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Elizabeth I’s Birthday

 

Elizabeth I of Russia

Portrait of Elizabeth I of Russia

Elizabeth Petrovna (Episodes 40 and 41) was born on December 29, 1708 as the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I. Her reign, from December 6, 1741 to January 5, 1762 was marked with enormous expenditures of money on the arts and architecture. She was one of the most popular monarchs in Russia’s history in part because of her outlawing execution.

Her father, Peter I, was a towering figure. His legacy would cast a huge shadow on the people of Russia for centuries to come. To be the daughter of a legend must have been hard but Elizabeth was up to the challenge. She was betrothed to Prince Karl Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin but he died a few days after the betrothral. She was never to marry and would have no children to succeed her.

After her father died, her mother Catherine took over but her reign was brief, lasting only two years. After her death, her cousin, Peter II who was the son of Peter the Great’s brother Alexis assumed the throne. He lasted less than three years and with his death, Peter the Great’s niece, Anna Ioannovna took over as Empress of Russia from 1730 to 1740. Shortly before she died, she named her grandnephew Ivan VI as heir but the boy was a mere one-year old. His mother,  Anna Leopoldovna became regent but she was widely disliked because of her German advisers. Within two months he was overthrown by Elizabeth and her allies and locked away never to be heard of again. When guards tried to free him, he was murdered at the order of Catherine the Great.

Assuming the throne as Empress on December 6, 1741, Elizabeth was to reign for twenty years. She was head of Russia during a trying time with the Seven Years War raging throughout Europe. Elizabeth and her policies were to have an enormous influence on the outcome of the war. Her domestic policies were solid as they continued with the ideas of Westernization started by her father.

She knew that without a child, a succession issue would arise so Elizabeth selected her nephew, son of her sister Anna, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp as the next in line. Next up was a wife for him and after much debate she picked Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst who was christened Catherine when she converted to Orthodoxy.

When Catherine gave birth to a son Paul, he was snatched from his mother and raised by Elizabeth. This cause a great deal of emotional distancing to take place between mother and son. After Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter III was crowned Tsar but his reign would only last for six months before he was overthrown and killed by a coup that elevated his wife Catherine the Great to the throne.

Elizabeth’s legacy is positive although unremarkable. While she cannot be rated as one of the best Russian rulers of all time, she certainly does not come close to being one of the worst.

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Decembrist Revolt

Decembrist Officers in Revolt

The Decembrist Revolt

The Decembrist Revolt was undertaken on December 26, 1825 to protest the ascension of Tsar Nicholas I to the throne after the death of his father Alexander I. When Alexander died, it was assumed that Constantine would take the throne so many officers pledged their allegiance to him. Constantine declined the role publicly but some of the officers did not know it or did not believe it. Nicholas I stepped forward but he was terribly unpopular so about 3,000 officers decided to take action.

The Decembrist Revolt was not a single event so much as a reaction to the post-Napoleonic war situation in Russia. For years, few Russians traveled abroad they only knew the system that was authoritarian, with supreme power held by the Tsar. They also knew a world where serfdom was the norm. When Russian troops chased Napoleon all the way to France, they began to notice that their world was an anomoly and that the outside world had a lot more to offer than Russia. The Decembrist movement was born out of this awakening.

The first group to form post Napoleon in 1816 was the Union of Salvation, or of the Faithful and True Sons of the Motherland. They were made up of liberal minded officers of the Imperial Russian Guard. Following a revolt by the Semenovsky Regiment in 1820 it was decided to go underground. Two factions developed, the Northern Society and the Southern Society. The later group was the more radical, led by Pavel Pestel. The Northern Society, based in St. Petersburg, was led by Nikita Muraviev, Prince S. P. Trubetskoy and Prince Eugene Obolensky.

At first, Alexander I thought liberal reform to be necessary but as time went on he felt that Russia was not ready and that a return to conservative authoritarian rule was the way to go. Repression of groups espousing liberal ideas was carried out by the Tsar’s secret police. This caused the officers to become even more radical in response.

