The Science of Winning: Lessons from Russian Military History

Nowadays it is fashionable to compare doing business with military strategy: from Sun Tzu to Klausewitz, the book world has lately seen a wave of titles dedicated to the works and teachings of the talented military of the past. While I don’t think doing business in Russia is exactly akin to a battle, there are still some lessons a foreign investor can draw from Russian military strategy to better understand their partners and find success in their ventures on Russian soil.

In Russian military history there are two men who stand out for their successful strategies. They are Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov, who miraculously saved troops from him by leading them through a snowy Alpine pass in the late 18th century, and Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who saved Russia from Napoleon by the most controversial means. While both men were gifted Russian generals of their time, they both used information differently and pursued very different strategies.

Suvorov is known for his surprise attacks and his refusal to allow his troops to withdraw. Weak and frail from his birth, he trained his body and his mind with the hardships of the soldier’s life. He became known for his spirit, his strong will, and his extensive knowledge of military science. However, Suvorov left conventional wisdom behind by breaking all the rules over and over again and winning. He fought on behalf of Catherine the Great, defeating the Turkish army in the Russo-Turkish wars and defeating the Prussian army.

In 1799, Suvorov was recalled by Emperor Paul I to lead the Russian and Austrian armies to the aid of Italy when French troops invaded. When he found himself in an alpine valley surrounded by enemy troops on all sides, he did not do what was expected and surrendered in the proper way. Rather, he turned on his heel and led his small contingent of men through a treacherous, snowy mountain pass, complete with their cannons, horses, and weaponry. He not only saved the besieged army from him, but was also able to inflict serious blows on the French troops attacking them from above. After his descent from the Alps, the Italians proclaimed him their new hero.

Suvorov put his principles on paper in his book, “The Science of Winning,” including:

“To surprise is to win.”

“Shoot rarely but rightly so.”

“Win not by quantity, but by mastery.”

In contrast, Kutuzov won the war with Napoleon by allowing the enemy to take Moscow and retreat deep into Russia, where the harsh Russian winter and partisan warfare helped him to a landslide victory. He faced enormous pressure with Napoleon’s army sitting on his doorstep just outside the capital. He had just lost thousands of soldiers in the devastating draw at Borodino and thought that facing Napoleon again would put the rest of the Russian army and the nation at risk. Therefore, he made the boldest move imaginable: he sacrificed the jewel, Moscow. Its citizens burned down their own city before Napoleon’s entry, and Napoleon was forced to continue to pursue the Russian army as winter set in. Penniless, outnumbered, and without weapons, Kutuzov used his creativity and the most basic of resources: the Russian winter. Napoleon finally retired after losing his army and Kutuzov returned as a hero.

You will find some of these principles reflected in how Russians act in the business world. They are often impulsive and trust their instincts. They will surprise you by opting for a venture business on a hunch and, against all odds, making it work. They might sacrifice the one aspect of the business that they had said all along was essential, to pursue another business. Strapped for limited resources, they might find an out-of-the-box solution that is better than the most elaborate Western money could buy. Just as Russian nature ran counter to conventional, conservative, Western European-dominated military science in the 18th century, so it will at times run counter to the sensibilities of Western businessmen. I encourage you to pause before you jump in to talk some sense into your Russian partner when he proposes something you weren’t ready for. You may have hit a gold mine – you could be working with a Suvorov or a Kutuzov.

Read more about doing business in Russia in my new book, “Riding the Russian Tech Boom,” at:

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