Winner 2013 Webby Awards for Best Political Website
Top Banner, Site wide
Apr 17, 2014

 Choose a size
Text Size

Top Leaderboard, Site wide

Star-Spangled Baggage
Science Finds New Routes to Energy




Paul Robeson: A Life


Truthdig Bazaar more items

 
Arts and Culture

Alexander M. Martin on Dominic Lieven’s ‘Russia Against Napoleon’

Email this item Email    Print this item Print    Share this item... Share

Posted on Apr 29, 2010
book cover

By Alexander M. Martin

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.

 

book cover

 

Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace

 

By Dominic Lieven

 

Viking Adult, 656 pages

 

Buy the book

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.


New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

By Eugenio Costa, May 12, 2010 at 11:29 pm Link to this comment

Napoleon miscalculated.

He was a hundred years early in both Russia and Iberia.

Report this

By Inherit The Wind, May 5, 2010 at 6:13 pm Link to this comment

Excuse me, but in the Spring of 1941, the American Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, as instructed, warned the Soviets that Hitler was planning an invasion. (it’s in the 1941 FRUS).  So…on April 13, the USSR and Imperial Japan signed a neutrality pact.

Clearly SOME expectation of war with Germany was in Stalin’s mind.

Report this

By Finchj, May 2, 2010 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Agree with dihey.

Stalin purged the ranks of the Red Army right after their victory in the border wars with Japan.

I’m finishing an Imperial Russia course right now and this is an interesting review. One of the reasons Alexander may have believed that an occupied Moscow would galvanize the Russian population was that two hundred years prior, Moscow was under Polish occupation.

The seat of the Orthodox Church being Moscow, under the thumb of Catholics was largely responsible for galvanizing the Russian population at the time (1613 I believe).

The historical example of the Time of Troubles in unifying the Russians against an invading force could have been a factor in Alexander’s decision to give up Moscow.

The Orthodox religion was what united the Russian people. Most peasants would self identify as Orthodox before Russian. Holy places matter to “common” folk.

Thats my 2cents.

Report this

By dihey, May 2, 2010 at 10:06 am Link to this comment

onojung says: “Stalin may have been murderous lunatic but he was no fool and read people as well as anyone”.

Au contraire. From 1939 to 1941 Stalin was an utter military and political cretin who was almost completely fooled by Adolf Hitler. From 1941 to mid-1943 he was still a dismal supreme commander of the Soviet armed forces. The victory at Stalingrad was a plan advanced by Generals Zhukov and Vasilevsky.
1. Against all military logic and advice from some of his generals he moved the old lines of defense against a German invasion from Russia into Western Belarus and the newly annexed areas of Poland of 1939. On the day of the German invasion these defensive lines were not ready and were mostly overrun by the Germans in a matter of only hours.
2. Even on the day of the German attack Stalin could not believe that Hitler would break their pact. Stalin believed that he had “Hitler by the balls” with Russia’s export to Germany of crude oil, steel, timber, and foodstuff. This paragon of “knowing people so well” did not understand that Hitler hated to be “held by the balls”.
3. Instead of ordering a coherent retreat to a short distance before Moscow Stalin kept demanding “attack and throw the invader out” which resulted in gigantic encirclements of Russian armies in Belarus and in 1942 in Ukraine with millions of soldiers killed, wounded, or captured
4. His conclusion that the Wehrmacht was finished after it was stopped before Moscow which led him to order the dismal Ukraine offensive of 1942 was dismally wrong and resulted in the swift loss of Kiev and Kharkov.
5. Even when the German plans for 1942 named “Fall Blau” came into his hands and were supported by the infallible Swiss spy named “Lucy” he refused to believe that the German offensive would be in the “South”
6. It was not until the battle of Kursk in 1943 that Stalin stopped his demands for “attack under all circumstances” and listened to his generals to start wearing the Germans out with a defensive strategy.
7. Stalin was lucky that his senior commanders Zhukov, Koniev, and Rokossovsky learned quickly from their defeats and errors. By mid-1943 the members of STAVKA as well as the commanders in the field were either equal or superior to the their German counterparts.

Report this

By Chris Floyd, May 1, 2010 at 3:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good review and intriguing book. However, re lack of Russian recognition of the war, one of Moscow’s most prominent thoroughfares is named Kutuzovsky Prospekt.

Report this

By jack, May 1, 2010 at 12:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

RE: “...sounds as if this author is NOT entering his area with a pre-
conceived notion that he’s out to prove…”

Entering?!?!?


Dominic Lieven joined the LSE (London School of Economics) in 1978, became
a professor in 1993 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 2001. He graduated
first in the class of 1973 in history from Cambridge University and was a
Kennedy Scholar at Harvard in 1973/4. Subsequently, he has been inter alia a
Humboldt Fellow in Germany, and a visiting professor at Tokyo University and
Harvard. He is married with two children. The family lives partly in London and
partly in Japan.

