Vasilii Gurko was born May 8,1864, to a family in the Russian nobility. He was still a teenager when his father, Iosif Vladimirovich Gurko, covered himself with glory as a high-ranking commander in the 1877/1878 conflict with Turkey. The younger Gurko followed in these distinguished footsteps.
He graduated from the aristocratic Corps of Pages in 1885 and took a suitable command in a regiment of the Imperial Guards. In 1892 he completed the General Staff Academy.
Thus, the young officer was primed, both by birth and military education, for a rapid ascent in his profession. Neither were his prospects hurt by having an elder brother, Vladimir Iosifovich Gurko, rising to high position in the Imperial Chancellery and the Ministry of the Interior.
By 1900 Gurko had advanced to colonel, after serving as a military attaché with the forces of the Orange Free State during the Boer War, 1899/1900. He acquitted himself well in the Russo-Japanese conflict: in a befitting course for a properly rounded Genshtabist, he served as chief of staff for the I Siberian Army Corps, then turned to command a Cossack cavalry brigade.
Between 1906 and 1911 Gurko emerged as a leading advocate of army reform. He chaired the military commission investigating the Russian combat performance in the war with Japan. He also developed political ties with sympathetic members of the Duma, Russia's new parliamentary body. Par-ticularly close to Octobrist leader Aleksandr Guchkov, whom he first encountered when Guchkov fought as a volunteer with the Boers, Gurko was one of a circle of young officers whom Guchkov recruited to advise Duma leaders on proposals for revamping Russia's discredited military system. In 1911 Gurko returned to duty with troops, taking command of the First Cavalry Division.
The wartime years saw Gurko rise with astonishing speed. In August 1914, he was leading his division as part of General Rennenkampf's First Army in East Prussia. Little more than two years later, Gurko was acting chief of staff for the Russian army, filling in for the ailing General Alekseev. Gurko fought as a division commander at Lodz in November 1914, then advanced in January of the following year to take charge of the VI Army Corps.
In mid-1916, Gurko was the logical choice to rescue and restore the battered Guards Army. This force had been formed from the army's elite guards units the previous winter and specially trained as a reserve to be thrown into combat at a decisive time. The summer of 1916 brought it to the brink of disaster: the incompetent General Bezobrazov led the
guards to be mauled in the marshes east of Kovel. By September Gurko's force renamed the Special Army was back on the line, and it participated in the last stages of General Brusilovs offensive in mid-October. Shortly thereafter, Gurko was called upon to take Alekseev's place, in effect commanding the entire Russian army.
Gurko's major accomplishment in his tenure as acting commander was to draft a reorganization plan for the entire Russian front. The controversial proposal called for reducing the size of Russia's combat divisions, thereby opening the way to create as many as sixty new divisions. Gurko apparently hoped to distribute artillery and other heavy equipment more equitably and, in general, to improve the efficiency of the faltering military system. Critics have suggested that the scheme was doomed to fail: no reshuffling of masses of conscripts could make up for the intolerable shortages of weapons and trained cadres. Politics formed a more shadowy facet of Gurko s activities. At least since early 1916, his old associate Guchkov had been approaching top generals like Alekseev, seeking to form a united front against the monarchy. According to Katkov, Gurko continued this subversive work, first established between the Octobrist leader and the army chief of staff.
Alekseev returned to duty in early 1917 to lead the army through the crisis of the March Revolution. In the wake of that event, Gurko rose to command the western front, replacing General Evert. Gurko's efforts to cooperate with the provisional government soon became overshadowed by the latter's desire to democratize the military system. The distinguished general tried to channel, and thus to moderate, the action of soldiers committees and other outgrowths of the revolutionary era on his front. But by May, Gurko and most of the other senior army commanders were on their way out. Opposed to the projected summer 1917 offensive, and disturbed by sweeping official declarations on "soldiers' rights," Gurko made one last effort to sway War Minister Kerensky in mid-May. At a meeting of Kerensky and the senior commanders, Gurko found his call for caution in revamping the army rejected. Gurko had combined his warning with pointed suggestions that the army High Command might abandon the provisional government and perhaps restore military discipline on its own initiative. Kerensky turned at once to more conciliatory generals like Brusilov.
Gurko was relieved in June. To compound his humiliation, Kerensky assigned the senior general to command a division in Kazan, hundreds of miles from the fighting front. Gurko resigned. The cashiered general was arrested in August for writing a letter of sympathy to the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, then banished to live abroad. He spent the rest of his life in exile and died in Rome, February 11 1937.