A Deception Primer for the Fledgling Red Army


Emblazoned in red on the magazine’s cover is a Red Army soldier, his bayonet at the ready and a large white mask with a small red star in its center draped across his back, superimposed over the revolutionary symbol of a large black star with a red border. The large star and soldier are flanked on the left by the simple but powerful slogan “Maskirovka is not only the shield but also the sword of the Red Army.” The magazine with this dramatic cover is entitled Krasnyi maskirovshchik [large pdf file], which roughly translates as the “Red deceiver.” It is an item from the Francis Lara Collection at the International Spy Museum. Its message is clear – the use of deception has been, is, and will continue to be a hallmark of the Soviet Union’s Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (RKKA). History has indeed confirmed the truth of this slogan with a vengeance, not only with regard to the Soviet Union, but also its successor state, Russia.Red-Army-1

This copy of Krasnyi maskirovshchik, dated February 1923, was compiled and published by the Pedagogical-Club Council of the Higher Schools of Military Maskirovka. The word “maskirovka,” like its counterpart “razvedka,” which encompasses the broad realm from tactical reconnaissance to all levels of intelligence, is typically Russian in the sense that it describes a wide range of actions aimed at deceiving enemies in peacetime and wartime. As such, it encompasses every deceptive measure ranging from simple camouflage through sophisticated strategic deception. Even though later Soviet and Russian military theorists would supplement this term with broader new concepts such as obman [fraud] and zhitrost’ [cunning or ruse], at the time this magazine was published, “maskirovka” was the catch-all term applicable to anything done in peace or war to fool any real or imagined enemy.

Because Soviet military theorists considered experience to be their principal guide, historical context informed how and why they should appreciate and employ maskirovka. Created in a time of revolution and chaos, the Soviet state and its Red Army were forged in deadly conflict against enemies domestic and foreign. To consolidate their power, from 1918 through 1921, the Bolshevik leaders of this new Soviet state weathered a civil war within Russia and waged war against what they thought were foreign powers intervening to ensure their destruction. Armed with limited military resources, the fledgling Bolshevik state had no choice but to rely on force multipliers to make up for its obvious military weakness. Along with such concepts as railroad war (eshelonnaia voina, meaning reliance on railroads to transport forces quickly from one front to another), dependence on interior lines, and modest levéees en masse of local populations, the Bolsheviks relied on maskirovka to deceive and, hence, weaken their enemies. This publication, whose contents appear crude when compared with what maskirovka would ultimately become, reflects Soviet fixation on measures whose successful employment were essential if the Bolshevik state and its Red Army were to survive.

Indeed, the period when this issue appeared was a turbulent one for the Bolshevik state and its Red Army. While the army was beginning to recover after its bloody civil war and war with Poland, the country was experiencing the adverse effects of War Communism, a failed economic program instituted by its leader, V. I. Lenin, which wrecked the Soviet economy but had just been replaced by the New Economic Policy (NEP), which moderated the worst aspects of War Communism. With Allied intervention also at an end, the Bolshevik government was still consolidating its power on the periphery of the Soviet Union, particularly in the Far East, the Caucasus region, and in Central Asia, where the army was struggling to stifle a threatening insurgency by Muslim Basmachi tribesmen. Politically, Lenin was ill and would die in March 1924. During his illness, his underlings began contending with one another for political power. Militarily, in addition to demobilizing the army, War Commissar Leon Trotsky was formulating the organizational basis for a new army, a reform policy his successor, Mikhail Frunze, would complete after Josef Stalin won his contest with Trotsky for power and ultimately condemned Trotsky to expulsion from the Communist Party and foreign exile.