His publications include:

1983 Russia and the Origins of the First World War, Macmillan.
1989 Russia’s Rulers under the Old Regime, Yale U.P.
1992 The Aristocracy in Europe 1815/1914, Macmillan/Columbia UP.
1993 Nicholas II, John Murray/St Martin’s Press.
2000 Empire. The Russian Empire and its Rivals, John Murray/Yale U.P.
2006 The Cambridge History of Russia. Volume 2: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917,
CUP, Editor
2009 Russia against Napoleon. The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, Penguin
He is currently planning a conference, articles and edited book on Russia’s
conflict with Napoleon.

The Tsar Liberates Europe? Russia against Napoleon, 1807-1814: Available as
MP3.
Teaching and Supervisions

Present and former Ph.D students cover a wide range of subjects including
Russian history and contemporary post-Soviet politics, as well as comparative
imperial and post-imperial history and politics. Nine former Ph.D students hold
full-time academic posts.

Imperial Russia, 1700-1917
Comparative imperial history
International relations in the period 1755-1842
Professor Lieven’s teaching reflects the research interests outlined above. He
teaches the following courses:

At undergraduate level:

HY319 Napoleon and Europe

At Masters level:

HY423: Empire, Colonialism and Globalization

At PhD level:

HY501: International History Research Student Workshop  

Report this

By Dar, May 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I recall reading years ago in a book on this campaign, a great quote by a Russian general (?) about Napoleon’s invasion: “they will break their teeth biting us”.

I don’t know if the quote is accurate or even true, but it’s a great quote nevertheless.

Report this

By P. T., May 1, 2010 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

“The Russian army withdrew intact all the way to Moscow, whereas retreating in the opposite direction destroyed Napoleon’s Grande Armée.”


Sounds to me like it is better to be retreating through territory where the natives are friendly than where they are hostile.

Report this

By Inherit The Wind, May 1, 2010 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

I’m hooked! I’m going to have to look for this book. It’s an area of history I know almost nothing about.  I am fully aware that the Soviet Army did the brunt of the fighting and dying to stop Nazi Germany.  So I’m not surprised the same was true of Alexander I’s army.

I also am fully aware that France and Britain were constantly trying to create enmity between Hitler and the USSR, which backfired catastrophically on August 23, 1939 with the Non-Aggression Pact.  Stalin may have been murderous lunatic but he was no fool and read people as well as anyone.  Since there’s so little of this taught I became very cynical about history teaching below the collegiate level. 

I work constantly to ensure my 15 year old’s vision of history is expanded far beyond his teachers’ (although this year the guy actually has a good, clear view of it).  We frequently discuss it at dinner and I give him questions and problems to work through—“thought experiments”. I’ll give him a clue—usually “think about the geography” or “the economics”.  I prefer him to reach conclusions himself and he frequently has good insights I missed.

What is interesting is that it sounds as if this author is NOT entering his area with a pre-conceived notion that he’s out to prove, discarding contradictory evidence.  Sounds like an interest and enlightening read!

Report this

By gary, April 30, 2010 at 8:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

we always underestimate the “primitive"ruskis,hence we are constantly amazed by them

Report this

By Dmitriev, April 30, 2010 at 8:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“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.”

Sorry, but this is false. One of the major avenues of Moscow (Kutuzovsky prospekt) is named after Kutuzov, as are numerous other streets in Moscow and other Russian cities. There may not be a Kutuzov Bridge, but there is a Borodino Bridge (Borodinsky most) in Moscow.  The Alexander Column in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was built before the Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square. There was a large triumphal arch monument in Moscow and many other monuments throughout the country. Though there is no Leipzig Square in Moscow, there is a Russian church-monument in Liepzig itself. I don’t think the Russians were ambivalent about their victory. Less pompous than the French and British, maybe, but that’s not quite the same.

Report this
OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, April 30, 2010 at 6:55 pm Link to this comment

I have an abiding interest in this topic, and as a conservative American i dont feel any bubble popped or shattered.

I often root for the Russian peasants. I think there is something unique about them. As i read history, even history I already know about, I always hope that the aristocrats will do the right thing by them. The only ‘bubble that popped’ for me was when i found out what a scoundrel Lenin was, and i was devastated by that.

Anyway, i might get this book. Anyone else want to have a chat about it? And the campaign?

Report this

By dihey, April 30, 2010 at 2:28 pm Link to this comment

“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”.
That may be true for the notions of most Americans but European historians such as Erickson and Clark knew better. The first sentence of Christopher Duffy’s “Red Storm on the Reich” is: “Essentially the Second World War was won and lost on the Eastern Front”.

Report this

By ofersince72, April 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment

“Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
    In the troops that were led by the Czar…”

Report this

By ofersince72, April 30, 2010 at 11:25 am Link to this comment

Oh no,  Another Western bubble popped.

Report this
Newsletter

sign up to get updates


 
 
Right 1, Site wide - BlogAds Premium
 
Right 2, Site wide - Blogads
 
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
 
 
 
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
 
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
 

A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion   Publisher, Zuade Kaufman   Editor, Robert Scheer
© 2014 Truthdig, LLC. All rights reserved.