Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc
An early kind of political commissars arose already during the February Revolution 1917 as the Ispolkom issued the controversial Order no 1. As the Bolsheviks came to power through the October Revolution 1917, and as the Russian Civil War began, Trotsky who then gradually established the Red Army, imposed the formal political officers. These were almost invariably tasked to make sure the communist party of the respective country could count on the loyalty of the Army. Although there was a huge difference between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, their leaders both feared a counter-revolution, and both regarded the military officers as the most likely counter-revolutionary threat.
In Soviet Union
The political commissar is often associated with the Soviet Union (1922–91), where the Cheka introduced them to the military forces to ensure the government’s political control. The chief reason was because the newly created Red revolutionary military units were associated with different, often conflicting political parties, and there were so many leftist political parties and movements at that time, who despite differing doctrines supported the Bolsheviks seizure of power. They all had party members and sympathizers among the military, and tried to use that to benefit their viewpoint. The Left SRs and the Anarchists were among such hard-nosed competitors, who were popular among the lower ranks no less than bolsheviks, contesting them quite frequently. The Bolsheviks saw this as a matter of life and death during the ongoing civil war against the White movement. To gain permanent control over the entire military, they introduced the commissarship. After the SRs were left behind, the forces loyal to them split off from the Red Army to create the Green armies, and guerrilla war soon erupted in the countryside along with civil war. The commissars' task was to prevent the warfighters, both commanding officers and troops, from tending towards the rivalrious political authorities. There were many examples of defiance and outspoken disobedience, when the troops killed or banished their commissars and switched sides, going Green. After the bolsheviks eliminated all their rivals and became the one and only political entity in the country, creating a one-party dictatorship.
In the Red Army and the Soviet Army, the political commissar (Russian: комиссар; komissar) existed, by name, only during the 1918–24, 1937–40, and 1941–42 periods; not every Red Army political officer was a commissar. The political commissar held military rank equaling that of the unit commander to whom he was attached; moreover, the commissar also had the military authority to countermand the unit commander’s orders when required. In the periods of the Red Army's history when political officers were militarily subordinate to unit commanders, the position of political commissar did not exist.
The political supervision of the Russian military was effected by the political commissar, who was introduced to every unit and formation, from company- to division-level, including the navy. Revolutionary Military Councils (or Revvoyensoviets, RVS) were established at army-, front-, fleet-, and flotilla-level, comprising at least three members—commander and two political workers. The political workers were denominated "members of the RVS", not "commissars", despite being official political commissars.
In 1919, the title politruk (Russian: политрук, from политический руководитель, political leader) was assigned to political officers at company level. Despite being official political commissars, they were not addressed as "commissar". Beginning in 1925, the politico-military doctrinal course towards edinonachalie (Russian: единоначалие, single command) was established, and the political commissar, as a military institution, was gradually abolished. The introduction of edinonachalie was twofold, either the military commander joined the Communist Party and became his unit’s political officer, or a pompolit (Russian: помполит, assistant commander for political work) officer was commissioned sub-ordinate to him. Earlier, in 1924, the RVSs were renamed as Military Councils, such high-level political officers were known as ChVS (Chlen Voennogo Soveta, Member of the Military Council), they were abolished in 1934.
On 10 May 1937 the political commissar was reinstated to the Red Army, and Military Councils were created. These events derived from the political purges that began in the Soviet armed forces. Again, in August 1940, the political commissars was abolished, yet the Military Councils continued throughout the German-Soviet War (1941–45), and afterwards. Below army level, the edinonachalie (single command) system was restored. In July 1941, consequent to the Red Army’s defeats at war’s start, the position of political commissar reappeared. The commissar had an influential role as a "second commander" within the military units during this time. Their ranks and insignia generally paralleled those of officers. When this proved less-than-effective, General Konev asked Stalin to subordinate the political officer to commanding officers: the commissars' work was refocused to morale-related functions. The term "commissar" itself was formally abolished in August 1942, and at the company- and regiment-level, the pompolit officer was replaced with the zampolit (deputy for political matters). Though no longer known by the original "commissar" title, political officers were retained by all the Soviet Armed Forces, e.g., Army, Navy, Air Force, Strategic Missile Troops, et al, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Eastern Bloc armies
After World War II, other Eastern Bloc armies also used political officers patterned on the Soviet model. For example, East Germany's Nationale Volksarmee used Politoffiziere as the unit commander's deputy responsible for political education.
Red Army rank designations
- Armeysky komissar 1-go ranga (comparable to NATO OF-9a; en: Commissar of the army 1st rank)
- Armeysky komissar 2-go ranga (OF-9b; Commissar of the army 2nd rank)
- Korpusnoy komissar (OF-8; Commissar of the corps)
- Divizionny komissar (OF-7; Commissar of the division)
- Brigadny komissar (OF-6; Commissar of the brigade)
- Polkovoy komissar (OF-5; Commissar of the regiment)
- Starshi batalonny komissar (OF-4; Senior commissar of the battalion)
- Batalonny komissar (OF-3; Commissar of the battalion)
- Starshy politruk (OF-2; Senior politleader)
- Politruk (OF-1a; Politleader)
- Mladshy politruk (OF-1b; Junior politleader)