6.12.12

The Science of Victory

Tuesday, 11 February 1890 - St. Petersburg, Russia

The Field of Mars at St. Petersburg
Today I visited the Fields of Mars here in St. Petersburg. It was originally just called Grand Meadow when the city was first founded. Peter the Great set it aside as a park called Pleasure Field. His daughter Empress Elizabeth turned it into a garden with flowers and walkways.

By the late 1700s the Pleasure Field became a military drilling ground. It seemed the perfect spot for a monument to the great Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov. Erected in 1801, just one year after his death, it shows Suvorov as a young Mars, god of war. It’s a very impressive figure...and looks nothing like Suvorov.

Suvorov as Mars
Suvorov from
Catherine Monument
There is also a figure of Suvorov on the Catherine the Great Monument showing the prominent figures of her reign just below her. It shows a small skinny man that looks like a professor or accountant. This is what Suvorov actually looked like. He did not have the physique of a warrior or the good looks needed be a leader. All Suvorov had was a keen mind and fierce spirit. And that is what made him one of the greatest military minds that ever lived! 68 battles and not one defeat. I don’t know off-hand of any other general who can make that claim.

Alexander Suvorov was born in Moscow in 1730 to a noble family. His father, Vasiliy Suvorov, was a General-In-Chief. Young Alexander wanted to be a soldier like his daddy. He read every military writer he could find, and played soldier, trying to toughen his frail body. Vasiliy knew the boy was smart, but he was too sickly to be on a battlefield.

Vasiliy talked a neighbor, Abram Gannibal, into speaking to the boy. Maybe he would listen to the famous Major-General. So Gannibal sat down and had a heart-to-heart with the lad. He later told his father, “Let the boy do what he wants.” Apparently Gannibal had been quite impressed with Alexander’s knowledge of military strategy.

At the age of seventeen Alexander Suvorov went into the Russian army as a private. He didn’t see combat until he was 26 but he so impressed his superiors that by the age of 33 he was a colonel. By 38 he was a major-general.

Suvorov had his own ideas on military training and strategy and wrote books on the subject, the most famous being The Science of Victory. He wrote them in such a manner that even poorly educated privates could understand. For Suvorov discipline didn’t mean making your men more afraid of you than of the enemy. Discipline meant turning your men into confident soldiers. Marching in formation was fine, but served little purpose in battle. He had his men go through maneuvers that most mimicked actual fighting, so they would react instinctively in war. “Train hard and the fighting will be easy; train easy and the fighting will be hard.” He also encouraged his men to think on their feet and work in teams. In the chaos of battle, an officer could not always be there to give orders. Other generals had pawns, Suvorov had warriors.

Alexander Suvorov
Suvorov also believed that a leader should lead by example. While most generals controlled armies behind the lines, Suvorov led them into battle. Rather than a cushy tent, Suvorov slept on straw like the privates and ate what they ate. This made his men love him. I think it also made them endure much, since they did not want to be shown up by this wisp of a man.

Catherine the Great loved him, too. They were probably never lovers, but she admired his brains and courage. Suvorov was outspoken and was not above giving a clever gibe to someone at court. He did not suffer fools. I sometimes wonder if Catherine invited him to court dinners because he could say what she dared not. She was after all a foreigner and could not afford to insult powerful nobles. Catherine knew how to pick her battles. And I doubt Suvorov was afraid to speak his mind to the Empress when he felt her in error, which she also appreciated.

I think the friendship of Suvorov and Catherine is best summed up by the story of his promotion. In the war with the Poles, after capturing Warsaw, he sent her the short message: “Hurrah! Warsaw is ours.” Catherine sent back an even shorter note: “Hurrah Field Marshall.” Suvorov was not a field marshal--until he got this message.

Catherine heaped medals and honors on Suvorov. She made him Count Suvorov of Rymnik (for the Battle of Rymnik). She was not the only one. Prussia would make him a count and Italy would make him a prince for his services as an ally. He had been given so many medals I doubt he could wear them all at once without falling over.

Unfortunately Paul I, Catherine’s son, inherited his father’s brains and not his mother’s. When he was crowned in 1796 he decided to make changes. His generals would be chivalrous. His idea of chivalry was pretty high for he dismissed 333 generals and 7 field marshals. Suvorov was one of them. No doubt Tsar Paul was irritated by Suvorov’s sharp if honest tongue. He had criticized the Tsar’s dressing the soldiers in impractical Prussian uniforms. Suvorov retired disgraced at 66.

Then Napoleon began to move east in 1799. Now Paul needed the man he had sent away. He summoned Suvorov to lead the Russian army against the French. The 69-year-old man drove Napoleon’s forces out of Italy (which was a collection of independent states at that time). The King of Sardinia made Suvorov a Prince of the House of Savoy.

Later that year however Suvorov was betrayed by Austria and had to make a tactical retreat over the Alps. This was the closest thing he had ever had to a defeat, yet even if the mountain crossing was a triumph in itself. No one had crossed the Alps since Hannibal. Hannibal lost more than half of his army. Suvorov lost only a few men.

March of Suvorov through the Alps
by Vasily Surikov.
Suvorov returned to St. Petersburg where he had been promised a heroes welcome. Tsar Paul reneged, deciding he didn’t need the old man anymore. Worn-out and humiliated, Suvorov died a few days later at the age of 70. A year later Paul I was assassinated and his son Alexander I became Tsar. He erected the statue to Suvorov that same year.

Suvorov greatest dream was to meet Napoleon on the battlefield. He never got the opportunity. However when the French tried to invade Russia in 1812, it was General Mikhail Kutuzov, Suvorov’s protégé, who drove him back. Kutuzov credited Suvorov for teaching him how best to lead an army. Indeed Suvorov’s “protégé” will be born after his death. His books will teach many officers in Russia and elsewhere the Science of Victory.

More on Alexander Suvorov’s many battles

Quotes by Suvorov

A video Tribute to Suvorov

Suvorov in Action
This is a clip from a film in Russian. The actor however has captured Suvorov so well it doesn’t need translation.

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