Vladimir Aleksandrovich Sukhomlinov was a cavalry general of the Imperial Russian Army (1906) who served as the Chief of the General Staff in 1908–09 and the Minister of War until 1915, when he was ousted from office amid allegations of failure to provide necessary armaments and munitions. The Myasoedov/Sukhomlinov cases may have done more harm to the monarchy than the lurid scandals associated with Rasputin.
The young cavalryman was decorated for heroism in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877/1878, then returned to teach at the General Staff Academy. From 1886 to 1898 he commanded at his alma mater, the Nikolaevsky Cavalry School; there he gained a wide reputation for his innovations in the use of mounted troops. It was in this post, in 1890, that Sukhomlinov was promoted to the rank of general. In 1898 he took command of the Tenth Cavalry Division, but he left this station to become chief of staff for the Kiev Military District. Sukhomlinov spent nearly a decade in the Ukrainian capital; he took over as military commander there in 1904 and in 1905 took on the additional responsibilities of governor general for the entire province. Perhaps fortunately, his reputation was not put to the acid test of field duty in the Russo-Japanese War. He was made general of cavalry in 1906; by this time, Tsar Nicholas II had begun to consult him on a wide range of military policy matters. In 1908 Sukhomlinov was named chief of the General Staff; the year following, he began a stormy term as minister of war that lasted until June 1915.
Many historians have considered Sukhomlinov's stewardship over the War Ministry a disaster. The war minister himself in Norman Stone's biting phrase has usually been pictured as a "uniformed Rasputin," or an indolent, corrupt, and incompetent bumbler. Beyond doubt, Sukhomlinov was open to taking a timely bribe; no doubt, he established a personal spy system to watch over the officer corps and manipulated army promotions to replace rivals with docile nonentities; clearly, he disregarded the wishes of political figures in the Duma and based his day-to-day behavior on staying in the good graces of the tsar.
But Sukhomlinov also produced a stronger, if still flawed, military system. Russia then prepared to fight either an offensive or a defensive campaign against both of the Central Powers. Sukhomlinov centralized military authority under the Ministry of War. With the aid of General Yury Danilov, chief of the General Staff's operations section, he developed plans for a speedier mobilization process than had hitherto existed in Russia. The nation's forces were to be prepared to concentrate in the interior, then to ride to the frontier via the railroads. To these achievements, he joined a revised system of reserves, and a vast expansion in the number of artillery pieces for the field armies. Surveys of Russian industry were a first, but essential, step in linking economic resources to the needs of a wartime military system; anticipating war in the near future, Sukhomlinov commenced such studies. All of this was capped by the so-called Great Program of 1913, a four-year plan for the creation of a military force vastly bigger in size and comparable in equipment to that of Germany, the military pacesetter for the Continent.
Not all went well. Opposition from army leaders in the southwestern provinces compelled Sukhomlinov to alter Russia's military-strategic Plan 19; in this scheme, Danilov had called for most of Russia's military power to concentrate against the Germans in East Prussia at the start of the coming war. The revised plan split Russia's offensive potential in order to launch both a weighty blow at Austria-Hungary and a lesser one as well against Germany. Moreover, Sukhomlinov tried without success to abandon Russia's line of antiquated Polish fortresses. These were indefensible, and they pinned down artillery that could serve a useful function with the field armies. But the proposal aroused a storm of counterblasts from army conservatives, and Sukhomlinov had to give way. Although his popular deputy, General A. Polivanov, cultivated the friendship of influential members of the Duma, Sukhomlinov nonetheless became the target for the hostility and contempt of Russia's legislative leaders. Finally, his "spurt in military modernization" (Wildman) envisioned only a short war. Like the other belligerents, Russia had no shell supplies capable of meeting the strain of prolonged campaigning; unlike such countries as Britain and Germany, Russia lacked the industrial strength and political flexibility to remedy this flaw quickly.
The July crisis of 1914 placed the controversial minister of war at the center of events. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia (July 23) and the outbreak of war between the Habsburg Empire and Russia's small Balkan ally (July 28) cried for a military response from St. Petersburg. Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov favored partial mobilization, that is, against Austria-Hungary, but he found himself at once pressed by General Yanushkevich, Russia's recently appointed young chief of staff, to call for general mobilization against both of the Central Powers. The most authoritative informed voice was that of General Danilov, who returned to St. Petersburg on July 26 to insist that partial mobilization was impossible. Perhaps swayed by pleas from the French, Sukhomlinov stood alongside Yanushkevich; he persuaded first Sazonov, then the reluctant tsar, to mobilize against both Germany and Austria-Hungary on July 30.
The outbreak of war began Sukhomlinov's slide to oblivion. The tsar turned away from his stated intention to take personal command of the army; Sukhomlinov and his archenemy, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, the tsar's uncle, were the leading candidates then to become generalissimo. The prize went to the grand duke. Stone suggests that Sukhomlinov deliberately let the opportunity slip away; the war minister saw no reason why the an-ticipated short and decisive war should diminish his authority over the military system. When the war surprisingly dragged on, of course, the center of power shifted to the army's commander in chief, not the desk-bound war minister.
The short-war illusion came to haunt Sukhomlinov in a second guise as the shell shortage crippled Russia's fighting forces. Stone grants the war minister partial absolution: the field armies were both wasteful of ammunition and lax in controlling their stockpiles; useless fortress garrisons hoarded millions of rounds of artillery ammunition. The public and the Duma were less charitable.
By early 1915 Sukhomlinov's name had become a watchword for incompetence. By spring, his patriotism itself came under attack. Colonel S. N. Miasoedov, a protégé of Sukhomlinov and the man who had run the war minister's prewar spy system to control the officer corps, was accused of treason. Miasoedov faced a hasty court-martial marked by judicial irregularities. He was found guilty and executed at once. Sukhomlinov was then hopelessly compromised, perhaps the victim of his numerous enemies in the Duma and the officer corps acting in collusion.
In June 1915, Tsar Nicholas reluctantly dismissed Sukhomlinov. The retreat from Poland and the worsening shell shortage combined with growing public accusations that the government was a nest for pro-German elements to make it impossible for the war minister to keep his post. In early 1916 the Duma pressured the minister of justice to arrest and investigate Sukhomlinov for alleged misconduct in office. The imperial family intervened, but Sukhomlinov remained under house arrest until the March Revolution of 1917. The provisional government arrested him again and, in September 1917, sentenced him to hard labor for his failure to prepare the nation adequately for the war's ordeal. In May 1918, then seventy years old, Sukhomlinov was released by the Bolsheviks and went into exile. He lived out his remaining years in Germany, at work on his memoirs and other studies intended to vindicate his reputation. He died in Berlin, February 2, 1926.
Born August 16, 1848
Died February 2, 1926
March 11, 1909 - June 11, 1915