The Russian Imperial Guards formed in 1683 from 50 childhood playmates by Peter the Great had by 1905 swollen to a force of over 50,000 men and saved the throne once more.
In the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 the Guard deployed volunteers to combat zone but none of its units were ordered in whole to the fighting. The Guard gained infamy in the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905 by being one of the most reactionary of Nicholas II’s troops. On ” Bloody Sunday” January 22, 1905, the Preobrazhensky Regiment fired on a crowd of some 80,000 peaceful demonstrators in front of the Winter Palace, killing no less than 96 civilians. This was seen as the first shot of the revolution that was to cripple Russia for the rest of the year and lead to a constitutional monarchy. The last shot was also fired by the Guard when the men of the Semenovsky Regiment were sent to Moscow to raize the revolutionary “Red Presnia” district that had declared open rebellion for nine days in December 1905. The regiment did this with the death of several hundred rioters. The Semenovsky’s then carried out a punitive expedition along the Moscow-Kazan railway and was responsible for burning several anarchist villages. Its commander, General Min was later assassinated.
With the peace and reform following the war and subsequent revolution the Guards settled into a period of re-organization and restructure. A state defense council was formed under the tsar’s cousin: the Grand Duke Nicholas with Generals Danilov, Golovine, Rediger, and Palitsyn in attendance. These officers made many recommendations during 1907-1910 to modernize the army and it was to their credit that the Russians could take to the field at all in 1914. New weapons including heavy machineguns, hand grenades, modern artillery, and communications gear was acquired. New tactics were developed with lessons learned from battlefield exposure and applied by energetic young guard officers, who were the flower of the Russian officer corps.
Each Regiment had an honorary colonel who was either a Russian royal or a sitting king of another country and was sent a proper uniform to wear on occasions as such. Membership to the Guard was a special avenue for advancement for young ambitious men. A term as a guard’s officer meant connections and elevation in social status and as such was seen as a stepping stone on the way to a successful career. Officers of the guard were even placed one or two steps higher than officers of an equal rank in the regular army. As such competition for a spot in the regiments was fierce and maintaining the lifestyle expensive. Many of the cavalry regiments had such high canteen and uniform costs that they required their officers to have a private income as there was no hope of their army pay being able to cover their daily maintenance. While there were more than a few princes, khans, barons, and counts in its ranks the guards officer corps also absorbed promising young intelligent leaders of all backgrounds who had proven themselves in the regular service. For example Colonel Kutepov, the last commander of the Preobrazhensky Guards, was born to a middle class family in the arctic backwater town of Archangel but achieved his post after being decorated on numerous occasions in regular army units during World War One.
These special elite troops were wasted in mass infantry assaults during the war and their quality diminished as they were repeatedly bled white and replaced with fresh but raw recruits. This led directly to the shameful way that the Guard would react during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
This time the Tsar would not be able to depend on their bayonets to keep his country under control.