Although short-lived, like most pre-war Soviet proficiency awards, the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge (Нагрудный знак “Отличник РККА”) is rightfully regarded as one of that era’s most prestigious decorations which could be bestowed upon officers and other ranks of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (Рабоче-Крестьянская Красная Армия, or РККА / Raboche-Krest’yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya, or RKKA).
In broad terms, the badge was established as a decoration to reward meritorious service across all ranks, but with criteria that made it possible for even a conscript, if diligent enough, to aspire to its bestowal. Indeed, it was the first “good conduct” award to be introduced by the Red Army, which had hitherto eschewed the concept. The badge was instituted two and a half months after the outbreak of the Second World War, during the honeymoon period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and was the brainchild of the political leadership of the RKKA; they were seeking a method to stimulate excellence across the breadth of the Red Army, and envisaged that the award of a conspicuous decoration, universal in its eligibility, i.e. open to worthy troops across all branches, was the most effective tool to achieve their aim.
The selection of candidates was, from the start, very strict, with the process of endorsement of each final list comparable in many ways to the procedure followed for the approval of nominees for state awards. Indicative of the level of scrutiny involved is the fact that it was none other than the mighty People’s Commissar of Defence of the USSR himself (head of the Soviet War Ministry) who had the final say in deciding whether this or that common soldier, from some remote Military District, was worthy of the badge.
The “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge was instituted by the highest organ of executive authority within the Soviet government, namely the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, with Decree No.1889 of November 14, 1939. The eligibility of the award extended across all other ranks and regular officers of the Red Army, including those attending Military academies (officers), Military colleges (officer cadets) and Regimental schools (N.C.O. candidates). In addition, political commissars and political officers could also qualify for the badge.
According to the statute of the badge, adopted on the same day, the decoration was to be awarded to those servicemen of the aforementioned categories who had been nominated as satisfying the stringent criteria of “excellent military and political training”, “irreproachable service”, and “exemplary discipline”. Nomination itself came from a serviceman’s superior officers, the most junior command appointment able to initiate this process being the soldier’s company (or equivalent sub-unit) commander. The nomination was then submitted upwards through the chain-of-command for approval, with the final presentation of the badge for successful candidates being made as an Order of the People’s Commissar of Defence of the USSR. As a rule, presentation ceremonies were timed to coincide with the red-letter days of the Soviet calendar, such as the anniversary of the establishment of the RKKA (February 23), the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution (November 07), and the International Day of Workers’ Solidarity (May 01). Alternately, for officer cadets or N.C.O. candidates under instruction, presentations tended to correspond with the completion of winter and summer examinations. However, irrespective of these dates, it remained the case that if a serviceman sufficiently distinguished himself and fulfilled the requirements of the award of the badge, the ceremony could occur as and when required.
According to Decree No.290 of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, promulgated on March 03, 1940, eligibility for the award of the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge was extended to military personnel of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), these troops having been omitted from the original Decree of 1939. However, unlike the troops of the Red Army, these servicemen received the badge by Order of the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the USSR.
Whether Red Army or NKVD, in all cases this decoration was presented during a solemn ceremony in front of the recipient’s unit or institution. Along with the decoration itself, those awarded the badge received an Award citation bearing an extract from the relevant Order issued by the People’s Commissar of Defence of the USSR (or the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the USSR), as well as the serial number of the individual badge. In addition, a corresponding entry of these details was added to the service record of recipients, and similarly entered on the military identity document issued to all troops upon discharge from the Red Army (and which all reservists had to present if subsequently mobilized). Unusual as it may seem for a decoration whose very purpose was to utilize the prestige of its conferral as to encourage military virtue, and contrary to normal Soviet practice, no uniform hard-cover Award booklet for the Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA breast badge was ever introduced.
Initially, the badge was to be worn on the left breast. However, on June 21, 1943, by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, which was announced with Order No.240 of the People’s Commissariat of Defence (Народный комиссариат обороны, or НКО / Narodny Komissariat Oborony, or NKO), all breast badges were to be worn on the right chest, either to the left of, or below state awards.
The design of the ‘Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA’ breast badge was developed by the artist Nikolay Moskalyov (18.09.1897-July 1968), working under the auspices of the Central House of the Red Army, which was the main cultural and educational institution for military personnel and their families. Indeed, subsequent to this badge, which was the first Soviet military decoration on which he worked, Moskalyov achieved fame as the designer of numerous orders, medals, and badges (a selection outlined below). He was also a noted wartime propaganda artist.
