General Yakov Petrovich Kul’nev.

(From Russkii biograficheskii slovar’ c. 1914, translated by Mark Conrad, 2002.)

Kul’nev, Yakov Petrovich, major general, killed 20 July 1812. His date of birth is not known exactly. Based on various sources it is sometimes shown as 1763, 1764, or 1766. Ya. P. Kul’nev’s father was Petr Vasil’evich Kul’nev, a noble of moderate means who was born in 1727 and began service as a corporal in 1746. He took part in the Seven Years’ War, was seriously wounded near Kamsz during military operations in Poland in 1769, and retired. After 1775 he served as town chief (gorodnichii) in Liutsin, where he died in 1795. P. V. Kul’nev’s wife, the mother of our hero, was born Grebenitz, being German in origin and a Catholic by faith, and died in 1811. Kul’nev apparently married her during his foreign campaign, and his oldest son Pavel seems to have been born outside Russia and was even baptized and raised as a Catholic. Pavel Petrovich Kul’nev remained a Catholic to the day he died. In 1805 he was even arrested under some sort of suspicion but then found innocent. He received the position of rector (pleban) in Liutsin, and died in 1808. Along with his brother Ivan, Yakov Petrovich was sent to the Army Nobles’ Cadet Corps (Sukhoputnyi Shlyakhetnyi kadetskii korpus), from which both brothers were graduated on 18 February 1785 as lieutenants in the Chernigov Infantry Regiment. In this same year Ya. P. Kul’nev was transferred to the St.-Petersburg Dragoon Regiment and with it was sent on the Turkish campaign. At the blockade and fall of Bendery in 1789, Kul’nev was noted by Prince Potemkin. After being transferred to the Pereyaslavl Horse-Jäger Regiment Kul’nev was part of General Knorring’s column and took part in the affairs at Oshmyany, Lida, and in the region around Vilna. Suvorov also took special notice of Kul’nev, who in turn nurtured an especially reverent admiration for that great military leader. Kul’nev took part in the affairs at Kobrin on 4 September and Brest-Litovsk on the 8th. At the storming of Praga on 24 October he was one of the first to break into the enemy fortifications. His excellence in the Polish campaign earned Kul’nev the ranks of captain and then major.

A long period of complete idleness then set in for Kul’nev. His regiment was not part of the force which fought under Suvorov in Italy, and without connections Kul’nev could not obtain a transfer to a unit taking part in Suvorov’s campaign. Neither was Kul’nev able to take part in the 1804-05 war with the French. Details of his life during these years are unknown, but it is clear that it was precisely in this period that Kul’nev developed the ability to relate to common soldiers and understand and share their interests, an ability that in the near future would achieve great popularity for him among the troops and in the course of five years of military activities make his name resound gloriously throughout Russia.

Having transferred to the Grodno Hussar Regiment with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Kul’nev took part in the 1807 campaign. On 24 May he fought at Gutstadt; on the 25th he carried out an extremely daring and successful attack on two enemy columns; on the 29th he took part in the battle at Heilsberg, and on 2 June—in the battle of Friedland. In one of his attacks during this battle, Kul’nev with his Grodno Regiment was completely surrounded so that capture seemed inevitable, but the Grodno troopers broke through the enemy ranks. Kul’nev wrote about these events in letters to his brother, but he did not give many details about himself. He said that "at the base of it, the most successful war is nothing other than the destruction of a race of people and the ravaging of a population, upon which one cannot look without a shudder in one’s heart." He called himself a permanent Don Quixote and expressed the conviction that he would not get out of the war unscathed "since I can’t get it out of my head to catch Bonaparte." In another letter he wrote that he took no loot for himself but rather burned that which came to him because he wanted nothing except to capture Bonaparte. Of course, Kul’nev did not manage to do this, but his bravery, decisiveness, and energy made his name known and respected throughout the army.

