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Russian Genius: Field Marshal Kutuzov
Editor’s office of the Russkiy Mir Portal
The last lifetime portrait of Mikhail Kutuzov with the ribbon of the Order of Saint George of First Class, by Alexander Volkov, 1813. Photo credit: wikimedia.org
Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, an outstanding Russian military leader and diplomat, was born on 09.16.1745, 275 years ago. Everyone knows about Kutuzov’s military talent, his achievements in the wars with the Turks and Napoleon. Let us look into a little less known, but incredibly remarkable facts from our great compatriot’s life.
The wrong date
Perhaps, it is worth to start with the fact that the above mentioned date of Kutuzov’s birth is actually not accurate. Nevertheless, it can be found in most works and encyclopedic notes about the military leader. And it is even indicated on his grave. Only a short time ago, Russian scientists from the Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineering and Signal Corps in St. Petersburg examined the data contained in some records of service from 1769, 1785, 1791 and in private letters and suggested that Kutuzov had been actually born in 1747.
One of the evidence in favor of this version is a letter by Engineer-Colonel Larion Kutuzov, the father of the Field Marshal to be. He wrote “to Count Peter Shuvalov about his son's enrollment to the artillery corps in a humble report dated April 17, 1759: “I have an eleven years old son, Mikhail, who was recorded in the heraldic office of the ruling Senate in the first specified term being 7 years of age back then."
By the way, Suvorov’s year of birth is still not established as well. However, historians have already been working on it.
“He has successful beginning”
Kutuzov was a well-educated person. In 1759 he was sent to study at the Artillery and Engineering School for the Nobility, and he showed his talents there. Kutuzov had excellent knowledge of mathematics, fortification, and engineering; he knew theology and philosophy quite well and sometimes got engaged in theological discussions with priests. He knew history, Russian and German literature, was fluent in French, German, Polish, was able to make himself understood in Swedish, English and even Turkish, could also read texts in Latin. His school leaving certificate states: “He knows engineering and artillery science, speaks and translates French and German quite well, understands an author in Latin, and has a successful beginning in history and geography; he is of a good state and worthy of change.”
A tale about the eye
We all know an iconic portrayal of Kutuzov with a patch over his eye, which is thought to be lost in one of the battles with the Turks. However, there are many images of Count Kutuzov without any eye patch. So what actually happened to his eye?
As a military man and the brave one, Kutuzov had several wounds. Two head wounds were especially serious and back then they were even considered mortal.
The first time Kutuzov was seriously wounded to the head in July 1774. It happened in a battle against the Turkish assault force under command of Haji-Ali-Bey in Alushta. That time Kutuzov commanded a grenadier battalion. Here is what was written in the report about Kutuzov’s wound: "This field officer was wounded by a bullet, which hit between his eye and temple, and exited through the same spot on the other side of the face." Since then, Kutuzov became “one-eyed”, but contrary to popular belief his vision had been preserved, and there was no need to use a patch. Furthermore, all his early portrayals, including the lifetime ones, show Kutuzov without an eye-patch. It appeared for the first time in Suvorov, a 1941 film, where Suvorov turns to Kutuzov: "Mishenka, my dear one-eyed man." And it stayed that way in mass culture.
He received a second head wound during the Ochakov assault on August 18, 1788. While leaving the fortress, Turkish infantry attacked rangers. The Turks were repulsed, but Kutuzov, the commander of the rangers, had been seriously wounded at the very beginning of the battle. The Austrian Prince of Ligne, who had witnessed it, wrote to Joseph II: “Yesterday a bullet was shot through Kutuzov’s head again. I believe that today or tomorrow he will die." Nevertheless, the Russian hero survived this time as well. Moreover, contrary to expectations, Kutuzov recovered so quickly that he managed to take part in the assault and conquest of Ochakov in December 1788.
Prince of Ligne made an astonished and, we shall add, prophetic note: “One must think that Providence keeps this person safe for something extraordinary, as he was healed of two wounds when each of those was fatal.”
The serious head wound that a Russian officer suffered and then survived became a sensation both in Russia and in Europe. Doctors wrote several articles about that incredibly dangerous wound and its "miraculous" healing.
