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 on Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov

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 Biography Sources

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