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 — Russkiy Mir Foundation — Journal — Articles — The Last Field Marshal

The Last Field Marshal

Naval minister of the Russian Empire in the reign of Alexander II, Admiral Krabbe, thus characterized this man: “Today Dmitry… has come down like a ton of bricks on the enemy, a fearful spectacle – he has torn at the enemy’s throat like a lion.” And here is an excerpt from a book by military historian Kersonovsky: “An alumnus of a private civilian boarding-school and Moscow University, he had the military mind but did not have a military soul, heart or combatant’s nerve… His noncombatant reform in the Russian Army did not make the latter happy.” These contradictory reports make it difficult to get an unbiased idea of Russian Army reformer, Field Marshal Milyutin.

July 10, 2011, marked the 195th anniversary of the birth of Dmitry A. Milyutin. In November 150 years will have passed since the day when Emperor Alexander II looking for young reformers appointed Mr Milyutin his defense minister – a legitimate occasion to remember the man who played a rather remarkable role in the national history, especially because he was the father of a military reform in 1861. Many argue that this was not the first or the last reform in our army. Moreover this reform has been going on for many years until now with unclear targets. Probably another recollection about the noble work of Dmitry Milyutin may facilitate this process.

Strictly speaking, there has been only one reform in the long 300-year history of the Russian Army, an ongoing and sluggish one.

What Peter the Great did with the army cannot be described as a reform, since he created everything anew. And though the troops of Ivan the Terrible or those of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich cannot be considered as “amateur” formations, they were not quite a regular army either. There was a strong militia element in the form of gentry’s cavalry, but there were no lifers and no military science as such.

In the second half of XVIII century modernization of some branches of the Armed Forces was tackled by Count Shuvalov and Count Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky. Surely a lot of new elements in the training of the army in general and the soldier in particular were brought in by prince Suvorov of Italy and Emperor Pavel I “shook up” the army after the Gatchina manner. But even vigorous modernization is not tantamount to a reform. Transformation of the imperial Russian army into the Red Army of Soviet Russia was not a reform either for one simple reason: we did not have any army whatsoever from autumn 1917 to summer 1918. The old one was destroyed not without some help from the Interim government and all kinds of Petrograd soviets. RRA (Russian Red Army) emerged on its ruins and initially was hardly reminiscent of a regular army.

It comes out that the Russian army was reformed only once under defense minister Milyutin in 1861-1881.

Mr Milyutin was born in Moscow into a modest family of the Russian gentry. By the turn of the XIX century an ancient Serbian family had grown poor, if not gone to squash. Dmitry’s father started various undertakings but to no avail. Milyutinsky Lane so named in honor of the future Field-Marshal’s grandfather was the only reminder of the former grandeur of this clan. The Lane has preserved this name until now.

Milyutin Senior amazed the original capital by his marriage rather than business success. The society could not understand why this unlucky fellow was chosen by the daughter of general Kiselev whose ancestors had served the great princes and tsars since the days of Vladimir Monomakh.

Later his mother’s pedigree, kinship and connections served youthful Dmitry Milyutin the good turn. The youth did not think of embarking on a military career path. Having obtained good home guidance, he entered a boarding-school for nobility at the Moscow University where, as a matter of fact, Mikhail Lermontov was studying at the same time. Like Lermontov, Dmitry made a sharp turn in his walk of life and in 1833 left for St. Petersburg where he joined the Army.

An officer in the Tsar’s army

Nevertheless, unlike Lermontov who was “recommended to leave” because of his rebellious state of mind, Milyutin left the boarding-school and decided to get his military education in a field combatant unit and served as fire-worker (non-commissioned officer) at the second squadron of the first life-guard artillery brigade. Half a year later he passed an exam and was awarded the rank of a warrant officer.