This incident is still remembered today. Several years ago, The Hindu, an Indian English-language daily newspaper, published findings by Mark Preul, an American physician, head of neurosurgical research at the Barrow Neurological Institute, who had studied both Russian and French sources. According to those data, the colonel's life and sight were saved by Jean Massot, a French surgeon and one of the neurosurgery pioneers who used advanced methods in his operations.
Mark Preul believes that the very consequences of that wound could explain Kutuzov’s eccentric behavior in some occasions, as well as his extraordinary military abilities that helped defeat the "Grande Armée" of Napoleon though it seemed to be invincible.
However, Preul does not attribute the above-mentioned victory to Kutuzov’s military genius or to valor of the Russian troops. He explains it by an unfortunate occurrence. The physician believes it is very likely that Kutuzov's wound impaired his decision-making ability. As a result, instead of giving battle to superior French forces in the fall of 1812, he "ordered to burn Moscow down and withdrew the army to the east." Then winter came and the French army was defeated due to the lack of food supplies. Well, let these conclusions remain on the conscience of the American neurosurgeon.
Suvorov’s right-hand man
In 1790, Kutuzov again fearlessly led Russian troops into a battle - this time during the famous Izmaill assault. There he commanded the 6th column that was attacking and won Suvorov’s approval. “Being himself a role model of courage and valor, he overcame all the difficulties encountered under the enemy’s intense fire; he overleaped the palisade, prevented attempts of the Turks, got onto the rampart of the fortress in no time, conquered the bastion and many batteries ... General Kutuzov’s position was on my left flank; but he was my right-hand man,” Alexander Vasilyevich wrote in his usual aphoristic style.
Assault of Izmail. An engraving based on the sketch from nature by Samuel Shiflyar. Photo credit: wikipedia.org
During the battle, when the outcome of the assault was still unclear, Suvorov appointed Kutuzov the commandant of Izmail. Later Kutuzov asked him what this appointment had meant at such a dubious moment and got the following answer: “Suvorov knows Kutuzov, and Kutuzov knows Suvorov: Suvorov was confident that Kutuzov would be in Izmail, and if Izmail had not been taken, Suvorov would have died next to its walls and so would Kutuzov!"
Kutuzov was not only an extraordinary military commander and an outstanding diplomat, but also an experienced courtier. Many of his contemporaries even blamed Kutuzov for it. Indeed, Mikhail Illarionovich was the most charming person in public settings and it seems he was able to please everyone.
At the ebb of his life, Kutuzov belonged to Catherine the Great’s inner circle having taken a lot of important appointments. Throughout her life, the Empress who favored Kutuzov often invited him to her coterie, asked his advice on many important issues, including latterly Russia's relations with France.
Yet, his contemporaries used to write that Kutuzov was capable of cringing. Stinging tongues said that in the morning he came and personally made Turkish coffee for Platon Zubov, the Empress's almighty favorite. Chancellor Alexander Bezborodko wrote to Count Alexander Vorontsov: "... Kutuzov is among the most humble servants of Count Zubov." However, those might be just intrigues and settlement of old scores. In any case, we do not have any facts that could be a conclusive proof of Kutuzov compromising his own dignity.
For all that, Kutuzov did a lot of meaningful things in his positions. For example, having headed the Land Noble Cadet Corps, which Catherine the Great called “a breeding ground for great people”, he recovered internal discipline and order there and personally followed the graduates' success. Kutuzov himself often taught tactics, military history focused on education and training of future officers.
It is commonly known that Alexander I blamed Kutuzov for the defeat in the battle of Austerlitz, although in fact the commander had been against it and advocated a war of attrition instead of major battles. Furthermore, he actually saved the Russian army from extermination – his clever setback deflected the hit from it when French forces outnumbered Russian troops thrice.
In 1806 Kutuzov was appointed the military governor of Kiev. His friends understood the appointment to be an honorary exile and even advised Kutuzov to resign, but he did not follow the advice.
Napoleon at Austerlitz, a hand-colored lithograph by A. Vernet and J. Swebach, beginning of the 19th century. Photo credit: commons.m.wikimedia.org
Kutuzov carried out a lot of diplomatic assignments throughout his career. His most brilliant achievement was the conclusion of peace with the Ottoman Empire in 1812 (known as the Treaty of Bucharest), which had been very much needed for Russia.
