Dominic Lieven, a professor of history at the London School of Economics, is a distinguished scholar of the czarist empire, and in this superb book he has written his masterpiece. The story he tells — Russia’s gargantuan struggle with Napoleon — will be known to most people through Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and it takes a brave man to challenge the great novelist. But that indeed is Lieven’s goal, and for the most persuasive of reasons. He believes that Tolstoy’s account is badly misleading (Lieven has a historian’s natural concern for the facts) and perhaps more important has skewed our view of Russia and contributed to our tendency to misunderstand and belittle its role in international affairs.
In the first place, Tolstoy depicted a war in which individuals had little control over the course of events; military expertise is seen as a peculiarly German character trait, and the Russians instead depend on fate, snow and the vastness of their land to save themselves. Second, the novel essentially ends in late 1812, before the Russian Army has begun the quite extraordinary advance across Europe that led to its defeating Napoleon and entering Paris in triumph just over a year later.
Lieven’s account in “Russia Against Napoleon” could not be more different. He concentrates on the men who led the Russian Army to victory — the young Czar Alexander and his close advisers — and shows that they won because they got more things right than Napoleon did. They understood him better than he did them, and while Napoleon may have been a battlefield genius, Alexander showed greater diplomatic skill in bringing together the coalition that eventually defeated him. That was no easy matter, given the fear of the French that prevailed in the German lands, and the fear of Russian predominance as well.
The reason the Russians were able to persuade the Prussians and above all the hesitant Austrians to join them is that they had already shown that Napoleon could be defeated. This they had done through management of their long and deliberate retreat in 1812, which had drawn the French deep into Russia, far from their supply lines, and exposed them to constant attacks on their flanks. It was a strategy that had required a lot more than good luck and heavy snow. It had needed complex administration in the provisioning of food and, above all, horses (Lieven is very good on how the availability of horses could win or lose a war). It needed a ferociously efficient, cruel but widely tolerated conscription system.
Most invisibly but significantly, it required trust among sovereign, elite and people. It was this confidence and belief — call it the legitimacy of the autocratic system — that explains how Alexander could be fairly confident his regime would survive even after abandoning Moscow. Lieven makes the instructive comparison with what happened in Paris when the Russian Army marched into the French capital: within hours the rats were fleeing Napoleon’s ship, his closest relatives had slipped away and Prince Talleyrand was negotiating the succession.
Lieven takes us into the heart of the Russian military. Himself the descendant of imperial officers, he offers us something close to a rose-tinted picture of that caste, and a notably heroic picture of Alexander himself, the man who “more than any other individual,” he tells us, “was responsible for Napoleon’s overthrow.” Lieven’s pride is evident when he reminds us that the czar’s Guards were “the finest-looking troops in Europe.”
But this pious act of memory brings with it a deep understanding of the men and the system that made the Russian imperial army so effective. There is a certain amount of Tolstoyan partying and drinking, courtly intrigue and battlefield maneuvering here, but there is also much more serious attention to the Russian ability to appraise the finely balanced strategic alternatives that loomed up almost every minute from the time the decision was taken to prepare for invasion.
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