General Mikhail Kutuzov was a charismatic Russian general, most remembered for his defense of Moscow against Napoleon
When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly (then Minister of War) chose to follow the scorched earth principle, inviting the enemy into the depths of Russia and retreat rather than to risk a major battle. His strategy aroused grudges from most of the generals and soldiers, notably Prince Pyotr Bagration.
As Alexander I had to choose a new general, there was only one choice: Mikhail Kutuzov. He found popularity among the troops mainly because he was Russian (most of the generals commanding Russian troops at that time were foreign), he was brave, he had proven himself in battle, strongly believed in the Russian Orthodox Church, and he looked out for the troops’ well-being. The nobles and clergy also regarded Kutuzov highly.
Therefore, when Kutuzov was appointed commander-in-chief and arrived with the Russian army on 17 August 1812, the nation greeted Kutuzov with delight. Only Alexander I, irrationally holding him responsible for the defeat at Austerlitz did not celebrate Kutuzov’s commission. Within two weeks Kutuzov decided to give major battle on approaches to Moscow.
Two huge armies clashed near Borodino on 7 September 1812 in what has been described as the greatest battle in human history up to that date, involving nearly a quarter of a million soldiers. The result of the battle was inconclusive, with near a third of the French and third of the Russian army killed or wounded. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon’s Grand Armée.
After a conference at the village of Fili, Kutuzov fell back on the strategy of his predecessor: withdraw in order to save the Russian army as long as possible. This came at the price of losing Moscow, whose population was evacuated.
Napoleon’s Grand Armée entered a deserted Moscow, part of Kutuzov’s scorched earth policy that left no food or housing for the enemy, and with the Russian winter rapidly approaching, Napoleon began his long retreat from Russia. Having retreated along the Kaluga road and replenished his munitions, Kutuzov forced Napoleon into retreat in the Battle of Maloyaroslavets.
As with the German army, the harsh winter claimed many casualties while Kutuzov added to the French misery by harassing the retreating army from the rear. Of 450,000 French soldiers, only 10,000 returned to France.
The old general’s cautious pursuit evoked much criticism, but the Russian general’s caution was thoroughly vindicated. Kutuzov now held the rank of Field Marshal and had been awarded the victory title of His Serene Highness Knyaz Smolensky – having achieved this title for a victory over part of the French army at Smolensk in November 1812.
Early in 1813 Kutuzov fell ill, and he died on 28 April 1813 at Bunzlau. Memorials have been erected to him there, at the Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow and in front of the Kazan Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, where he is buried, by Boris Orlovsky.
Among Russian military commanders, Kutuzov is held second only to his teacher Suvorov.
Alexander Pushkin addressed the Field Marshal in the famous elegy on Kutuzov’s sepulchre. The novelist Leo Tolstoy clearly idolised Kutuzov. In his influential 1869 novel War and Peace, the elderly, sick Kutuzov plays a major role in the war sections. He is portrayed as a gentle spiritual man, far removed from the cold arrogance of Napoleon, but with a much clearer vision of the true nature of warfare. Tolstoy wrote of Kutuzov’s insight and the national sentiment, “… this sentiment elevated Kutuzov to the high pinnacle of humanity from which he, the general-in-chief, employed all his efforts, not to kill and exterminate men, but to save and have pity on them.”
While fighting the Turks, Kutuzov sustained two separate severe head wounds that ultimately led to loss of sight in his right eye. A portrait of General Kutuzov hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Kutuzov’s birthplace. In the portrait Kutuzov is standing with his left side facing forward, presumably to hide his disfigured right eye.