Russian Imperial Guard

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Imperial Guard
Leib Guards reception at the Constantine Palace
Country Russian Empire
Allegiance Emperor of Russia
 Russian Empire
Branch Imperial Russian Army
Horse artillery
Imperial guard

The Russian Imperial Guard, officially known as the Leib Guard (Russian: Лейб-гвардия Leyb-gvardiya, from German Leib "body"; cf. Life Guards / Bodyguard) were military units serving as personal guards of the Emperor of Russia. Peter the Great founded the first such units in 1683, to replace the politically motivated Streltsy. The Imperial Guard subsequently increased in size and diversity to become an elite corps of all branches within the Imperial Army rather than Household troops in direct attendance on the Tsar. Numerous links were however maintained with the Imperial family and the bulk of the regiments of the Imperial Guard were stationed in and around Saint Petersburg in peacetime. The Imperial Guard was disbanded in 1917 following the Russian Revolution.


Tsar Peter I (later to become known as "Peter the Great") first established the two senior units of the eventual Imperial Guard, the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky infantry regiments[1] as part of his so-called "toy army" in the 1680s. Peter later built on these two regiments as part of his professionalization of the Russian army after its disastrous defeat in 1700 by the Swedes at the Battle of Narva, during the early phases of Great Northern War of 1700-1721.[2] He was influenced, too, by his distrust of the Streltsy, who had risen against him repeatedly, both during his childhood (which traumatised him) and during his reign.

In 1730 Empress Anna (r. 1730–1740) formed the Izmailovsky Regiment (recruited from her former domain, the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia), out of distrust of the other guard regiments (especially the Preobrazhensky) as a result of her paranoia of losing power. The Izmaylovsky Regiment became the official palace guards during Anna's reign.

The term "leib" was not used until the reign of Empress Elizabeth (1741-1762) during her formation of the Leib Company made up of the grenadiers (especially the Preobrazhensky) who helped put her on the throne.[3]

Revolution of 1905[edit]

The Imperial Guard played a key role in suppressing the 1905 Revolution, most particularly at Saint Petersburg on Sunday, 22 January [O.S. 9 January] 1905 (Bloody Sunday). The Semyonovsky Regiment subsequently repressed widespread disturbances in Moscow. However, a full battalion of the Preobrazhensky Regiment mutinied in June 1906.[4]

Russian Revolution of 1917[edit]

During the February Revolution of 1917, the garrison of Saint Petersburg included 99,000 soldiers of the Imperial Guard. These were reserve battalions, made up of a mixture of new recruits and of veterans from the regiments of the Imperial Guard serving at the front. While generally still recruited from rural districts, the rank and file of the Guards were no longer the reliable instruments of Tsarist autocracy that their predecessors had been during the abortive revolution of 1905. About 90 percent of the officers of these reserve units were wartime-commissioned, often militarily inexperienced and sometimes sympathetic towards the need for political reform.[5] The overall morale and leadership of the Saint Petersburg troops was poor, although they still enjoyed the status of the historic regiments they represented.

During the early days of rioting in Saint Petersburg, the Semyonovsky, Pavlovsky, and Volinsky Regiments obeyed their officers and fired on the crowds of demonstrators. But on 27 February, first the Volinsky, then the Semyonovsky, Moskovsky, and Izmailovsky Regiments defected in large numbers to what had now become a revolution. Some officers were killed. An estimated 66,700 guardsmen in the capital had deserted or defected within about two days.[6] This mass defection from units of the Imperial Guard marked the end of the Tsarist régime.