Early on December 26th, about 3,000 men assembled in Senate Square to protest the ascension of Nicholas. The Tsar ordered over 9,000 soldiers to surround the officers and pressure them to leave. Insults flew from the rebels side but the Decembrist movement was in dissarray as Prince Trubetskoy, the supposed leader was no where to be found. His cold feet and later Colonel Bulatov’s, the supposed second in command doomed the movement.

Still the men refused to leave whereby an order to fire on them was issued. A cavalry charge was tried first, but because of the icy cobblestones, that was abandoned. Finally, Nicholas ordered the artillery corp to fire on the men creating havoc. As they tried to flee the scene many were killed when they crossed the Neva river which was shelled, causing the ice to break, drowning many of the men.

The Southern Society never got a chance to join the Decembrist movement as their leader, Pavel Pestel had been arrested the day before. While they tried an armed uprising it was suppressed quickly. Arrests were made with five sentenced to hanging and others to exile. When they tried to hang the five men, the ropes broke which would, according to tradition be seen as God’s commuting the death sentence. Nicholas would have none of that and ordered the men to be  hung again. This time the rope held and all died. It was to be the last execution ordered by a Russian Tsar.

The Decembrist movement may have failed but it began the rumbling of society that would eventually lead to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Dissatisfaction with the Romanov’s and their rule would grow, especially among the liberal intelligentsia  Men like Lenin, Herzin, and Bakhunin were born of the Decembrist movement.

 

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Alexander I of Russia

Alexander I of Russia

Tsar Alexander I

Tsar Alexander I, also known as Alexander the Blessed was born on December 23, 1777. His rule of Russia from March 24, 1801 following the assassination of his father Paul I, was a tumultuous one. The crowning glory of his reign of course was the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte during the Napoleonic Wars.

Born to Paul Petrovich Romanov and Maria Feodorovna née Sophie Dorothea, he was raised primarily by his grandmother, Catherine the Great. She had little faith in his father Paul which caused Alexander a great deal of difficulty later in his life. He tried to appease both his grandmother and his father which led to his doing the same when he became Tsar in 1801. Throughout his reign, Alexander tried to make everyone happy but he was also a master manipulator as well.

After the murder of his father Paul in March of 1801, Alexander assumed the mantle of the Russian Empire with a great deal of guilt. Some say he knew that the conspirators led by Counts Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen and Nikita Petrovich Panin were planning the murder, others thought not. It is clear that he knew of the plot to remove his unpopular father from the throne. It is equally clear that they did not tell him of their nefarious plans. Nonetheless, Alexander did take over (Episode 53) for his father at the age of 23 with the admonition “Time to grow up! Go and rule!” by General Nicholas Zubov.

Early on in his reign, Alexander began to try to reform the country especially the government. Led by the liberal  Mikhail Speransky reforms were drawn up and ready for action. Some of the reforms came to be, but for the whole, not a lot was done partly due to a problem that was cropping up in Europe; the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte to the world stage.

It was his battles with Napoleon (Episode 54) that made Alexander I the hero that he became to his people. Starting in 1807 and finishing in 1814, the war against Napoleon had its ups and downs but eventually, Alexander and his Russian army prevailed. After this though, the Tsar’s personality took a conservative and somewhat mystic turn.

In 1825, in the town of Taganrog Alexander supposedly died after a short illness. Rumor though has it that he did not die that he became the monk Feodor Kuzmich. Some in the Romanov family were told that the two men were one and the same and there is actually a book called Imperial Legend: The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I by Troubetzkoy that claims the same thing. Whatever the truth, his brother Nicholas I takes over for him and begins the slide that the Romanov’s never recovered from.

 

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Winter Palace Catches Fire

Winter Palace Fire

The fire at the Winter Palace in 1837

On December 17, 1837, the Winter Palace caught on fire. The official home of the Tsar’s of Russia, it was first built starting in 1711 commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great. The first Winter Palace was designed by Domenico Trezzini, a Swiss-Italian architect. Trezzini’s most famous work that still stands today is the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Peter I, as he was want to be, soon grew tired of the building and commissioned a second one to be built. This time he switched architects to Georg Mattarnovy. It was in this version of the Winter Palace that Peter was to die in 1725.

