Mikhail Kutuzov began his military service in the artillery before becoming ADC to the Prince of Holstein-Beck in 1762. He was later sent to the Crimean army as a punishment for light-hearted but ill-advised remarks made to friends about the general-in-chief. This episode persuaded him to hide his natural enthusiasm and instead focus on remaining discreet at all times. He received a head wound in 1774 during an assault on Turkish fortifications near the village of Shumy (Ukraine) and was sent to Prussia to recover. Arriving in Potsdam, he attracted the benevolent attention of Frederick the Great, with whom he spend long hours discussing tactics and military operations. Upon his return, he was to distinguish himself under Suvorov and Potemkin, and during further service in the second Turkish conflict – at the siege of Ochakov – he was again seriously wounded. Subsequently dispatched on successful diplomatic missions to Constantinople and Berlin (in 1799), he retired from active service to which he would not return until 1805, when he was drafted in as commander-in-chief of the army sent to offer support to Austria. The defeat at Austerlitz (2 December 1805) – for which he was deemed responsible – saw him sidelined once again: he was appointed military governor of Kiev in 1806 and served in a similar position in Vilnius in 1809 before returning to military service as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Danube in March 1811. His victory at Rusçuk (modern-day Ruse, Bulgaria) and successes along the north bank of the Danube saw him given the title of Count on 10 November 1811 and in 1812 he concluded the peace treaty signed at Bucharest. His popularity with the army saw him appointed – from the end of August 1812 – commander-in-chief of Russian forces, during which he executed the scorched-earth retreat policy. After offering battle at Borodino and then retreating, he subsequently abandoned Moscow. Promoted to general field marshal on 11 September 1812, he was successful at Tarutino, Maloiaroslavets, Viazma, and Krasnyi, and was subsequently named Prince of Smolensk. The Russian winter and French troops' lack of supplies completed Kutuzov's triumph, and on 24 December, 1812, Kutuzov was decorated with the Order of St. George. Despite his opposition to Alexander's wish to pursue the war into Germany, the Russian army marched through Poland, where Kutuzov fell ill and died, on 28 April, 1813. His body was transferred to Russia, and buried in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, St. Petersburg; immortality in the eyes of Russian authors and historians subsequently followed.
A study found in the memoirs of General Langeron, a French royalist who served in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish war, offers a conflicting insight into the immortalisation of Kutuzov.
“No-one had more spirit but less character than Kutuzov. Nor could be found in an individual such a combination of address and shrewdness, of so few veritable talents and such immortality. A prodigious memory, highly educated, a rare amiability, pleasing and interesting conversation, good-naturedness (admittedly a little false but warm to those who preferred to be duped by it): such were Kutuzov's charms. Violent, an impropriety akin to that of a peasant when angry or when he deemed that the individual whom he was addressing mattered little, a baseness – often to the point of demeaning – towards individuals he believed to be in favour, an overwhelming laziness, an apathy that dominated everything, a most repulsive selfishness, a libertinism as contemptible as it was disgusting, little discretion when it came to acquiring money: such were the flaws of this same man.
As an officer, Kutuzov was experienced in war, was well-used to it, and was in a position to appraise a campaign strategy and the measures brought before him. He was capable of distinguishing between good advice and bad; he knew how to choose the right argument; he understood the best course of action, but such qualities were paralysed by indecision, an apathy in mind and body which prevented him from ordering or seeing anything. During battle he would not move, like some immobile mass, except to make the sign of the cross when he heard from far off the whistle of a bullet. He dared not – nor indeed was able – to remedy a thing, nor could he make relevant changes to army positions. He never carried out field reconnaissance himself, never investigated enemy or his own army's positions. I saw him spend three or four months in a camp without ever knowing anything more than his tent or his home. Fat, large, and heavy, he could not rest long in the saddle: fatigue would drain him of his strength. After one hour of exercise – which felt to him like one century – he would be exhausted, unable to entertain any further thought. This same indolence seeped into the affairs of his office: he could not bring himself to pick up a quill. His subordinates, deputies, and secretaries did what they wished with him: and whilst he was surely a greater mind and intellect than them, he was steadfastly unable to review their work, much less direct it or dictate it. He signed everything that they presented before him in order to relieve himself of their presence as quickly as possible. Such matters were accorded little more than briefest of attentions in the course of the morning, most insufficient to deal with the quantity that burdens a general in command of an army. He would rise late, eat excessively, [and] sleep for three hours after dining; he would then require a further two [hours] after that to come to his senses. He would consecrate his evenings to love, or at least his idea of love. These women – such as they were – held over him a most absolute and scandalous influence; he himself admitted to me that whilst travelling in Germany during his youth, he was besotted by a German actress whose troupe he followed and for whom he worked as a prompter. Kutuzov was filthy in his tastes, filthy in his habits, filthy in body, and filthy in his business. This female influence over a huge, old, blind man is not simply ridiculous to society, but also dangerous when the individual with such a weakness is employed as commander. He held no secrets to them, he could refuse them nothing, and the inconvenient results of this can be easily imagined.
But this Kutuzov, so immoral in his behaviour and his principles, so mediocre as head of an army, had the quality (if one can indeed call it that) demanded by Cardinal Mazarin in all the generals in his service. He was lucky, except at Austerlitz – the disasters of which he cannot be blamed (for he was only leader in name). Fortune constantly favoured him: the miraculous campaign of 1812 was the glorious, crowning moment in this; it must have been greatly surprised to have become his success. He was wounded a number of times, in one case most extraordinarily. In the Crimea, during an attack on a redoubt, a bullet passed through his head via the two temples: that he did not lose his sight made his recovery all the more miraculous. The surgeon who treated him kept him in a dark room for six weeks, not once allowing the light of day to penetrate [the gloom]. He was young when he received this wound and he continued to see perfectly through both eyes, just as before. But at sixty, he lost an eye and would have gone blind had he lived longer. He died nearly sixty-eight, in Bunzlau [today Bolesławiec], Silesia, in 1813.”
Dictionnaire Napoléon, Fayard, 1999 [entry by Jacques Garnier]
Alexander Mikaberdize, The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815, Savas Beatie, 2005
Roger Parkinson, The Fox of the North. The life of Kutuzov, New York, 1976
Leo Tolstoy, War & Peace