The ruler of Kievan Rus’, Grand Prince Sviatoslav Igorevich, was rarely seen in Kiev itself, leaving the reins of government of the ancient Russian state fully in the hands of his mother, Princess Olga. The whole meaning of his life resided in warfare.
In his numerous campaigns, Sviatoslav routed the nomadic Khazars and Pechenegs and defeated the Bulgarians; moreover, he seized Bulgaria’s capital Preslav and captured Tsar Boris II. Sviatoslav subjugated a number of tribes, thus significantly expanding the borders of Kievan Rus’ and raising its military and political prestige.
However, a clash with the Byzantine Empire ended in defeat for the warrior prince. Retreating to Kiev in the year 972, he and his druzhina [troops] were ambushed by the Pechenegs. “And Kurya, Prince of the Pechenegs, attacked him; and Sviatoslav was killed; and they took his head and made a cup out of his skull, overlaying it with gold, and they drank from it,” says the ancient Primary Chronicle, the ‘Tale of Bygone Years’.
In 1380, on the field of Kulikovo, Prince of Moscow Dmitry Ivanovich routed the troops of Mongol temnik (military commander) Mamai, who had usurped power within the Golden Horde. The Russians had previously defeated the Mongols on several occasions, but there had never been a victory of this magnitude before.
Skilfully arrayed on the battlefield by the prince, his troops withstood the onslaught of the Mongol cavalry, until an ambush regiment that had been kept in reserve executed a surprise attack on the Mongol rear, ensuring final victory. “We fought the younger ones, but the valiant (the best and most senior) still remained,” Mamai’s warriors said at the time, according to legend.
However, that victory of Prince Dmitry, who became known as ‘Donskoy’ after the battle [which took place by the River Don], did not bring Rus’ liberation from the Mongol khans. Nevertheless, it was a turning point in the following respect: Payments of tribute money to the Horde became irregular and the Russian principalities now not only defended themselves against the old enemy, but also organized their own military campaigns against them. For its part, Moscow became the indisputable center of the process of unifying the Russian lands, which would completely rid themselves of the Mongol yoke only about a hundred years later, at the end of the 15th century.
Although he lived a short life (just 23 years), Prince Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky was one of the most striking figures during the difficult period in Russian history known as the ‘Time of Troubles’. The end of the rule of the Rurik dynasty at the end of the 16th century, a difficult economic situation and famine plunged the Russian state into a chaos of political feuds, uprisings and foreign interventions.
In 1606, at the age of 20, Skopin-Shuisky was appointed a voevoda [military leader] by his great-uncle Vasily Shuisky, after he had ascended the Russian throne [as Vasily IV]. Mikhail began by suppressing an uprising led by Ivan Bolotnikov. Together with his Swedish allies (who provided assistance to the tsar in return for certain territorial concessions), Skopin-Shuisky inflicted a number of defeats on the Polish invaders and impostor False Dmitry II’s troops that had besieged Moscow. During the winter campaigns, the prince actively used detachments of ski-troops which he had set up himself and which proved to be much more effective than cavalry.
In March 1610, Mikhail Skopin-Shuisky ceremonially entered Moscow after it was liberated from the siege. Enjoying enormous popularity and regarded as a national hero, he planned to go to Smolensk, which had been besieged by the Poles. But on May 3 of the same year he suddenly died. The tsar’s brother, the incompetent military leader Dmitry Shuisky, who envied the talented commander, or possibly Tsar Vasily himself, and who saw his widely-celebrated relative as a threat to his own rule, could have been behind the sudden death of the young prince. The decision cost him dearly, though — soon both Shuiskys were captured by the Poles, only to die in captivity.
The scion of a prominent noble family, Pyotr Rumyantsev was known for his propensity for laziness, delinquency and debauchery in his youth. But this selfsame person was soon to become one of the foremost military leaders of the 18th century.
More than once during the Seven Years’ War with the Prussians, success was on the side of the Russian army thanks to Rumyantsev’s initiative and personal courage. In the Battle of Gross-Jägersdorf on August 30, 1757, he was commanding the reserve in the course of a retreat when he sent it into battle without having received orders to this effect, and turned defeat into victory. At Kunersdorf on August 12, 1759, Pyotr Rumyantsev’s soldiers withstood a strong onslaught from the cavalry of Friedrich von Seydlitz and then, under Rumyantsev’s direct command, mounted a counterattack and crushed the enemy.