Peter II, decided in 1727 to redo the building his grandfather had begun. This time he brought back Trezzini who decided to make it a far grander palace. The third version of the Winter Palace was completed in 1728 but Peter decided to move the court to Moscow. With his death in 1730, Anna I decided to move the court back to St. Petersburg. She wanted a more grandiose palace so she called in  Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli to make it so.

It was under Elizabeth I that the palace really took shape. At a cost of over 2.5 million rubles, it was truly spectacular. But under Catherine the Great, things really became extravagant. Incredible art pieces were installed throughout. The Hermitage was built adjacent to the Winter Palace by Catherine in 1764 to hold the overflow of art.

More art poured into the Winter Palace after taking many masterpieces from Napoleon’s ex-wife Josephine. Alexander I and Nicholas I continued to upgrade things with the latter being responsible for the rebuilding after the fire in 1837. It now contains 1,500 rooms, 1,786 doors and 1,945 windows which is staggering to say the least.

Because of its size, after the assassination of Alexander II, it was deemed to be too big to protect the last two Tsar’s. The the Palace of Gatchina was now the primary home, some 40 miles from St. Petersburg. Nicholas II decided that this didn’t suit him and his family and moved them to  Tsarskoe Selo.

Under Soviet and current rule, the Winter Palace is part of the overall Hermitage museum. It attracts over 3.5 million visitors each year. It is a marker for the decadence of the Russian Tsar’s and a monument to incredible art. Hopefully, in the not to distant future I will be able to visit the Winter Palace which I understand was not very far from where my ancestors lived.

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Denikin – White Russian General

Anton Denikin

General Anton Denikin

On December 16, 1872, the son of a one time serf, Anton Ivanovich Denikin was born in Szpetal Dolny. This small village in what is now Poland, was once a part of the Russian Empire. This unlikely leader was part of anti-communist movement during the Russian Civil War (Episode 71).  He was to commit numerous atrocities, especially against the Jewish population. His push towards Moscow during the summer of 1919 almost toppled the Bolshevik’s but ultimately his army was defeated.

Anton Denikin was the son of a former serf, Ivan Efimovich Deniken who was forced into a 25 year tour of military service started in 1833. Eventually he would become an officer in 1856, retiring as a major. His father’s patriotic feelings towards the Tsar and the Russian Empire inspired Anton to go into the military himself. Another ideal that Denikin was to take from his father was his deep seated hatred of Jews.

Living in extreme poverty, Denikin began to take courses at Kiev Junker School in 1890.  He graduated in 1892 and applied to the General Staff Academy in 1895. Unfortunately, Denikin could not meet the academic requirements in his first two years there. He continued to try and seemingly had made it only to find out that they changed the rules. He plead his case to the Grand Duke who made him an offer to enter that Denikin felt was an insult to his integrity.

Over the following years, Denikin continued to move up the ranks. In 1905, the Russo-Japanese War began and by now he was a colonel. By the time World War I began, he was now a major general. It was here that Denikin began to show his mettle.

While he had the cushy job of being named Quartermaster General Brusilov‘s 8th Army, he wanted to go to the front. He was given his wish when he joined the 4th Rifle Brigade. He was to serve brilliantly. During the Brusilov Offensive he was to help win the last Russian offensive during the war.

With the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he joined the staff of  Lavr Kornilov. Not liking what they saw with the Provisional Government, Denikin participated in the  Kornilov Affair. He was arrested in September 1917 but escaped in October.  Denikin joined Grand Duke Nicholas, Kornilov and other Russian officers to mount opposition to the Bolshevik’s.

When Kornilov was killed, Denikin took over as Commander-in-Chief. His mission was to capture Moscow and in the summer of 1919 he almost accomplished it. The city and the Bolshevik revolution was saved by a deal made between Leon Trotsky and Nestor Makhno‘s anarchist Black Army. Makhno would later be betrayed by the communists but he served his purpose.

