Prominent Russians: Mikhail Kutuzov
Mikhail Kutuzov (Golenishchev-Kutuzov) was a world-famous military commander and diplomat, most widely known for brilliantly repelling Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.
He was born into a family of the Novgorod nobility. His father was a military engineer, a general lieutenant, and a senator. Mikhail’s mother died early and he spent his childhood with his grandmother. From his early years, Kutuzov was very physically fit and had a bright and sharp mind, combined with innate kindness and open-heartedness.
After receiving formidable home tutelage, 12-year-old Kutuzov entered the St. Petersburg artillery and engineering school as a corporal. He graduated as one of the best students of the school in 1759 and then resumed his career there as a math teacher. In 1761, he received his first officer’s rank, the ensign. In 1762 he was promoted to captain and made a company commander in the Astrakhan infantry regiment under the world famous general Aleksandr Suvorov. His skyrocketing career, considering his young age, has been attributed both to his good education and his father’s position.
In 1764-1765 he volunteered to take part in fighting rebels in Poland and in 1767 he was assigned to the commission established by Empress Catherine II to create a new code of laws.
The Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774 became a true school of military skill for Kutuzov. He occupied staff positions in General Pyotr Rumyantsev’s army, fighting in Moldova in the battles of Cahul and the River Larga and the siege of Bender.
In 1772 Kutuzov’s sense of humor played a bad joke on him. For mimicking his superiors, he was sent to fight as a line officer in the ranks of the Second Crimean Army. This taught him to watch his words and actions, developing the secretive, cautious and reserved personality that later became characteristic of his actions as a commander.
On 24 July 1774, while fighting Turkish landing troops near the Crimean town of Alushta, Kutuzov was severely injured – a bullet hit his temple, exiting near his right eye. He survived and was awarded a 4th Degree Order of St. George. He was sent to Europe for treatment. Up until 1776, he visited England, the Netherlands, Italy Germany and Austria, where he continued his military studies and was honored with an audience with King Friedrich II.
Upon returning to Russia, Kutuzov was again dispatched to the Crimea, to help Suvorov maintain order in the region. A year later, thanks to Suvorov’s good reference, Kutuzov acquired the rank of colonel.
On 27 April 1778, Kutuzov married 24-year-old Ekaterina Bibikova. She was the daughter of one of Empress Catherine’s close friends. The family had six children, among them only one boy, who died of illness in infancy.
Kutuzov was in command of various regiments and earned the rank of major general, until in 1784 he was assigned a diplomatic mission in the Crimea. He led talks with the Crimean khan and convinced him to step down from his throne and acknowledge the superiority of Russia in the Southern lands. For this feat of diplomatic prowess, Kutuzov was awarded the rank of general major, and tasked with the formation of a ranger corps at the Bug River in southern Ukraine.
While in command of the ranger corps, Kutuzov entered the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-1791. In that war, during the siege of the Ochakov Fortress (now a city in Ukraine’s Nikolaev region) in 1788, Kutuzov was again severely wounded. This time, a bullet passed through both of his temples and behind the eyeballs. The surgeon who treated him was astonished by the fact that Kutuzov “survived wounds that by all medical laws are mortal.” The medic believed that “destiny must yet have a great deed in store for him.”
Only a year later, Kutuzov was again fighting, this time in the sieges of the Akkerman (now Belgorod-Dnestrovsky city in southwestern Ukraine) and Bender Fortresses. Then, during the siege of the key fortress of Izmail (now the center of Ukraine’s Izmail region, a port on the Danube River), Suvorov appointed him commander of one of the columns, and, before the fortress was even captured, named him its first governor. That siege earned Kutuzov another promotion.
After the peace treaty of Jassy was signed in 1792, Kutuzov was unexpectedly appointed ambassador to Turkey. The Empress based this decision upon his quick wit, excellent education, social finesse, cunning and ability to find a common language with various peoples. In Istanbul, he succeeded in gaining the sultan’s trust and effectively managed a 650-member staff.