During the October Revolution of 1917, the Pavlovsky Regiment, though celebrated for its actions during the Napoleonic Wars, was one of the first regiments to mutiny and join the Bolsheviks; it then participated in the storming of the Winter Palace.[7] Much of the former Imperial Guard was still extant in October 1917, retaining their historic titles, though now their role was that of politicised republican soldiers. In addition to the Pavlovsky, the Semenovsky and Ismailovsky Regiments rallied to the Bolsheviks at a crucial stage in the revolution.[8]


The final composition of the Russian Imperial Guard at the beginning of 1914 was:

His Majesty's Life-Guards Hussar Regiment, 1914

Guards Corps St. Petersburg District. Headquarters, St. Petersburg, Millionaya. (Guards units not part of the Guards Corps were the Guards Replacement Cavalry Regiment and Guards Field Gendarme Squadron.)

Officers and soldiers of the Volinsky Life Guards Regiment in Warsaw, 1864
  • 1st Guards Cavalry Division. Headquarters, St. Petersburg, Fontanka
    • 1st Brigade: Her Sovereign Majesty Empress Maria Theodorovna's Chevalier Guard Regiment, Life Guard Horse Regiment
    • 2nd Brigade: His Majesty's Life-Guards Cuirassier Regiment, Her Majesty Empress Maria Theodorovna's Life-Guards Cuirassier Regiment
    • 3rd Brigade: His Majesty's Life-Guards Cossack Regiment, His Imperial Highness the Sovereign Heir and Tsesarevich's Life-Guards Ataman Regiment, Life-Guards Combined Cossack Regiment, 1st His Majesty's Ural Sotnia, 2nd Orenburg Sotnia, 3rd Combined Sotnia, 4th Amur Sotnia
    • 1st Division of Life-Guards Horse-Artillery Brigade
  • 2nd Guards Cavalry Division. Headquarters, St. Petersburg, Fontanka
    • 1st Brigade: Life-Guards Horse-Grenadier Regiment, Her Majesty Empress Alexandra Theodorovna's Life-Guards Lancer Regiment
    • 2nd Brigade: Life-Guards Dragoon Regiment, His Majesty's Life-Guards Hussar Regiment,
    • 2nd Division of Life-Guards Horse-Artillery Brigade
  • Guards Rifle Brigade. Headquarters, St. Petersburg, Fontanka
    • Life-Guards 1st His Majesty's Rifle Regiment
    • Life-Guards 2nd Tsarskoe-Selo Rifle Regiment
    • Life-Guards 3rd His Majesty's Rifle Regiment
    • Life-Guards 4th The Imperial Family's Rifle Regiment
    • Guards Rifle Artillery Battalion
  • Life-Guards Horse Artillery
  • Guards Howitzer Artillery Battalion
  • Life-Guards Sapper Battalion
  • Guards Aviation Company

Guard units of direct subordination as of 1917:

Plus the following were part of the 23rd Army Corps, Warsaw Military District. Headquarters, Warsaw, Poland.

  • 3rd Guards Infantry Division. Headquarters, Warsaw
    • Division HQ
    • 1st Brigade: Life-Guards Lithuania Regiment, Emperor of Austria's Life-Guards Kexholm Regiment
    • 2nd Brigade: King Frederick-William III's Life-Guards St.-Petersburg Regiment, Volynski Life Guards Regiment
    • 3rd Life-Guards Artillery Brigade
  • Independent Guards Cavalry Brigade
  • 3rd Battery of Life-Guards Horse Artillery


Every soldier and officer of the Guard had the style of the Leib Guard (Лейб-гвардии...), for example: Colonel of the Leib Guard (Лейб-гвардии полковник). It is a misconception that the monarch himself functioned as the commander of the Leib Guard regiments, so only he and some members of the imperial family could hold a title of Colonel (Polkovnik) of the Guards. In fact, there were many guards officers in the rank of colonel.[specify]

Commissioned officers enjoyed a two-grade elevation in the Table of Ranks over regular army officers; this later changed to a one-grade elevation—first for the New Guards then for the rest of the Leib Guard. Following the abolition of the rank of Major in 1884, most grades below VII shifted one position upwards, effectively returning to those of the Old Guards.

