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Short Reviews

The Fox of the North: The Life of Kutuzov—General of War and Peace

by Roger Parkinson
McKay, 253 pp., $14.95

Joseph Smith: The First Mormon

by Donna Hill
Doubleday, 527 pp., $12.50

A compact, wholehearted biography of Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, victor over Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812-1813 and, according to Parkinson, a figure who has been denied his due—except by Tolstoy. Allegedly a lazy, indecisive intriguer who won battles by default and won advancement through connections, Kutuzov has been dismissed as a strategist by many Western analysts and held in unthinking awe by most Russians. Parkinson credits “the sly old fox”—Napoleon’s epithet—with talent as an intellectual and a commander. Trained in science and mathematics, this aristocrat had a concept of total war embracing diplomatic deceit and economic warfare. His concern for his foot-soldiers produced an army willing to sacrifice in the way that the French army sacrificed for Napoleon; to the horror of some Muscovite nobles, Kutuzov even armed the peasantry to harass the French invaders in the Kremlin.

Parkinson, a military historian, faults Kutuzov’s decisions only once: for the failure to destroy Napoleon’s hungry, freezing army at Krasnyi after its retreat from Moscow. It was self-interested and foolish generals who damaged Kutuzov’s reputation, along with the British ambassador, who convinced the meddlesome tsar of the marshal’s willingness to capitulate. We may doubt whether “not even Napoleon could match Kutuzov’s clarity of strategic vision,” but Clausewitz, the Prussian military genius who served under Kutuzov, later described him as Napoleon’s most dangerous antagonist. The only English-language biography of this singular figure, Parkinson’s book is partisan without Tolstoy’s romanticism and written in a style both direct and graceful.

This discursive biography is intended to show that Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and his Church of Latter Day Saints were well within the main current of American history; yet since the author is a sophisticated historian as well as a Mormon, the book provides evidence for skeptical views as well. Smith’s family, Hill shows, were upstanding New England craftsmen and farmers, but he, his parents, and most of the original Saints came from bitter, marginal backgrounds, their estrangement from existing churches partly reflecting their social status. Smith himself discovered the “plates” purporting to contain the Book of Mormon at a time when “treasure-digging” was the rage in northern New York, and subsequent controversies about their translation and publication are described with the implication that Joseph, however magnetic, may have been self-hypnotized if not a conscious fraud.

The grounds for “Gentile” suspicion of the Mormons are also elaborated—they sought a return to the “primitive, authoritarian church,” challenging Constitutional principles. In 1842 Smith seems to have had himself “crowned” as progenitor of a world empire, and the paramilitary force he built after the Mormons’ midwestern migrations made the aim uncomfortably concrete. However, Hill also stresses the Mormons’ very American industriousness (their Nauvoo settlement was the showpiece of antebellum Illinois) and Smith’s personal, if perhaps “opportunistic,” antagonism to slavery. As for polygamy, Smith practiced it before he revealed the principle to the faithful, and refused to publicize it as doctrine at all. Most Mormons never accepted it, and many (including his first wife) fought it fiercely. The record of Mormon suffering from persecution, amply recorded elsewhere, is also included. What is special about this book is its balanced character. Though hedged by Hill’s own allegiance, it does for Smith what Samuel Taylor’s book on Brigham Young, The Kingdom or Nothing (1976), did for one of his less complicated followers—puts the subject in a full, and fresh, perspective.

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