Skobelev, Mikhail Dmitriyevich

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(18431882), famous officer in the Russian imperial army active in the conquest of Turkestan and in the Russo-Turkish War of 18771888.

Born to a Russian noble family, Mikhail Skobelev became a member of the officer corps of the Russian army. In 1869, having received an education in military schools, he joined Russian forces completing the conquest of Central Asia.

He first distinguished himself in military operations in the Fergana Valley (now in Uzbekistan), where in 1875 anti-Russian rebel forces had over-thrown the khan of Kokand (allied with Russia). He quickly formulated his own strategy of colonial war, summed up in the guidelines "slaughter the enemy until resistance ends," then "cease slaughter and be kind and humane to the defeated enemy." He destroyed several rebel towns during his campaign, leaving thousands of dead among the rebels and the civilian population. When leaders of the revolt surrendered, he recommended to the tsar that they be pardoned. As a reward for his military triumph, he was promoted to the rank of major general and, at the age of thirty, became the military ruler of the Fergana Valley.

When the Russian Empire declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1877, Skobelev joined the Russian armies moving against the Turks. His bravery and military skill earned him the command of one of the Russian armies in the campaign. He led his troops in the capture of the key Ottoman-fortified city along the western Black Sea coast protecting Constantinople. His desire for rapid victory resulted in heavy losses among his troops, but his exploits preserved his image in Russia as the triumphant "White General."

Skobelev's final military triumph came in another war in Central Asia. Faced with the revolt of nomadic Turkmen tribes, the tsarist government sent him in 1880 to force the nomads to submit to imperial rule. He was successful, applying once again his brutal strategy of colonial warfare. In early 1881 his troops stormed the major Turkmen fortress of Geok-Tepe (now in Turkmenistan), slaughtering half of the defenders as well as many civilians. His reputation among Russian imperialists was at its peak. However, the new tsar, Alexander III, was suspicious of his desire for fame and his political ambitions. Following Skobelev's triumph in Turkestan, the government sent him to a remote military post in western Russia. There he began a public campaign to restore his reputation, but died shortly afterward of a heart attack.

See also: central asia; military, imperial era; russo-turkish wars


Meyer, Karl, and Brysac, Shareen. (1999). Tournament of Shadows: The Race for Empire and the Great Game in Central Asia. New York: Counterpoint Press.

Rich, David. (1998). The Tsar's Colonels: Professionalism, Strategy, and Subversion in Late Imperial Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daniel Brower