After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Josef Stalin officially resurrected many pre-1917 heroes, hoping that their examples would serve to arouse feelings of patriotism that would enable the Russian people to defeat yet another would-be conqueror. Of these heroes, the czarist military figure to whom Stalin referred most often was not the seemingly appropriate Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who had resisted Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, but rather the greatest of all Russia’s commanders–Aleksandr Vasilevich Suvorov, Count of Rymniksky and Prince of Italy. Stalin himself adopted the supreme rank that only Suvorov had ever held before him–generalissimo. Military academies were established, monuments erected, villages renamed and museums constructed in his honor, and a medal–the three-grade Order of Suvorov–was instituted.
A short, wiry, sickly and physically unattractive man whose personal life was spartan, Suvorov was an outstanding military theorist, tactician and strategist who combined an immense experience in warfare with courage, an indomitable will, sarcastic wit and enlightened intelligence–along with eccentricity that often verged on madness. Suvorov was seriously wounded six times in the course of his career, but he was credited with winning 63 battles without suffering a single major defeat. He was awarded countless medals, titles and honors (including estates and serfs) by his native Russia, as well as by other countries.
Born in Moscow in 1729 to a reform-minded family of the lesser nobility with a long military tradition, Suvorov enlisted as a private in a guards regiment in 1742 and began his active service in 1748. After six years in the ranks, he was commissioned a lieutenant in 1754. Suvorov received his baptism of fire during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), fighting at Kunersdorf, Berlin and Kolberg. In 1762, he was promoted to colonel and appointed commander of the Suzdal Regiment, with whom he wrote his famous Suzdal Regulations. He was promoted to major general in 1770 and participated in the Polish Civil War (1768-1776), winning battles at Orekhovo, Landskorn, Saowicz and Krakow. A lieutenant general in 1773, Suvorov went on to fight in Czarina Catherine the Great’s First Turkish War (1768-1774), winning two different battles at Turkutai and successfully storming the fort at Hirsov on September 14, 1773. His victory over the much larger Turkish army of Abder-Rezak Pasha at Kozludji on June 19, 1774, established Suvorov’s reputation for tactical brilliance.
Recalled to Russia in 1774 to deal with the peasant revolt of Emilion I. Pugachov, Suvorov arrived too late to suppress the rebellion, but escorted its leader into captivity. In 1775, he married into the well-connected Golitsyn family. Between 1774 and 1786, Suvorov commanded various divisions and corps in the Kuban, the Crimea, Finland and in Russia itself. In 1778, he prevented a Turkish landing in the Crimea, squelching another Russo-Turkish war.
Appointed general-in-chief in 1787, Suvorov fought in Catherine’s Second Turkish War (1787-1792), during which he defended the coastal fortress of Kinburn against two Turkish seaborne assaults in September and October 1787, stormed and took Ochakov on December 17, 1788, and teamed up with Austrian General Prince Josias von Saxe-Coburg to defeat Osman Pasha at Focsani on August 1, 1789. On September 22, Suvorov drove Yusuf Pasha’s main army from its camps on the Rymnik River, upsetting Turkish offensive plans so badly that Suvorov was given the title of Count Rymniksky for his victory.
On December 22, 1790, Suvorov gained fame for the storming of the fortress of Izmail, but also notoriety for the subsequent slaughter of most of its defenders. In 1793, Suvorov commanded the Russian forces that suppressed Thaddeusz Kosciuszko’s Polish Revolt and won more victories at Krupshchitse, Brest-Litovsk, Kobila and Praga-Warszawa. He was promoted to field marshal in 1794, but the slaughters that followed the captures of Ochakov, Izmail and Praga-Warszawa tainted his reputation in Western eyes. Suvorov generally tried to control the excesses of his soldiers, declaring that ‘humaneness can conquer a foe no less than weapons.’ In Poland, however, he gave orders that no prisoners were to be taken, and he later participated in two tragic incidents–the forced resettlement of Christians in the Crimea and the pursuit and massacre of the Nogai tribe in the Kuban. ‘I have shed rivers of blood,’ the troubled Suvorov confessed, ‘and this horrifies me.’
Like Napoleon, to whom he is most often compared, Suvorov believed that opportunities in battle are created by fortune but exploited by intelligence, experience and an intuitive eye. To him, mastery of the art and science of war was not, therefore, purely instinctive.
