The Science of Winning – Lessons From Russian Military History

Nowadays it is trendy 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 talented military men of the past. While I don’t think that doing business in Russia is exactly akin to a battle, there are still some lessons a foreign investor can pull from Russian military strategy to better understand his/her partners and find success in his 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 his troops by leading them through a snowy Alpine pass in late 18th century, and field marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who saved Russia from Napoleon by most controversial means. While both men were talented Russian generals of their time, the two used information differently and followed very different strategies.

Suvorov is known for his surprise attacks and refusal to allow his troops to retreat. Feeble and fragile from birth, he trained his body and mind by hardships of the soldier’s life. He became known for his spirit, strong will and comprehensive knowledge of military science. However, Suvorov left conventional knowledge in the dust by again and again breaking all the rules – and winning. He fought on behalf of Catherine the Great, beating the Turkish Army in the Russo-Turkish wars and winning against the Prussian army.

In 1799, Suvorov was called out of retirement by Emperor Paul I to lead the Russian and Austrian armies in coming 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 the expected and surrender in proper fashion. Rather, he turned on his heels and led his small contingent of men up through a snowy and treacherous mountain pass, complete with their cannons, horses and armaments. Not only did he save his embattled army, but he was also able to inflict serious blows to the French troops attacking them from above. Upon his descent from the Alps, Italians proclaimed him their new hero.

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

“To surprise is to win.”

“Fire rarely but rightly.”

“Win not by quantity, but mastery.”

In contrast, Kutuzov won the war with Napoleon by allowing the enemy to take Moscow and retreating to the depth of Russia where the harsh Russian winter and partisan war aided him to a crushing victory. He faced enormous pressure with Napoleon’s army sitting on his doorstep right outside of the capital. He had just lost thousands of soldiers in the devastating draw at Borodino and he thought engaging Napoleon again would risk the rest of the Russian army and the nation. Thus he made the boldest move imaginable: he sacrificed the jewel, Moscow. Its citizens burned down their own city in advance of Napoleon’s entry, and Napoleon was forced to continue on in pursuit of the Russian army as winter fell. Cash-strapped, outnumbered, and out-armed, Kutuzov used his creativity and the most basic of resources: the Russian winter. Napoleon eventually retreated after losing his army and Kutuzov returned a hero.

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You will find some of these principles reflected in how Russians act in the business world. Often they are impulsive and trust their instincts. They will surprise you by going for a long-shot business deal on a hunch, and against all odds, actually making it work. They might sacrifice the one aspect of the company they’d said all along was essential, in order to pursue another venture. Strapped by limited resources, they might find an out-of-the-box shoestring solution that’s better than the most elaborate one Western money could buy. Just as Russian nature went against conventional, conservative Western European-dominated military science in the 18th century, it will also at times be contrary to the sensibilities of Western businesspeople. I would encourage you to pause before leaping to shake sense into your Russian partner when he proposes something you weren’t prepared for. You might have struck a goldmine: you might just be working with a Suvorov or a Kutuzov.

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


by Andrey Gidaspov