Pyotr Rumyantsev proved himself not only to be a powerful commander, but also an astute military analyst whose ideas strongly influenced the development of the Russian military school.
While adhering to traditional linear tactics, he also employed extended formations and squares, encouraged greater initiative on the battlefield by soldiers and officers and developed the principles of fast mobile warfare.
The validity of Rumyantsev’s chosen strategy was clearly demonstrated in a series of major victories during the 1768-1774 Russo-Turkish war. Thus, in the Battle of Kagul on August 1, 1770, his army of 17,000 defeated the 150,000-strong Turkish army, losing just over 300 men. At the same time, enemy losses exceeded 20,000.
Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov did not lose a single major battle in the whole of his military career. He took part in seven military campaigns, among which were the suppression of the Polish Uprising and wars against the Ottoman Empire and Revolutionary France. It was Suvorov’s troops who took the impregnable Turkish fortress at Izmail in 1790 and smashed the numerically superior French forces in the Battle of the Trebbia in 1799.
Suvorov’s military strategy was founded on “judgement of eye, speed and attack” — having correctly assessed the situation and found the weak points, he struck rapidly and unexpectedly without regard for the numerical strength of the enemy. In this he differed from the majority of the military commanders of his time (the second half of the 18th century), whose preference was for acting defensively and only attacking when they had a numerical advantage. The Russian commander followed another rule: “Win with ability, not with numbers”.
Alexander Suvorov defeated quite a number of French military commanders and enjoyed genuine respect among his foes. Gen. André Masséna said he would have exchanged all his victories just for Suvorov’s Swiss expedition and Jean Victor Moreau described his march to the Trebbia as the height of military art. Even Napoleon expressed admiration for the Generalissimo, asserting, however, that he had the heart, but not the mind of a great commander. Suvorov had no opportunity to convince the future supreme ruler of Europe otherwise — the two never met on the field of battle.
One of Suvorov’s most talented and favorite pupils, Mikhail Kutuzov led Russian forces in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon, and was thus the man who managed to break the “Grande Armée”.
Taking command in August 1812, Kutuzov continued to adhere to the tactics of his predecessor, Barclay de Tolly, avoiding a general engagement with Napoleon, retreating deep into Russia and wearing down the army of his adversary. In the end, under pressure from the top brass and public opinion, the general field marshal was compelled to confront the “Grande Armée” in open battle, something that occurred at the village of Borodino, 125 km from Moscow.
In what became one of the most important battles of the Napoleonic Wars, Kutuzov did not throw himself precipitously into combat, but preferred to adopt a defensive stance, allowing the French to lose valuable manpower making numerous attacks on Russian positions. The upshot was that no side scored a decisive victory. The French emperor failed to smash the Russian Army, which retained its combat capability and a high fighting spirit. In the circumstances, it meant that his defeat in Russia was not far off.
He was disliked by his superiors for his quarrelsome and brash manner, but adored by soldiers for his courage and bravery in battle. Dressed in a white tunic and peaked cap, Mikhail Skobelev frequently led his troops into the attack on a grey charger, for which he was nicknamed the ‘White General’.
Skobelev was not cut out for the corridors of power. He lived a modest soldier’s life, went on reconnaissance missions with his men, ate from the same cooking pot as them and would secure good uniforms and decent provisions for them from the army command. As a result, soldiers were prepared to follow him through fire and water.
The ‘White General’ scored quite a few victories in the wars that Russia was waging in Central Asia, but the apogee of his career was the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war that gave the peoples of the Balkans independence from the Sultans. By his swift and decisive actions, he was successful in the crossing of the Danube River and the taking of the Shipka Pass, but he distinguished himself particularly brilliantly in the siege of Pleven. Held by a large contingent of Osman Pasha’s troops, the town was keeping the Russian-Romanian forces pinned down, hindering the further advance of the allies. Bloody assaults were proving fruitless.
