Pfuel had drawn up a plan (far away in Petersburg) for the capture of Napoleon, but the battle of Berezina turned into a tragic spectacle. When the Berezina bridges were broken down, everyone—unarmed soldiers, Moscow inhabitants, women and children—ran into boats and even into the freezing water instead of surrendering. They sensed it was better to perish among their own than to suffer or die as a prisoner.
Pfuel’s disastrous plan exemplifies the view that “European” strategizing doesn’t go as planned. The French wanted to retreat over the Berezina River (in what’s now Belarus), but the river had undergone an unseasonable thaw, and many soldiers and civilians drowned or froze.
After the Berezina plan fails, Russian commanders are even more intent on pursuing the French and even more disdainful of Kutuzov. Kutuzov receives word that the Emperor is unhappy with him and will be visiting any day. At that moment, Kutuzov understands that his time is up. He feels that his role is complete and that he needs rest.
Unlike Napoleon, Kutuzov doesn’t have much of an ego to speak of. He’s been fighting against the tide of the more aggressive younger generals and knows the Emperor feels no different; accepting that reality and satisfied that he’s met his aims, he’s ready to stop.
On November 29th, Kutuzov rides into Vilno, a city he’d previously governed, and immediately transitions into quiet habits, taking no more concern in political matters. On December 11th, the sovereign arrives at Kutuzov’s castle. Emperor Alexander embraces the old man, who characteristically weeps. In private, the emperor criticizes Kutuzov for the slowness of the pursuit and for making mistakes at Krasnoe and Berezina and tells him his intentions for the rest of the campaign. Kutuzov listens submissively and says nothing. When Kutuzov leaves the study, Count Tolstoy meets him, holding out a shining object. Puzzled at first, Kutuzov smiles and accepts the Order of St. George, first degree.
Though he’s a stereotypically emotional Russian, Kutuzov otherwise stoically accepts the Emperor’s criticism, knowing his role is effectively over. Count Pyotr Aleksandrovich Tolstoy was a general and statesman under Alexander I; given his clear admiration for Kutuzov, it’s probably not accidental that Tolstoy chooses to focus on this moment, when a character sharing his name gives Kutuzov Russia’s highest military decoration.
Besides its significance to Russians, the War of 1812 also has a major European significance. Kutuzov is unable to understand this significance—the balance of powers in Europe and Napoleon’s role in them. As far as he’s concerned, the enemy has been destroyed, so as a Russian, his job is done. It’s up to Alexander to oversee the restoration of Russia’s frontiers. There’s nothing else for Kutuzov to do, so he dies.
Kutuzov died on April 28, 1813, in what’s now Poland, during the Russian army’s campaign in Europe. Tolstoy portrays him as a Russian’s Russian, with an all-consuming passion for his motherland. Europe’s business is not his affair, and having defended Russia, he can die with contentment.