The Tsars Army, an instrument of social mobility?


The Russian aristocracy of the nineteenth century did not exhibit the same taste for a military career that the German and French aristocracy did; an army career and life in high society had not become identified in the public mind, so the officers did not enjoy as much social prestige. 

They also received such notoriously small salaries that General Denikin called them an 'intellectual proletariat'. A low standard of living, little prestige, and the antimilitarist ideology of the intelligentsia made recruiting so difficult that the army never had enough officers. According to the British military attaché to Russia, Sir Alfred Knox, in January 1910 there were 5,123 command posts vacant. The situation improved somewhat in the years preceding the war, but even in July 1914 the estimated shortage was 3,000.

The perennial need for officers made it possible for men from the lower classes to rise to the top and for the Russian army to, therefore, become something of an instrument for social mobility. The army especially attracted son's of soldiers, who could rise to the highest positions. The social composition of the officer corps did not differ much from that of the bureaucracy, which was also not a socially exclusive institution, or from that segment of the Russian intelligentsia that actively opposed the regime.  Consequently, neither in the Russian Revolution of 1917 nor in the subsequent Civil War was the social background of the competing leaderships as different as is commonly supposed. The casual observer is frequently surprised that the founders of the White Volunteer Army, Generals Alekseev, Kornilov and Denikin came from poor families. However there is nothing strange about it when one considers that there were dozens of others in high position in the tsarist army with similar backgrounds.


Those officers who came from poor families very soon had nothing in common with the ignorant peasants who made up the army. As officers, they were considered educated men, and education was such a scarce commodity in tsarist Russia that it sharply separated the few from the many. Army regulations emphasized that men and officers lived in different worlds: officers used the familiar form of address with their soldiers, soldiers were not allowed to travel in the inside of streetcars, and officers were not supposed to travel third class on trains.


Well, there you go, but of course while there was a great deal of social mobility in the army, it would be an exaggeration to say that social origins and connections were unimportant for quick advancement. The Imperial Guards, for example, were for all practical purposes reserved for the scions of the nobility. Service in the guards was more pleasant than in other regiments, and guardsmen advanced much more rapidly than others. 


Understandably, many resented this. The hostility between guardsmen and regular officers was so strong that it survived the Revolutions of 1917. In the anti-Bolshevik army of Denikin the privileges the guardsmen continued to receive through their contacts enraged their opponents.