Grade, Old Guards Grade, New Guards Category Infantry Cavalry, Cossacks until 1891 Cossacks (since 1891)
IV V Staff Officers Colonel (Полковник)
V VI Lieutenant colonel (Подполковник) (until 1798)
VI VII Premier Major, Second Major (Премьер-майор, секунд-майор) (until 1798)
VII VIII Ober-Officers Captain (Капитан) Rittmeister (Ротмистр) Yesaul (Есаул)
VIII IX Staff Captain(Штабс-капитан) Staff-Rittmeister (Штабс-ротмистр) Junior Yesaul (Подъесаул)
IX X Poruchik/Lieutenant (Поручик) Sotnik (Сотник)
X XI Junior Poruchik/Sub-lieutenant (Подпоручик) Khorunzhiy (Хорунжий)
XI XII Praporshchik (Прапорщик) Cornet (Корнет)
XII XIII Under-Officers Feldwebel (Фельдфебель)
XIII XIV Sergeant (Сержант) (1800-1884) Wachtmeister (Вахмистр) Junior Khorunzhiy (Подхорунжий)
Junior Praporshchik (Подпрапорщик); Senior Unteroffizier (Старший унтер-офицер) since 1800 Wachtmeister (Вахмистр)
Unteroffizier (Унтер-офицер) Uryadnik (Урядник)
Gefreiter (Ефрейтор) Prikazny (Приказный)
Privates Musketeer, Fusilier, Grenadier etc. (Мушкетер, фузилер, гренадер и т.д.) Dragoon, Hussar, Cuirassier, Cossack etc. (Драгун, гусар, кирасир, казак и т.д.) Cossack (Казак)

Basis of selection[edit]

From the 18th century onwards the rank and file of the Imperial Guard were picked from each annual intake of conscripts. In peacetime most regiments had a selection criteria based on features of physical appearance such as height, hair-colour etc. The purpose of this tradition was to enhance the uniform appearance of each unit when on parade. As an example, the Semyonovsky Regiment conscripts were picked for their height (tallest of the Guard Infantry), light brown hair and being clean-shaven.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Russia. Komitet ministrov. Kantseliariya (1896). "State defence". Statesman's Handbook for Russia. Vol. 1. Saint Petersburg: E. Thiele. p. 122. Retrieved 28 January 2024. The Russian Guard was first formed in the time of Peter the Great from the Preobrajensky and Semenoffsky regiments [...].
  2. ^ Christian, David (2018). "1600-1750: A Tipping Point: Building a Russian Empire". A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia. The Blackwell History of the World. Vol. 2: Inner Eurasia from the Mongol Empire to Today, 1260–2000. John Wiley & Sons. p. 164 - 165. ISBN 9780631210382. Retrieved 28 January 2024. As a prince, [Peter] played war games with real regiments, the Semenovskoe and Preoobrazhenskoe. Created by Peter in the 1680s, they would become the elite Guards units in the Russian army. But at first they formed a sort of personal following and bodyguard. [...] [After the strel'tsy rebellion of 1698, t]here began a period of frenetic military reform, during which he gathered around himself a loyal and hard-working group of friends and dependents, some from the boyar class, but many from lower levels of society. Some came from the Guards regiments, some from the foreign quarter. All were capable, energetic and practical, and shared Peter's appetite for military reform. After Sweden defeated his armies at Narva, in 1700, Peter committed himself wholeheartedly to reform. That defeat increased Peter's confidence in his own reform ideas, because his Guards regiments were the only units to perform creditably at Narva.
  3. ^ Chantreau (1794). "Philosophical, Political, and Literary Travels in Russia, During the Years 1788 & 1789".
  4. ^ de Gmeline, Patrick (1986). La Garden Imperiale Russe. pp. 334–336. ISBN 9-782702-501412.
  5. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. p. 136. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  6. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. pp. 136–137. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  7. ^ Barrack of the Pavlovsky Regiment
  8. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. p. 137. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  9. ^ Patrick de Gmeline, pages 36-37 "La Garde Imperiale Russe 1896-1914", publisher Charles-Lavauzelle Paris 1986

External links[edit]