Military history written for a general audience is a predictable genre. When you purchase a fat biography of a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, you know exactly what to expect: paragraphs about how such-and-such committed his reserves and pushed so-and-so back against the river, paintings of people in gold braid, and above all lots and lots of maps with little boxes and arrows. (The legend is rarely provided, but it is assumed you know that blank or x-ed boxes represent infantry, boxes divided diagonally represent cavalry, and artillery units are tiny stylized cannons.) It can be hard to remember that each of those boxes contains hundreds of individual lives, that within the slender arc of every arrow is a son who loses his father, a wound that renders a healthy person penniless and unemployable, a rapid ascent up the service ladder, or the destruction of a peasant’s home.
Mikhail Kutuzov, the sixty-six-year-old commander in chief of the Imperial Russian Army during Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, was perhaps more responsible than any other individual for the French emperor’s catastrophic, protracted defeat and his headlong retreat to France, and thus for Russia’s leading place in the post-Napoleonic world order established at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815—though Kutuzov died at the peak of his triumph in 1813. Alexander Mikaberidze’s new biography offers plenty of boxes and arrows, but also much more. A historian at Louisiana State University at Shreveport, Mikaberidze aims to look past Soviet hagiography and French contempt alike, to find what set Kutuzov apart from his contemporaries as well as what linked him to them.
Kutuzov did not spend his life in the saddle. He was a courtier and a major landowner, terms that sound innocuous but in Russia at that time represented one inescapable fact: Kutuzov’s life was shaped fundamentally by his ownership of thousands of unfree human beings. Throughout his career, his military successes brought him not just medals and public acclaim but also more landed property and “souls” to farm it. While Mikaberidze’s biography always returns to the battlefield, which occupies most of its bulk, by foregrounding Kutuzov’s nonmilitary preoccupations it brings out the mixture of overweening social power and perennial anxiety that characterized his life.
The wealth Kutuzov extracted from the labor of his serfs paid for the lifestyle that maintained his family’s access to St. Petersburg’s high society. Playing the game of court politics in turn allowed him to gain military appointments and the opportunity for further victories. That was when things were going well; when they weren’t, the specter of ruin threatened to undo everything he had accomplished. In a letter to his wife during a period of disfavor in 1804, he agonized:
Out of despair I want to drop everything and consign myself to God’s will. Seeing myself already at such an age and state of health that I won’t win another estate, I fear spending my old age in poverty and need, and seeing my wounds and the labors and dangers of my youth all lost.
The need to win military glory and thereby maintain the regard of the ruler or other high officials dogged every step Kutuzov made until the final weeks of his life; unlike other military leaders, such as Grigory Potemkin (Catherine’s lover and confidant) or Mikhail Barclay de Tolly (Kutuzov’s predecessor as commander in chief), he could not fall back on personal connections to the throne. This quest gained him three near-fatal head wounds, at the ages of twenty-six, forty-one, and fifty-eight; the titles of count, serene prince, and field marshal; the estate of Goroshki and its Ukrainian inhabitants, as well as thousands of other serfs; and the undying reverence of generations of imperial princes and Communist Party secretaries.
Indeed, despite Kutuzov’s vast wealth, Soviet writers saw in him a consummate patriot who achieved victory by rallying the people against a foreign invader. The parallels to Stalin, who also fought a war of collective survival, were easy enough to draw: on the day Nazi troops began their attack on the Soviet Union, Vyacheslav Molotov’s radio address evoked the Patriotic War against Napoleon. And the general’s achievements still resonate: in November 2022, as Russian troops were retreating from the Ukrainian city of Kherson, the editor in chief of the TV channel RT invoked Kutuzov’s strategic abandonment of Moscow.
Kutuzov made for an ideal national hero because he is thought to have embodied a certain democratic ethos: unlike the Frenchified, effeminate aristocrats who surrounded him, he was seen as recognizably Russian, even populist, in his speech and mannerisms. Tolstoy depicted the general in War and Peace as a kind of avatar of the forces of history, who achieves victory by passively understanding and swimming with elemental human currents rather than seeking to dominate them.
