The War in Ukraine Today and Yesterday

REVIEW: ‘Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace’

Ukraine holds off Russian forces in Western Kyiv Oblast / Getty Images
February 19, 2023

Historically, what is now Ukraine was divided between Russia, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. One year into the country’s fight for its existence against Russia’s aggression, it finds Poland among its staunchest supporters, while Turkey, pretending to a position of mediator, tilts toward its own historic enemy of Russia. Geopolitics can confound history.

History can confound geopolitics, however. Leaders latch onto their own versions of history to marshal in support of their aims—whether self-defense, conquest, or opportunism—although not every version withstands evidentiary scrutiny equally. But juxtaposition of competing histories enables deeper understanding not just of the stakes but also the limits of their power.

Consider Ukraine’s incorporation into the Russian Empire, usually dated to 1654. Was there even a Ukrainian state or just a Cossack military formation on part of the territory of what now constitutes Ukraine? Did the leader of that Cossack army or state, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky of Zaporizhzhia, submit to Russia, legalizing Moscow’s annexation, or did he seek merely a temporary military alliance against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with which the Cossacks were at war?

Answers to these questions are generally conditioned by nationalism, projected back onto an epoch before modern nations existed.

What we can say for sure is that the 1654 agreement entailed the Hetman, other high officials, and clergy swearing an oath of allegiance to the tsar, and that it sparked a wider war between Poland and Russia over these coveted lands. Multiyear hostilities ended in treaties whereby Poland ceded to Russia its claims to the Cossack Hetmanate, the eastern lands across the Dnipro River, and the mother city of Kyiv. Western Ukraine evolved under Polish rule, Eastern Ukraine under Russian.

To erase what he deemed the centuries of Ukrainian divergence under Russian influence, the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, advised Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to obtain Russia’s capitulation in the very location—Pereyaslav—where the Cossack Hetman had signed the 1654 agreement with representatives of the Russian tsar. Russian president Vladimir Putin, for his part, included Zaporizhzhia—the homeland of the Cossack Hetman which Duda regretted losing out on—among the four regions of Ukraine that he declared eternally Russian territory.

Need we add that in 1954, on the 300th anniversary of Pereyaslav, Nikita Khrushchev unilaterally transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic to Soviet Ukraine? Not a few people perceived that as the former Communist party boss in Kyiv, he was trying to rehabilitate his bruised reputation there.

Crimea is another knot. For centuries, the peninsula was controlled by a Tatar Khanate, under the protection of the Ottoman Empire. The Khanate’s subjects spoke a Turkic language and worshipped Muhammad. Catherine the Great’s plenipotentiary and lover, Grigory Potemkin (he of the fake villages that never happened), annexed it for Russia in 1783. Russian colonial settlement then transformed it.

The Tatar Khanate had encompassed not only the now ethnic Russian peninsula grabbed by Putin in 2014, but parts of Southern Ukraine where the Cossacks had roamed, including Zaporizhia. Many of those Cossacks claimed by Ukraine spoke Turkish, too.

Joseph Stalin did his part as well, deporting the surviving Crimean Tatars in cattle cars, some 200,000 people, to Soviet Uzbekistan in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, which further solidified the ethnic makeup of Crimea in favor of Russians.

Stalin forged Ukraine’s current internationally recognized borders. In 1922, partly to enhance Moscow’s control of the newly formed republic that was incorporated into the USSR, Stalin had helped ensure inclusion of some predominantly Russian-speaking regions, notably the Donbass, into the eastern part of Soviet Ukraine. (Ukrainian speakers could be found outside the republic’s territory, too.) Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939 enabled the Soviet dictator to seize and transform Eastern Poland into Western Ukraine, while also snatching for Ukraine pieces of Slovakia and Romania. In 1991, Stalin’s handiwork—along with Khrushchev’s Crimean handover—became the legal borders of independent Ukraine.

Here’s the main point: Stalin, unlike Putin, recognized Ukraine as a separate nation. In 1921, speaking at a party congress against objections that the Bolsheviks had artificially created states such as Belorussia and Ukraine, Stalin stated, "Clearly, the Ukrainian nation exists and the development of its culture is a duty of Communists. One cannot go against history."