His first two years of service Milyutin stayed with the brigade and then entered the Imperial Military Academy from which he graduated a year later with a minor silver medal. He served at the headquarters of the Guard Corps and at the General Staff. Since 1836 he started collaboration with the Military Journal and Fatherland’s Notes periodicals as well as with editorial offices of the Academy of Sciences that prepared encyclopedias for printed works. Already in those days he was recognized as a young officer of great learning with a scholarly frame of mind. His article called Suvorov as General and published in Fatherland’s Notes in 1839 made him famous. Incidentally, this article served as a mold for Milyutin’s monumental work The History of War between Russia and France in the Reign of Emperor Pavel I in 1799 written in 1852-1853. For this academic work Dmitry earned the Doctor of History degree from Saint Petersburg University. He was also made an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences and presented Demidov’s award. But that took place later. And while they were reading Suvorov in Saint Petersburg, Milyutin himself headed for the Caucasus of his own will.

In the Caucasus

The Caucasian War had already been smoldering for a couple dozens of years. In 1839 imam Shamil was in full strength. His Murids along with the majority of local population were desperately and daringly fighting against the Russian soldiers. It became clear that it was impossible to overpower Shamil’s detachments using the tactic of small skirmishes, “clean-ups” and guarding of the service lines and roads. So they decided to launch a large-scale offensive.

Milyutin rode the desk of senior quartermaster in the Chechen detachment. In his first major battle in the Akhmat-Tala hole the Moscow officer got a missile wound in the shoulder, with lead scraping the bone. The bondage was applied and Milyutin remained in the ranks. During the multi-month expedition he got involved in several serious battles.

Mr Milyutin came back to the capital already in the Captain’s rank and as Companion of Saint Vladimir order of the fourth degree and Saint Stanislav order of the third degree. His next place of service was the staff of the third guard infantry division. However Milyutin solicited a wound leave and made his way to Europe. During his vacation he was traveling and studying the military art in France, England, Prussia, Austria… i.e. in those nations that were Russia’s key rivals.

His next trip to Caucasus took place in 1843 – this time he served as senior quartermaster with the troops on the Caucasian Line and Black Sea region under the command of general Gurko.

The third and last trip to the army fighting in the Caucasus happened in the fall of 1856. Then already a general, Milyutin was appointed the Chief of Staff of the Caucasian forces, with prince Baryatinsky being his immediate boss. Later on Field-Marshal Baryatinsky became both the good and evil genius for Milyutin. At the prince’s recommendation Emperor Alexander II made Dmitry the defense minister. Because of the prince’s super-conservative stance on military issues, the natural resistance to Milyutin’s reforms stepped up.

In late 1859 the fortified mountain village Gunib finally fell and Shamil was captured. The remnants of Murids were dissipated over the crevices. The Caucasian war ended and a year later Milyutin left for Saint Petersburg as Lieutenant-General, Companion of Saint Anna of the first degree, Saint Vladimir of the second degree and White eagle with swords orders.

In addition to sheer military work daily done by Dmitry at the General Staff of the Caucasian Army, he was given for the first time an opportunity to test his reform ideas for the army in practice. It’s no laughing matter that more than 200,000 soldiers and officers were under arms in the Caucasus in the second half of the 1850’s – a serious scale for an experiment.

Not all of his proposals were put into practice, but Milyutin managed to refine all important aspects of the army organization: from marksmanship training of regular corps to intendance and sanitary-medical service. The general had to see into the administrative and civic issues as well and build an army-fleet relationship that was once successfully used by Suvorov and Ushakov. He even had a hand in transformation of the Black Sea and Grebensky Cossack units and helped to establish the Kuban and Tersky Cossack armies.

