Russian Imperial Guard

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Imperial Guard
Konstantin Palace.jpg
Leib Guards reception at the Constantine Palace
Country Russian Empire
AllegianceEmperor of Russia and  Russian Empire
BranchEmblem of the Ministry of the Interior of the Russian Empire.svg 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 following the Prussian practice 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.


Peter the Great first established the two senior units of the eventual Imperial Guard, the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky infantry regiments. Peter formed these two regiments as part of his professionalization of the Russian army after its disastrous defeat by the Swedes at the Battle of Narva, during the early phases of Great Northern War. 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.

Later, Anna of Russia formed the Izmaylovsky Regiment, recruited from her native 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.

But the term "leib" was not used until the reign of Elizabeth of Russia during her formation of the Leib Company made up of the grenadiers (especially the Preobrazhensky) who helped put her on the throne.[1]

Revolution of 1905[edit]

The Imperial Guard played a key role in suppressing the 1905 Revolution, most particularly at Saint Petersburg on Sunday, 22 (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.[2]

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 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.[3] 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 Semenovsky, Pavlovsky, and Volhynsky Regiments obeyed their officers and fired on the crowds of demonstrators. But on 27 February, first the Volhynsky, then the Semenovsky, Moskovsky, and Ismailovsky 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.[4] This mass defection from units of the Imperial Guard marked the end of the Tsarist regime.

During the October Revolution, 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.[5] 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.[6]

In December 1917, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, the remnants of the Imperial Guard were disbanded and integrated into the Red Army. As such they saw combat in the Polish-Soviet War in 1920.


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.)

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, Life-Guards Volynski 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.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chantreau (1794). "Philosophical, Political, and Literary Travels in Russia, During the Years 1788 & 1789".
  2. ^ de Gmeline, Patrick (1986). La Garden Imperiale Russe. pp. 334–336. ISBN 9-782702-501412.
  3. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. p. 136. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  4. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. pp. 136–137. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  5. ^ Barrack of the Pavlovsky Regiment
  6. ^ Mansel, Philip (1984). Pillars of Monarchy. p. 137. ISBN 0-7043-2424-5.
  7. ^ Patrick de Gmeline, pages 36-37 "La Garde Imperiale Russe 1896-1914", publisher Charles-Lavauzelle Paris 1986

External links[edit]