While in retreat, Denikin’s army began its legacy of atrocities against the Jewish population. Over 100,000 were murdered in the pogroms. By now, international pressure and support forced Denikin to resign. He eventually fled to France but ended up in the United States in 1945, dying there in 1947. Initially buried in France, his remains were brought back to Russia in 2005 at the behest of his daughter. He is now buried at the  Donskoy Monastery in Moscow.

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Persian Interactions with Russia

One of the greatest praises one can get is when someone takes your idea and runs with it. Mike Rakshan did just that with his new podcast, The History of Persia. His obvious passion for the subject is likely due to his being of Persian descent like mine being because of my Russian descent. You can tell in his voice that this is a project that comes from the heart which makes it a great listen. Also, thanks for the shout out at the beginning of the podcast. Much appreciated.

Interactions between Russia and the Persian’s (present day Iran) have persisted from the time that people inhabited the land of the Rus until present day. Through Persia the Russians were exposed to the religion of Islam and it is thought that Persian emissaries came to the court of Vladimir the Great to present their religion to him although some believe it was Bulgarian Muslim’s who made the presentation.

Persian merchants were major trading partners with the Kievan Rus back in the late 10th and early 11th century. While Constantinople was the biggest partner, Persians were not far behind. Through the time of the Samanid dynasty 819 – 999, Ghaznavids 963–1186 and the shared invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century trading continued.

Now under the thumb of the different Mongol Hordes, there was still some trade going on but because of how devastated the Persian population was, it went down to a trickle. As both countries struggled to shake off the domination, they began to evolve in different ways. But they did have a common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman-Persian Wars were fought from about 1514-1823.

The Russians began to come into conflict with the Ottoman’s as they began their expansion south, beginning with the ascension to the throne by Peter the Great. His Great Embassy through Europe was to gather allies in his fight to take Ottoman territories (Episode 31)  like the base at Azov. When he saw the threat of the Swedes under Charles XII he signed a treaty with the Ottoman’s much to the dismay of the Persian leaders who were themselves were fighting wars with the Ottomans.

Moving to the more recent dealings,things between the USSR and the Shah of Iran were cool. Under Gorbachev, better relations with Iran were tried as a buttress against American influence in the Middle East. With Putin, conflicts arose between the Persian Iranians and Russia die to conflicts in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, former members of the USSR were developing their independent energy resources which was opposed by Iran.

I look forward to hearing more about Persian history from Mike as it seems to be a long and interesting one.

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Chechnya and the First Chechen War

Chechnya, is a country found in the southeastern part of Europe in the Northern Caucasus mountains. It was annexed by the Russian Empire in the 1870’s. It was later joined with Ingushetia to form the autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingushetia in the late 1930s as a member state in the USSR. Its time as a member state of the Soviet Union was not a good one as we shall see.

What is remarkable about Chechnya is that it is home to one of the earliest known human settlements, dating back to 125,000 BCE. Ever since the 1400’s, Chechnya has been in constant strife trying to remain independent of foreign rule. Unfortunately for them, they were stuck between two great empires, the Ottomans and the Russians. They converted as a people to Sunni Islam so they were more closely allied to the Turks as opposed to the Russians. This was not to prove to be a viable alliance as the Ottoman Empire began a steady decline while the Russians were expanding. Chechnya was eventually absorbed into Russia in 1875.

The deal with the Russians was due to constant raiding by the Turks and Persian despite the common Sunni religion. The merger though was not popular with the people. So whenever turmoil hit Russia, the people of Chechnya revolted as they did during  Russo-Turkish War, the Russian Revolution of 1905 (Episode 64), the Russian Revolution of 1917 Episode 67), and the Russian Civil War (Episode 71).

This history of rebellion did not sit well with Joseph Stalin as you might imagine. The NKVD, under orders from Stalin, began mass deportations of millions of Chechens and Ingush peoples. The were sent to the Kazakh SSR and Siberia in 1944. This was supposed punishment for helping the Nazi’s during the Great Patriotic War. While under Nikita Khrushchev, they were gradually allowed to return to their homeland. Although the program of Russification was kept in effect. This was to cause a festering hatred of the Russians.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 an independence movement was founded called Chechen National Congress. This group was led by former Soviet Air Force General and new Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin was opposed to the independence of the country and tried to send a military force to invade the country and subdue it on December 11, 1994.  For two years the two countries fought but like Afghanistan, the mountainous regions within Chechnya proved impossible to control. On August 31, 1996, a peace treaty was signed and hostilities for the moment were over.

