Soviet Air Forces in 1918 and the Soviet Air Defense Forces (from 1932 to 1949 component part of the Soviet Air Force and the Red Army, 1949 independent branch, and from 1954 a full-service arm of the Soviet Armed Forces), and from 1991 onward became the basis for the present ranks of the Russian Air Force (including the Air Defense Forces from 1998 onward) and from 2001, the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces (Formerly the Space Forces). The only exceptions were the use of the ranks of Marshal of Aviation and Chief Marshal of Aviation, which replaced the rank of General of the Army until the latter became the highest officer rank in 1993.

Naval ranks and rates[edit]

In 1918, the Soviet Navy was raised from the pro-Bolshevik sailors and officers of the Imperial Russian Navy as the Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet by virtue of a decree by the Soviet Council of People's Commissars. The ranks and rates were, just like in their counterparts in the Army, personal positions for officers, Petty Officers and seaman rates. The former officers of the IRN who joined the ranks of this new navy retained their ranks with the abbreviation "b." meaning "former" while the new officers where addressed by their positional ranks. They stayed that way until 1925, when new ranks and rates were created. The rank insignia for the 1918-25 ranks were on the sleeve and cuff.

Most of the officer ranks were revived in 1935, save for the high-ranking officers, and the new PO rank of Squad Commander. The PO rank of Starshina was retained, however.

In 1939 all flag officer ranks were reinstated and Midshipman became the highest enlisted rating in the Navy, and in the course of the Great Patriotic War, all Redfleetmen became Seamen in another rank change. In 1943 all naval rank insignia became uniform in the fleet and ground forces. In a unique way, the ranks of the Soviet Naval Infantry, Soviet Naval Aviation and the other ground services remained absolutely army-styled similar to their Red Army counterparts but the rank insignia became uniform. The Admiral of the Fleet rank was also created by then. The rank insignia were now also seen on epaulettes: black on duty dresses and dark blue and gold on all full and ceremonial dresses for the fleet forces, with air force blue borders for the aviation branch and red borders for the coastal defense and naval infantry branch. In 1952 the senior enlisted rating's insignia (until 1972, Midshipman and from then on, Chief Ship Petty Officer) changed to its final design.

1955 saw the renaming of the Admiral of the Fleet rank into that of Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, and was now equivalent to that of a Marshal of the Soviet Union. The shoulder insignia for fleet admirals and all officers' sleeve insignia changed in the following decade as the Admiral of the Fleet rank was revived, by now between Admirals and Admirals of the Fleet of the Soviet Union.

1972 saw Midshipmen's status raised to warrant officers with Chief Ship Petty Officers replacing their former roles as the highest enlisted ratings.

Rank comparisons[edit]

The Red Army abolished all personal officer and general ranks, retaining only personal positions. Thus, a komvzvoda (Platoon Commander) was a position for an officer who would typically hold a Lieutenant of Senior Lieutenant rank, kombat (Battalion Commander) was an equivalent of Captain or Major, and kompolka was an equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel.

Even though traditional personal ranks for Red Army officers were re-established in 1935, General ranks were not introduced until 1940, probably because they were associated with the White Army movement. So, in 1935-1940 the personal rank system in the Red Army consisted of the following General-grade ranks:

  • kombrig (Brigade Commander), a Brigadier equivalent;
  • komdiv (Division Commander), a Major General equivalent;
  • komcor (Corps Commander), a Lieutenant General equivalent;
  • komandarm (Army Commander) 2nd rank, a Lieutenant General or full General equivalent;
  • komandarm (Army Commander) 1st rank, a Front Commander or Supreme Commander position, and an equivalent to Colonel General, General of the Army, or Field Marshal in other nations.

When the Marshal of the Soviet Union was introduced later in 1935, it became the highest rank in the Red Army, extending an already complex rank system.

However, when personal General ranks were introduced in 1940, the updated rank system did not feature a Brigadier-grade rank, mirroring a situation in the Russian Imperial Russian army where the Brigadier rank ceased to exist in the early 19th century. Most of the officers holding the kombrig rank were demoted to Colonels, and only a few were promoted to Major General.

Another peculiarity of this new system was the absence of a full General rank, which until the 19th century was called General-en-Chef in the Russian Imperial army, and then was renamed General of the Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery. Curiously, the initial draft of the new rank system submitted by People's Commissar of Defence Marshal Voroshilov was more in line with Russian military tradition. In a memorandum submitted on 17 March 1940 to the Politburo and Sovnarkom, Voroshilov made the following proposal:[4]

After discussing this question with my deputies, we conclude that our army needs to have the same number of General ranks as it was in the Tsarist army and as it exists in other European armies such as German, French and British. At present we have five General-grade ranks (kombrig, komdiv, komcor, komandarm 2nd rank and komandarm 1st rank). We find it necessary to join the military ranks of komdiv and komcor into a single Lieutenant General rank, and to similarly join the military ranks of komandarm 2nd rank and komandarm 1st rank into a single rank of General of the Infantry (artillery, cavalry, aviation, armoured troops etc.). To follow [them] is the highest military rank in the Red Army, the Marshal of the Soviet Union, which corresponds to similar ranks in foreign capitalist armies. We believe there is no need for additional military ranks above Marshal.

