op_zamoyski_ALEXANDER NEMENOVAFP via Getty Images_russian soldier ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
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The Russian Way of War

What can a famously controversial Russian field marshal from the era of the Napoleonic wars tell us about Russia’s depraved misadventure in Ukraine today? Quite a bit, once we peel back the layers of how context and political culture can radically shape individual leaders’ priorities and decision-making.

LONDON – Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Golenischev-Kutuzov looms large in our understanding of Russia’s military, owing both to the paunchy, grizzled depictions of him in cinematic versions of War and Peace and to Tolstoy’s own literary portrayal of the man. For Russians themselves, Kutuzov is a mythical giant, a mammoth projection of the national id, as soulful and vulnerable yet solid and ultimately triumphant.

Kutuzov’s name is well known to historians, history buffs, and Tolstoy fans. To many others, particularly outside of Europe, it will mean nothing. But he and his life story are of real global significance today in view of what is happening in Russia and Ukraine. The story of his life provides the layman with many illuminating insights into the origins and nature of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and into the disastrous, almost farcical, underperformance of Russian forces in carrying it out.

Two centuries after his death, Kutuzov remains a hugely controversial figure. Though intrepid and brave on the battlefield, he was a cringing courtier who lacked the courage to express his opinion in the presence of superiors, even if it meant accepting the destruction of his army, as happened in 1805 at Austerlitz. He could be extraordinarily active and efficient, yet he was closer in disposition to Oblomov, the famously indolent titular character of Ivan Goncharov’s nineteenth-century novel.

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