Kutuzov, Mikhail Ilarionovich

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(17451813), general, renowned for his victory over Napoleon.

At the age of sixty-seven, Mikhail Kutuzov led the Russian armies to victory over Napoleon in the War of 1812 and created the preconditions for their final victory in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814. Kutuzov first distinguished himself in extensive service against the Turks during the reign of Catherine II. He served in the Russo-Turkish War of 17681774, first on the staff of Petr Rumyantsev's army, and then in line units with Vasily Dolgorukov's Crimean Army. In combat in the Crimea in 1774 he was shot through the head and lost an eye. When he returned to service, he took command of the Bug Light Infantry Corps of Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov's army. He led his corps into combat with the Turks once again when war broke out in 1788. He was wounded again at the siege of Ochakov in that year, but continued to command troops throughout the war, serving under Grigory Potemkin and Alexander Suvorov. Following the end of hostilities, Kutuzov served in a number of senior positions, including ambassador to Turkey, commander of Russian forces in Finland, and military governor of Lithuania. It seemed that his days as an active commander had passed. In September 1801 he retired.

The Napoleonic Wars put a quick end to Kutuzov's ease. When war threatened in 1805, Alexander I designated Kutuzov, now a field marshal, commander of the leading Russian expeditionary army sent to cooperate with the Austrians. On the way to the designated rallying point of Braunau, on the Austrian border with Bavaria, Kutuzov learned of the surrender of the Austrian army at Ulm on October 20. Now facing French forces four times stronger than his army, Kutuzov began a skillful and orderly withdrawal to the east, hoping to link up with reinforcements on their way from Russia. Desperate rearguard actions made possible this retreat, which included even a brief victory over one of Napoleon's exposed corps at the Battle of Dürnstein. Despite Napoleon's best efforts, Kutuzov managed to withdraw his army and link up with reinforcements, headed by the tsar himself, at Olmütz in Moravia in late November. Fooled into thinking that Napoleon was weak, Alexander overruled the more cautious Kutuzov repeatedly in the days that followed, ordering the field marshal to launch an ill-advised attack on the French at Austerlitz on December 2. Wounded once again while trying to rally his men to hold a critical position, Kutuzov helped Alexander salvage what could be saved from the wreckage, and then commanded the army during its retreat back to Russian Poland.

Blaming Kutuzov for his own mistakes, Alexander relegated Kutuzov to the post of military governor general of Kiev. It was not long before Kutuzov returned to battle, however, for he joined the Army of Moldavia in 1808 and commanded large units in the war against the Turks (18061812). In 1809 he was relieved once more and sent to serve as governor general of Lithuania, but in 1811 Alexander designated Kutuzov as the commander of the Russian army fighting the Turks. In the shadow of the impending Franco-Russian war, Kutuzov waged a skillful campaign that resulted in the Peace of Bucharest bare weeks before the French invasion began.

The War of 1812 was Kutuzov's greatest campaign. Alexander relieved Mikhail Barclay de Tolly after his retreat from Smolensk and appointed Kutuzov, hoping thereby to see a more active resistance to the French onslaught. Kutuzov, however, continued Barclay de Tolly's program of retreating in the face of superior French numbers, until he stood to battle at Borodino. Following that combat, Kutuzov continued his withdrawal, eventually abandoning Moscow and retreating to the south. He defeated Napoleon's attempt to break out to the richer pastures of Ukraine at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, and then harried the retreating French forces all the way to the Russian frontier and beyond. He died on April 28, 1813, a few weeks after having been relieved of command of the Russian armies for the last time.

See also: alexander i; austerlitz, battle of; borodino, battle of; bucharest, treaty of; french war of 1812; military, imperial era; napoleon i; russo-turkish wars


Parkinson, Roger. (1976). The Fox of the North: The Life of Kutuzov, General of War and Peace. London: P. Davies.

Frederick W. Kagan

Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov

views updated May 11 2018

Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov

The Russian field marshal Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov (1745-1813) commanded the forces that compelled Napoleon to retreat from Russia.

From his birth on Sept. 5, 1745, in St. Petersburg, Mikhail Kutuzov, the son of a general, was understood to be destined for a military career. He entered military school when he was 12 and proved to be a brilliant student in both military and civilian subjects. He was commissioned a sublieutenant at the age of 16.

