Mikhail Vorontsov

[Ken Lin]

Mikhail Semenovich Vorontsov was born on May 19, 1782 in St. Petersburg, into a well-respected noble family and the son of the Russian ambassador to England. Though his family was in debt throughout much of his childhood, he still received a traditional liberal arts education and lived abroad most of the time due to his father’s travels. His service at a young age as secretary to his father gave him a great deal of experience in diplomacy and negotiation, even as he harbored a great sense of Russian nationalism and a desire for a military career (Smith).

Vorontsov left behind the trappings of the nobility lifestyle in 1801 when he received his commission as a lieutenant in the Life Guard Preobrazhensk Regiment, based in the empire’s capital. One year later he requested transfer to the Caucasus, where he spent the next three years on the frontlines of the Russian struggle to conquer the native populations that refused to submit to imperial authority. Vorontsov left the Caucasus three years later with the rank of major and having been wounded and decorated for his efforts. By 1812 he’d fought in Pomerania and against the Turks, receiving several more accolades and having advanced to the rank of major-general (Smith).

The onset of the War of 1812 against Napoleon gave Vorontsov his real claim to fame. He took command of the Second Grenadier Division of the Second Western Army, which fought in engagements at Saltanovka, Smolensk and Borodino during the retreat to the east. At Borodino Vorontsov led the defense of the fortress near Semionovskaia, which saw such fierce battle that by the end of August over two-thirds of the division had been killed or wounded, including Vorontsov who received serious wounds to his leg. He was forced to return to his home in Moscow to recuperate (Napoleon, Smith).

During the evacuation of Moscow, Vorontsov ordered his personal boats to be unloaded of all his valuables and instead loaded with fifty wounded soldiers to be moved to his Andreevskoie estate in Vladimir. Though his entire library of several thousand books and countless other possessions were lost when Moscow was burned by the invading French army, Vorontsov’s actions displayed his utmost concern for his troops. He eventually recovered from his wounds and returned to the battlefield in December, taking command of the Third Western Army and leading it at Bromberg, Rogazen and Poznan throughout 1813. Following promotion to the rank of lieutenant general, he then joined the Army of the North at the end of the year and was decorated with the Order of St. George for his actions at Craonne, where he defeated Napoleon in battle. With the end of the war Vorontsov was given command of the Russian occupation forces, a position he held until 1818, and during which time he wrote A Few Rules for Dealings with the Lower Ranks of the Twelfth Infantry Corps, which stressed honor and ambition above all other qualities of a successful soldier (Napoleon, Smith).

Vorontsov found favor with both the Russian court and with the soldiers under his command during his time as commander of occupation forces in France. The writer F.F. Vigel, who had the chance to serve under Vorontsov, wrote that the commander “who when still young, rich in gold and valour, preferred all the burdens and perils of a soldier’s life to the pleasures and splendour of court, was a tender father to his men, and a comrade, friend and brother to his fellow officers…When the troops left France, Vorontsov paid off his officers’ debts – to the tune of one-and-a-half million”. Vigel also wrote of the excellent relations the occupying forces enjoyed with the locals, and how many of the occupying soldiers were granted great leeway by Vorontsov in their lifestyles and indulgences (Smith).

After returning to Russia, Vorontsov in 1819 married Elizaveta Ksaver’evna Branitskaia, whom he had met in Paris and was in fact a relative of Prince Potemkin. Vorontsov spent the following several years traveling throughout Europe, buying property and personally drawing up plans for estates to be built. Afterwards he was granted his preferred assignment –governor-general of Novorossia and Bessarabia, where for the following two decades he served ably as both a military commander and civil administrator, overseeing the construction and development of Odessa into a major trading center while simultaneously battling outbreaks of disease (Smith).

Overall Vorontsov succeeded in fostering free trade conditions and better relations between ethnic groups in Russia’s southern holdings, leading to his appointment by the tsar in 1845 to serve as the viceroy of the Caucasus, the first person to hold the position, in the hopes that the war hero and able administrator could tame the Caucasus. Vorontsov held the position for nearly a decade, during which time his work was instrumental in reforming much of society in the southern Caucasus. His initiatives included the creation of native-led school systems, religious freedoms, and the co-opting of Georgian nobles who received official recognition of their status by Imperial Russia. He allegedly viewed Russian expansion into the Caucasus not as a military conquest, but rather as an exploratory mission – to that end, he sought the aid of Russian and Georgian archeologists and ethnographers to help excavate ancient sites throughout the Caucasus (De Waal, 44-5).

At the same time, however, the north Caucasus proved to be more resistant to social and economic reforms. Following several successful offenses by Shamil against Russian forces in Daghestan, Vorontsov was granted great leeway by the tsar in neutralizing the threat posed by Shamil, yet he still relied on the old and unsuccessful method of “one blow” strokes against the rebels. This led to a disastrous Russian defeat at Andi and Dargo, where the Russians were allowed to walk straight into an ambush by the rebels, and had to be extracted by forces from the Caucasian Line. Shifting strategies, Vorontsov returned to the methods of Yermolov, utilizing ecological destruction in order to secure routes of transit for Russian forces, as well as the construction of additional defensive lines and fortresses throughout Chechnya (Gammer, 59-61).

By 1853, Vorontsov was in declining health from over five decades in service, and stepped down from his posting as viceroy of the Caucasus. In 1956 he was promoted to the rank of Fieldmarshal-General, and died later that year on November 6 in Odessa (Smith).

Characterizations of Vorontsov are mixed. Tolstoy himself wrote that the viceroy was “ambitious, gentle and kind in his manners with inferiors, and a finished courtier with superiors. He did not understand life without power and submission”. On the other hand there was the writer Alexander Pushkin, who served under Vorontsov and had a rather negative view of the commander, describing him as “half hero and half ignoramus, what’s more, half scoundrel, don’t forget. But on this score the man gives promise that he will make a whole one yet” (Gammer, 60).


Works cited:

  • Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006).
  • The Napoleon Series. “Memoirs of General Mikhail Vorontsov: 1812-1813 Campaigns.” Accessed March 26, 2012. http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/russianarchives/vorontsov/c_vorontsov.html.
  • Thomas De Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Smith College. “Mikhail Semenovich Vorontsov.” Accessed March 26, 2012. http://sophia.smith.edu/~aworonzo/vvm2/en/family_tree/personal_pages/114.htm