In February of 1808 Kul’nev was in the army operating against the Swedes in Finland. From this time on he always led the vanguard during an advance and the rearguard during a retreat. His first feat was a stubborn and lengthy pursuit of Adlercreutz’s force. He had to move through very broken terrain covered with deep snow, in frosts that reached 25 below freezing. The Swedish forces’ difficulties were somewhat lessened not only by their intimate knowledge of the area, but also by the support of the populace, while the Russian column encountered only hardships. Nevertheless Kul’nev did not fall back one step from contact with the enemy and in a serious of small skirmishes continually maintained the upper hand. He himself was always in front. At the end of March Kul’nev’s column reached Gamla-Karleby and here came under the command of Tuchkov 1st. On the 1st, 4th, and 6th of April—at Kalajoki, Inhajoki, and Siikajoki—Kul’nev skirmished with the enemy’s rearguard. All these actions were marked by the courage of Kul’nev and his troops, but the last one ended in failure. Kul’nev had run into the Swedish column which significantly outnumbered the Russians and was forced to retreat with heavy losses. Deep in grief because his carelessness had incurred the first failure for Russian arms, Kul’nev sought death and threw himself into the most dangerous places. However, he was unhurt and his conduct was such that Tuchkov specifically named him to command his column’s rearguard when it had to retreat back to Gamla-Karleby after Bulatov’s force had been defeated on 15 April at Siikajoki. Military operations recommenced in June after being stopped by the breaking up of the river ice at the end of April. After several skirmishes at Lappo, the Russian forces were again forced to retreat and again Kul’nev commanded the rearguard. This withdrawal was more difficult than previous ones since the people’s war was raging in full and the Russian soldiers were lacking in everything. With his cheerfulness and ability to relate to the soldiers, Kul’nev did much to ensure that the force did not lose its military effectiveness.

On 19 August, General Kamenskii, who had taken over command of the forward troops, moved onto the Swedish positions upon the orders of the commander-in-chief, Buxhoeveden. On this day Kul’nev was in two successful skirmishes, but on the 20th a battle at Kuortan erupted. The fighting lasted a whole day and remained undecided when the onset of night put an end to the action. After reflecting upon the day’s results, Kamenskii was ready to order a retreat in the morning when Kul’nev suddenly appeared before him and announced that the Swedes were already withdrawing. Always the last one to go to sleep, Kul’nev was making nighttime rounds of our outposts and with his usual sharp eye and hearing was able to deduce from unclear signs that the enemy troops were leaving their positions. Immediately after making sure of this Kamenskii moved to pursue the Swedes. Again Kul’nev commanded the vanguard and began to press upon the foe, and once again he ran into Klingspor’s whole corps at Oravais. The affair again threatened to be a serious failure, but the main Russian forces hurried up and after a fierce hand-to-hand fight the Swedes were completed defeated.

On 12 December 1808 Kul’nev was promoted to major general. With the renewal of military operations he was entrusted with the vanguard of Graf Strogonov’s column which was sent to go around the Åland Islands from the south and cut off the retreat of the islands’ Swedish garrison. This movement over the ice met with no resistance on the part of the enemy but there were great difficulties due to frosts, the absence of any kind of shelter, and lack of fuel for bivouacs. Only at the island of Signasker did Kul’nev engage in a skirmish with a small Swedish force which he quickly put to flight, taking 111 prisoners and 2 guns. Then with a force of three squadrons of the Grodno Hussars, the Leib-Ural Sotnia, and 400 Don cossacks Kul’nev reached the coast of Sweden, defeating a small force on the ice that tried to hold him back. Kul’nev came up on the Swedish mainland on the morning of 7 March near the town of Grisslehamn, only 60 miles from Stockholm. Dismayed and frightened, the Swedish government hurried to conclude an armistice, and after spending two days in Grisslehamn Kul’nev marched back at the order of the commander-in-chief. The Order of St. Anne 1st class was his reward for this campaign. For the rest of the war Kul’nev was General Demidov’s deputy and was left as commander of the Åland Islands garrison