Mikaberidze argues that this reputation has more to do with the layers of propaganda that have encrusted Kutuzov since 1812 than with his actual personality—Kutuzov was made into a folksy hero because he won the Patriotic War, not vice versa. The real-life Kutuzov had to know how to dance the quadrille, to flatter and cajole his superiors, and to sternly punish the lowborn soldiers and peasants over whom he held sway. Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace is a more authoritative and less starstruck biography of the hero of 1812, and the general emerges from it with far more in common with the rest of the Russian Empire’s ruling class than the legend allows.
Mikhail Kutuzov was born into a high-ranking noble family in 1747, during a time of rapid change in Russian elite culture. Peter the Great had died two decades before, leaving behind an empire fundamentally transformed by Westernization—a revolutionary project that replaced the pious, traditionalist culture of old Muscovy with Swedish, Dutch, English, French, German, and Polish clothing, architecture, state institutions, and so on. Peter’s refashioned Russian nobility was to be the spearhead of this enterprise: the estates and ranks of Russian nobles were made dependent on state service. It was understood that, in addition to the traditional responsibilities of leading armies or sitting behind bureaucratic desks, service to the Crown now involved acquiring the manners and culture of the European aristocracy. A system of boarding schools helped ensure that noble children were separated from the potentially regressive climate of their homes and thoroughly remolded. Kutuzov’s father, Illarion, had graduated from such an institution, which was then known as the Military Engineering School, in 1737, and Mikhail attended its successor from 1759 to 1761 (though he continued to live at home).
Westernization was expensive. The Muscovite nobility had not particularly valued luxury consumption, but its Petrine heirs needed closets full of uniforms and gowns, Palladian country houses with leafy parks, and endless tons of tea and sugar. This was not because they were inherently more frivolous or decadent but because goods like these were important for signaling and maintaining their social status. Such spending fueled a relentless process of elite competition and stratification, in which the majority of nobles were a hairbreadth from bankruptcy and squeezed their serfs intensely to avert it. Kutuzov’s family was among the richest in its province, though apparently not exceptionally extravagant. Still, the constant rise and fall of noble fortunes in the turbulent middle decades of the eighteenth century left him with a permanent feeling of insecurity.
After Kutuzov’s graduation at the age of fifteen, he became a captain in the imperial army. This was the first rank he attained through his own labor: noble children conventionally “worked” their way up through the lower ranks during their childhood years. But an even more momentous event took place earlier that year, one that shaped the rest of the young man’s life: the wife of then emperor Peter III overthrew her husband in a palace coup. Catherine II, or “the Great,” was to rule for thirty-four years, further reshaping Russian society and deepening the transformation Peter had begun. She embraced a vision of herself and her loyal elite as not just European but also enlightened, a ruling class with every moral and intellectual claim to social power.
More consequentially for Kutuzov, who excelled in his studies but never displayed much interest in loftier pursuits, Catherine also presided over a campaign of territorial expansion that ultimately incorporated most of modern Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia into the empire. The vast armies that made these conquests possible were composed of serf soldiers, recruited using a conscription system that anticipated the mass levies of the French Revolution. If you were chosen to fill your village’s recruitment quota, you became a soldier for the remainder of what was likely to be a brief life; only at the end of Catherine’s reign did a law allow rank-and-file soldiers to retire after twenty-five years, though few made it that long. Unsurprisingly, ordinary people in imperial Russia considered military recruitment to be one of the worst calamities that could befall a peasant youth.
For Kutuzov, however, Catherine’s endless wars offered a steady stream of occasions to distinguish himself on the battlefield—after an initial stumble in 1772, when an incautious joke at the expense of a superior led to demotion and a loss of favor he had to work feverishly to make up. He obtained his first head wound in August 1774 at the tail end of the Russo-Turkish War while leading a unit of grenadiers storming Ottoman entrenchments in southern Crimea. Given the limitations of eighteenth-century battlefield medicine, it was a miracle he survived: the musket ball had entered next to his temple and passed through his skull. He never regained full use of his right eye. Kutuzov’s unexpected survival earned him a medal and other marks of beneficence from the empress, setting him up for rapid promotion.
