Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov (Russian: князь Михаи́л Илларио́нович Голени́щев-Куту́зов; 16 September [O.S. 5 September] 1745 – 28 April [O.S. 16 April] 1813) was a Field Marshal of the Russian Empire. He served as one of the finest military officers and diplomats of Russia under the reign of three Romanov Tsars: Catherine II, Paul I and Alexander I. His military career was closely associated with the rising period of Russia from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. Kutuzov contributed much to the military history of Russia and is considered to have been one of the best Russian generals under the reign of Catherine II. He took part in the suppression of the Bar Confederation's uprising, in three of the Russo-Turkish Wars and in the Napoleonic War, including two major battles at Austerlitz and the battle of Borodino.
However, Kutuzov is credited most with his leadership during the French invasion of Russia. Under Kutuzov's command, the Russian army faced the Grande Armée at the Battle of Borodino and later counter-attacked once Napoleon retreated from Moscow, pushing the French out of the Russian homeland. In recognition of this, Kutuzov was awarded the title of Prince of Smolensk. A memorial was built at Moscow in 1973 to commemorate the 1812 war and Kutuzov's leadership. An order of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation is also named after him. Kutuzov was highly regarded in the works of Russian and Soviet historians.
Mikhail Kutuzov was born in Saint Petersburg on 16 September 1745. His father, Lieutenant-General Illarion Matveevich Kutuzov, had served for thirty years with the Corps of Engineers, had seen action against the Turks and served under Peter the Great. Mikhail Kutuzov’s mother was from the noble family of Beklemishev. Between his father’s distinguished service and his mother’s high birth, Mikhail Kutuzov had contact with the imperial Romanov family from an early age. In 1757, twelve-year-old Kutuzov went to a military engineering school as a cadet private. (Since Peter the Great’s reforms of the military, all noblemen had to serve in the military starting as a private. To become an officer, they had to work their way through the ranks.) Kutuzov quickly became popular with his peers and teachers alike, proving himself to be highly intelligent, and showed bravery in his school’s numerous horse races. Kutuzov became fluent in English, French, German, Polish, Swedish, and Turkish; his language skills served him well throughout his career.
In 1762, Kutuzov, now a captain under the command of Colonel Alexander Suvorov, traveled to the town of Astrakhan, a major city near the Volga Delta. Kutuzov studied Suvorov’s style of command and learned how to be a good commander in battle. Suvorov believed that an effective order should be simple, direct and concise, and that a commander should care deeply about the health and training of his soldiers. Kutuzov also adopted Suvorov’s conviction that a commander should lead his troops from the front instead of the rear to provide an example of bravery for the troops to follow. Suvorov also taught Kutuzov the importance of developing close relationships with those under his command. Kutuzov’s followed this advice to the benefit of his career. This advice contributed to Kutuzov’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief in 1812.
In late 1762, Kutuzov became the aide-de-camp to the Military-Governor of Revel, the Prince of Holstein-Beck, where he proved himself to be a capable politician. In 1768, Kutuzov fought in Poland, after the Polish Szlachta—the Polish noble class—rebelled against Russia. There he captured a number of strong defensive positions and thereby proved his skill on the battlefield.
In October 1768, the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Two years later, Kutuzov, now a major, joined the soon-to-be-famous Count Petr Alexandrovich Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky’s army in the south to fight against the Turks. Though Kutuzov served valiantly in this campaign, he did not receive any medals as another officer reported to Rumyantsev that Kutuzov mocked Rumyantsev behind his back. Rumyantsev had Lieutenant-Colonel Kutuzov transferred into Prince Vasili Dolgorukov-Krymsky’s Russian Second Army fighting the Turks and the Tartars in Crimea. During this campaign, Kutuzov learned how to use the deadly Cossack cavalry, another skill which would prove useful in the defense of Russia against Napoleon's invading armies in 1812. In 1773, he was ordered to storm the well-defended town of Alushta on the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula. After he realized the attack was faltering, he grabbed the fallen regimental standard and led the attack. While charging forward, he was shot in the left temple — an almost certainly fatal wound at the time. The bullet went right through his head and got out near the right eye. However, Kutuzov slowly recovered, though frequently overcome by sharp pains and dizziness, and his right eye remained permanently twisted. He left the army later that year due to his wound.
Kutuzov’s pain did not subside, and so he decided to travel to Western Europe for better medical care. He arrived in Berlin in 1774 where he spent much time with King Frederick the Great of Prussia, who took great interest in Kutuzov. They spent long periods of time discussing tactics, weaponry, and uniforms. Kutuzov then traveled to Leyden, Holland and London, England for further treatment. In London, Kutuzov studied the American general George Washington’s campaign against the British, concluding that it was not necessary to win battles in order to win a war.
Kutuzov returned to the Russian Army in 1776, where he again served under Suvorov in the Crimea for the next six years. He learned that letting the common soldier use his natural intellect and initiative created a more effective army. Suvorov also taught him how to use mobility in order to exploit the constantly changing situation on the battlefield. By 1782, Kutuzov had been promoted to Brigadier General as Suvorov recognized Kutuzov’s potential as a shrewd and intelligent leader. Indeed, Suvorov wrote that he would not even have to tell Kutuzov what needed to be done in order for him to carry out his objective. In 1787, Kutuzov was again wounded in the right temple, in almost exactly the same place as before, and again doctors feared for his life. However, Kutuzov recovered, though his right eye was even more twisted than before and he had even worse head pains.
In 1784 he became a major general, in 1787 governor-general of the Crimea; and under Suvorov, whose disciple he became, he won considerable distinction in the Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792), at the taking of Ochakov, Odessa, Bender and Ismail, and the battles of Rimnik and Mashin. He was by that time (1791) a lieutenant-general and successively occupied the positions of ambassador at Constantinople, governor-general of Finland, commandant of the corps of cadets at Saint Petersburg, ambassador at Berlin, and governor-general of Saint Petersburg.
Kutuzov was a favorite of Tsar Paul I, and after that emperor's murder he was temporarily out of favor with the new Tsar Alexander I, though he remained loyal.