Kamenskii was appointed commander-in-chief on the Danube, and in February 1810 he took Kul’nev with him and gave him command of his vanguard. On 5 May Kul’nev crossed the Danube and moved toward Silistria. He distinguished himself in the battle at Batin on 26 August and for it received a gold saber with diamonds and the inscription "For Courage," but at the same time he clashed with Kamenskii, well known for his hot temper. Therefore, Kul’nev left the Danube army and in January of 1811 was named chef of the Grodno Hussar Regiment, located in Vitebsk Province. At this time it entered his mind to get married and he indeed become engaged, but when the conflict with Napoleon came he decided to marry only after the end of the war. His fiancé, however, demanded that he retire, so Kul’nev relieved her of her engagement. The fiancé’s last name is not known.

At the beginning of the 1812 war Kul’nev was in Graf Wittgenstein’s force and led the rearguard. When the main Russian army left the Drissa encampment, Kul’nev was ordered to find out what direction the enemy would take. During this reconnaissance the Grodno Regiment, part of Kul’nev’s force, took General St. Genies and about 200 French cavalrymen prisoner, along with determining the direction of Napoleon’s forces from Vilna. On 13 July Kul’nev again by a daring strike captured 430 men and several officers from Oudinot’s column and destroyed part of their baggage train. These successes, our first in the 1812 war, spread the glory of Kul’nev’s name throughout Russia. On 19 July Wittgenstein defeated Oudinot’s force at Klyastitsy. Kul’nev distinguished himself in this battle and during the pursuit destroyed almost an entire supply train and took about 900 prisoners. But on this occasion Kul’nev allowed himself to be carried away once again, as on the next day while continuing the pursuit he came upon Oudinot’s main force and after several desperately brave attacks he was repulsed with heavy losses and forced to retreat. While crossing to the other side of the Drissa River, Kul’nev was gloomily walking in the last ranks of his column when suddenly an enemy cannonball tore off both his legs above the knees. He fell and died in a moment. He body was buried near the village of Sivoshin, but later transferred to the estate of his sister, Baroness Manteufel-Szöge, and from there—to the estate at Ilsenberg which belonged to his brothers.

Kul’nev was tall in stature and dark in the face. Normally he was a silent and restrained man, but in battle he was transformed. He mighty voice could be heard above the raging struggle, and then when the time of danger and excitement was past Kul’nev again turned into a calm and to all appearances unremarkable person. Even after rising swiftly and achieving general-officer rank Kul’nev lived as a plain soldier, ate and slept with his men, and constantly and unremittingly took care of those under him. His manner with the soldiers was partially reminiscent of the way Suvorov spoke and acted, but this was not just a simple imitation of Suvorov, a repetition of his words—it was a complete incorporation of Suvorov’s spirit. Kul’nev not only spoke in language familiar to and understandable by the soldiers, he also undoubtedly thought and felt in that way. His integrity and unique and vivid personality comes out animatedly in his correspondence with his brother. Here he appears as a person of rare courage, unreservedly devoted to his duty, a man with a tender and loving heart yet at the same time ever ready for a deed of desperate bravery or the most wild carousing when in billets. Kul’nev did not possess the gifts of a true military leader; he was often carried away in the heat of battle and more than once suffered failure thanks to his throwing himself at the enemy without considering the sizes of the respective forces. But as a man of courage he had few equals. Under his leadership the soldiers went forward when hardly anyone else would have ventured to ask them to advance.

Voennaya Gallereya Zimnyago Dvortsa, I ; Mikhailovskii-Danilevskii, Aleksandr I i ego spodvizhnniki; Bogdanovich, Istoriya Otechestvennoi voiny 1812 g. and Istoriya tsarstvovaniya Imperatora Aleksandra I; Russkaya Starina, three articles in volumes XIII and LVIII—here are a biographical sketch and Kul’nev’s family lineage, several of his letters, and an article on his grave sites.