Kutuzov, Mikhail

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KUTUZOV, MIKHAIL (1745–1813), Russian field marshal.

Field Marshal Kutuzov's career is emblematic of the evolution of a uniquely Russian military institution following the reign of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century. It was Peter who had thoroughly reformed the kingdom of Muscovy's armed forces by establishing a standing conscript army and professional officer corps, modeled on Western standards, to defend and expand his newly proclaimed Russian Empire. He also decreed a lifetime obligation of state service for the nobility, preferably in the army, to staff his new state edifice. At a moment of crisis almost a century later, Kutuzov, a native Russian, would defeat a foreign invader, preserve the ruling dynasty, and project the empire to its apogee of power.

Born in 1745 into a noble family, the son of a career officer and general, Mikhail Kutuzov began his military career as a cadet at the Artillery-Engineer School. He entered formal service at the age of nineteen, in the context of a remarkably successful series of wars that established Russia as a Great Power and its army as a formidable force. After service in campaigns against Poland in the 1760s, Kutuzov was transferred south, where during wars with the Ottoman Empire he served intermittently for the next twenty-five years, being wounded twice and losing sight in his right eye. Rising in the ranks, a protégé of the legendary Marshal Alexander Suvorov, Kutuzov exhibited the strategy, tactics, and leadership that distinguished the evolving Russian military "school," emphasizing speed, mobility, tactical flexibility, shock action, and the bonds of morale between officer and soldier.

Following a brief period in government service and retirement, Kutuzov reached the peak of his career during the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. His fortunes would suffer, however, because of his unhappy relationship with Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801–1825). At the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 it was Kutuzov who correctly discerned Napoleon's intentions and thus counseled withdrawal, yet was personally overruled by Alexander, who ordered attack. Alexander never forgave Kutuzov for the ensuing debacle, and the general would never again enjoy the full trust of the tsar. Kutuzov went off to war successfully with the Turks, but at the height of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in summer 1812, he was languishing as commander of the St. Petersburg militia. Yet in the face of continuing retreat, mounting political pressure, and Kutuzov's own notable reputation, the tsar reluctantly appointed him to overall command.

Contending with an acclaimed adversary, scheming comrades, a resentful sovereign, and a volatile populace, Kutuzov first ordered the army to halt its retreat and fight, which it did at terrible cost at Borodino on 7 September. The battle was a tactical victory for Napoleon, but was strategically indecisive. Kutuzov then decided to continue his predecessor's strategy of deliberate withdrawal, culminating in the fateful decision to abandon Moscow itself, while skillfully maneuvering his forces out of the Grande Armée's reach. He thereby sought to present Napoleon with a strategic vacuum that would frustrate his desire for a decisive battle leading to a negotiated peace. In belated recognition of Kutuzov's checkmate, Napoleon ultimately made his decision to retreat from Russia in late October. Kutuzov had his forces shadow the Grande Armée along its path over the next two months, yet again sought mostly to avoid decisive battle. He instead allowed attacks by peasant militia, guerrilla bands, and detachments of Cossacks to bleed Napoleon's forces and later let the even more brutal adversaries of bitter cold and desperate famine do their work for him.

However Kutuzov's strategic vision and tactical shrewdness employed first in deliberate retreat and then cautious pursuit, not decisive attack, won him only the disgust of many of his fellow generals, as well as of the tsar himself. Further, with regard to the military campaign beyond the empire's borders, Kutuzov saw the defense of the Russian state as the army's primary duty. He thus found himself at odds with Alexander's increasingly messianic vision of himself as the crusading protector of dynastic legitimacy and European law and order. Appointed to nominal command of the coalition armies nonetheless, Kutuzov would not see the final campaign against Napoleon. He fell sick and died in April 1813.

The historical memory of Kutuzov contrasts sharply with official distrust of him. While scholars continue to debate the character of the conflict as a "national" struggle, it is undeniable that in the face of a brutal invasion and occupation, the Russian people perceived the war not as one of defense, but survival. Kutuzov became emblematic of the sacrifice, determination, and sense of unity demonstrated in the Russians' resistance. He embodied the popular, as opposed to the dynastic, interpretation of the victory, a status immortalized by Leo Tolstoy's literary portrait of Kutuzov in the novel War and Peace.

See alsoAusterlitz; Borodino; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Military Tactics; Napoleon; Russia.


Fuller, William C., Jr. Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600–1914. New York, 1992.

Kagan, Frederick W., and Robin Higham, eds. The Military History of Tsarist Russia. New York, 2002.

Pinter, Walter. "Russian Military Thought: The Western Model and the Shadow of Suvorov." In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, edited by Peter Paret, 354–375. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Riley, J. P. Napoleon and the World War of 1813: Lessons in Coalition Warfighting. Portland, Ore., 2000.

Tarle, Eugene. Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1812. Translated by Norbert Guterman and Ralph Manheim. 1942. Reprint, New York, 1971.

Gregory Vitarbo