The five hundred Ottoman and Russian soldiers who were killed in this battle gave their lives for nothing. Unbeknownst to the combatants, a peace treaty had already been signed a few days before. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca broke the Ottoman Empire’s power over the regions in the north of the Black Sea, formally neutralizing Crimea (leaving it open for Russian annexation in 1783) and providing a pretext for future Russian intervention to protect Orthodox worshipers throughout the empire. Horrified European observers began to fear that the impending disintegration of the Ottomans would allow the Russian Empire to dominate all of Eastern Europe and ultimately, perhaps, much of the Eurasian landmass. Two years earlier, Russia, together with Prussia and Austria, had divided up the outer territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—once Europe’s largest state.
The parts of modern-day Belarus and Latvia that Catherine seized were then a predominantly rural march containing 1.3 million Slavic, Baltic, and Jewish inhabitants. In the first years of her rule, she handed out Russian land and peasants to loyal grandees, but by the end of her first decade in power she was secure on the throne and had run out of spare properties; she also seems to have developed moral qualms about distributing Russian peasants like cattle. But serfs from the former commonwealth—who were often owned by the Polish Crown or by magnates hostile to Russia and therefore subject to confiscation—were fair game. At court, aristocrats jostled to grab prosperous estates in the conquered lands, and in the following two decades a third of the population found itself under the thumb of one noble Russian landlord or another.
Kutuzov’s share of the loot would have to wait, however: he had caught the empress’s eye due to both his military talents and his miraculous recovery, but other claimants were ahead of him in the pecking order. In the meantime, he helped defeat the Ottomans’ 1788 attempt to regain their former Black Sea possessions, receiving another head wound as the leader of an assault detachment at the siege of Ochakov; this time the bullet passed through the bottom part of his skull and neck. Two years later, Kutuzov won resounding glory when he led the long siege and capture of the fortress of Izmail, near today’s Odesa. The butchery and plunder that accompanied the campaign’s brutal conclusion made Kutuzov’s superior officer, Alexander Suvorov, infamous in Europe—though they were hardly exceptional by eighteenth-century standards. The devastated fortress was handed back to the Turks in the treaty that ended the war in 1792.
While the war had made Kutuzov into one of the empire’s most prominent generals, he spent the remainder of the 1790s on a succession of abortive diplomatic and political assignments, all of which required developing his skills at court intrigue and bureaucratic maneuvering. But his battlefield achievements eventually paid off: after the second partition of Poland, in 1793, which brought Right-Bank Ukraine (west of the Dnipro) and the remainder of Belarus into the empire, he received the Volhynian estate of Goroshki with its two thousand souls (because of the close link between the census and military recruitment, only male peasants counted toward the value of landed wealth) and 24,000 additional acres of land (in formerly Ottoman rather than Polish territory); two years later, he received 2,667 more formerly Polish souls. Unsurprisingly, Kutuzov greeted the news of the partition with “pleasure and gratitude.”
Kutuzov had now become one of the richest landowners in the empire. Excluding Catherine’s new acquisitions, the population of the Russian Empire in the 1790s was some 30 million people. The gentry numbered about 80,000, not counting landless gentry and the more economically diverse Polish nobility. But three quarters of these Russian nobles owned fewer than sixty serfs; only about 1 percent of them owned more than a thousand, about as many people as there are billionaires in the US today. There were only about fifty landowners at the time who owned over five thousand serfs; among them was Kutuzov, whose estate was estimated to contain 15,000. By comparison, the largest slaveholder in the antebellum United States, Joshua John Ward, owned just over a thousand slaves.
