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Prominent Russians: Aleksey Ermolov

June 4, 1777 – April 23, 1861
Portrait of General Alexei Yermolov (1772-1861). Portrait of General Alexei Yermolov (1772-1861).

Early years

Aleksey Ermolov was born in 1777 in Moscow into a rich noble family who had an estate near the city of Oryol, 300 miles south of Moscow. He received his primary education in the city’s best boarding school  – at the site where the Moscow University stands today.

Aleksey’s favorite pastime was bookbinding. He learned this craft at the behest a relative who, like many Russian aristocrats at that time, was wary of the possible effects of the French Revolution, fearing that should something of the kind happen in Russia, the nobility would be left with no possessions and forced to earn their living. Hence, they encouraged their children to learn a trade.

At the age of 10 Aleksey was enlisted in the prestigious Preobrazhensky Regiment. I those days it was quite common for members of the nobility to teach their sons the basics of military education. By age 17 Aleksey had reached the rank of captain and joined to the regular army.

His first combat action took place in Poland in 1794 when Russian troops carried out a successful campaign against the Polish National Forces. For his bravery in the battle near Prague in January 1795, Ermolov was awarded his first Order of St. George.

The next year Ermolov joined the army of General Zubov in the Persian Campaign along the coast of the Caspian Sea. He showed the skills of an energetic commander when the Russian troops took the strategically important fortress of Derbent. He was awarded the Order of St. Vladimir and given the rank of lieutenant colonel. Many of Aleksey’s contemporaries believed it was quite a promising start for a 19-year-old.

However, despite the great beginnings, Ermolov’s liberal political interests and his involvement in the “Free Thinkers” group brought his career to a temporary halt. The movement greatly irritated the Russian Emperor Paul I and with Ermolov’s popularity and authority in the army he could not take any risks. Like all other active members of the group, Ermolov was arrested for his alleged participation in the conspiracy against the Emperor on 7 January 1799.

The charges, however, were soon proven false. Paul wished to set things straight with Ermolov and ordered his release, but young Aleksey wanted the authorities to apologize for their mistake. For his insolence, he was exiled to the city of Kostroma on the banks of the Volga River. Ermolv spent two years here under General Matvey Platov, the Cossack commander who had also fallen out of Paul’s graces. In Kostroma Aleksey spent time learning Latin and studying the writings of Julius Caesar and Titus Livius.

Guardian angel of Russian troops

After Paul I’s assassination in 1801, the new Emperor, Alexander I, signed an official pardon for Ermolov, who became the commander of the Artillery Company stationed in the city of Vilno (modern Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania). Aleksey did his best to train his soldiers for future combat actions but lamented his inaction. “I’m 25. I’m young and I’m missing real combat action,” Ermolov wrote in his diary.

In 1805 his company successfully assisted the Russian cavalry regiments in their assault during the first anti-Napoleon campaign. His firm action earned him the title of colonel. The following year, he participated in the Polish campaign and in the Battle of Eylau. Ermolov became famous for keeping his soldier’s spirits high – they never thought about retreat even when the battle became tough.  

In June 1807 Ermolov was put in charge of the horse Artillery Company and participated in the actions at Guttstadt, Deppen, Heilsberg and Friedland. In each of these battles Aleksey was in the middle of the fight and in Friedland came close to being killed. For his heroic deeds he was awarded his second Order of St. George and on 28 March 1808 he was promoted to major general and appointed by the Emperor as supervisor of the horse artillery companies in the western parts of the Russian Empire.

Aleksey, however, was not very enthusiastic about his new duties. “There’s nothing to demonstrate here. You can’t show wit and bravery when you do nothing but inspect troops,” he wrote. In 1811 after several petitions to send him to the regular troops he became the Chief of Staff of the First Western Army.

When Napoleon attacked Russia in 1812, Russian troops began to retreat to Moscow. It was a period full of intrigues and Ermolov was instrumental in resolving some of them, particularly a conflict between the two prominent generals Pyotr Barclay de Tolly and Pyotr Bagration. As a chief of Barclay’s staff Ermolov covered up harsh words in their correspondence.

Thanks to these efforts the generals made the decision to unite the First and the Second Armies for the successful defense of the city of Smolensk. The victory, however, did not last long and the Russians had to continue their retreat.

At the Battle of Borodino in September 1812, which marked a crucial standoff in the war, Ermolov was lightly wounded during a successful counterattack which resulted in the recapture of the central Russian battery and the seizure of the Napoleonic army’s fortifications. For his courage Ermolov received the Order of St. Anna.

Despite the Russian army’s success in that battle the Central Commandment, headed by Mikhail Kutuzov, made the decision to leave Moscow and regroup the troops for future victory. Ermolov opposed the decision. He was sure that the Russian army could easily make the necessary readjustments without these tough measures. Because of their difference of opinions, relations between Ermolov and Kutuzov became strained.

Nevertheless, neither man allowed the disagreement to influence matters on the battlefield. In November 1812 Ermolov came up with the plan to cut off the flanks of Napoleon’s retreat. He took part in the battle of Berezina, the last attempt by the French to hold onto Russian soil.

Foreign campaigns

On 3 December 1812, Kutuzov made Ermolov the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army. Three weeks later he was put in charge of the artillery of all Russian armies. It was a crucial move as Ermolov’s experience proved quite handy during the European campaigns, especially in the Battle of Kulm, where he fought all day against the enemy’s army that was twice the size of his own. The sacrifice of his division saved the coalition forces during the War of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon and Ermolov was decorated with the Prussian Iron Cross.