When Kutuzov returned to Russia in 1794, he was appointed commander of the Infantry Noble Cadet Corps. In 1795, he became commander and inspector of the Russian troops in Finland. From 1796 to 1801, Emperor Paul I ruled the Russian Empire. Unlike Suvorov, who crossed swords with the new Emperor over his willingness to impose the Prussian order in the Russian army, Kutuzov managed to remain on good terms with the capricious monarch, and spent those years as a diplomat in Prussia and a general governor in Lithuania, and even earned an Order of St. Andrew.
In 1801, the throne was passed on to Alexander I. The new monarch appointed Kutuzov Governor General of St. Petersburg. He only occupied the position for a year, and then temporarily resigned because of disputes with Alexander.
In 1805, Kutuzov led the Russian forces that helped Austria fight off Napoleon’s invasion. On 20 November the allied Russian and Austrian forces were defeated by the French at Austerlitz (now Slavokv u Brna, Czech Republic). Kutuzov was in command of the allied forces, but only formally: not only did both the Austrian and Russian Emperors arrive at the battlefield, but the battle plan was devised personally by the Austrian general, Franz von Weyrother. At Austerlitz, Kutuzov witnessed the death of the husband of one of his daughters, and was himself wounded again. Emperor Alexander, displeased with his commander-in-chief’s achievements, appointed him Governor-General of Kiev.
In 1808, Kutuzov was appointed Corps Commander in the Russian army in Moldova for a new Russo-Turkish War (1806-1812). This obvious demotion disappointed him, and a year later, he resigned from the army. He was once again appointment as a governor-general, this time in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The year 1811 saw the worsening of Russia’s position in the global political arena, with the threat from France growing, while the Russo-Turkish war raged on. Kutuzov was again appointed to Moldova, to the position of commander-in-chief of the Russian forces there. He soon terminated the drawn out war in the Battle of Ruscuk (now Ruse, Bulgaria), where he beat the sultan’s 60-thousand strong army with just 15 thousand troops. He then cut the Turkish forces in parts, separating them from their bases and capturing the right bank of the Danube. Thus, he forced the sultan’s capitulation with little to no casualties. For this achievement, he was awarded the titles of count and prince (svetleyshy knyaz in Russian).
However, it was Kutuzov’s campaign against Napoleon Bonaparte in the Russo-French war of 1812 that brought him fame in Russia and abroad.
As Napoleon’s forces entered Russia, the Emperor, who still couldn’t forgive Kutuzov for the defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz, put him in command of the St. Petersburg and Moscow militia. Only after the French took the city of Smolensk, Alexander I submitted to the demands of the people and the army, and appointed Kutuzov the commander-in-chief of all the Russian forces. When he was asked if he hoped to defeat Napoleon, Kutuzov smiled and answered: “Not to defeat, but I’m hoping to deceive him.”
The peak of Kutuzov’s career, the Battle of Borodino, came on 26 August, after several
days of slow retreat deeper into the Russian lands. In a bloody fight, losing about 44 thousand soldiers (with French casualties at around 40 thousand), Kutuzov not only did away with Napoleon’s dream of winning the war with a single battle, he also managed to keep a morally strong army capable of continuing the war.
On 2 September Kutuzov left Moscow for the French to take. Napoleon entered the city and was baffled to see no one greeting the conqueror, no peace talk delegations or crowds of citizens. Of the capital’s 200 thousand-strong population, there were only 10 thousand left. On 15 September Napoleon entered the Kremlin. The night before, the first fires began in different parts of the city. The fires, started by guerilla fighters, were to become a symbol of the 1812 Russo-French war, and of the sacrifice of the Russian people, who were ready to do whatever it took to seize their land back from the invaders.
Napoleon finally realized he had lost his chance to win. Years later, a few days before his death, the Emperor said: “I should’ve died right after I entered Moscow.”