At the Ministry

With such a solid and useful baggage General Milyutin arrived in St. Petersburg and received the position of an aide of defense minister, but he had ill luck with his superior – a proponent of the old Nicholas’ Army and a hopeless dipstick. There were many ignoramuses among the generals of the Russian Army in mid XIX century. The warrant officers and lieutenants of the Patriotic War of 1812 never needed geometry and physics, statistics or geography. Lineal disposition, primitive artillery and dashing bayonets did not stimulate the desire to learn more. While the guard was refreshed with elite youths who got decent education in their families and later at the few specialized institutions like the Varlet Corps, Nikolaevskaya Cavalry School, Mikhailovsky Artillery and Engineering schools, the field officers, after cadet corps, matured in the squadrons of their home regiments in far-off garrisons. Some warrant officers and lieutenants of 1812 had served until getting the General’s rank in the reign of Alexander II. Alexander himself is quoted as uttering the following remarkable sentiment: “My Dad was a genius and could afford the luxury of surrounding his throne with gawks.” That luxury led to serious nuisances in the days of the Eastern war. Russian soldiers and officers were brave and valorous fighters, though imbecile generals often stood in their way because they did not care for timely rearmament, did not address the supply and logistics issues, and did not work out elaborate plans of military campaigns, totally relying on their soldiers’ valor.

Valor alone was not enough to defeat the Anglo-Turkish-French-Piedmont coalition, though it helped not to lose this war disastrously. Next time it could be worse. Both Milyutin and Alexander II realized that.

In November 1861 Adjutant-General (a court rank equated to the rank of Lieutenant-General – author’s note) Dmitry Milyutin was elevated by the sovereign to the position of the Empire’s defense minister.

During his initial weeks in office the general caste and courtiers could not grasp what this 45-year-old headpiece and parvenu was going to do. Meetings were going on at the ministry, preparatory commissions were working, experts were hanging around and the lights were turned off late at night. Clarity occurred late in January of 1862, when a program of reforms was placed on the Emperor’s table. The coversheet read: “In full conformity with my longstanding desires.”

Not all of Alexander’s “longstanding desires” were eventually fulfilled. Milyutin himself repeatedly admitted that these were tinkering reforms. However, almost all the reforms initiated by the liberator tsar, apart from the military one, could be assessed as “tinkering.”

But let’s have a look at them.

In the midst of reform

The first thing which the new defense minister pushed through was a waiver of the cumbersome full-staff army devouring a considerable part of the government budget regardless of whether a war was waged or not. But the transition to a ready reserve mobilization system required radical changes in soldiers’ conscription. If lower ranks served 25 years or actually a lifetime where would they go in time of peace? Recruits never retired.

These were perhaps the two main pillars of the reform. Milyutin divided the national territory into military districts. In accordance with the mobilization plan, it is in the districts that the main forces based on regular and alternate regiments were to be deployed in case of war. The second pillar was a waiver of recruit conscription and a transition to universal military obligation. Accordingly, the time of service shortened to six years in the regular army and seven years in the navy.

Other innovations were but a superstructure above these two foundational pillars: rearmament, modernization of the defense industry, construction of armor-clad fleet, publication of specialized military periodicals – the Russian Invalid newspaper in the first place – founding of officer assemblies and economic societies. Military education was given a special treatment. Milyutin replaced cadet corps with high military schools for gentry and modified the curriculum of elite military academies. Even if all these plans remained on paper and Dmitry succeeded in “pressing through” a single point, he would be worthy of loving memory in the Fatherland all the same. Milyutin insisted on cancellation of corporal punishment in the army. Rods, service marking and fetters sank into oblivion, though pastes certainly remained. But the latter lied at the door of hopeless non-coms and goons.

The reforms were not to the liking of everyone. According to prince Meshcherskiy, they deprived the nobility of their privileges granted them by Catherine the Great. To serve or not to serve was a matter of personal choice for the upper class. Now they had to choose between the officer’s education, university or field army.

A few words about universities: Milyutin authored the first in Russia lawful draft determents. He thought people with higher education were to be exempted from the army service or become volunteers. He was the first to address the problem of free soldiers’ labor at the official level: “A soldier ought to master the military art instead of building houses for his bosses.” Dmitry was a far-sighted man. He took away both free labor and money from the regiment and division commanders. Prior to the reform the regiment commander had been the only possessor of the regimental pay-box and certainly could not resist the temptation to steal. The army reform altered the principles of financing the corps. Who would like that?

