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

Posted on Apr 29, 2010
book cover

By Alexander M. Martin

(Page 2)

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.


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

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.

© Copyright of the Newspaper Licensing Agency. 

Alexander M. Martin is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is co-editor of the journal Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…”


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
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  

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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?

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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”.

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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…”

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

Oh no,  Another Western bubble popped.

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