Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov
Russian field marshal who repelled Napoleon’s invasion of Moscowby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
On September 13, 1812, Mikhail Kutuzov, commander of the Russian military, had a major decision to make. Russia was in immense danger. Napoleon’s troops had been in the process of invading Russia for months, marching through the countryside and destroying everything in their path. Now they were only miles from Moscow, which if conquered by Napoleon would seal sure defeat for the Russians. Kutuzov called his fellow field marshals to a council at Fili in an endeavor to form the best strategy to save their capitol city. Their dilemma was thus: either fight for the city or abandon Moscow to Napoleon. After much deliberation, Kutuzov made one of the hardest but wisest decisions in military history: Moscow would be abandoned and left to the French. Kutuzov’s decision would ultimately save Russia from Napoleon’s invasion. Throughout his life, Kutuzov proved to be not only a great military commander but also a man of integrity devoted to his country.
Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov was born in Saint Petersburg on September 16th, 1745. His father, Matveevich Kutuzov, was a retired general. During the reign of Peter the First (1682-1725) the children of nobility were required to be taught and trained in military science . After Peter’s death the tradition of military training was carried on, the sons of nobility being enlisted as privates at birth and being on “home leave” until they were old enough to attend military schools and climb higher in the ranks. Kutuzov excelled in Artillery-Engineer School and began his service in the military at age nineteen. Kutuzov’s first experiences in the army were hard ones. He was made to transfer to a different regiment after his unfriendly comrades declared to Rumyantsev, their superior officer, that Kutuzov had copied his mannerisms and the way he walked. Fortunately, Kutuzov’s good character and skill saved him from too much trouble, but he was still made to transfer away. This all occurred during his service in the Russo-Turkish wars of 1768–74. The Russo-Turkish wars erupted because of Russia’s attempt to find an outlet on the Ottoman-controlled Black Sea and to gain control of the Balkan Peninsula and the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits . The Russians and the Crimean Tatars had been estranged for centuries, and in 1768 the largest Russo-Turkish war erupted due partly to Russia’s interference in Poland. Sultan Mustafa III declared war on Catherine II, and after years of fighting Russia finally gained access to the Black Sea and the Straits. This did not end the Russo-Turkish conflicts, however, and the two forces remained battling on and off for years to come. During these wars in 1774 Kutuzov suffered a severe bullet-wound to the head which resulted in the near blindness of his right eye.
After his injury, Kutuzov was granted leave for medical treatment. He spent some years traveling abroad in Europe. In 1784, after his return to Russia, Kutuzov was appointed to the rank of major-general . A new war with Turkey erupted in 1787. At first Kutuzov’s corps was responsible for defending the Russian border. In battle Kutuzov suffered another nearly fatal head wound dangerously close to where he was wounded before. Miraculously, he survived, but this wound completely blinded his right eye. After his injury Kutuzov still continued to ascend the ranks in the military. He achieved considerable prestige due to the takings of Turkish-controlled Ochakov, Odessa, Tighina, and Ismail, and the battles of Rimnik and Mashin. Despite his military success, in 1793 Kutuzov decided to take up a career as a diplomat. He was talented in this field as well. He became the Russian Ambassador Extraordinaire in Turkey and Constantinople. His career as a diplomat was shorted lived, however, and Kutuzov returned to the military in 1794. He became the Director of the Land Cadet Corps where he trained new officers and taught them important military tactics.
Aside from his life in the military, Kutuzov had five daughters with his wife Ekaterina. What was Kutuzov’s personal character like? Leo Tolstoy made Kutuzov a prominent character in his classic novel War and Peace. In War and Peace Kutuzov was portrayed in a decidedly good light. He was shown as being a reverent, wise, and prayerful man (though sometimes weary) with a strong devotion to both God and Russia. Tolstoy’s portrayal should be viewed as fiction, but it still provides an idea of the impression that Kutuzov made on the people of Russia. One can find a more objective vision of Kutuzov’s wisdom by studying his actions and decisions when faced with Napoleon’s infamous invasion.
After conquering much of Europe, Napoleon set his eyes on Russia. He invaded in June 1812 accompanied by over 600,000 soldiers. During the beginning of the invasion the Russian military was commanded by Barclay de Tolly. His main strategy, avoiding battles and retreating farther and farther back into Russia, soon became unpopular with the general public. Pressured by public opinion, he resigned and Tsar Alexander reluctantly appointed Kutuzov commander in chief of all of Russia’s forces . Kutuzov was made a prince on the following day and was immediately faced with major decisions. He held the responsibility of protecting the nation he loved and had fought for all his life, and he understood that he must make the best decision possible in order to save his country from Napoleon. His strategy was to slowly break the French down with small but frequent battles while retreating back into Russia and preserving his own army . As the Russian forces retreated they burned the countryside behind them, leaving the French with no resources to survive on. 150,000 French soldiers died before the first battle . However, the people of Russia continued pressing Kutuzov to fight a major battle. He did so reluctantly on September 7th, the day of the brutal battle of Borodino. Kutuzov looked to God for help. The night before the battle he and his army prayed together, and the morning of the battle the Russian soldiers prepared for battle chanting “Tis the will of God, tis the will of God.” However, there was not a clear winner, and both sides suffered major losses. Borodino saw half of Russia’s forces lost. Kutuzov now had to make the critical decision of his career: whether to fight for Moscow or abandon it to the French. This decision was made at Fili on September 13: Moscow would be abandoned. Kutuzov’s forces retreated southeast, and on September 14th Napoleon marched into a nearly deserted Moscow. The city began to burn that night. Napoleon soon realized that his troops could not remain in Moscow. Winter was approaching, and the French were left in a burning, abandoned city with no resources to live on. The French fled Moscow five weeks later. Kutuzov prevented the French from traveling the southern route laden with resources at the battle of Maroyaroslavets, forcing them to flee along the path they destroyed as they marched into the country. Russia was saved! Sadly, shortly after Russia’s victory, Kutuzov fell seriously ill. He died on April 28, 1813 in Bunzlau, Poland.
When looking at Kutuzov’s life it is easy to see why people in Russia regard him as one of their greatest generals. Rather than fight a doomed battle in useless desperation, Kutuzov wisely choose to leave the French to take Moscow, knowing that they could not survive there through the harsh Russian winter. He told his companions that “Napoleon is a torrent which as yet we are unable to stem. Moscow will be the sponge that will suck him dry.” By abandoning Moscow he kept his army from further destruction and lead Russia to a glorious victory over Napoleon. From his early days in the military to the defeat of the French, Kutuzov’s life is a testament to the idea that one must choose their battles wisely. And, for the most part, Kutuzov always did.
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