Friday, December 31, 2021

Mikhail Kutuzov

We had Pelé, our oldest son over for Christmas dinner.

At one point he was lamenting that life wasn't turning out as glorious as he had hoped. He had not done anything historic. He had not cured cancer. He had not created a video game to rival Grand Theft Auto. He had not invented a solar-panel paint that can be painted onto any structure thus turning it into a giant solar cell.

In a word, he thinks he is a failure.

I suggested that there is something to be said for still being alive. That cannot be said for all of his classmates.

"Nope. If I were dead I could start over" he replied.

I deduced that he believed in reincarnation....this year.

"My impression is that the form you will be reincarnated as is based on how well you played the cards you were dealt during this lifetime" I told him.

That piqued his interest. "Whaddya mean?" he asked.

"Many times we are dealt shitty hands. Sometimes the best we can hope for is to lose but to lose with elegance and style and at the maximum cost to the victor" I said.

Mikhail Kutuzov

Mikhail Kutuzov was the Russian general who faced off against Napoleon and the greatest and most technologically advanced army in the world.

Napoleon's campaigns were finely tuned to the logistical landscape of Western and Central Europe. To wit, decent roads, canals and harbors. Villages every three miles and enough food, fodder and fuel in the fertile valleys to support a population of 200 people per square-km.

Napoleon entered Russia like a bulldozer, fresh from flattening the greatest armies Europe could muster. European armies with the most modern weapons and the best trained soldiers.

Russia was backwards and poor. Kutuzov had bodies. He had men. He had horses. But he could not match Napoleon musket-for-musket or cannon-for-cannon nor could he match the quality of Napoleon's battle-tested soldiers and officer corp.

On paper, Napoleon should have walked right through Kutuzov's hollow army.

Kutuzov knew that.

In spite of the urging of the government, Kutuzov kept retreating. But it was not a turn-tail and run retreat. It was a set-up-battlelines, harry and then retreat.

Napoleon won battles through rigorous discipline. Every time he encountered one of Kutuzov's phantom battlelines, Napoleon laid in his artillery, assembled the troops, set up the kitchens and hospitals and then launched the battle...against...smoking campfires but no soldiers.

When Napoleon got wise to the trick, Kutuzov was ready. He launched some vigorous sorties into the unprepared French troops and punched Napoleon's pride in the nose.

Napoleon went back into hyper-prepared mode and summer turned into fall turned into winter.

Kutuzov burned fields of grain. Kutuzov burned barns and had the peasants carry grain out of the path of Napoleon's army. There were no trucks in those days. Nor were there trains. Napoleon's army was reduced to dragging their logistical tail.

Not a featherweight but still impressive

It was a consummate demonstration of a featherweight boxer dancing and weaving and not being there when the lumbering heavyweight lunched his haymakers.

Napoleon's army was not outfitted for winter warfare and had no means to update their kit.

By the end of the thirteenth round, the featherweight was scuffed up a little bit but the heavyweight could no longer lift his arms. That is when Kutuzov tagged out and the two greatest generals in Russian history stepped in. General Январь and General Февраль, known in the west as January and February.

This graphic is often presented as the model of maximum information, maximum intuitive content and minimum clutter. The trace starts in the west (left side) and the thickness of the line shows the size of Napoleon's army. Various cities and "battles" are represented with red dots. The black trace is Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Kutuzov was not dealt a winning hand.

Kutuzov played his hand with tenacity and grit and intelligence. In the end, the winner overplayed his hand. Kutuzov did not beat Napoleon. Napoleon beat Napoleon.


  1. I came across this bit of history in late high school or early college and it made a deep impression on me. I used it throughout my business career with great success getting the competition to "step on their dick" while I came out looking good and picking up good, long term customers. It is a tale well worth the study and application.---ken

  2. What you are talking about was the strategy used by George Washington and the Continental rebels in 1776 and 1777. They used it in Boston until the British gave it up and left. And after getting our asses kicked out of NYC, Washington used it deftly in New Jersey, again leaving the British without territory gains by the winter of '77 and sparing Philadelphia at the time.

  3. Pele will soon learn that most people spend their average lives, doing average tasks with no glory or fanfare.
    Not speaking of Pele, but I still have to laugh (sadly) that my daughter had a graduation for: preschool, grade school and Jr. high. I also LAUGH loudly at the people at the 4th grade musical/paly that tried to start a standing ovation.
    We are teaching our children that everything they do is special and deserves attention ( I have yet to have my boos or department celebrate me turning in my reports in a timely manner). There are times and places for that, but not because they finished their glass of milk.
    Napoleon was a very good military strategist (could's would'a should'a) but if he didn't get stuck into overstaying the Russian winter, a very different outcome perhaps.

  4. I do not know how old Pele is, but I think it is a combination of being youngish and a drumbeat throughout our society that we should all be remarkable. I remember feeling this way, and it is a heavy burden to bear when one realizes one is in their 30's or 40's or - Heavens to Betsy - their 50's and have not done anything "significant". I would bet more than one spiraling downward case results from this sort of cognitive disconnection.

    I like your way of looking at it much better. In point of fact we can only work with what we have and the situations we are in. Sure, it would be great if we could get better situations and it is certain that there is always more learning and training to be had - but we may never get the chance to use it. How many budding geniuses throughout the ages never got their "chance" because of war or famine or bad economics? On the other hand, how many moved into different things as they did the best with what they had?

    History would have indeed looked differently if invaders - and not just Napoleon - had just managed to stay out of Russia.

  5. While it's true that Gen. Winter kicked Nappy's behind, there's a bit more to the rest of the story. The lowest bidder concept also made Napoleon grab his own ankles. The lowest bidder won his bid by offering buttons made of zinc. There were no zippers nor velcro in those days, so your pants had the original button fly concept. Your shirts and jackets were held closed by buttons. Under normal usage that worked just fine. However the kind of cold you get deep in Russia has an unusual effect on zinc as a metal. Turns out it's surprisingly difficult to reload a musket, fight AND hold your pants up and your shirt and coat closed at the same time.

    1. Zunk by zinc.

      Rumor has it that the first statues of Lenin were cast of tin. Tin has a second, solid phase (alpha phase) at 20F(ish) and that phase has a lower density than the beta phase that dominates at room temperature. That is, the metal "grows"

      Thermal cycling resulted in fatigue cracks that caused Lenin's nose, ears and lips to fall off.

      Untreated syphilis sometimes has those symptoms.

      The joke was inevitable...but quietly passed around.

      They stopped making statues of Lenin out of tin.

    2. ERJ, that is the best thing I've read in months. Too good.

  6. Interesting graphic, and yes Napoleon was his own worst enemy in that one.

  7. I thought like that when I was younger. But we didn't have the reward for showing up then. Especially not at home. What is really cool, is realizing that you don't have as much at the table as you thought. I'd be a pretty decent dictator, but I don't think I'd be a very good president.

    What I finally decided was to be curious about everything and pass on what I've learned for the asking. Maybe I can help someone go farther than they could have alone.

    I want to the do the best I can with what I have, and not have anything die with me.

  8. I wonder if Kutuzov learned that trick from Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (Cunctator)?


Readers who are willing to comment make this a better blog. Civil dialog is a valuable thing.