Ermolov also fought in Lutzen and Bautzen, each time providing crucial support to the united forces. On 7 April 1814, after the complete defeat of Napoleon’s troops in Paris, he was awarded with his third Order of St. George.

Years in the Caucasus

A copy of the A copy of the "Portrait of Alexei Petrovich Yermolov" by the famous British artist George Dawe (1791-1829). Canvass, oil.

Ermolov was infamous for his temper. He could easily fly into rage when he heard of any orders he deemed unreasonable. In 1813, during the Battle of Lutzen, he was accused of insubordination and transferred to the post of division commander. After the war he was the primary candidate for the post of the Minister of the Military. But Emperor Alexander I was afraid of Ermolov’s temper. Instead, in 1816 the Emperor promoted him to the rank of full general and gave him the post of commander-in-chief in the Caucasus – an area torn by conflicts between the various nations that populated the area.  

For almost 10 years, during his stay in Tbilisi (now the capital of Georgia) Ermolov was the key figure in carrying out Russian military policy in the area. He fought the locals for the land and made it available for settlement by Cossacks and nationalities loyal to Russia. The conflict, which began in the 19th century, has influenced relations between Russia and the Caucasus ever since.

The fight with the highlanders, especially the Chechens, was truly bitter and violent. Ermolov fiercely suppressed any attempts by locals to resist Russian troops. For his opponents, he became the symbol of brutality. In a letter to Alexander I he wrote: “I desire that the terror of my name shall guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses.”  

Some argue that to Ermolov’s credit he took extreme measures only when they were necessary. After all he was fighting a people who only respected force, so he had to meet the violence against his troops with greater violence if he was to succeed.

Ermolov also proved to be a good administrator and negotiator. In 1818 he founded the Fortress of Grozny (now the capital of Chechnya), which helped repel the attack of the highlanders, and in 1922 he founded the Fortress of Nalchik.

Ermolov’s activity in the Caucasus was not all military and violent. He managed to win the loyalty of several local tribes, bringing them closer to civilization, culture and technical progress.

Character and personality

Ermolov’s character was quite controversial - his contemporaries wrote that he was brave, a good manager, selfless to the point of absurdity, independent and yet harsh and two-faced in some situations. He was kind and friendly, yet highly competitive and envious of others’ successes. Above all he was notorious for his extraordinary talent as a military leader.

His life was surrounded by a myriad of rumors and gossip, largely born out envy of his military success over Napoleonic France as well as his extreme popularity in high social circles. His free speech and wit made him many friends, including the literary geniuses of the time Zhukovsky and Pushkin. However, for the same reason he made just as many enemies, some from the highest echelons of the Russian Empire.

Ermolov even dared to contradict Emperors and their family members when it came to defending the honor of his officers, an unforgivable sin in autocratic Russia. In 1815 for example, Ermolov’s 3rd division of grenadiers was in Paris to represent Russia during a parade of allied forces in honor of the victory over Napoleon. During the parade they missed a few steps and fell out of synch. Emperor Alexander I was outraged and ordered three officers arrested and put in military confinement, which at that the time was guarded by the English. Ermolov stepped up, explaining to the Emperor that it was inappropriate to humiliate the Russian military in such a way in the eyes of foreigners and that the arrested officers should be transferred to Russian military quarters.

Alexander I insisted, but Ermolov fulfilled the Emperor’s orders only the next day, when the guard was changed from the English to Russian.

When the future Emperor Nicholas I, who had observed the incident, tried to reprimand Ermolov Ermolov replied, “The Emperor has the power to put us in prison, or send us to Siberia, but he must not bring down the brave Russian army in the eyes of foreigners. The grenadiers did not come here for parades, but to save their Motherland and Europe. Such conduct does not gain the devotion of the army. Do you think the Russian army serves the Emperor or their Motherland?”

Young Nicholas did not have a retort for Ermolov but he remembered the incident later, with negative consequences for Ermolov.

Latter years

A reproduction of a drawing. A reproduction of a drawing.

During his life in Tbilisi Ermolov made friends with Aleksandr Griboedov, the Russian diplomat, composer and a playwright who was also critical of the government’s activities. In 1825 Aleksey received an order to arrest Griboedov for sympathizing with the group of nobles dubbed the Decembrists, who planned to overthrow the new Russian Emperor Nicholas I on his coronation day. Ermolov called his friend and told him to burn all the papers that could prove his connection with the rebel officers. Thus Griboedov avoided arrest.

But two years later, in 1827, Nicholas I had his revenge – he stripped Ermolov of all his posts and titles. These “repressions” caused much criticism in St. Petersburg. Four years later, however, the Emperor had a change of heart and made Ermolov a member of the State Council. Two years after that he was given the rank of the general. But Eromolov felt that he had became too old for active duty.

For more than 30 years he lived in seclusion on his estate near the city of Oryol – the homeland of his ancestors. He seldom went to Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to historians, he was asked in 1855 to consult Russian troops during the Crimean War with Great Britain.

He died on 23 April 1861 in Moscow but, according to his will, he was buried in the Trinity Church in Oryol at the family tomb. Despite his wish to be buried quietly and avoid any pomp - thousands of Oryol residents came to pay their last respects to their hero.

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