Beginning in his youth, Suvorov pursued that knowledge. He avidly studied mathematics, literature, philosophy, geography and, in particular, works of ancient and modern military theory and practice, thus developing a good understanding of engineering, siege warfare, artillery and fortification. He kept up with events in Eur ope by subscribing to foreign newspapers and journals. Suvorov also believed that ‘a military man must know the languages of the nations with whom he is fighting,’ so he developed a fluent command of French, German, Greek, Turkish, Italian, Polish and Latin, as well as some knowledge of Arabic, Finnish and Persian. He also rejected a suggestion that the Russian army rid itself of its musicians, saying, ‘Music doubles, trebles the force of an army.’
If command over the hearts and minds of the rank and file is the hallmark of a great general, then Suvorov must be reckoned second to none. He possessed an ability to communicate his thoughts in a form readily comprehensible to his officers and troops, through the use of aphorisms, idiomatic phrases and even rhymes. He demanded that operational orders covering force dispositions be as clear and concise as possible, but he delegated total freedom of action to his most trusted lieutenants, and he rewarded initiative and resourcefulness as much as he did bravery.
A master of logistics, Suvorov ordered his officers, quartermasters and doctors to keep the welfare and fitness of the soldiers in the forefront of their attentions. He severely punished, often with courts-martial, any officers who senselessly or cruelly drilled their troops or who failed to maintain his high sanitary and health standards. Although a strict disciplinarian, he took extenuating circumstances into account. Once a soldier or officer had been punished or reprimanded, Suvorov would do his utmost to rehabilitate him.
Suvorov always chose to be in the most exposed position on the battlefield, for he believed in sharing the same risks and discomforts as his soldiers. For example, he always slept on a simple bed of straw. More than any of his contemporaries, the paternalistic Suvorov appreciated the courage and endurance of the Russian soldier. In return, he enjoyed the loyalty, respect and affection of his troops.
Suvorov’s revolutionary methods of waging war endure in his prodigious literary, documentary and epistolary output, which include his two well-known treatises, the Suzdal Regulations and The Science of Victory, and lesser-known works such as Rules for the Kuban and Crimean Corps, Rules for the Conduct of Military Actions in the Mountains (written during his Swiss campaign), and Rules for the Medical Officers. It is also interesting to note that Suvorov and Napoleon independently evolved similar progressive theories of war. Suvorov’s methods were too innovative and demanding for men rigidly trained in the traditional manner, but were readily understood by seasoned soldiers. He extolled patient, systematic, practical and rigorous training under simulated battlefield conditions. ‘Train hard, fight easy,’ he wrote. ‘Train easy and you will have hard fighting.’
In the realm of strategy, Suvorov viewed the maneuvering of armies and the occupation of territory, cities and fortresses not as ends in themselves, but as a means of destroying the enemy’s source of supply and reinforcements. His objective was to concentrate his own forces for a decisive mass attack that would annihilate the enemy. Suvorov also believed that a short, total war was less expensive in men and materiel than a war of attrition. But in the case of guerrilla warfare, such as he encountered in his first Polish campaign, he did resort to a strategy of attrition against his elusive enemy, in order to deny the rebels the opportunity to use the countryside.
At the tactical level, the aggressive Suvorov stressed three fundamental principles: coup d’oeil, speed and impact. By coup d’oeil, Suvorov meant ‘the ability to assess a situation at a glance, to know how to select the site for a camp, when and how to march, and where to attack.’ As for the other two principles, he said, ‘Don’t distract with small fights, deliver heavy blows, pass in masses through the gap, attack directly, hit with speed,’ for ‘…speed and impact are the soul of present-day warfare. A fleeing enemy can be utterly destroyed only through pursuit.’
Suvorov’s guiding principle was a devastating attack concentrated at the weakest point, which he could detect with lethal certainty. He would send his units into the attack piecemeal as they arrived on the battlefield in order to sustain momentum. He favored light infantrymen as skirmishers and sharpshooters, and preferred aimed fire to the massed volleys of line infantry. He used different sizes and types of formations against different foes–squares against the Turks, lines against Poles and columns against the French.
Suvorov also had an astonishing ability to instantly devise and later modify battle plans. ‘Like Caesar, I never make plans in detail,’ he said. ‘I see things only as they really are. The storms of chance always change our previously elaborated plans.’ Because he held a firm belief in the psychological advantage of surprise, he would keep his plans secret and undertake a minimum number of careful reconnaissances, for fear that they would apprise the enemy of his movements and intentions. He also preferred assaults with cold steel for their psychological effect. ‘Push hard with the bayonet,’ he said. ‘The ball may lose its way, the bayonet never. The ball is a fool; the bayonet is a hero.’
