Alexander MikaberidzeOct 10, 2022
A Life in War and Peace
Oxford University Press 2022
Every Russian knows him purely by his patronym. He was the general who triumphed over Napoleon's Grande Armée during the Patriotic War of 1812, not merely restoring national pride but securing national identity. Many Russians consider Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Golenischev-Kutuzov the greatest figure of the 19th century, ahead of Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, even Tolstoy himself. Immediately after his death in 1813, Kutuzov's remains were hurried into the pantheon of heroes. Statues of him rose up across the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union. Over the course of decades and centuries he hardened into legend.
As award-winning author Alexander Mikaberidze shows in Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace (Oxford UP, 2022), Kutuzov's story is far more compelling and complex than the myths that have encased him. An unabashed imperialist who rose in the ranks through his victories over the Turks and the Poles, Kutuzov was also a realist and a skeptic about military power. When the Russians and their allies were routed by the French at Austerlitz he was openly appalled by the incompetence of leadership and the sheer waste of life. Over his long career--marked equally by victory and defeat, embrace and ostracism--he grew to despise those whose concept of war had devolved to mindless attack.
Here, at last, is Kutuzov as he really was--a master and survivor of intrigue, moving in and out of royal favor, committed to the welfare of those under his command, and an innovative strategist. When, reluctantly and at the 11th hour, Czar Alexander I called upon him to lead the fight against Napoleon's invading army, Kutuzov accomplished what needed to be done not by a heroic charge but by a strategic retreat. Across the generations, portraits of Kutuzov have ranged from hagiography to dismissal, with Tolstoy's portrait of him in War and Peace perhaps the most indelible of all. This immersive biography returns a touchstone figure in Russian history to human scale.