Former Milyutin’s patron, prince Baryatinsky, echoed prince Meshcherskiy. Field-Marshal explained the wrong policy of the defense minister by the latter’s liberal views and by the fact that he was seeking the company of people with higher education, men of letters and other “engineers” of human souls and shunned away from the nobility and aristocrats. The prince was absolutely right. Mr Milyutin indeed appreciated the company of intelligent people. Dmitry often visited with Turgenev and Nekrasov and was interested in the activities of Chernyshevsky. He continued to engage in academic and historic literature, was a frequent guest of glitterati’s get-togethers and received intellectuals at his place while evading the receptions and balls at the Winter Palace as well as mandatory imperial breakfasts in Livadia where most nobles spent their vacation time. Not that he disliked the aristocracy to which he himself belonged through his mother. The defense minister did not have a lot of leisure time and preferred wise time management. What is more, there were many opponents to the military reform among the habitu

The reform was saved, the capture of Plevna being its protection. Three assaults on the key Turkish fortification opening a way to South Bulgaria and further on to Constantinople are known to have failed. At the military council chaired by the sovereign it was proposed to scale down the campaign and retreat to the trans-Danube realm. Milyutin was the only one who opposed that plan. He spoke passionately and convincingly and eventually Plevna was seized and the war was won. After that the pressure on Milyutin somewhat weakened. He was awarded Saint George of the second degree, became a patron of Penza Infantry Regiment 121 and a little later in September 1878 he was granted the Count title.

One day prince Baryatinsky advised the Emperor to elevate the defense minister to earlship that he would not stray away from nobility. Milyutin might have been happy to stray away but could not do that on account of his duties. After the Turkish war he became a member of the State Council and actually the sovereign’s right hand in foreign policy and in European monarchies it was mainly dukes, princes, counts and barons who were involved in foreign affairs.

In spring 1881 the next 14th attempt on the life of Alexander II proved successful and Alexander III succeeded him on the throne. The years of reaction began as we were told by the authors of the Soviet textbooks on history, but now we are prone to think that these were the years of stability. At any rate, Russia waged no wars in the new tsar’s reign.

In the Crimea

Milyutin was an experienced and clever man. Already in May 1881 he tendered his resignation which was accepted. Infantry general and the Knight of Andrew the First-Called order departed to his own Crimean estate in Simeiz where he lived his last twenty years. At this point the phrase “lonely and forgotten by everybody” is usually added, but this was not the case of Dmitry Milyutin. He happily lived… 69 years in matrimony with Natalia Mikhailovna nee Ponce. They brought up six children. In his Simeiz estate the retiree was often visited by numerous colleagues and disciples as well as by writer Ivan Aksakov, painter Aivazovsky and traveler Miklukho-Maklay. He also shared the company of inanimate but true friends – the Count’s library was among the best ones in Russia and along with his archive was willed to the repository of Nikolaevskaya Academy at the General Staff. Milyutin maintained extensive correspondence, published new works, wrote Memoirs and even consulted the nation’s chief executives during several years after his resignation. Being a very old man, he could still give valuable advice – for instance on the need to create a military automobile fleet.

Dmitry A. Milyutin died in winter 1912, three days after the death of his wife Natalia. Mourning was declared in the entire Russian Army.

He was remembered time after time at the highest government level too. In 1898 grandson of Alexander II, Emperor Nicholas II, invited Count Dmitry to arrive in Moscow to participate in the inauguration of a monument to Tsar Alexander II, and congratulated him on elevation to the rank of General Field-Marshal. Nobody else was honored with this high title and probably for good as Filed-Marshals normally appear in time of war, rather than at the time of reform.

Author:  Mikhail Bykov


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