The Russo -Turkish war began in 1806. Despite some successes, the Turks refused to make peace since ever-changing Russian commanders were not able to bring decisive victories. So sluggish military operations continued. The war had come to a standstill for Russia; besides it had a much more serious threat ahead - the invasion of Napoleon's troops.
After Count Kamensky died in April 1811, Kutuzov was appointed commander-in-chief of the Danube army. Several months were dedicated to preparation, and on June 22 (July 4), 1811, the Russian army thoroughly defeated the outnumbered Turkish army (15 to 20,000 against 60,000) near Ruse (Turkish: Rusçuk). Soon, another part of the Turkish army was blocked and then captured near Slobozia.
Infantry general Mikhail Kutuzov was bestowed to count of the Russian Empire for these victories.
Kutuzov was sent to Istanbul to conclude a peace treaty. The negotiations opened in mid-October; however they became stalled. Despite the decisive defeat, Turkey was playing for time - it was already obvious to everyone that France would soon attack Russia, and therefore the Ottomans hoped to make the peace conditions at least moderate.
Then spring came; plague epidemics burst out in Turkey. In the meantime, Napoleon's armies were concentrating near the Russian border. Emperor Alexander I was even prepared to make significant concessions and set a border along the Dniester River, just as the Turks had suggested. However, there was a precondition for that – to conclude a treaty of alliance, which the Turks did not want.
Having been well-received by the Sultan, charismatic Kutuzov managed to convince the Turkish side that the moment had come for Turkey to take the life and death decision: if the Turks did not immediately sign a peace treaty with Russia, then Napoleon, in case of his success, would still turn against the Ottoman Empire; having concluded peace with Alexander I, he would get Russia’s consent to occupy Turkey. As a result, Turkey would be divided between Russia and France.
Of course, it was a bluff, but the genius one. As a result, the Sultan agreed to set a border along the Prut River (currently the western border of Moldova), withdrew from Bessarabia in favor of Russia and even surrendered to Russia a strip of land along the eastern coast of the Black Sea up to Anapa. The peace treaty was signed in Bucharest on May 16, 1812, that is, just a few weeks before Napoleon's invasion. As a result, Russia was able to reposition its troops from the Danube to fight the "Grande Armée”.
This was a thumping diplomatic victory for Russia and personally for Kutuzov. Well, in Europe, that decision was considered to be a diplomatic paradox, while Napoleon was just furious.
The First Full Cavalier of Saint George
In December 1812, Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov was awarded (among other awards and titles) the Order of Saint George of First Class for the expulsion of French troops from Russia. Thus, he became the Russia\s first ever full Cavalier of Saint George. There were only four such persons throughout the country’s history.
Kutuzov received his first Order of St. George of Fourth Class for the battle near Alushta in 1774, where he had been wounded to the head for the first time. The Order of St. George of Third Class was awarded to Kutuzov in 1791 for the assault of Izmail. He was also awarded the Order of St. George of Second Class in 1792 for fighting the Turks in the battle of Măcin.
Coming from the family of Novgorod governors
The Golenishchev-Kutuzov family is of ancient lineage. Its origin is traced back to Gabriel, an “honorable man” who came to Novgorod from Prussia during the reign of Alexander Nevsky, i.e. in the 13th century.
Alexander Prokshich, Gabriel’s great-grandson, was nicknamed Kutuz (in Turkic - weighty, full-figured), so he was the ancestor of the Kutuzovs. The Golenishchevs-Kutuzovs descended from Vasily Ananievich, Kutuz’s grandson, who was nicknamed the Boot Shaft (in Russian – Ãîëåíèùå [golenishche]). He was the Novgorod governor in 1471. After the annexation of Novgorod to Moscow, the Golenishchevs-Kutuzovs served as stolnicks, pleaders, Moscow nobles and held positions in subordinate voivodeships. However they did not rise to eminence.
Mikhail Kutuzov’s grandfather rose to the rank of captain only. His father was lieutenant general, and Mikhail Illarionovich earned the title of count and hereditary princedom.