What does it take for a person to hold to a correct course of action when every other surrounding voice is opposed?
That’s one key thread of LSU Shreveport history professor Dr. Alexander Mikaberidze’s new biography about Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Golenischev-Kutusov, a book which has received the top honor in its category from the Society for Military History.
Mikaberidze will travel to San Diego to be recognized as the winner of the Distinguished Book Award in the biography category at the organization’s national conference, which begins March 23.
It’s the second such honor for Mikaberidze, whose first award came in the non-U.S. history category for a book about the Napoleonic Wars.
“It’s always unexpected because I have all of these stacks of books, and you’re reading what is being done in the field,” said Mikaberidze, who has taught at LSUS since 2007. “You have this imposter syndrome because you’re reading all of these great books that are out there.
“So to be selected the best from among dozens and dozens of titles, it’s humbling and encouraging. And to be selected by your own peers who say you’re at the top – that’s a remarkable feeling.”
Mikaberidze turns to Napoleon’s Russian counterpart Kutuzov for his latest publication, “Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace”, in which he details a military commander who near the end of his 54 years of service chose the difficult path of a controlled retreat rather than face the French Grande Armee head on.
“So much of what is written is from the British or French point of view, so this book is designed to show the other side of the proverbial coin,” Mikaberidze said. “When we look at the other side, especially from the view of Napoleon’s opponents, oftentimes we see the reality that kind of bursts the bubble that surrounds Napoleon.
“Kutusov’s life is fascinating. He’s a jack-of-all trades guy that whenever Russia had a problem, he’s the person they turned to.”
Russia faced one of its largest quandaries in its history in 1812.
The French emperor had captured almost all of continental Europe, and one of the greatest fighting forces in world history set its sight on Russia at the height of France’s power.
“We know quite a bit about what Russians were thinking because we have literally thousands of letters,” Mikaberidze said. “We know they are very concerned, but we also knew they were well aware of what was coming their way because a Russian spy infiltrated the French government and essentially steals reports about Napoleon’s troops – how many and what type.
“They were absolutely aghast to learn that Napoleon was bringing 600,000 men when Russia could mobilize about 250,000.”
But Kutuzov assumed control of the Russian army and executed a controlled retreat that included a scorched earth tactic in which the army destroyed crops and anything else the French military might find useful.
“This is a famous retreat in which Kutuzov exchanged land for time and let strategic attrition, fatigue and the elements decimate the French army before the Russians can muster a force big enough to strike back,” Mikaberidze said. “But there was vociferous resistance to this tactic – even though in hindsight historians recognized it’s the right thing to do.
“It takes a particular type of person to insist on this tactic and see it through, even when it means that Russian cities burn and citizens suffer.”
France won the conflict’s biggest battle outside of Moscow and eventually captured the capital itself, which the Russians themselves burned before withdrawing.
Kutusov continued the retreat deeper into Russia, and his resistance and guerilla tactics along with the onset of the Russian Winter meant the French couldn’t find enough resources to sustain themselves locally while their incredibly long supply lines failed.
This forced the French to embark on what became a disastrous retreat, escaping the region with just 40,000 troops.
Russia holds Kutusov as one of its heroes, although Mikaberidze adds that the current Russian regime celebrated Kutusov in a peculiar way in their annual September celebration this year.
“It’s a celebration of the Battle of Borodino, which the French actually won and would go on take Moscow,” Mikaberidze said. “The government commissioned these massive banners which had this larger-than-life figure Kutusov, a lesser-known 19th-century figure and then two figures from the war in Ukraine going on right now.
“It’s the juxtaposition of a legendary military commander like Kutusov leading the new generation just like he led Russia to what clearly ended up being a great victory against France. Every nation sees the importance of history and crafting a particular view of history – we can call it national myth or national narrative. But Russia, particularly in the last 23 years or so, there’s a focus on a nationalistic interpretation of history. The glorification of the past, this narrative of reviving Russian greatness. Co-opting historical figures like Kutusov for a specific purpose – we won once, we can win again -- are part and parcel of it.”
The Oxford University Press published both of Mikaberidze’s award-winning books.