Orders: Order of Kutuzov; Order of Bogdan Khmelnitsky; Order of Glory.
Medals: “For the Defence of Moscow”; “For the Defence of Leningrad”; “For the Defence of Odessa”; “For the Defence of Sevastopol”; “For the Defence of Stalingrad”; “For the Defence of the Caucasus”; “Partisan of the Patriotic War”; “For Impeccable Service”.
Badges: “Participant of the Khasan Battles” breast badge.
The “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge consisted of a vertical brass oval of solid design, framed with oak leaves on the upper part of the obverse, and ears of wheat below. The badge was ensigned with a red enameled, five-point star, while at the base was a white-enameled escutcheon, charged with the hammer and sickle emblem. The central element of the badge consisted of a depiction, in low relief, of the Spasskaya Tower of the Moscow Kremlin, with, in the foreground, a Red Army sentry in winter field uniform, at “Port Arms”, carrying the standard, 5-round, bolt-action, Mosin-Nagant service rifle, with fixed bayonet. Above the ears of wheat, and framing the lower half of the obverse, was a red enameled title-scroll, inscribed “Отличник РККА” in gilt, upper-case, Cyrillic script.
On the reverse, the badge generally bore a hand-engraved serial number, although examples without numbers are also known to exist.
Moreover, variations in the badge are also found due to differences in place of manufacture, i.e. whether Moscow or Leningrad, as well as date of production. As a result, examples are found that differ in size, weight, and minor details of the obverse (namely the soldier’s face, helmet, rifle, equipment, and Kremlin tower behind). Badges with these obverse details flat, or only slightly raised, can also be singled out as production variations.
In addition, variations are found in the construction of the reverse, and examples of the badge with the following types of back are known to exist: flatback; strong counter-relief (mirror reverse); and weakly marked counter-relief. Badges of each of these three types are found with or without serial numbers.
Despite the Statute of the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge stipulating dimensions of 37 mm x 28 mm, examples are found measuring between 35,5 and 38,1 mm in length, and from 27,2 to 29,5 mm in width, with weight ranging between 8,3 and 13,2 g. The badge was secured to the tunic by a screw-back attachment: the diameter of the screw post was between 2,3 and 2,9 mm, and that of the retaining nut ranging from 12,2 to 21,3 mm. Both screw posts and retaining nuts were variously fabricated from brass, copper or steel. Retaining nuts bore the following Leningrad or Moscow manufacturers’ marks: “Monetnyj Dvor” (Leningrad Mint); “Fabrika Len.Emalier” (i.e. Leningradskij-Emalier Artel, or Lenemalier); “Moskovskoe T-vo Hudojnikov” (Artists’ Society of Moscow); and “HZO DSO “Motor” (Artistic and Phaleristic Division of the “Motor” Voluntary Sports Society).
No miniature versions of this decoration were ever produced or worn.
At the introduction of the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge in 1939, the Leningrad Mint was chosen to be the sole manufacturer, with 50,000 pieces planned for production in 1940, and 100,000 more for 1941. The unit cost was fixed at 7,18 Rubles per badge; as a price comparison, in 1940 a dozen eggs cost 6,50 Rubles, 1 kg of mandarins – 6,30 Rubles, and 1 kg of beef – 10 Rubles.
According to statistical data, the Leningrad Mint actually produced 44,807 badges in 1940, and 104,300 between January and June 1941, coming to a total of 149,106 pieces instead of the demanded 150,000. However, as we discussed above, we must bear in mind the reality that the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge was also fabricated by other manufacturing concerns. Incomplete data available to the author suggests that 20,519 badges were made by “HZO DSO “Motor”’; 24,076 by “Moskovskoe Tovarishchestvo Hudojnikov”, and 7,598 by “Fabrika Len.Emalier”.
Thus, although the exact number of badges manufactured throughout 1940 and until June 1941, remains unknown, the various sources available give a range of between 201,000 and 250,000 pieces made.
