War of 1812 Highlighted Strength of the Russian State

10.10.2012

The war should be called a measure for assessing the “strength of the Russian state,” rather than the “strength of the Russian people.” Indeed, Russia’s victory in the war was one of the most vivid manifestations of the Russian spirit and probably one of the last major victories of the Imperial Russian Army.

Valdaiclub.com interview with Sergey Mironenko, Director, State Archives of the Russian Federation, Professor, Chair of Russia's history of XIX - early XX century, History Department, Lomonosov Moscow State University 

Can the War of 1812 be used as a measure to assess the “strength of the Russian people?”

The war should be called a measure for assessing the “strength of the Russian state,” rather than the “strength of the Russian people.” Indeed, Russia’s victory in the war was one of the most vivid manifestations of the Russian spirit and probably one of the last major victories of the Imperial Russian Army. Moreover, Russia dominated the 1815 Congress of Vienna and determined the future of the world, which was primarily controlled by Europe at the time. I don’t know of any other historical period, perhaps with the exception of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, where Russia made such a successful showing on the European stage.

What role did the people’s militia play in the Russian Army’s victory over the forces of Napoleon?

Current perceptions of the Patriotic War of 1812 as a war involving the entire Russian people against the Grande Armee do not always correspond to the facts of what happened. Units of the people’s militia were formed as part of the regular army. They did not amount to partisan units as they have been described in the historical accounts of the Patriotic War.

The manifesto of Emperor Alexander I, dedicated to the noble militia, set out the creation of a militia with a clear command structure. An ad hoc committee to form the militia was established in Moscow. General Alexei Arakcheyev was one of its members. The militiamen received weapons in line with a centralized procedure and they were also issued standard uniforms.

Partisan units were also affiliated with the regular army. It should not be forgotten that the partisan units of Denis Davydov or Alexander Figner were formed on the basis of the regular army. They were subordinated to the army command and had somewhat different functions from the militia units and partisan units described in the historical accounts of the Great Patriotic War.

Moreover, the people’s militia had little active involvement in any actual fighting. So I believe that there is a certain historical misconception about the militia’s role in the War of 1812.

Where did the expression “the big stick of the people’s war” come from then?

The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy was the first to use the expression “big stick of the people’s war” in reference to the War of 1812. The appearance of this metaphor was to a large extent linked with Tolstoy’s own perception of historical processes and with the fact that rank-and-file Russian soldiers were recruited from among peasant serfs.

However, the extent of the involvement of the people and the peasants in the fighting remains unclear. Modern-day historians doubt that even if Vasilisa Kozhina actually existed, whether she really created a partisan unit and took part in the war.

As for the “big stick of the people’s war,” the people definitely rose up in defense of the Motherland. However, partisan units were not the main form of resistance and armed struggle, although it would be wrong for any historical evaluation to underestimate their role or significance. We need to have a clear idea of what these partisan and militia units were really like. Of course, peasants dressed in soldiers’ greatcoats defended the Motherland. At the same time, the nobility, the clergy and the Third Estate also rallied in the struggle against Napoleon. Nor should the stance of the supreme leadership be forgotten either. Remember, Emperor Alexander I refused to hold talks with Napoleon, who mistakenly believed that once Moscow was captured he could force Russia to surrender on French terms. The more we understand the real events of the War of 1812, the more we understand the many issues that were previously concealed from us by mythologizing or propaganda.

What do you think about the current perception of the War of 1812? This year has been proclaimed as the Year of Russian History, and celebrations of the victory in the War of 1812 have been designated as its main event.

I’m beginning to get pretty fed up with this unhealthy media hype surrounding the events of the War of 1812. There are many publications and speculations on the subject of the war. One respected radio station broadcasts the timeline of the War of 1812 every day. Everywhere you go you hear the War of 1812, the War of 1812, the War of 1812. I cannot understand who this endless historical distortion is aimed at.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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