Kutuzov was reasonably humane, at least by the standards of his time. He seems to have retained a sense of the personhood of his serfs and exercised a degree of paternalistic care for them. As Mikaberidze notes, this had more to do with an interest in raising profits through agricultural modernization than any particular concern for social justice—and it ruled out manumission, which had become a regular practice among the Russian elite by the early nineteenth century. For the same pragmatic reasons, Kutuzov also looked out for his soldiers, since he needed them to be healthy, loyal, and well equipped to use them effectively on the battlefield. The policies he promoted toward the rank and file included bans on corporal punishment and an insistence on timely care for sick or wounded men. This resulted, at least in one early command, in an unusually low rate of illness and desertion. As a prime representative of Catherine’s self-consciously enlightened ruling class, Kutuzov mixed progressive idealism and unchallenged aggrandizement; quick to give him credit for the ideals of “compassion, rationality, and dignity” he shared with other reformist military figures, Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace rarely stops to consider the consequences of the conquests such enlightened militarism enabled.
After Catherine’s death in 1796, her son Paul began to introduce wide-ranging reforms intended to curb what he saw as the nobility’s decadence and restore the prestige of the monarchy at the expense of arrogant grandees. Kutuzov kept his head down and stayed focused on his diplomatic and administrative assignments even as other nobles were abruptly stripped of their property, demoted, or sent down to their country estates. Eventually a group of aristocrats assassinated the hated tsar and allowed his son Alexander to take the throne, though the new emperor was squeamish about his own route to power and punished several of the conspirators. In 1802 Kutuzov was deprived of his ranks and felt compelled to retire to Goroshki, which Soviet historians attributed to his well-known proximity to the plot.
Mikaberidze offers a different explanation. Alexander, who was just twenty-three when he became tsar, encouraged a culture of youthful gallantry among his courtiers. Kutuzov was fifty-four years old and impaired by the visual and cognitive effects of his injuries; against a backdrop of dashing hussars and ladies-in-waiting, he looked slow-witted and unattractive. For all his wealth and his long list of victories, he was yesterday’s man, and the ingratiating manners he had developed at Catherine’s court struck a wrong note with the ruler’s insouciant friends. In one widely recounted anecdote, Kutuzov had obligingly fetched coffee for Platon Zubov as this last and most dissolute of Catherine’s favorites luxuriated in bed in the morning.
Even in 1805, when a new war with Napoleon led Alexander to call on Kutuzov’s talents, the tsar never warmed to his greatest general. Despite giving him nominal command of the Russian army, the emperor insisted on making major decisions personally—the most consequential of which was the move to accept battle with his French opponent at Austerlitz (near Brno in modern Czechia) in December. Alexander’s obsession with matching Napoleon’s prestige as a military leader condemned 10,000 Russian soldiers to death or injury; some regiments were practically annihilated. It was the worst defeat the Russian army had suffered in decades, and the blow to its reputation was so severe that Alexander tried to stem the panic by ordering Kutuzov to compose a fraudulent report that invented nine thousand additional French casualties out of whole cloth while reducing the Russian figures.
The Russian emperor was not going to shoulder the blame for the defeat—Kutuzov, after all, had technically been in command—but the general’s punishment, if such it was, was mild: relegation to the post of military governor of Kyiv, which most other members of the Russian elite would have greeted as a stupendous promotion. Close to his estate, which was facing economic ruin from both natural disasters and rampant fraud by his managers, the post allowed Kutuzov to rebuild his fortune in the bosom of his family.
Kutuzov flubbed a subsequent military assignment in a new campaign against the Ottomans when, serving under Field Marshal Alexander Prozorovskii, he contributed to the collapse of an assault on the fortress of Brăila and later, at court, got into trouble for undermining his superior’s authority. But in 1812 he was once again commanding an army in his old Black Sea stomping grounds. By then he had come to prefer the civilized comforts of the ballroom and theater box to the blood and gun smoke of the battlefield. The aging aristocrat also struck up a questionably paternal relationship with a fourteen-year-old girl from the Wallachian aristocracy, giving rise to salacious rumors that followed him for the remainder of his life.
In the eyes of posterity, Kutuzov’s first sixty-four years were all a mere prelude to his final ten months. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon declared war on Russia, marching across the border with 600,000 well-trained troops—perhaps the most powerful army the world had ever seen. The Russian commander in chief, Barclay de Tolly, had failed to stop the French advance, so Alexander installed Kutuzov in his place.
