Barclay de Tolly – Russia’s Scottish-German General

Those who have read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace will be familiar with Mikhail Kutuzov, the general widely acknowledged to have been responsible for repelling Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Indeed, Kutuzov is treated with great respect in the novel, portrayed as a man of considerable wisdom and foresight. If Kutuzov is seen as a little overly sentimental at times, this trait is represented as a positive attribute.

Mikhail Barclay de Tolly does not fare so well in Tolstoy’s work, being seen as indecisive and dithering. Barclay fell from favour during the campaign, being superseded as Commander-in-Chief by Kutuzov and resigning from the army soon afterwards. After Napoleon’s defeat, Barclay’s popularity grew and he was restored to the military, taking over from Kutuzov following the latter’s death in 1813.

The two great leaders of the Napoleonic campaign, so often at odds with each other, now stand side by side outside the massive Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg, on the city’s most famous street, Nevsky Prospekt.

Statue at Kazan Cathedral (St Petersburg)

Statue at Kazan Cathedral (St Petersburg)

As regular readers of these notes will know, Duck Holiday is based in Scotland and is ever keen to investigate Scotland’s links with Eastern Europe. To claim that Mikhail Barclay de Tolly was a Scotsman would be stretching the truth more than a little. He was, however, a member of the noble Barclay clan from Aberdeenshire. There is some debate about his birthplace, but it is likely that he was born in what is now Lithuania and was raised in Livonia, which was then part of the Russian Empire and whose territory now straddles Latvia and Estonia.

Barclay was a German-speaking descendant of a Scottish family that had settled in Livonia in the 17th century. His grandfather was a mayor of Riga and his father was admitted into the ranks of the Russian nobility. The young Barclay joined the Imperial Russian army and saw his first action in the 1787-1791 Russo-Turkish war and the concurrent war against Sweden.

Portrait by George Dawe (Military Gallery of the Winter Palace)

Portrait by George Dawe (Military Gallery of the Winter Palace)

After distinguishing himself in the Polish campaign of 1794, Barclay rose through the ranks rapidly and became a major-general in 1799. During another Russo-Swedish war during 1808-1809, he distinguished himself by crossing the frozen Gulf of Bothnia near Kvarken, which allowed him to surprise the enemy and seize the town of Umeå in Sweden. In April 1809, he was made full General and commander-in-chief of Russian forces in Finland. A year later, he became Minister of War, launching an important series of military reforms while planning for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

After his reinstatement of 1814, Barclay commanded the taking of Paris and was made a Prince of the Russian Empire during the following year.

He died in Insterburg in Prussia in May 1818. His body – and later that of his wife – was buried in the Jõgeveste Manor Cemetery in Estonia.

Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum in Estonia

Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum in Estonia

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