Colonel Jakov Petrovitj Kulnev (1763-1812)
Jakov Petrovitj Kulnev was born in a military family and started his studies at St. Petersburg in 1770, whereafter he saw his first action in the field in the Russo-Turkish war in 1787-91, where he distinguished himself by capturing the fortress of Bendery. He later took part in the Polish campaign of 1794 where he stood under the command of Suvorov. After the war, Kulnev was made Major and transferred to the Sumskoi Hussar Regiment. After the battle of Friedland against Napoleon in 1807, where Kulnev participated in the Grodno Hussar Regiment, he advanced to the rank of Colonel.
In Finland in 1808, Kulnev commanded an independent unit, often operating behind enemy lines and disturbing the enemy. Kulnev did distinguish himself as a brilliant cavalry caommander and also achieved a great amount of popularity among the Finnish population. His nickname was "Don Quijote", and he lived up to that during his whole life. Kulnev is widely known in Finnish memory as a knightly and fair commander and people looked up to him. He also get very good treatment by Runeberg, who praises his chivalry and bravery. On the Swedish side, Kulnev's counterpart was Georg Carl von Döbeln, an equally noble and chivalrous leader; the relationship between these two gentlemen can be compared to that between Hannibal and Scipio, or Grant and Lee. Kulnev and von Döbeln actually got to meet in battle a couple of times as well. On April 16, 1808, Kulnev forced von Döbeln to retreat after an intense winter battle at Pyhäjoki.
And in the beginning of July 1808 one of the strangest meetings between two commanders in the war occured. Kulnev and von Döbeln met in Kauhava, face to face, to exchange prisoners. The two gentlemen then got involved in a discussion, among other things about the peasants uprisings in southern Österbotten at that time. They both agreed on the major points; like that they both regarded peasants uprisings with suspicion, mainly because they disturbed military planning.
At the battle of Oravais, Kulnev commanded the Russian avantgarde and was the first to engage the Swedish defenders. After the Swedish retreat, Kulnev also performed a daring attack on the Swedish mainland at Grisslehamn near Stockholm itself, and during this operation, he was again engaged by von Döbeln. Kulnev's troops marched over the ice from Ĺland to threaten the Swedish at their own back yard. On March 19 Russian troops marched ashore in Sweden, driving out the Swedish avantgarde in the village of Grisslehamn. The fear of the enemy spread among the coastal citizens who started evacuating in panic. Kulnev held Grisslehamn for a couple of days before returning east after concluded negotiations. Sweden was at this time in full uproar as the king Gustav IV Adolf had just been deposed by a military coup.
Kulnev was awarded the Order of St. Anna for this operation, and was also later awarded the Order of St. Georgij and the Golden Sabre, for all his outstanding bravery.
After the war, Kulnev was made Major General and then took part in the Russo-Turkish war. At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon, Kulnev served under Wittgenstein with distinction. At the battle of Jakobovo on July 30, Kulnev fought against the French under Oudinot and helped take the village of Jakobovo. Then, with his cavalry, he led the hot pursuit of the beaten French, taking more than 900 prisoners of war. During this pursuit, Kulnev and his cavalry rode into a French trap and were pounded with heavy artillery fire. During the retreat from this bloody trap, when trying to rally the Grodno Hussars, Kulnev was struck by French cannon fire in his legs and fell. He died a real hero's death.
Kulnev was most often seen in the front of the greater armies, commanding independent units and advance guard troops. In Finland, he was the first to open fire on the Swedish armies when the first retreat ended in the spring of 1808, he was the first to reach the battlefield of Oravais. Tellingly enough he was also the first general to give his life for Mother Russia in 1812.
In this era of dashing cavalry in shining uniforms, elegant hussars and proud dragoons, Kulnev was one of those who personified the picture of the cavalry hero. As a true officer and gentleman he earned well-deserved respect and renown.
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