A second war in Chechnya was begun in 1999 and lasted over nine years with Russian victory at a grave cost. Rebels continue to harass Russian troops and on occasion terrorist attacks have taken place on Russian soil.

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Tsar Mikhail Romanov?

Grand Prince Mikhail Romanov

Presumptive Tsar Mikhail Romanov

On December 4, 1878, Mikhail Alexanderovich Romanov, the last Tsar of Russia was born. He was the youngest son of Tsar Alexander III and brother of Tsar Nicholas II. He was the first, but not the last, Romanov to be murdered by the Bolsheviks.

Born into royalty, when he was born he was fifth in line to the Romanov dynasty. When his grandfather Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, he moved up to fourth. With the death of his father Tsar Alexander III in 1994 and the ascension of his brother Tsar Nicholas II, he became second in line behind his brother George. George died in an motorcycle accident in 1899 which made Mikhail the next in line. When Nicholas’s son Alexei was born, he was no longer next but because of the boys delicate health, having hemophilia, he was regarded as the likely heir should anything happen to his brother.

While most would think that being born into a family as wealthy as the Romanov’s would mean a life of luxury, it was not so with Mikhail and his siblings. Tsar Alexander III believed that the children should live a spartan life, sleeping on hard beds, and washing themselves in cold water. Still, life for them was far better than the majority of Russians of the time. Life changed dramatically for Mikhail as his father died when he was just 15 years of age. He was quickly enrolled in military school to prepare him for the potential to take over as Tsar should it come to that.

His love life began in controversy as he fell in love with his first cousin, Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Their proposed marriage was denied by both the Russian Orthodox Church as well as his brother, Tsar Nicholas II. He reluctantly ended the relationship. Next up was a relationship that horrified the Tsar’s family as Mikhail fell in love with a commoner, Alexandra Kossikovskaya. Dina as she was known was never accepted by the family as they had her followed constantly by the Russian secret Police, the Okhrana.

Eventually, he met someone Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert, the wife of a fellow military officer. The Tsar’s family was once again aghast at Mikhail. Eventually she would divorce her husband to marry Mikhail but much to the chagrin of his family, she gave birth to a boy George, before the divorce was finalized. The Romanov’s back dated the divorce to avoid further embarrassment.

When World War I began, Mikhail asked to return to Russia with his wife and child to help with the war effort. He served bravely in the war but he felt that it was a tragedy for the people. With the war going so poorly for the Russians, he was further dismayed when his brother Tsar Nicholas II decided to take over as Supreme Commander. His countless mistakes caused great suffering and terrible casualties among the brave Russian soldiers.

Mikhail believed that the people were beginning to oppose his brothers reign and told him so in a letter in 1916. By March 15, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, first giving his son Alexei the throne but after careful thinking, he changed his mind and gave up his throne to brother Mikhail. He wrote, “We have judged it right to abdicate the Throne of the Russian State and to lay down the Supreme Power. Not wishing to be parted from Our Beloved Son, We hand over Our Succession to Our Brother the Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich and Bless Him on his accession to the Throne.”

Mikhail was not told of the decree until the next morning. After careful deliberation and pressure from the Provisional Government, Mikhail conditionally declined the offer, effectively ending the Romanov Dynasty. Nicholas was very disappointed but had little choice in the matter.

On August 21, 1917, Mikhail was put under house arrest and while later released, the Bolsheviks, now in power, rearrested him. On June 13, 1918, Mikhail Alexanderovich Romanov, would become the first of the royal family to be murdered. It was an ignominious death of a man so close to the pinnacle of power as the presumptive last Tsar of Russia.

