Russia Against Napoleon. Battle for Europe, 1807-1814. By Dominic Lieven


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ABOUT: It was published by Penguin Books in 2009 and won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize. The book received rave reviews in the world media for its innovative approach to assessing and analyzing the Napoleonic wars. Prior to the release of this book, Western historiography had no comprehensive understanding of the 1812 campaign and the role played by Russia in overthrowing the Corsican. The book was published in Russian in the fall of 2012, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino.

The monograph is devoted to relations between the Russian Empire and Napoleonic France, from the signing of the 1807 Peace Treaty of Tilsit to the capture of Paris by the anti-French Sixth Coalition in 1814.

For several decades, foreign historiographers viewed the Patriotic War of 1812 as a large-scale campaign, though not the most significant among the wars waged by the anti-French coalitions. Many scholars assumed that the main contribution to the victory over Napoleon was made by the British Empire, which had consistently been fighting, first against the French Republic and later against the French Empire, for almost two decades. In the global clash between the Eagle and the Lion, the Russian Bear was assigned a secondary role, and Western readerships invariably focused their interest on the confrontation in Europe.

Russian and Soviet scholars, on the other hand, emphasized the role of Russia as the main strike force of the Sixth Coalition, arguing that it was in Russia’s vast expanses that Napoleon’s elite troops were smashed and that it was in Russia that he suffered his first crushing defeat. The logic of Count Leo Tolstoy became whimsically intertwined with historic materialism and it was largely by following this logic that the domestic historians believed that it was “a club of people’s war” which crushed the French.

In his monograph Professor Lieven argues against these views and analyzes the confrontation between Alexander I and Napoleon from various angles: military and diplomatic aspects, geopolitics and tactics, the Russian rear services, the war economy and military logistics. He also compares Russia’s and France’s military science and diplomacy with those of other European countries.

The author departs from the traditional views that the victory of the Russian Empire in the 1812 war was an accident and that the best military leader of the Russian army was “General Frost”. He does not agree either that the role of personality in history is negligible and that the historical predetermination and the movement of popular masses foreshadow the course of events.

On the contrary, Professor Lieven maintains that Russia won the war not only because of the weather or economic potential. He writes that Russian generals were extremely competent and very talented, and that Emperor Alexander I was more prudent and far-sighted than his French rival. He played the few strong cards he had brilliantly. But for his leadership, Russia of the early 19th century, not a rich country and a poorly managed one at that, would have been unable to rebuff the assault of an enemy who was exploiting the resources of the whole of Europe.

The author believes that the Russian Empire established an excellent intelligence service, which conveyed to Alexander I the idea that Napoleon was used to scoring quick victories in major battles and that a long-drawn-out confrontation would exhaust both him and his army. This is exactly why the strategy of retreat was so successful and eventually led to the defeat of the Grande Armée.

Professor Lieven shows that the Russian Army was extremely efficient by European standards. Soldiers obeyed officers unquestioningly and the general morale was very high. Another strength of the Russian Army was its brilliant officer corps. Dominic Lieven, whose ancestors long served under Russian tsars and took part in the Battle of Borodino, emphasizes the active use made of talented foreigners in the army, politics, diplomacy and the economy by the Romanov Dynasty. The author cites the example of Barclay de Tolly, a German with Scottish roots, and a host of generals who held key positions both at headquarters and in logistic support, and coped brilliantly with the tasks that proved too difficult for their French counterparts. He also gives a detailed description of logistics and supplies of both the Russian and French armies.

The book pays particular attention to the foreign campaign of the Russian Army in 1812-1814. The author points out that in 1813 Napoleon gathered an army of half a million men, which could have launched a strike on Russia had Alexander I not been bold and taken the war onto enemy territory. In the author’s opinion, victory in the Patriotic War of 1812 was never an aim in itself for Alexander I. He viewed it rather as the first step towards a strategic counteroffensive and the liberation of Germany from French rule.

In turn, Alexander I considered the security of Poland and Germany to be an element of the new European security system that would in turn ensure Russia’s safety. The grandiose plan of Alexander I, whereby the triumph of Russian arms would become the backbone of the new European balance of forces, became the “battle for Europe” that Lieven used as part of the book’s title.

Prepared by the Valdai Club staff.

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