Dec 6, 2013
Alexander M. Martin on Dominic Lieven’s ‘Russia Against Napoleon’
Posted on Apr 29, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
Napoleon’s downfall was primarily caused by the Russian army. One reason why this fact is under-appreciated is Western disinformation: the British and Germans claimed the laurels of victory for themselves, and Napoleon’s apologists comforted themselves that their man had lost in the East only because Russia was so big and cold. In the century that followed, as Russia became more alien and Europeans’ nationalism and contempt for other races intensified, Westerners grew ever less inclined to credit Russian skill or valour. Western understandings of the Second World War validated the template inherited from 1812-15: both Napoleon and Hitler had hubristically tried to conquer all of Europe, but they were defeated by the freedom-loving peoples of the West and the snowstorms in the East. Lacking the archival access or linguistic competence to use Russian sources, Western authors reproduced the colonialist view of Napoleon and the Nazis that Russia was a vast, cruel land where Cossacks roam and despots rule.
However, the misrepresentation of Russia’s role in defeating Napoleon is due not only to the West’s provincialism and Russophobia. Any nineteenth-century tourist could see that the city fathers of Europe were proud of patriotic gore: Berlin named streets and squares after Blücher and the fall of Paris; London honoured Nelson, Trafalgar, and Waterloo; and Haussmann’s Paris immortalized just about every battle that Napoleon ever won. But Moscow, where Napoleon met his doom? Moscow had no Kutuzov Bridge, no Borodino Avenue, no Leipzig Square, no Paris Station. The Russians themselves, it seems, were ambivalent about their triumph.
For the British and Germans, as Dominic Lieven explains in Russia Against Napoleon, victory confirmed their own emergence as modern nations, but things were not so simple for the Russians. Their Tsar, Alexander I, was of German extraction, preferred to write in French, thought in pan-European geopolitical categories, and employed generals with foreign names like Pfühl, de Langeron, and Barclay de Tolly. When Napoleon attacked, their strategy was to beat a humiliating retreat across the Russian heartland; only in 1813-14, on the battlefields of Germany and France, did they go on the offensive. No wonder that patriots—most memorably, Tolstoy in War and Peace—felt that to cast the war as a triumph of the Russian nation, they had to marginalize the Tsar and most of his generals, inflate the importance of the popular resistance in 1812, and ignore the Russian army’s victorious march to Paris in 1813-14. Historians compounded the problem by assuming that Russia could not possibly be as potent a force as more future-oriented states like France, Great Britain and Prussia.
Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace
By Dominic Lieven
Viking Adult, 656 pages
Lieven, a leading historian of imperial Russia, seeks to put the record straight. Drawing on massive Russian sources, most of them new to Western readers, he describes Russia’s diplomatic, military and economic mobilization after the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, followed by a detailed study of Russia’s war effort in 1812-14. This is, he rightly says, “one of the best stories in European history”, and it makes for gripping reading. Lieven makes two central and persuasive points: the Russian army won because it was better, and its superiority was related to features of Russian society that are sometimes dismissed as retrograde.
Lieven argues that the much-maligned Alexander I and his advisers, especially General Barclay de Tolly, “out-thought” Napoleon. Alexander’s vision of a consensual relationship among great powers was more realistic than Napoleon’s reach for hegemony. In 1812, when Napoleon foresaw a brief campaign that would end in a few sharp battles, the Russians wisely prepared for a long war of attrition. Napoleon thought that by taking Moscow, he could force the Russians to negotiate, but Alexander knew that this would instead galvanize their will to fight. In 1813, Napoleon foolishly accepted an armistice and bungled negotiations with the Austrians, giving Russia the chance to strengthen its army and build a European coalition. In 1814, the Russians unexpectedly invaded France in the winter, thereby denying Napoleon the time to raise a new army, and they succeeded in France where Napoleon had failed in Russia, by facilitating a coup to overthrow the enemy regime.
Not only did Alexander out-think Napoleon; his logistics were superior. His men had more to eat and rode healthier mounts. General Patton once said that “My men can eat their belts, but my tanks have gotta have gas”. Lieven makes a similar point about horses, which the Russians were far better than the French at supplying with fodder. As a result, they had superior cavalry for reconnaissance and to cover their retreats, and they were better able to move artillery and matériel. They were more clear-headed about conditions on the ground in the war’s various theatres and they were better at organizing transport and building roads. The Russians also managed their supplies more effectively though, of course, they never faced a situation like Napoleon’s in 1812, when the French campaigned with a huge—hence, voracious—army in a country too vast to permit easy transport of supplies.
Another of Patton’s immortal dicta was that to win, you have to “hold ’em by the nose and kick ’em in the pants”, but in 1812-14, the secret of victory was often a well-executed retreat. The Russian army withdrew intact all the way to Moscow, whereas retreating in the opposite direction destroyed Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Throughout the campaigns of 1812-14, Russian discipline was such that the troops did not disintegrate upon retreating, and the cavalry was so effective that they could shield Russian rear guards while conversely wreaking havoc on any retreating enemy forces.
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