The first 3 decades of Kutuzov's career were years of steady progress. He saw active duty first in Poland, where he served on several occasions between 1764 and 1769, earning recognition as a courageous soldier and an able leader. His next assignment, in 1770, took him south to join the fighting that had broken out in the preceding year against the Turks. After 4 years of participation in that conflict, during which he received a severe head wound that cost him an eye, he was permitted to go abroad for medical treatment. On his return in 1774, he was ordered to the Crimea to serve under the command of the general recognized as Russia's greatest, Alexander Suvorov. Six years later he was made a major general—a notable honor for a man who had not yet reached 40—and given command of an army corps. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1789-1791 his generalship contributed significantly to the victorious outcome for the Russians.

The decade following that war brought Kutuzov a succession of military and civilian assignments which extended his experience through service in such diverse posts as envoy to Turkey, director of officer training, envoy to Prussia, commander of Russian forces in Finland, governor general of Lithuania, and military governor of St. Petersburg. He soon became widely known and respected for his accomplishments: he had a splendid record as a general; he was a skillful administrator and diplomat; he was erudite and proficient in a number of languages (French, German, Polish, Swedish, Turkish); and, unlike many contemporary generals, he was respected by his men. After the death of Suvorov in 1800, probably no general in Russia was held in higher esteem, among both military personnel and civilians, than Kutuzov.

Unfortunately for Kutuzov, the prevailing sentiment regarding him was not shared by the imperial heir, who was to come to the throne as Alexander I. And in 1802, a year after Alexander became emperor, Kutuzov was forced to retire from the army, his career apparently at an end. Three years later, however, Alexander reluctantly recalled him to take command of one of the two Russian armies being sent to Austria to fight against Napoleon. In his first encounters with the enemy, Kutuzov demonstrated his well-known talent as a strategist and performed creditably; but later, when he was forced by the Emperor to act against his own judgment, he was defeated by Napoleon at Austerlitz, late in 1805. As a consequence, he was relieved of his command and relegated to a series of relatively unimportant posts during the succeeding 6 years.

Then, in 1811, Alexander was once more forced by circumstances to entrust Kutuzov with a major command, this time over the Russian forces in Moldavia, where an unsuccessful conflict with the Turks had been going on. Kutuzov not only led the Russians to a quick and decisive victory but also negotiated particularly favorable terms of peace for Russia. For that achievement Alexander publicly expressed his gratitude, granting Kutuzov the title of count and, later, prince; but privately the Emperor remained anti-pathetic to his popular general.

Napoleonic Invasion

Even when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, Alexander refrained from giving Kutuzov a command. Only after the invaders had forced their way past Smolensk and were marching toward Moscow did he yield to the common appeal and appoint Kutuzov commander in chief of the army, with orders to save Moscow. Kutuzov adopted a plan based on the hope of exhausting the enemy by evasive actions and avoiding a pitched battle if possible. However, when Napoleon's forces had advanced to within 70 miles of Moscow, he decided to have the Russians meet them in direct combat, at Borodino, on Aug. 26, 1812.

In the bloody battle at Borodino, Kutuzov lost 35,000 of his 120,000 men, and Napoleon lost 30,000 (including 49 generals) of his 135,000. Each commander claimed to have won the battle when, actually, neither had won. The significance of the outcome lay in the facts that Napoleon had neither annihilated the Russian army nor destroyed the Russian will to fight, that his own army was seriously weakened, and that he was in a hostile land, unable to get reinforcements. Alexander chose to consider the result a Russian victory and, in recognition of Kutuzov's part in it, promoted him to field marshal.

Kutuzov would have preferred to take the offensive after Borodino; but, when needed reinforcements were not made available to him, he decided to retreat and give up Moscow in order to strengthen his forces for later encounters. He believed that time was on his side, and events proved him correct. In October, Napoleon, taking into consideration his failure to force Alexander to sue for peace as well as the approach of the harsh northern winter, ordered his troops into the famous retreat from Russia. Under Kutuzov's direction, Russian forces followed hard on the heels of the departing enemy, compelling them to take an unfavorable route and harassing them until they had become a straggly remnant of an army by the time they left Russian soil at the end of 1812.

A few weeks later Kutuzov and his army left Russia to continue the fight against Napoleon. But the field marshal did not live to see the final victory for which he had fought. Nearing 68 years of age and in ill health, he could no longer endure the rigors of active military life. He died in the Silesian village of Bunzlau on April 16, 1813.

Further Reading

The only biography in English is Mikhail Bragin, Field Marshal Kutuzov: A Short Biography (1944). See also Evgenii V. Tarle, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1812 (1938; trans. 1942), and Paul N. Miliukov, Charles Seignobos, and Louis Eisenmann, History of Russia (3 vols., 1932-1933; trans. 1968-1969).

Additional Sources

Parkinson, Roger, The fox of the north: the life of Kutuzov, General of War and Peace, London: P. Davies, 1976. □

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