However in the final document the two komandarm ranks were replaced with Colonel General and General of the Army, with the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union on top of them. In the end, the number of General-grade ranks did not reduce at all even with the abolition of Brigadier-grade kobmbrig rank, contrary to the initial proposal by Voroshilov.

After the introduction of this new system, most existing kombrigs were ranked as Colonel, although some were ranked as General; existing komdivs were mostly ranked as Major General, komcors and Army Commanders 2nd rank were mostly ranked Lieutenant General, and Army Commanders 1st rank were ranked as Colonel General or General of the Army (a notable exception is Georgy Zhukov who was promoted to General of the Army directly from komcor rank). Later in 1943, the ranks of Marshal and Chief Marshal of a service branch were introduced in aviation, artillery, communications troops, and armoured troops; both equivalent to General of the Army.

The final personal rank structure (for the Army and the Air Force) was thus as follows:

  • Colonel - Brigade or Division level;
  • Major General - Сorps, Division or (rarely) Brigade level;
  • Lieutenant General - Corps or Army level;
  • Colonel General - Army or Front level;
  • General of the Army - Army or Front level;
  • Marshal or Chief Marshal - service branch, Army level;
  • Marshal of the Soviet Union - Front or Supreme Command level, reserved for most honoured field commanders.

Eventually, the Soviet system of general ranks included commonplace Major General, Lieutenant General, however the position in between Lieutenant General and General of the Army was occupied by the Colonel General, which in the Soviet system is the equivalent of a full General rank in other nations.

This unusual rank structure makes rank comparisons difficult; Marshal of the Soviet Union is arguably not the equivalent to NATO five-star general ranks such as British Field Marshal or American General of the Army, but is instead an honorary rank analogous to the Marshal of France, although without associated state functions.

In the Soviet Navy before 1935 the ranks were personal positions. Since that year the general officer rank structure became as follows:

  • Flag Officer 2nd Rank
  • Flag Officer 1st Rank
  • Fleet Flag Officer 2nd Rank
  • Fleet Flag Officer 1st Rank

From 1940, the rank structure for high officers of the Navy became:

  • Captain 1st Rank
  • Rear Admiral
  • Vice Admiral
  • Admiral

In 1943, the rank structure slightly changed into the final rank formation which remained until the dissolution of the Navy in 1991 with more changes in 1955 and 1962:

Ranks in the shore services mirrored the changes in the Red Army save that Colonel General became the highest rank for troops in those services.

The Russian Navy still uses this, except that Marshal of the Russian Federation is the highest rank of precedence, and the rank below that, Admiral of the Fleet, is the highest deck rank for officers.

Rank table[edit]


Colors of the rank insignia[edit]

From 1919 to 1922 color of collar patch indicating the corps:

  •    Crimson: infantry
  •    Blue: cavalry
  •    Orange: artillery
  •    Black: engineers
  •    Light blue: Air Force
  •    Green: border guard

From 1922 to 1923 the rank insignia have four colors. Color of collar patch, color of collar patch's edge, color of numbers and letters on collar patch and color of trouser stripes indicating the corps:

  •             Crimson collar patch with black edge gold numbers and letters and crimson trouser stripe: infantry and all troops services.
  •             Blue collar patch with black edge gold numbers and letters and blue trouser stripe: cavalry.
  •             Black collar patch with red edge gold numbers and letters and red trouser stripe: artillery.
  •             Light blue collar patch with black edge gold numbers and letters and light blue trouser stripe: air force.
  •             Red collar patch with black edge yellow leters and red trouser stripe: armored troops.
  •             Black collar patch with red edge silver numbers and letters and red trouser stripe: engineers.
  •             Black collar patch with yellow edge silver numbers and letters and yellow trouser stripe: signals.