Putin is not going to undo what Stalin did. On the contrary, with his criminal war Putin has done more than any leader in Russian history to consolidate Ukrainian national feeling as separate from Russian and as Western-aligned.

These entangled histories of Russia and Ukraine, and the impossibility of turning back the clock, are on display in a biography of Mikhail Kutuzov, Russia’s near mythic marshal. Better known as the supreme commander who vanquished Napoleon in 1812 (and gets a starring role in Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace), Kutuzov was among the top military men who carried out tsarist Russia’s conquest of Crimea in 1783.

Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace, by Alexander Mikaberidze, joins the best biographies of Russian historical figures, comparable in readability to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Potemkin and in terms of exactitude to Paul Buskovitch’s Peter the Great. Mikaberidze, having been born and raised in the Soviet Union, emigrated from post-Soviet Georgia in the 1990s, and holds a named chair at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. He conducted prodigious research in Russian, Lithuanian, and French archives.

Kutuzov was born into the middling nobility in St. Petersburg in 1747—a correction noted by Mikaberidze of the gravestone date of 1745. His mother likely died during the birth of her fourth child, and her husband, who remained a widower, raised their children, assisted by serf nursemaids and serf servants. "Young Mikhail learned mathematics, geometry, history, and geography" under the supervision of his engineer and lieutenant-general father, Mikaberidze writes. "He showed an aptitude for languages, learning German, French, and Latin. In later years he gained proficiency in Polish, Swedish, and Turkish, and all this served him well throughout his long career." The boy became close to an uncle who had "a vast personal library that would have been very useful to Mikhail. Here he read books of literature, philosophy, and geography, as well as works of ancient and modern military theory and practice." Few Russian nobles matched Kutuzov’s learning and breadth of horizon.

During Catherine the Great’s long war with the Ottomans, a lead musket ball struck Kutuzov between his right eye and left temple, exiting through his skull. He should have died. With a bandaged head he endured an excruciating ride on rutted roads to the hospital, before returning to St. Petersburg in late summer 1774 to convalesce, his brain somehow undamaged, his eyes intact (one became crossed). He suffered dizziness and lethargy, though, and became "morose, suspicious, and evasive." Nearly 15 years later, another musket ball would strike him in nearly the same spot. Once more he beat the odds. His right eye became still more damaged, and his headaches more severe. But the Russo-Ottoman wars elevated him to the top ranks of Russian military commanders.

"Since graduating as an engineer from a military school, he had been employed successively as a staff officer, quartermaster officer, and commander of musketeer, grenadier, pikineer, light cavalry, and now light infantry units," Mikaberidze writes. "The diversity of his employments is striking; few officers in any country could boast such a range. Time and again his superiors turned to him to get things done. And he consistently rose to the occasion."

Rivalries in service and intrigues at court temporarily sidetracked his military ascent. He would be removed from command and posted as Governor-General to major provinces, including St. Petersburg, Kyiv, and Vilna, as well as Crimea. He had married and fathered five daughters and a son (who died young of smallpox), but his wife Catherine mostly lived apart with the girls while he was away on campaign or assignment. Kutuzov likely owned more than 15,000 serfs, according to the author, and he would spend a long period sorting out the financial mismanagement on his sprawling estate, in the southwest of Ukraine.

He served away for an extended period as Catherine the Great’s adroit envoy to the Ottoman Sublime Porte, after having defeated them on the battlefield. The biography features a magnificent description of the opulence and ceremony of an audience with Sultan Selim III. Mikaberidze also details how Kutuzov would charm Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm III and the nobles in Berlin with his fluent German and war stories.

Kutuzov’s benefactor Empress Catherine died of a stroke in 1796 and was succeeded by her son Paul. After Paul was strangled and trampled to death in a palace coup in 1801, the flatterer Kutuzov navigated a tricky transition to the rule of Paul’s son Alexander I. Kutuzov was among the innumerable officers on the losing end of Napoleon’s stunning triumph at Austerlitz against the Russian-Austrian coalition in 1805. He developed a reputation as a womanizer, and in his 60s kept as a mistress a 14-year-old Wallachian girl, while indulging, contemporaries said, in a ménage à trois with her mother. (Mikaberidze evinces skepticism.)

