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Soviet ranks and insignia - how to understand the colors?

The colors of the Soviet Insignia seem very straightforward: red for infantry, blue for airborne and black for everyone else. But what does it mean, when you see an artilleryman wearing all red shoulder boards and tabs or a regular grunt being in all black? In this article we will try to clarify this. The topic will be further expanded in one of our upcoming books - Red Alert: Structure and uniforms of Soviet Infantry Regiment.


Introduction into soviet rank slides and boards

To make this article a bit more simplified, we will only talk about the ground troops of the Soviet Army. After new regulations of 1969 these only had two colors - Red and Black. Well, there was an exception - raspberry color. We will get to it later.

There were other colors in the Soviet system: Light blue - for airborne and air force

Blue - for State Security (GB)

Green - for PV KGB Border Guards

Burgundy - for Internal Troops (VV)

But for the sake of this article we will stick to red and black, as these are the only two that get mix-ups and are not as straightforward as all others

Soviet ranks and insignia
Airborne, State Security, Internal Troops and Border guard did not have any confusion with the colors

The colors of Soviet ranks and other insignia

Contrary to popular belief, black color was more common in the Soviet Army than red. The reason is quite simple - there were more people on the supporting roles in the Soviet Army than in the actual infantry. on the other hand, there is a twist - regular infantrymen could also be wearing black insignia. I know, it is all very confusing at first.

Here is the rule of thumb to determine the correct color of the insignia for the unit. If the regiment in question is called Motorized rifles Regiment - both soldiers and officers would wear red insignia. Their specialization and subunit would not matter in that case - tankers, artillerists, engineers and everyone else within the Motorized rifles Regiment would wear red shoulder boards, red collar tabs and even regular red arm patch.

The same can be said about the opposite - black color. It is easy to imagine any sort of technical or support units wearing all black insignia - just as it was intended. But there was also black "infantry". Every tank regiment in the Soviet Army had one Motorized rifles battalion in the organizational structure - always equipped with BMP-1/2 vehicles, to keep up with the rest of the regiment and to provide serious firepower. By the book, these guys were supposed to wear all black insignia, including tank arm patch.

Soviet ranks and insignia
Soldiers of Motorized Regiments were supposed to wear all-red insignia

Officers rank slide shoulder boards - the mix-up of colors

Another confusing part of the Soviet insignia is the absence of the black piped officer shoulder boards. Well, they did exist, but were discontinued for good with the 1969 regulations. And this was, perhaps, a better decision, as during the Atomic age the situation was even more confusing. At the time, piping could be red, black and even dark blue, depending on the corps.

Soviet ranks and insignia
The tanker on the left is wearing red insignia, while the one in the middle has black tabs and cap

So, for the 1969-1991 period the rule is rather simple - for officer dress you always go for the red piped shoulder boards, even if the tabs and the cap are black.


Exceptions in the insignia colors

As it always happens in life in general and in the Soviet Army in particular, there were plenty of exceptions. First of all, not all regiments followed strict color scheme - there are plenty of examples of infantry battalions wearing all red and the support units sticking to the black.

Apart from that, there were plenty of examples when confusion was done on the official level - for concealment purposes. Soldiers would have to change their insignia from time to time to create the image of different type of unit stationed.

And, of course, there was fashion. Any artilleryman or tanker felt that his proper color is black. So, even if one was forced to serve with red insignia, he would change the color for the demobilization uniform.

Soviet ranks and insignia



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