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.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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