The blaze engulfed half of the city and spread rapidly. Up to 75% of Moscow’s buildings were destroyed, beginning with wine and gunpowder storages. The flames were so bright and burnt so relentlessly, that it was difficult to tell night from day. The fire continued to spread, helped by fierce winds, and came dangerously close to the Kremlin, where Napoleon was stationed with his guard and staff and the French artillery ammunitions they had brought with them. Were the Kremlin to have caught fire, the invaders would have been done for.
Napoleon was reluctant to leave the Kremlin; he had not even spent a full day in it. He knew its significance to the Russian people. But the blaze was about to cut off all the exits, and he was forced to flee. His first stop was the Petrovsky palace outside the capital. Seeing the graveness of his position, he proposed peace talks. “This war is just starting,” replied the Russian commander.
On 7 November Napoleon left Moscow. Kutuzov blocked his retreat and after a bloody battle, ordered his forces to take the Smolenskaya road out of Russia. It was the road the French themselves had ravaged on their way into the Russian capital. Mounting a counter-offensive, Kutuzov dealt several more heavy blows to Napoleon. Hunger and freezing cold further worsened the morale of the French troops. Seeing this, Kutuzov said he “wouldn’t trade a dozen French lives for one of his soldiers anymore.” After a key battle at the Berezina River, Napoleon’s retreat turned into flight, and on 21 December Kutuzov congratulated his troops on pushing the French out of Russia.
The Emperor then ordered Napoleon’s army to be chased across Europe. Kutuzov didn’t like the idea, reluctant to lose more lives and wary of the possibility of inadvertently strengthening the position of Napoleon’s rivals in Europe. Still, he couldn’t disobey the high order and went on to lead the Russian army to Poland and Prussia. Alexander I joined the army as well, and Kutuzov gradually stepped down from command. His health was deteriorating; the exertion of the tiring military campaign and a heavy cold gave him a “nervous fever worsened by paralytic fits,” according to contemporaries.
Emperor Alexander I came to see the dying Kutuzov in the Polish town of Bunzlau (Boleszawiec). It is said that one of the army officials overheard their dialogue at the commander’s deathbed. The monarch said: “Forgive me, Mikhail Illarionovich!” Kutuzov’s answer was: “I forgive you, Your Majesty, but Russia will never forgive.”
On 28 April 1813, Mikhail Kutuzov died in Bunzlau. He was buried in the Kazansky Cathedral in St. Petersburg, with huge crowds grieving their great commander.
Kutuzov didn’t leave any male heirs and the husbands of two of his daughters perished while fighting under his command. His family name was only passed on to his grandson in 1859.
A brilliant military commander, diplomat and politician, Kutuzov is remembered for his utter devotion to Russia. He was characterized as being very cautious with foreigners, especially if he sensed a hidden agenda in their seemingly friendly diplomatic propositions. In Soviet times, though, he was criticized for being too mild with the enemy, preferring a sure victory to opportunities of earning fame with flashy battles. His contemporaries said he kept most of his plans to himself, and what he said in public often contradicted the orders he gave to his troops, so his true motivation still leaves room for debate.
As a military commander, he paid great attention to the morale of his troops, their bravery and willingness to fight. He always kept close to the soldiers, seeing them first and foremost as human beings. This allowed him to keep track of the spirit of the army and see what needed to be changed to improve morale. His subordinates remembered him as a person they could trust and rely on, who was always able to inspire courage in the troops.
At the same time, when it came to matters of discipline, Kutuzov was stern and uncompromising, lashing out at any lack of order in the military machine. He was especially severe with officers whose actions compromised the reputation of the Russian army.
His humane approach to his troops, his care for the soldiers’ lives and well-being, brought him close to the people and earned him their love. Kutuzov always stressed that his military achievements were, above all, the achievements of the Russian soldiers.
Written by Aleksandr Bondarenko, RT