Asked on one occasion to select the greatest military commanders of all time, Suvorov chose Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar–and Napoleon Bonaparte. Suvorov’s greatest ambition was to face the Corsican in battle, but it was one dream that he was never to realize, because Bonaparte was in Egypt when Suvorov fought his battles in Italy. Unlike the soldier-statesmen he chose as role models, however, Suvorov had no understanding of, nor interest in, politics. In consequence, although he maintained that the supreme commander must have full authority, he himself never enjoyed absolute freedom of command or initiative in wartime. As a result, he often missed the opportunity to grasp strategic victories.
Suvorov’s political ideal was enlightened monarchy. He made no attempt to conceal his scorn for sycophantic courtiers and for some of the autocratic tendencies of the imperial court of Catherine and her successor, Paul III. He also publicly criticized the Prussian-style military discipline introduced by Czar Paul, which he regarded as cruel and useless. His outspokenness only served to instill distrust in the paranoid czar.
In 1797, Suvorov wrote The Science of Victory, but incurred Paul’s wrath with his protests against the czar’s new Infantry Code, which Suvorov referred to as ‘a translation of a manuscript three-quarters eaten by rats, which had been found in the ruins of an old castle.’ Paul responded by curtly dismissing the nearly 70-year-old field marshal, but in 1799, at the request of Austria, the czar recalled Suvorov and named him supreme commander of Austro-Russian forces that were to campaign against the French in Italy and Switzerland during the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1801).
Despite interference by, and lack of support from, the Austrian high command, Suvorov erased practically all Bonaparte’s gains of 1796 and 1797, and routed his ablest lieutenants–Jean-Victor Moreau at Cassano d’Adda on April 27, Étienne Macdonald at the Trebbia River on June 17-19, and Barthelemy C. Joubert at Novi on August 15.
The Austrian and British leaders, however, feared that the Russian presence in Italy threatened their own interests and influence. Consequently, they thwarted Suvorov’s plan for an invasion of Revolutionary France. Instead, despite Suvorov’s vigorous protests, they convinced Czar Paul to order him to march over the Alps to replace the Austrian element of an Austro-Russian army in Switzerland.
The expedition was doomed before it reached its destination. After being defeated by French General André Masséna near Zürich, Austrian Archduke Charles was transferred to the Netherlands with half of his 80,000-man army. Leaving 12,000 troops at St. Gotthard Pass to guard against Suvorov, Masséna then turned on the 20,000-man Russian army of General Prince Aleksandr Rimsky-Korsakov at Zürich, and on September 25, 1799, he sent it reeling in headlong defeat with 8,000 casualties.
That left Suvorov’s force of 18,000 Russian regulars and 5,000 Cossacks, exhausted and short of provisions, to face Masséna’s 80,000 victorious French troops. The only alternative to annihilation was to undertake a historically unparalleled withdrawal over the Alps. On September 27, the Russians began making their way through Pragel Pass to Glarus. The French reached Glarus first, but Suvorov evaded the trap by redirecting his troops through the village of Elm. Then, on October 6, Suvorov commenced a trek through the deep snows of Panixer Pass and into the 9,000-foot mountains of the Bundner Oberland. Thousands of Russians slipped from the cliffs or succumbed to cold and hunger, but Suvorov, never admitting that he was retreating, eventually escaped encirclement and reached Chur on the Rhine with the bulk of his army–16,000 men–intact.
Suvorov’s Alpine feat gained the grudging admiration of the astonished French and earned him the nickname of the Russian Hannibal, but it did nothing to improve his standing with Paul, who, disgusted with Austrian policy and conduct, withdrew from the coalition. Soon after being promoted to the supreme rank of generalissimo, Suvorov was recalled to St. Petersburg on January 21, 1800, by the czar, who summarily stripped him of his command, his rank and his titles. In poor health and heartbroken, Suvorov died in St. Petersburg on May 18, 1800.
Aleksandr Suvorov bequeathed a triple legacy to his country. First, there were his victories, which gave Russia territory, prestige and military tradition. Second were his theories regarding the organization and preparation for, as well as the waging of, war. Third, was the ‘Suvorov school’ of generals who had apprenticed under him among them, Napoleon’s ultimate Russian nemesis, Mikhail Kutuzov.
Students of military history are often asked if they believe Suvorov was a Russian equivalent of Napoleon. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask, ‘Was Napoleon a French Suvorov?’
This article was written by Russell Isinger and originally published in the October 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!