Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche
Military reform has been one of the central aspects of Russia's drive to modernize and become a leading European military, political, and economic power. Ivan IV (d. 1584) gave away pomestie lands to create a permanent military service class, and Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (d. 1676) enserfed Russia's peasants to guarantee the political support of these military servitors. In the same period, Alexei, seeking to modernize his realm, invited Westerners to Russia to introduce advanced technical capabilities. But as the eighteenth century dawned, Russia found itself surrounded and outmatched by hostile enemies to its north, south, west, and, to a lessor extent, to its east. At the same time, perhaps Russia's most energetic tsar, Peter the Great (d. 1725), adopted a grand strategy based on the goal of conquering adversaries in all directions. Such ambitions required the complete overhaul of the Russian nation. As a result, the reforms of Peter the Great represent the beginning of the modern era of Russian history.
Military reform, designed to create a powerful permanently standing army and navy, was the central goal of all of Peter the Great's monumental reforms. His most notable military reforms included the creation of a navy that he used to great effect against the Ottomans in the sea of Azov and the Swedes in the Baltic during the Great Northern War; the creation of the Guard's Officer Corps that became the basis of the standing professional officer corps until they became superannuated and replaced by officers with General Staff training during the nineteenth century; a twenty-five year service requirement for peasants selected by lot to be soldiers; and his codifying military's existence by personally writing a set of instructions in 1716 for the army and 1720 for the navy. While these reforms transformed the operational capabilities of the Russian military, Peter the Great also sought to create the social and administrative basis for maintaining this newly generated power. In 1720 he created administrative colleges specifically to furnish the army and navy with a higher administrative apparatus to oversee the acquisition of equipment, supplies, and recruits. Peter's final seminal reform, however, was the 1722 creation of the Table of Ranks, which linked social and political mobility to the idea of merit, not only in the military but throughout Russia.
Potemkin in later life
The irony of Peter's culminating reform was that the nobility did not accept the Table of Ranks because it forced them to work to maintain what they viewed as their inherited birthright to power, privilege, and status. While no major military reforms occurred until after the 1853-1856 Crimean War, the work of Catherine II's (d. 1796) "Great Captains," Peter Rumyanstev, Grigory Potemkin, and Alexander Suvorov, combined with the reforming efforts of Paul I (d. 1801), created a system for educating and training officers and defined everything from uniforms to operational doctrine. None of these efforts amounted in scope to the reforms that preceded or followed, but together they provided Russia with a military establishment powerful enough to defeat adversaries ranging from the powerful French to the declining Ottomans. Realizing that the army was too large and too wasteful, Nicholas I (d. 1855) spent the balance of the 1830s and 1840s introducing administrative reforms to streamline and enhance performance but, as events in the Crimea demonstrated, without success.
Alexander II's (d. 1881) 1861 peasant emancipation launched his Great Reforms and set the stage for the enlightened War Minister Dmitry Milyutin to reorganize Russia's military establishment in every aspect imaginable. His most enduring reform was the 1862-1864 establishment of the fifteen military districts that imposed a centralized and manageable administrative and command system over the entire army. Then, to reintroduce the concept of meritocracy into the officer training system, he reorganized the Cadet Corps Academies into Junker schools in 1864 to provide an education to all qualified candidates regardless of social status. In addition, in 1868 he oversaw the recasting of the army's standing wartime orders. The result of these three reforms centralized all power within the army into the war minister's hands. But Milyutin's most important reform was the Universal Conscription Act of 1874 that required all Russian men to serve first in the active army and then in the reserves. Modeled after the system recently implemented by the Prussians in their stunningly successful unification, Russia now had the basis for a modern conscript army that utilized the Empire's superiority in manpower without maintaining a costly standing army.
Milyutin's reforms completely overhauled Russia's military system. But a difficult victory in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War and the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War demonstrated that Russia's military establishment was in need of further and immediate reform in the post-1905 period. In the war's aftermath, the army and the navy were overrun with reforming schemes and undertakings that ranged from the creation of the Supreme Defense Council to unify all military policy, to the emergence of an autonomous General Staff (something Milyutin intentionally avoided), to the 1906 appointment of a Higher Attestation Commission charged with the task of purging the officer corps of dead weight. By 1910, the reaction to military defeat had calmed down, and War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov sought to address future concerns with a series of reforms that simplified the organization of army corps and sought to rationalize the deployment of troops throughout the Empire. These reforms demonstrated the future needs of the army well, resulting in the 1914 passage of a bill (The Large Program) through the Duma designed to finance the strengthening of the entire military establishment.