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Book Review: Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace by Dominic Lieven

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Dominic Lieven's account of the defeat of Napoleon in Russia is meant to correct the popular myths in order to recover a truth that has for many decades remained obscured by myth, neglect and lack of access to source materials. Though I am not a professional historian, as a serious reader I do like to read history from time to time. Comprehensive books like Lieven's Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace are especially fascinating because of their power to transport the reader into a past fully evoked: a past rich with personalities, politics and daily realities.

Most accounts of Napoleon in Russia neglect the contribution of Russian strategy and logistical planning, focusing instead on ephemeral aspects such as patriotic passions, vagaries of weather and geography as well as accident and improvisation. The most canonical expression of such vision is perhaps that of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, a mythology of enormous impact on the way the events were viewed both at home in Russia and abroad. Various Russian rulers and governments made use of this convenient myth of patriotism and populist resistance for their purposes. Western historians preferred to see Russia in a certain way and thus, in combination with the absence of access to source material, myth was sometimes better than reality.

But these nationalist myths have obscured a more fascinating reality, one which Lieven, a professor of history at the London School of Economics and author of several other works of scholarship on the period, works to recover in this magisterial volume. This new telling of the dramatic story, however, paints Russia of the time as more rational and capable than popularly perceived, an empire led by men capable of implementing complex policy initiatives with a surprising degree of consistency. Lieven in the process recovers a Russia that is at odds with Tolstoy's myth, a power that is surprisingly Western rather than being a mere backwater of Europe. Lieven's Russia is one which met the challenge posed by Napoleon's military genius.

Lieven argues that Russia out-thought Napoleon, its leadership working a clear strategy aimed at drawing Napoleon into Russia by pursuing a defensive campaign, then, once Napoleon's forces were exhausted, to pursue his forces as they retreated and to incite a continental insurrection against him. Such a strategy was certainly an astute response by the Russian leadership, which apparently saw Napoleon for what he was, a temporary phenomenon too much at odds with the reality of Europe and unable to withstand a grand coalition of great powers wishing to preserve the imperial order. A war of attrition was the kind of war that Napoleon wasn't prepared to fight; the longer Russia drew out the conflict, the weaker would Napoleon's position be. His supply lines were simply too long and vulnerable to interdiction by Russian's secret weapon, its light cavalry, which did as much as it could to disrupt Napoleon's logistics. His march on Moscow ended up costing him 175,000 horses, a staggering loss which he could not regenerate.

Lieven offers the reader a study of the power politics of the period by examining the sources of Russian power of the time. He does this by focusing on military industry, public finance, horse industry, and manpower; factors which were responsible not only for how Russia fought Napoleon but also why Russia ultimately triumphed against his invasion. But Lieven is not satisfied with merely looking at the day-to-day details; he looks at the geopolitics of the era as well in order to give the reader a truly big picture of the events. All this may seem as the perfect ingredients of a dry reading but Lieven's history is eminently readable, presenting not a few engrossing narratives; the book is accessible.

The story begins with the conditions that lead to the 1807 treaty of Tilsit between France and Russia and ends with the Russian entry into Paris in 1814. Lieven sets the stage by examining the Russian political system and the nature of the international relations in the Napoleonic era, leading up to Tilsit; then he examines the uneasy Fanco-Russian alliance following Tilsit, telling the story of diplomatic and intelligence operations by Russia in that period. He also places the Franco-Russian alliance in a global context, arguing that one reason for the rise of Napoleon was the global power struggle between France and Britain — British naval power locked France in Europe, which meant that if France wished to build an empire to match Britain, it would have to somehow find a way to build that empire in Europe. Lieven reminds us that this was a world of three predatory empires, each wishing to expand its influence and do in potential rivals. He then discusses Russian preparations for war; the Franco-Russian alliance was nothing but a matter of temporary convenience (Napoleon needed a European empire and the biggest obstacle to that was Russia whose elites would never accept French domination of the continent) before beginning the discussion of events that culminated in the battle of Borodino. Subsequent chapters cover the events of 1812 and 1813. Two chapters deal with the home front and two cover the events of 1814, interweaving stories of diplomatic, military, and logistical efforts, even the French domestic policies.

With Russia Against Napoleon Lieven has written a Tolstoyan masterpiece of non-fiction, an answer to the classic that is indeed as filled with as much great sweep and drama as War and Peace. This one is truly a monument and labor of love.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • Sorin

    I think that’s one of those cases when they say “???? ?????? ?? ??????”, wich is “you can’t understand Russia only with your mind”. I grew up in Russia. They think and feel different. That’s a great and powerful nation, but I think they’ll always be unbeatable just because they are too unpredictable.

  • Sorin

    Sorry, it looks like the site doesn’t support Russian letters. It was “Umom Rossiyu ne poneati” instead of interrogative signs.