History

Russian Genius Without Crediting Winter or Stalinist Hagiography: A Review of Dominic Lieven’s “Russia Against Napoleon”

One of the problems of the Napoleonic Wars is dealing with the downfall of Napoleon. Most of us are probably familiar with the story: Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. While he was immensely proud and filled with hubris, Napoleon performed well—even capturing Moscow. Then Winter came and disaster struck. Winter, moreover than the Russians, spelled Napoleon’s defeat.

This was the line taken by partisans of Napoleon in the nineteenth and continued into the twentieth century. This story of Winter defeating Napoleon also reinforced itself in the aftermath of Hitler’s failed invasion of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Add in Cold War Russophobia which wanted to deny Russian genius, the story has stuck. “Subsequently Napoleon himself and some his admirers were much inclined to blame the unusually cold winter for the destruction of his army. This is mostly nonsense. Only in December, after most of the French army had already perished, did the winter become unusually and ferociously cold.”

Enter Dominic Lieven. A Professor of Russian History at the London School of Economics, Lieven assails the anti-Russian bias in Western academia as tainting our understanding of the 1812 campaign—and the 1813 and 1814 campaigns also. But he doesn’t stop there. He also attacks the highly problematic Soviet histories as being marred by Stalinist and Marxist propaganda and window dressing. The “Peoples’ War” (read: proletariat in Marxist categories) and the genius of Kutuzov (in part, thanks to Tolstoy’s portrayal of the Old Fox in “War and Peace”) also obscure the realities of the 1812 Campaign.

The purpose of Lieven’s book, as he states in the introduction, is to offer a concise but thoroughly readable, popular, and modestly academic treatise on the Russian War effort and the role it played in Napoleon’s downfall. For a one-volume book on the subject matter, Lieven does his job admirably. The best work is undeniably the first half covering the situation leading up to 1812 and 1812 itself. Lieven goes into good detail showing how a combination of factors played into Napoleon’s defeat.

First is the fact that the Russians had been expecting a war. Alarmed by Napoleon’s growing power and his blunders, the Continental System was harming Russia and Russia could not remain tied to a System that clearly only served Napoleon’s self-interest.

Second is the fact that the Russians, expecting this inevitable war, took more than two years preparing for it. Building new forts, food storages, improving the modernization and reform of the army, the Russians were – in fact – well-prepared for Napoleon’s invasion even though they were still caught somewhat off guard when Napoleon did cross the border in June 1812.

Third is the fact that Russia’s logistical capabilities for sustaining Napoleon’s invasion was rather excellent. While some of the Russian roads were poor the Russian state system that had slowly been built up since Catherine’s time served Alexander and his generals well in 1812 and 1813.

Fourth is the fact that all facets of Russian society were united in the struggle. Contrary to Stalinist propaganda, it wasn’t even the “People’s War” that was most influential in the societal war effort. In fact, the Russian middle classes and nobility were far more important to the mobilized war effort than the peasantry. Volunteer contributions in money and material helped sustain Kutuzov’s army when it most needed it. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church inspired patriotism and religious devotion to the masses who found patriotism and religion tied together in the battle against the Anti-Christ.

Fifth is the fact that Russia was blessed with good leaders, despite all the politicking and infighting, during the 1812 campaign. Lieven shows how Barclay de Tolly was among the unsung heroes of the war. A Protestant Baltic-German, Tolly devised the original strategy of scorched earth retreat which Alexander approved of. The Emperor Alexander also revealed himself in 1812 to be a very capable and even great leader. Putting aside his own personal ambitions and ego, Alexander surrounded himself and organized a very effective bureaucracy which ran the day-to-day operations while he remained mostly in St. Petersburg. Finally there is Kutuzov. Cautious as ever, Kutuzov followed Tolly’s strategy and, although pressured by his generals, didn’t throw away the Russian Army in pursuing Napoleon in the retreat from Moscow. As Lieven shows, great pressures were burdening the Russian Army during Napoleon’s retreat. Lack of food, clothing, and equipment—not to mention the arrival of winter—plagued the Russian army which survived mostly from the help of the nobility and Kutuzov’s level-headed caution.

Finally, Napoleon himself and his marshals made many mistakes (now visible with hindsight). Napoleon’s army was already exhausted, low of horses and supplies, when invading Russia. Then he quartered in Moscow when he should have retreated to quarter in Smolensk. The three weeks in Moscow doomed his army. His marshals, especially Oudinot, bear much responsibility for the poor performance of the French and coalition armies in Russia.

After 1812, the rebuilding of the Russian army and the securing of the alliance of Prussia and Austria were instrumental in ensuring a professional and well-led allied army against Napoleon. It is important to remember that many Russian soldiers died, were captured, or deserted too—not just the French. Though Kutuzov saved the elite of the Russian army and its core officers who did not die at Borodino, the Russian army was not in a good state of shape in the spring of 1813 either.

Lieven’s book is a masterful introduction to the Russian Campaign of 1812 and the subsequent 1813 and 1814 campaign (more of a cliff notes versions, admittedly) that overturns many of the misguided and popular beliefs about this important epoch of Napoleonic history. We learn that Father Winter really wasn’t the cause of Napoleon’s defeat, a combination of French mistakes and Russian genius were—Winter came very late and served as nothing more than the nail on the top of the coffin. We also learn that the Stalinist historiography and hagiography is wildly inaccurate and unreliable (perhaps, unsurprisingly so). Alexander, the Russian nobility and bureaucratic elites, and the middle-classes were far more important than the peasantry in ensuring Napoleon’s defeat.

Russia Against Napoleon
Dominic Lieven
New York: Penguin Books, 2009; 618pp

3 comments

  1. Lieven’s book is surely an interesting read. I have always sensed that history books were biased because only winners get to write it. According to my Russian friends, life was tough under the Soviet but not everywhere. Some places were much better than others. It is a great post. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You know, it’s interesting that of late, a number of the best Napoleonic books (I say this as someone who once dreamed of going into Napoleonic scholarship in my youth!) are from those rascal English professors who generally have a negative take on him. While Lieven is no apologist for Napoleon, naturally, his book focusing on the Russian (and to a lesser extent, Austrian and Prussian) effort in Napoleon’s downfall is very much needed and useful compared to the much ra-ra-ra of Wellington and the British effort. Plus, as a lover of Tolstoy any book that is even remotely tied to War and Peace is a must own for me!

      Liked by 1 person

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