March 30, 2015
Alexander M. Martin on Dominic Lieven’s ‘Russia Against Napoleon’
Posted on Apr 29, 2010
Lieven argues that one reason for the Russian army’s superiority was, paradoxically, its ancien régime character. Unlike their opponents, Russian soldiers were conscripted for twenty-five years, which cut their ties to their native communities and made the army their home. Many spent virtually their entire adult life in a single regiment, forming powerful bonds of comradeship. The socially segmented and multinational character of the Russian Empire also made possible specialized units that served usefully alongside the regular army, such as a peasant militia to help secure rear areas and a light cavalry—especially Cossacks—that inspired terror in the enemy.
A further advantage of not being a modern nation-state concerned the high command. Lieven describes the vicious rivalries and turf battles at headquarters. Some of these involved ethnic hostilities, as when generals of German background were maligned as dull-witted pedants with no zest for defending the Russian heartland. Yet this variety of distinct national military cultures was also an advantage. The failure of Napoleon’s Russian campaign was due in part to ignorance about the enemy’s society and culture; the availability of such knowledge among Alexander I’s cosmopolitan high command, by contrast, greatly aided the Russians in 1813-14.
Russia Against Napoleon is a superbly crafted book. Lieven himself calls it “a study of grand strategy, military operations and diplomacy, in other words of power politics ... a study of kings and battles”. This gives him too little credit, since there is also much here about such matters as economics, institution-building and military sociology. Still, the aim is to analyse rationally why campaigns and diplomacy turned out as they did. This approach confronts the historian with a conundrum—how to deal with war’s murderous irrationality and its human dimension.
Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace
By Dominic Lieven
Viking Adult, 656 pages
Soldiers, especially career officers such as those who produced most of the sources for this book, relied on time-honoured mechanisms for coping with the emotional stress of mass slaughter. They anthropomorphized military units: men die, but the regiment, zombie-like, fights on. Officers were taught that war is a cruel but thrilling game played according to immutable rules, a game that is embedded in the human condition and elevates men to a higher plane of being, and they expected their soldiers to share this view. They took refuge in a small-bore sense of legality: amid the carnage of 1812, the Russian partisan commander Figner was vilified for killing a few captive officers. They expressed themselves in a deliberately limited, stilted vocabulary that reduced harrowing realities to comforting clichés.
Lieven is aware of this problem, and his narrative will pause at times for hair-raising casualty figures or to describe the horrors of battle. He has done all one could to find evidence by and about common soldiers, but the paucity of such material means that we mostly hear the voices of their commanders, and their euphemistic language in turn sometimes bleeds into the book. Thus, we read of Cossacks “scooping up” French stragglers. Lonely, frightened men, some of them mere boys, running for their lives as swarms of sabre-wielding riders descend on them—does “scooping up” really do justice to that? On the other hand, if we actually contemplated the reality of war, would we still care who won?
Had the book incorporated more accounts by civilians, whose language was not distorted by military conventions, we might have a more visceral sense of what people experienced. The offensives of 1915-17 and the strategic bombing of 1939-45 mattered less for their immediate military outcomes than for the lasting collective trauma they inflicted. The Napoleonic campaigns had a similar dimension. After Moscow was occupied, sacked and burned, survivors tried for the rest of the century to articulate the impressions seared into their memories. They recalled bitterly that their governor had lied to them, claiming falsely that their city was secure. As the enemy approached, some noblemen fled disguised as women so no one would make them stay and fight. The French defecated in Orthodox churches and used icons for target practice. Napoleon’s Polish troops attacked Russian civilians. Civilians casually perpetrated dreadful violence against defenceless enemy soldiers. The firestorm that consumed the city created such heat that glass melted and flocks of pigeons fell from the sky. An old woman refused entreaties to leave her burning house: dressed as though for her own funeral, she lit the lamps in front of her icons and calmly declared that the smoke would surely suffocate her before the flames could burn her alive. After the French withdrew, hordes of peasants plundered what was left of Moscow. Later, the Russians collected the rotting remains of 11,955 humans and 12,360 horses; “for several weeks”, an eyewitness recalled, “the police were burning them by the banks of the river and sweeping the ashes into the water”.
The campaigns of 1812-14 reordered the system of great powers, giving rise to new alignments and moulding European affairs for the next hundred years. Thanks to Dominic Lieven’s magisterial work, readers will be far better equipped than in the past to understand them. The war was also, however, an unfathomable human drama that echoed through the nineteenth century as Passchendaele and Dresden reverberated through the twentieth. That part of the story remains to be told.
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