 

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Battle of Narva

The Battle of Narva

The Swedish Victory at Narva by Gustaf Cederström – 1910

The Battle of Narva, a battle between Charles XII of Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia (Episodes 34 and 35) and was a major disaster for the Russians. While the Russian’s lost tens of thousands of men, Peter learned a valuable lesson. He knew that the Russian military needed to be modernized because it would continue to suffer defeats like this to his European enemies. One of the early battles of the Great Northern War, Narva was fought on November 30, 1700. Charles XII sent his small army to relive the troops stationed in Narva against a vastly larger Russian Army.

Peter the Great wanted to expand his empire to the north. He had put together an alliance with Denmark-Norway and August the Strong of Poland-Lithuania. Charles, with the help of the British Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy landed near Copenhagen to force the Danes and Norway out of the alliance in August of 1700. From there the Swedish army with backing of Estonian and Finnish troops headed to Estonia.

By early November, the Russian army, numbering about 35,000 men, surrounded Narva, which while in Estonia, was a part of the Swedish Kingdom. Charles XII decided to take his army of 10,000 to save his embattled comrades. Charles led the attack with his 8,000 troops (2,500 were inside the city) aided by General Carl Gustav Rehnskiold. Peter, for his part, had left Narva a few days before the Swedes arrived. Many in Europe at the time viewed this as an act of cowardice.

On the day of the battle, the weather was horrific with a blizzard blowing in the faces of the Swedish army. At midday, the winds switched and blew directly into the face of the Russians which caused Charles to take advantage and attack. The actual battle itself was a rout with Charles blowing through the undisciplined Russian army. While retreating the bridge over the Narova river collapsed with over 6,000 Russian soldiers falling into the frozen river and drowning.

Almost all Russian artillery pieces were lost during the battle leaving Russia indefensible. Had Charles decided to carry the war into Russia, there would have been no way for them to fight back. Shockingly, Charles decided against pressing the attack and turned southward to attack August the Strong of Poland-Lithuania to teach him a lesson. This delay was all Peter needed to regroup and learn from the terrible lesson taught to him be the loss at the Battle of Narva.

Four years later, Peter returned with 45,000 men, far better trained and equipped than before and took the town. The Swedish army was destroyed with most of the inhabitants killed. Russian losses were severe with over 10,000 killed or wounded.

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Suvarov – Undefeated Russian General

Undefeated General Suvarov

General Suvarov – Russia’s Greatest General

General Alexander Suvarov, one of the few generals in military history to have never been defeated in battle was born on this day in 1729. He is credited with being responsible for the foundation of the Russian school of military art. Because of his numerous successes, his titles include Prince, Field Marshall, Count and Generalissimo.

A sickly child, Suvarov, decided to work through his physical weaknesses and go into military training despite his father’s objections. He was also a very studious boy, learning multiple languages and studying the works of Plutarch, Julius Caesar, Quintus Curtius, Charles XII, and Cornelius Nepos. When he was twelve, General Abraham Gannibal (someone who will get a podcast about his life one day) told Alexander’s father that the boy should be allowed to go into military service because of his great intellect.

When he turned 18 he entered into military service and saw his first combat during the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763). By 1763 his brilliance was already noted and he was elevated to regimental commander. Quickly he moved up the ranks to Brigadier then Major General. From 1768-1772 he helped to defeat the Polish Confederation of the Bar, capturing Krakow.  which led to the first partition of Poland.

Suvarov was a key general during the First (1768-1774) and Second (1787-1792) Turkish Wars, winning battle after battle. He was a favorite of Catherine the Great which eventually led him to fall into disfavor when Emperor Paul took over the Russian Empire.

Suvarov’s legacy was as great as he was as a military leader. His book, the Art of Victory written in 1795-6 was a masterpiece. He told his students that to win battles three things were necessary, “speed, assessment, and attack” with speed being most important. As he put it, “One minute decides the outcome of battle, one hour the success of a campaign, one day the fate of empires… I operate bot by hours but by minutes.” Suvarov also believed that flexibility was also one of the most important features of a great military leader. Unfortunately, this was lost on subsequent generations of Russian generals.

I have plans to put together a whole podcast episode on General Suvarov in the future as he was one of the most compelling figures throughout Russian history.

 

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