The Red Guards (Finnish: Punakaarti, Swedish: Röda gardet) were a paramilitary units of the Finnish labour movement in the early 1900s. The first Red Guards were established during the 1905 general strike, but disbanded a year later. After the Russian 1917 February revolution the Red Guards were re-established and in the 1918 Finnish Civil War they formed the army of Red Finland. The combined strength of the Red Guard was about 30,000 at the beginning of the Civil War, peaking at between 90,000 and 120,000 during the course of the conflict. The number included more than 2,000 members of the Women's Guards. In May 1918, up to 80,000 Reds were captured by the victorious Whites, 12,000 to 14,000 of them died in the prison camps due to execution, disease and malnutrition. A majority of the Reds were finally pardoned in late 1918.
Approximately 10,000 to 13,000 Reds managed to flee to Soviet Russia. Some of them fought in the Russian Civil War until 1920 against the Finnish Whites invading the East Karelia. The Murmansk Legion was a British organized military unit composed of the Red Guard members from Northern Finland who had fled to Russia in the early stages of the Finnish Civil War.
The Red Guards came about during the general strike in November 1905. It started as a joint effort of the Social Democratic labour movement and the political right against the Russification of Finland. The strike lasted only a week, but in the final days the different views created a deep gap between the two parties. Also the National Guard, established for law enforcement as the police participated the strike as well, was split in two; to the working-class Red Guards and the Protection Corps of the bourgeois side. Some minor incidents followed, especially in the capital Helsinki, but violent clashes were avoided. Although the general strike was over, both guards remained active. In 1906, the number of Red Guard members was estimated 25,000.
Violence between the two sides finally burst out on 2 August 1906 during the Sveaborg rebellion, a revolt of the Russian Bolshevik sailors in the Sveaborg Fortress in Helsinki. As the mutiny started, the Helsinki Red Guard, led by Johan Kock, joined the rebellions by sabotage in the mainland. In the final day of the revolt, Johan Kock declared a general strike on his own, without a permission from the Social Democratic Party which was leading the Finnish labour movement as there was no central trade union. The strike was joined by thousands of Helsinki workers. The bourgeois opposed the strike as well and sent the Protection Corps to the Hakaniemi working-class district in order to keep the city's tram traffic rolling. At the Hakaniemi Square, the Protection Corps was surrounded by an angry mob of local people throwing stones. The incident escalated into a gunfight between the Protection Corps and the Red Guards supported by a squad of Russian sailors. The riot was finally disrupted by the Russian cosacks, ending with 2 killed Reds and 7 killed Protection Corps members. 200 people were arrested, but only one Red Guard platoon leader was convicted as there was not enough evidence against the others. The funeral of the killed Reds became a mass demonstration against the violence of the bourgeois. The Protection Corps, in turn, arranged a large funeral as a protest against the Red violence. As the Sveaborg rebellion was suppressed, 900 Russian mutinees and about 100 Red Guard members were arrested. 77 Reds were convicted.