The very first award of the badge to personnel of the Red Army occurred as early as the middle of November 1939, when exemplary servicemen of the Kiev Special Military District were presented with this new decoration. For the NKVD, distribution of the badge started in May, 1940, with its award to 200 troops of the OMSDON, i.e. the Independent Special-Purpose Motorized Rifle Division of the NKVD Troops “F.E. Dzerzhinsky” (Отдельная Мотострелковая Дивизия Особого Назначения имени Ф.Э. Дзержинского Войск НКВД, or ОМСДОН / Otdelnaya Motostrelkovaya Diviziya Osobogo Naznacheniya imeni F.E. Dzerzhinskogo Voysk NKVD, or OMSDON).
When speaking of the RKKA, we must remember that the Air Force was an integral branch of the Red Army, and, as such, its personnel were also equally eligible for this universal badge. Thus, we find 77 exceptional aviators from the Bataysk Military Flying School being presented with this prestigious decoration at the beginning of 1941, just a couple of months before the German invasion.
According to the available statistics, 45,622 badges were awarded to Red Army servicemen in 1941: 4,816 on January 21; 3,817 on January 24; 2,238 on February 18; 11,853 on February 23; 4,780 on March 07; 4,333 on March 18; 2,808 on March 23; 4,403 on April 30. One of the last pre-war mass awards took place on May 01, 1941, when 6,547 pieces were presented to meritorious servicemen of the RKKA.
Production of the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge ceased with the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (June 22, 1941), although existing examples were awarded during almost the entire duration of the Soviet war against Germany, from 1941 up to the very beginning of March, 1945.
However, during this period, the badge was most likely only awarded to those military personnel based in Military Districts in rear areas (including officer cadets and N.C.O. candidates at Military colleges or Regimental schools), and, even then, only in those regions which still retained stocks of pieces manufactured pre-war. As a result, the tally of servicemen decorated with the badge during the Great Patriotic War never approached pre-1941 numbers.
In the meantime, officers, NCOs and men serving with frontline units were awarded “combat” Orders and Medals, e.g. the Order of the Red Star, the Order of the Red Banner, the Medal “For Courage”, etc.
The above situation, and the effect this had on attitudes towards the already prestigious “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge, is described in the memoirs of war veteran Vladimir Grodko (1924-1998), who attended the Leningrad Artillery Military School (then based in the city of Kostroma, north-east of Moscow) from March, 1943, until August, 1944: “The good reputation I gained whilst studying resulted in my nomination as a candidate for party membership, being decorated with the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” Badge, and the opportunity to choose the location of my future active-service… Unlike military orders that were presented to privates*, sergeants and junior officers by the order of unit commanders “in the name of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR”, the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge was quite scantily awarded to graduates by the Order of the People’s Commissar of Defence, only two or three pieces upon the nomination of the School superintendent. This is why that badge is still my pride”. However, Grodko reminisces incorrectly here (*): a conscript had to be at least a junior N.C.O. to be eligible for a military order, and, even then, awards to these ranks was a rare occurrence.
With Decree No.382 of March 01, 1945, entitled “On Abrogation of the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR No.1889 of November 14, 1939”, the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR discontinued the award of the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge, deeming that it had, in its words, “...lost its meaning”. Commanders of all units and formations of the Red Army, and heads of its institutions and facilities, were notified of this decision by corresponding memorandum No.02/462, issued on March 07, 1945, by the Chief Department for Personnel of the NKO, and signed by its head, Colonel-General (General-Polkovnik) Filipp Golikov (29.07.1900-29.07.1980).
The number of authentic examples of the “Excellent Serviceman of the RKKA” breast badge available for private purchase from specialized online marketplaces is limited, due to the heavy losses the Red Army experienced in the early stage of the Great Patriotic War. Many holders of that decoration were killed-in-action, while others perished in P.O.W. camps. Pieces bearing serial numbers on the reverse are the most sought after by collectors, although the opportunity to identify the recipient of any particular badge is non-existent, as no centralized database was ever established pre-war. As a result, the purchase of a matching set of items is the best option to fill up the gap in any RKKA-related collection, and so the most desirable lot should consist of the written nomination for the decoration, signed by the unit commander; the badge itself; and the Award citation bearing the extract from the Order awarding the badge, issued by the relevant People’s Commissar.
In the meantime, beware of fakes that can be recognized as such by their crude detailing, thickened hammer and sickle emblems, noticeably jagged edges, and odd enamel tints. Also, note that even original badges are sometimes sold with non-original retaining nuts.