From 1924 to 1934 the rank insignia have two colors. Color of collar patch and color of collar patch's edge indicating the corps:

  •       Crimson with black edge: infantry and all troops services
  •       Blue with black edge: cavalry
  •       Black with bright red edge: artillery, armored troops
  •       Light blue with black edge: air force
  •       Black with blue edge: technical corps (radio communications, engineers, chemicals, technical military schools, road construction, pipeline units, building and airbase construction, military topography service)
  •       Dark green with bright red edge: medical and veterinary services, administrative service, judge advocates

From 1935 to 1942 the rank insignia have two colors. Color of collar patch and color of collar patch's edge indicating the corps:

  •       Crimson with black edge: infantry and all troops services
  •       Blue with black edge: cavalry
  •       Black with bright red edge: artillery
  •       Velvet black with bright red edge: armored troops
  •       Light blue with black edge: air force
  •       Black with blue edge: technical corps
  •       Black with black edge: chemicals corps
  •       Dark green with bright red edge: medical and veterinary services, administrative service

From 1943 to 1955 the rank insignia have two colors. Color of shoulder board and edge color indicating the corps:

  •       Crimson with black edge: infantry, mechanized and motorized infantry
  •       Blue with black edge: cavalry
  •       Black with bright red edge: artillery, armored troops
  •       Light blue with black edge: air force, airborne troops, air technical services
  •       Black with black edge: technical corps
  •       Dark green with bright red edge: medical and veterinary services

From December 1955 to 1970 the colors were changed to:

  •    Crimson: infantry, mechanized and motorized infantry, airborne troops
  •    Black: artillery, armored troops, technical corps
  •    Light blue: Air Force
  •    Dark green: medical and veterinary services
  •    Red: high officers (all branches)

From 1970 to 1991(93):

  •    Red: infantry, military educational insititutions
  •    Light blue: Air Force, airborne troops, air technical services
  •    Black: artillery, armoured troops, technical corps and Navy

In March 1956 general officers' stars became gold colored.

Letter codes[edit]

A shoulder mark of a private in the Soviet Army. The abbreviation CA identifies the Soviet Army and was present on shoulders of most enlisted personnel. Crimson background represents regular land armed forces.

The letters over the shoulder marks, since 1972, stand for:[5]

  • ВВ (Внутренние войска, Vnutrennie voiska) - Interior Ministry's troops
  • К (Курсант, Kursant) - Higher military college student taking military courses (hence kursant), equivalent to cadet
  • ГБ (КГБ, KGB) - KGB
  • ПВ (Пограничные войска, Pogranichnye voiska) - Border Troops
  • СА (Советская Армия, Sovietskaya Armiya) - Soviet Army
  • ВС (Вооружённые Силы, Vooruzhennie Sily) - Armed Forces (Soviet Army, late USSR to modern Russia)
  • СШ (специальная школа, spetsialnaya shkola) - special school
  • Ф (Флот, Flot) - Navy
    • СФ (Северный флот, Severnyi flot) - Northern Fleet
    • ЧФ (Черноморский флот, Chernomorskiy flot) - Black Sea Fleet
    • БФ (Балтийский флот, Baltiyskiy flot) - Baltic fleet
    • ТФ (Тихоокеанский флот, Tikhookeanskiy flot) - Pacific Fleet
  • СВУ (Суворовец, Suvorovets) - Suvorov School student, an Army cadet
  • ВМУ (Военно-музыкальное Училище Voyenno-muzikalnoye Uchilishche) - Military Music School student, a Marching Band cadet
  • H (Нахимовец, Nakhimovets) - Nakhimov School student, a Navy cadet

Generalissimus of the Soviet Union[edit]

This rank was created for Joseph Stalin on June 27, 1945, and he was the only person ever to hold it. It is sometimes regarded as an equivalent to the rank of General of the Armies of the United States, the North Korean Dae Wonsu or the now defunct Chinese rank of Da Yuan Shuai.

Marshal of an arm[edit]

The ranks of Marshal of an arm and Chief Marshal of an arm were used in five Soviet military branches (the Air Force, Artillery, Tank Forces, Engineer Forces, and Signal Forces). These ranks were established in 1943. Marshal of an arm was equivalent to General of the Army.

See also Marshal of the Soviet Union and Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union

Unofficial grade system and military culture in the Soviet Army[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Dedovshchina.

Beside the official rank system in the armed forces, there was another system that was developed and established within the military culture. The military culture of the Soviet Union was driven by a "seniorship" (Russian: Дедовщина, Dyedovshchina). The concept of "Dyedovshchina" is usually pertains to soldiers in their first two-year obligatory tour in the armed forces, particularly in the Army.

  1. Ghost, Warrior (first year), other names are goose, rabbit, small elephant, solobon etc.
  2. Ghost, Warrior (6 months to a year), other names are grand goose, senior rabbit etc.
  3. Scull, Candidate (first year), other names are ladle, first year, pheasant etc.
  4. Grandfather (a year and a half)
  5. Dembel, Grandfather on orders (at demobilization)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  1. ^ John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41, p.72–73
  2. ^ John Erickson, The Soviet High Command 1918–41
  3. ^ David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University Press of Kansas, 1998
  4. ^ (Russian) Introduction of General ranks in RKKA in 1940
  5. ^ (Russian) Изменения в знаках различия званий военнослужащих Советской Армии 1955-92(94) гг.