Marshal of The Soviet Union Sergey Sokolov, the oldest of four surviving Marshals of the Soviet Union, died today. He saw two World Wars and held the position of Defense Minister until an aviation scandal in 1987 forced him to step down.
“On August 31st in Moscow, at the age of 101, the great war hero, military leader, Hero and Marhsal of the Soviet Union Sergey Leonidovich Sokolov passed away,” the Ministry of Defense announced in a press release.
Sokolov was the oldest living Marshal of the Soviet Union still alive, the second-highest military rank in the Soviet Army. The highest rank – Generalissimus of the Soviet Army – was a position invented for Stalin alone to hold. Sokolov’s passing means that only three Marshals remain as holders of Russia’s most powerful, yet now-defunct rank. The office was abolished after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov expressed condolences in a statement to Sokolov’s family and friends on Friday: “We hope you will accept both the directors’ of the Ministry of Defense and my personal deepest condolences on the passing of this wonderful man.”
Sokolov was born June 1st, 1911, in Yevpatoria, Ukraine. He joined the Red Army in 1932, beginning a long and highly decorated career spanning three wars, and seeing him through to the end of his life. He rose to the highest ranks of the Soviet military, serving as Minister of Defense of the Soviet Union to Mikhail Gorbachev from 1984 to 1987, only to be dismissed in the aftermath of the Mathias Rust Red Square incident.
Up until the day he died, he was still an active advisor to the Minister of Defense, a position he had held since 1992.
After graduating from the Gorky Tank School in 1934, Sokolov commanded platoons, then companies, and then entire battalions. He fought in the Soviet-Japanese border wars at the Battle of Lake Khasan in 1938, and in World War II he led mechanized troops on the Karelian Front, participating in the liberation of the arctic regions.
By 1967, Sokolov was promoted from the rank of General of the Red Army to the position of first deputy of the Ministry of Defense, and then to the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1978.
Sokolov personally led the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1980 to 1985, and received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union in 1980 for “personal bravery and skillful command of troops displayed with the international assistance of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.”
In 1984, he was made Minister of Defense of The Soviet Union, a post he held until a strange twist of fate in 1987. He was dismissed in the biggest cabinet reshuffle since the Stalin era, after German pilot Mathius Rust piloted a small propeller plane from Hamburg and made an unauthorized landing in Red Square.
Rust’s small plane managed to easily evade what had been considered one of the strongest air defense systems in the world, exposing previously unknown weaknesses in the Soviet command. In the ensuing scandal, Gorbachev dismissed several of his top military personnel, Sokolov included. Sokolov remained an influential figure, however, and served as a special advisor to the Ministry of Defense until his death on Friday.
“For all of us this is an irreplaceable lost. We shall always remember Sergey Leonidovich Sokolov – a true patriot, brave soldier, and talented military leader. He shall always remain in our hearts, as well as the hearts of all those who had the pleasure of working and serving with him,” the leaders of the War Department said in an address to Sokolov’s family.