The biography culminates, inevitably, in an extended narration of Kutuzov’s at the time unpopular strategy of avoiding battle with, and surrendering Moscow to, Napoleon in 1812. Mikaberidze’s account of the retreat of the Russian Army through Moscow to the east, just before the ancient capital was occupied, is gripping. He lays bare the rich contradictions of the city governor’s fate and the mysteries of Moscow’s burning.

Mikaberidze demonstrates how the Russian way of war compelled winning the vicious infighting on one’s side as much as overcoming the enemy. Levin Bennigsen, one of many foreign-born officers serving in the Russian Army, emerged as the ringleader of the generals who denounced Kutuzov behind his back for his perceived inaction against the occupiers. For his tactical victory harassing Napoleon’s French-Polish forces, Alexander rewarded Bennigsen 100,000 rubles and the diamond signs of the order of St. Andrew the First Called. Kutuzov gathered all his top officers and had his nomination letter to the tsar for Bennigsen’s rewards read aloud; then, he had Bennigsen’s secret denunciation to the tsar read aloud. "Everyone was stunned to hear the disparaging remarks the general wrote about the man who seemed so supportive of him," Mikaberidze writes. "An eyewitness testified that Bennigsen ‘stood as if struck by lightning, alternatively blushing and blanching.’"

Kutuzov had vanquished his internal opponents. "Frustrated and disgruntled as they were, the senior Russian officers found in Kutuzov someone they could not coerce or intimidate with their accomplishments, connections, or ancestry," the author concludes. "Regardless of what was said to or about him, he smiled, frowned, nodded, and still did it his way"—impervious at times even to the tsar’s preferences.

Precisely how the one-eyed, paunchy, rheumatic Kutuzov became the first general to put Napoleon to flight is a story for the ages. Even readers familiar with the history will find Mikaberidze’s account mesmerizing, and judicious, as he explodes one fable after another, such as General Winter striking the decisive blow.

Kutuzov cunningly allowed the Grande Armée, in its horrific retreat through barren territory, to annihilate itself, while keeping his Russian Army mostly intact. He also allowed Napoleon to escape back to Paris to raise a new army.

Before having to confront the downside of his stubborn strategy, Kutuzov passed away, in April 1813, in the Kingdom of Prussia, at Bunzlau (today Bolesławiec, Poland). His burial, along with hundreds of trophies captured from the French, at the Kazan Cathedral in the heart of the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, was among the grandest in history, comparable to the return of Napoleon’s ashes to Paris in 1841 (or the Duke of Wellington’s state funeral in 1852). Kutuzov had served 54 years, earned the status of prince, been awarded 16 high medals, and secured immortality in the Russian pantheon.

Mikaberidze fails to address sufficiently the nature of empire and Kutuzov’s allegiances. The book offers little more than a throwaway line about how Kutuzov was what we would call an imperialist or what in his day would have been known as a patriot. His worldview placing White Russians (Belorussians) and Little Russians (Ukrainians) into a single family with Great Russians, united in Eastern Orthodox faith, goes unanalyzed. So does the upheaval of nationalism, spread partly by Napoleon’s wars. Kutuzov’s victory was real, but Napoleon’s legacies proved more enduring.

During the German invasion of the Second World War, Stalin hung Kutuzov’s portrait in his Kremlin office and named one of the highest Soviet medals after him, but his despotic rule did much to further undermine Kutuzov’s imperial exploits. Putin’s campaign to resurrect an 18th century mindset denying national distinctions among the Eastern Slavs has ensured that the lands where the remarkable Kutuzov fought and lived, St. Petersburg excepted, will not accept a Russian hero as their own, even someone who won Crimea and other regions from the Ottomans and Poland.

Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace
by Alexander Mikaberidze
Oxford University Press, 816 pp., $34.95

Stephen Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, is working on the final volume of a trilogy, Stalin: Totalitarian Superpower, 1941-1990s (Penguin).