The contents of this issue illustrates these trends and challenges in spades. For example, the lead article, entitled “The Struggle for Communism, 1922-1923,” extolls “the unprecedented growth of workers’ organizations, the revolutionary will undergirding it and the fright of the bourgeois, and the victory of Soviet Russia in the Civil War” as “characteristic of the period 1918-1920.”  Shifting sharply from the inspirational to the practical, the following page displays simple black and white drawings illustrating examples of maskirovka employed in the Red Army’s fall maneuvers of 1922. These show a camouflaged gun and bridge, mock ups of false gun positions, and carefully concealed observation points. Entitled “The First Step,” the next page describes deceptive measures used by soldiers on exercises in the Moscow Military District and ends with the award of “The Banner of Red Maskirovka” to several of the troops.

Red-Army-2Under a gruesome illustration showing a superman-like figure wearing a red mask driving a sword into the breast of a prostrate enemy soldier, a short article (pp. 7-9) entitled “The Objective Missions of the Commission on Maskirovka,” describes for the soldier-reader what this new commission has mandated be done throughout the Red Army in coming years. To drive this point home, “A Bibliography of Maskirovka” follows (pp. 9-11), reviewing a book published on the subject in 1922 that highlights various deceptive measures and underscores their vital importance, concluding that “surprise is a function of maskirovka.” Several short paragraphs on the use of smoke for concealment and new technological developments in the field then give way to a series of short articles beginning with an outright appeal to youth, replete with poems addressing creativity and the value of human imagination. Turning to more concrete subjects, subsequent articles cover the “December Maneuvers,” “Military Communications and Deception,” and “Administration in Maskirovka Schools.”

One of the most interesting sections this short issue contains is a series of brief stories lumped under the rubric “Red Laughter.” The first subtitled, “Fallen Through” sets the tone by combining short passages replete with line drawings of people outwitting bandits and other interlopers. A series of simple cartoons related to maskirovka during the December maneuvers then follow, culminating in an entry describing the experiences of two soldiers named Trosha and Prosha. Presented in conversational style, once again illustrated by simply line drawing, the two soldiers provide an earthy day-to-day description of how they routinely functioned as “Red deceivers” (maskirovchshiki) throughout the duration of maneuvers.

Red-Army-4After skillfully exploiting a mixture of practicality and humor to the full, the issue returns to the theme of ideological purity once again by ending with a strident cartoon depicting a giant worker or peasant bearing a vivid torch of revolution with his feet planted firmly in America and Europe astride the Atlantic Ocean. Against the backdrop of a rising sun emblazoned with the word “Communism,” at the cartoon’s base resounds Aleksandr Blok’s famous slogan, “We on the mountain fan the flames of world-wide conflagration to the bourgeoisie.”

To see this magazine as nothing more than a historical curiosity would be a woeful mistake. On the contrary, a review of other Soviet writings during this period indicates that, whether in peace or in war, deception, political as well as military, was a topic of major concern. For example, the twin military journals, Voennaia mysl’ i revoliutsiia (Military thought and revolution) and Armiia i revoliutiia (The Army and revolution), published during the 1920s both featured articles on this subject. Their successor organs of the Soviet Union’s Commissariat of Defense and its Red Army General Staff, Voennaia mysl’ (Military Thought) and Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal (Military-historical journal) accelerated this trend in the 1930s. As a measure of deception’s importance, by the mid-1930s Red Army field regulations made maskirovka plans required elements in each and every Soviet operational plan. Despite the Red Army’s obvious problems on the eve of World War II and during its initial stages, the army’s subsequent performance in the war proved that maskirovka was indeed the vital force multiplier it was believed to be when this magazine was published in 1923.

Because this lesson of war was obvious, during the ensuing Cold War, Soviet military authors produced an extensive array of books and articles about military maskirovka, along with deception’s more sophisticated “cousins,” obman [fraud] and zhitrost’ [cunning or ruse]. A corollary to this trend that reflected accelerating technological progress was the linkage of these concepts to the benefits accorded by surprise in modern war. Today, at a time when political changes have fundamentally altered the map of Eurasia and technological developments threaten to alter the very nature of war, military theorists in the Russian Federation still seek to exploit deception as an essential tool to compensate for relative military weakness.


Colonel David M. Glantz, U.S. Army, retired, is the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Slavic Military Studies and the author of numerous books on the Red (Soviet) Army in peace and war.