Monday, October 29, 2012

Suvorov's Science of Victory


By Lina Zeldovich

Александр Васильевич Суворов
Said to be one of the few commanders in history who never lost a battle, Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov (Александр Васильевич Суворов) had waged wars on nearly every nation that shared borders with the Russian empire. From Turks to Prussians and from Swedes to French, Suvorov had a spectacular and surprisingly long military career for someone who spent his life on the frontline.

No one in his family expected little Sasha Suvorov to become a soldier. A sickly child who spent much of his time in bed, Alexander was deemed unfit for a military career by his father.  Vasiliy Suvorov, a senator and a general-in-chief, knew the army reality all too well, and didn’t think his frail offspring could withstand the hardship. But, captivated by the battle strategies and tactics, Sasha devoted his time to studying the works of renowned historians and military figures – from Plutarch to Cornelius Nepos to Julius Caesar. Determined to join the army despite his ailments and his father, he put himself through vigorous exercise to improve his health and his strength.  

When Sasha was 12, he met General Hannibal, a Russian military commander most known for being a great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, the famous poet. Taken by the young lad, who, in addition to his fascination with martial arts also spoke French, German, Italian, and Polish, Hannibal convinced Suvorov senior to let his unwavering offspring pursue his passion.

And true passion it was. Alexander Suvorov spent more than 50 years of his life on the battlefield. He made a colonel by 33, a general-major before turning 40, and a field marshal a few years later. He led the Russian troops through many a battles in their war with the Ottoman Empire, took part in the famous siege of Ochakov, and won a great victory in a clash at the river Rymnik, for which Catherine the Great bestowed on him the title of Count Rymniksky. In terms of awards and insignia, Suvorov earned pounds of medals and a slew of regalia–from Military Order of Empress Maria Theresa to Alexander Nevsky, and a couple of pages worth of titles: Count of Rymnik, Prince of Sardinia and even Count of the Holy Roman Empire. His last title, which he earned at the age of 70, was generalissimo, the highest military rank possible.

In between marches and sieges, Suvorov penned The Science of Victory, a manual on how to do it right, in style and with flare, which has been used as the holy bible of combat stratagem by a few generations of militants. He coined a few famous sayings venerably recited by Russians to this day, literally and figuratively: "What’s tough in training is easy in a battle" and "Perish yourself but rescue your comrade!"  

Alas, at the end of his career, Suvorov fell out of favor with the royals: Catherine the Great’s son Paul I took offence at the warrior’s sharp tongue. After a few years of forced retirement, Suvorov was called to lead the troops against Napoleon but despite his burning wish never met him in a battle. He is, however, famous for crossing the Alps in winter, a maneuver historically achieved only by Hannibal. Alas, the move was not to wage a spectacular attack on the French but to save the greatly outnumbered Russian troops. Still, that was the maneuver that netted Suvorov his title of the fourth generalissimo of Russia, only days before his death. He never rested on his hard-earned laurels–Tsar Paul, true to his dislike of the old soldier, skipped the ceremony. (Vasily Surikov later painted the legendary Suvorov’s Troops Crossing the Alps, now in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.)

Warrior’s luck wasn’t as favorable to Suvorov's son, Arkadiy, who followed his father’s footsteps into the military stardom. Fighting the Turks where the undefeated patriarch did twenty years earlier, he drowned in the very river Rymnik that had brought his father so much fame.

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