At the third attempt in August 1877, Skobelev practically brought the army its much-anticipated victory. Seizing two enemy redoubts and digging in, he awaited reinforcements in anticipation that a decisive breakthrough might follow. His troops had to fend off the onslaught of the many times more numerous Turkish forces for many hours. Repelling four enemy attacks, losing around 6,000 men and with no assistance having arrived, Skobelev pulled back in perfect military order. Pleven only fell four months later.
General Vasily Chuikov can, without risk of exaggeration, be described as one of the main architects of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, which initiated the turning of the tide in World War II. His 62nd Army was set the hugely difficult objective of stemming the onslaught of Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army and not yielding the city, while the Red Army prepared for Operation Uranus to encircle the enemy force while it was bogged down in street fighting.
Chuikov took command of the 62nd Army on September 12, 1942 at its most difficult hour. For two months, his troops were pushed back to the banks of the Volga, where, with their last strength, they held a small number of neighborhoods of the city, a sector near the tractor plant and several buildings of the Barrikady factory. His command post was practically on the front line, dangerously close to the Germans. There were moments when, following breakthroughs, soldiers of the Wehrmacht were only a few hundred meters from the Soviet commander.
At Stalingrad, the general introduced the tactics of close combat — the Soviet troop positions were a grenade’s throw from the enemy, something that hindered the work of German aviation and artillery by making them fearful of hitting their own side. At Chuikov’s instigation, special assault parties were established to go into buildings first and catch the enemy unaware. Having overcome resistance, they held their positions and waited for the main forces to arrive. This experience of street fighting was utilized effectively by the general in his subsequent battles, and in particular in the crushing of the Berlin garrison.
“While fighting outside Moscow, we must think of Berlin. Soviet troops will definitely be in Berlin,” Lt. Gen. Konstantin Rokossovsky, commander of the 16th Army, told a correspondent during the bitter battles for the USSR capital. The future marshal was as effective in defensive engagements as he was in offensive operations.
Rokossovsky played an active part in planning Operation Uranus and it was troops of his Don Front that captured Paulus and 90,000 men of his 6th Army. Commanding the Central Front in the Battle of Kursk, he created an in-depth defense and repelled enemy attacks so effectively that he was able to redeploy significant reserves to help on other fronts. Kursk was followed by the Battle of the Dnieper, the crushing of Army Group Center in Operation Bagration, the liberation of his native Poland and victories in East Prussia and Pomerania.
It was Konstantin Rokossovsky who was supposed to have taken the capital of the Third Reich, but at the last moment, he was transferred to another sector and the command of the 1st Belorussian Front advancing on Berlin was given to Georgy Zhukov. Stalin’s exact motives for such a move are unknown to this day. One widespread theory is that the decision was taken because of Rokossovsky’s Polish background. Whatever the reason, relations between the two most prominent Soviet commanders of World War II were soured after that for the rest of their lives.
The most celebrated Soviet military commander of World War II, Georgy Zhukov was respected both by the Western allies and by the enemy. The Germans knew that when Zhukov arrived at the front an offensive would inevitably follow. The marshal notched up an impressive list of triumphs, including the rout of Japanese troops at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, preventing the fall of besieged Leningrad in 1941 and then the breaking of the siege in 1943, the counteroffensive of Soviet troops outside Moscow, the victory in the Kursk Salient and the capture of Berlin.
Zhukov was sent on fire-fighting missions to the most dangerous sectors of the front, where his resolve, toughness, single-mindedness and commander’s special intuition frequently helped to avert disasters. He suffered setbacks too, however, as happened in November-December 1942 in Operation Mars, when the attempt to surround and destroy the Wehrmacht’s 9th Army near Rzhev ended in failure.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an opinion formed that the figure of Georgy Zhukov had been over-hyped and that, in reality, he was a “talentless butcher” who never spared his men. According to historian Alexey Isaev, such views constitute one of the black myths about the war. “If you consider the number of men fighting on the front and the losses in percentage terms, his were consistently lower than those of other military commanders — Konev and Malinovsky, for instance. That is why he was entrusted with a front numbering a million men — his superiors knew that he would be able to handle such a front and sustain only moderate losses, because he was a really top-class professional,” the historian believes.
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