Mikaberidze understandably devotes a full third of his nearly eight-hundred-page book to a minute account of this period of his subject’s life, but above the boxes-and-arrows level, it is clear that the dilemmas Kutuzov then faced were already familiar to him. Success in war was not just a matter of shuffling units around or of leading soldiers into battle. He had to wage the overall campaign and, at the same time, play the intimate game of court politics, although he was widely mistrusted in St. Petersburg.
As Mikaberidze points out, Kutuzov did not create the delicate strategy of retreat, delay, and harassment that allowed the Russians to defeat the French—de Tolly and the Prussian general Gerhard von Scharnhorst did—but Alexander’s appointment made him its figurehead, charged with maintaining it in the face of growing panic in both Russian society and the armed forces. Kutuzov could not allow a climate of elite opinion to emerge in which Alexander would feel free to replace him as commander in chief with one of the more popular senior officers under his command, as the tsar had already done with de Tolly. If Alexander demoted him, it was likely that the inferior Russian army would be forced to stake everything on the kind of battlefield victory that had eluded it at Austerlitz, risking total defeat at the hands of the master tactician of the Grande Armée.
Even if the theoretical case for the dilatory approach Kutuzov represented seemed persuasive, as the campaign went on it became more and more difficult to sustain. The French capture of Smolensk—the farthest into Russian territory an enemy army had reached in centuries—was a shock. An even more painful moment came with the Battle of Borodino outside of Moscow in September 1812, when 40,000 Russian casualties could not stop the French onslaught, despite inflicting comparable losses. The French then occupied the ancient capital unchallenged, provoking horror and indignation across the empire. Moscow’s governor, the arch-conservative aristocrat Fedor Rostopchin, had not known that Kutuzov planned to abandon the city. Furious as he was, Rostopchin suppressed his anger at Kutuzov and redirected it into a fiery propaganda campaign that successfully rallied nobles and commoners alike to seek patriotic vengeance against the godless French. It is also likely that he was the one who decided to start an enormous conflagration that devastated the city and made it impossible for the French to occupy it for long; had this not happened, Kutuzov’s talents might not have sufficed to save the empire.
Unable to force Alexander to come to terms, and with his army suffering in the devastated city, Napoleon ordered a withdrawal. A relentless barrage of ambushes and small-scale encirclements staged in part by bands of local peasants and other irregulars divided and chipped away at his troops as they retreated; only an error by a commander named Pavel Chichagov—an old rival of Kutuzov’s—during the final crossing of the Berezina River allowed Napoleon to escape with his life. Mikaberidze rounds out his biography by describing how Kutuzov relished being able to use his triumph to annihilate Chichagov’s reputation, effectively forcing him into exile in England—a fitting apogee for the career of a master general who was as much courtier as strategist.
This was his last victory. Kutuzov stayed in the saddle long enough to follow the Grande Armée into German lands. As Russian armies—joined by their new Austrian and Prussian allies—followed Napoleon west, the old general caught a chill and, after two weeks of illness, finally died.
In focusing on his hero’s courtly pettiness, Mikaberidze misses the opportunity to confront the part that serfdom and the imperial expansion that sustained it played in the Russian victory. The greatest unanswerable what-if of the campaign, which Mikaberidze passes over, concerns the Russian peasantry. Although his armies elsewhere had carried liberty, equality, and fraternity on the points of their bayonets, in Russia Napoleon mistrusted the peasantry too much to risk the social unrest that would have accompanied ending serfdom in the territories he occupied, and he needed the supplies that only serf labor could provide. If he had freed them, would the peasants have supported Napoleon instead of fighting on behalf of their landowners, and thus delivered victory into his hands? Perhaps. In 1817, ruminating on his mistakes during his exile on the island of St. Helena, Napoleon claimed that only the Moscow fire kept him from doing so.
Even if this was just a convenient excuse, the broader point holds: Kutuzov was the product, beneficiary, and loyal defender of an empire founded on serfdom, and his victory saved it from the greatest threat it had ever faced. A biography necessarily focuses on individuals, but Mikaberidze’s book raises questions an individual perspective cannot answer.