The Bear Against The Cockrel
Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814
Dominic Lieven (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 617pp £30)
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Readers familiar with Tolstoy's War and Peace will possibly remember a dramatic incident that occurs in the wake of the French invasion of Russia. Alone at her estate of Bleak Hills following the death of her father, Princess Marya finds herself in the direct path of the oncoming French army. Desperate to escape, she orders the peasants who farm the estate to provide transport for her so she can pack up her belongings and flee to Moscow, and tries to persuade them to evacuate their villages and follow her example. However, her pleas have no effect - on the contrary, the peasants turn rebellious - and the princess is only rescued by the fortuitous arrival of the dashing young cavalry officer Nikolai Rostov. Given that one of the chief themes of War and Peace is the heroism of the Russian people in the face of Napoleon, the vignette is a troubling one that positively demands discussion, and yet, until the publication of this book, subjecting such contradictions to the spotlight of academic discussion has proved almost impossible for any author without a knowledge of Russian and access to the Russian archives.
Despite the fact that the so-called 'new military history' is now fifty or more years old, no Russian specialist in Britain or the United States (or, for that matter, France or Germany) has ever seen fit to embark on a detailed monograph-length study of the Russian war effort in 1812, let alone the struggles of 1805-7 and 1813-14. Equally, while campaign histories exist by the score, in the main they rely almost entirely on French sources, the 'other side of the hill' being accessed, at best, via the accounts of a few foreigners who were present in Russia in 1812, together with such Russian sources as are available in translation. And, last but not least, there is the issue of coverage: military accounts of Russia's wars tend to concentrate either on the years of French victory or the tragedy of 1812, with the exploits of Russia's soldiers in the campaigns of 1813-14 tending to be discussed in the context of those of a broader coalition whose cutting edge is generally assumed to be the newly reformed Prussian army. Yet the gap is an extraordinary one: to cite just a few aspects of the situation, from 1805 onwards Russia was a key player - indeed, in some respects the key player - in the international relations of Napoleonic Europe; the campaign of 1812 was not just an episode of positively epic dimensions, but also a moment of seminal importance in the history of modern Russia, the echoes of which continued to reverberate throughout the life of the USSR, if not beyond; and finally in the bloody battles of 1813-14 it was Russian troops who made up the largest part of the Allied armies and, arguably at least, Russian leadership that ensured the overthrow of Napoleon.
Fortunately for all students of the Napoleonic era, this massive gap in the historiography has now been filled by a massive book. Crafted by Dominic Lieven, perhaps one of the most distinguished specialists in nineteenth-century Russia of his generation, Russia Against Napoleon truly reaches the parts that other works do not. Beginning with the failed alliance of Tilsit between Russia and France, which Lieven presents as an arrangement that was based on a cool and realistic appreciation of Russian interests, the author charts Alexander I's steadily deteriorating relationship with Napoleon and explains how by 1810 the tsar had been forced into a position of open enmity with the French empire, in part because of the latter's relentless aggression, but also because of growing internal pressure (throughout the book, indeed, great stress is placed on the importance of domestic Russian politics). Hostility to France, however, did not necessarily mean war and, as Lieven shows, in 1811 Alexander eschewed the idea of attacking Napoleon: rather, he would wait to be attacked and, initially at least, adopt a purely defensive strategy. When war came in 1812 it was therefore very much the responsibility of the French ruler, and in arguing thus Lieven places himself in the camp of those who argue that the struggles of 1803-15 were in the most literal sense Napoleonic wars.
From this point in Lieven's narrative, the story is naturally dominated by military affairs. Needless to say, the cataclysm of 1812 is covered in immense detail, but almost equal weight is placed on the campaigns of 1813-14, an episode which the author is eager to portray as a distinctly undervalued chapter in the history of Russian military glory. As he argues, just to have got a Russian army of up to 500,000 men from the frontiers of Poland all the way to Paris would have been an extraordinary achievement even had it not been achieved in the face of desperate French resistance and the horrors of 1812. But the matter does not end there: the army concerned was not just a horde of armed peasants that could do no more than rely on brute force, but a highly sophisticated military machine that had come on enormously since the disasters of Austerlitz and Friedland, and was characterised by both highly efficient staffwork and an ability to make use of the most sophisticated tactical combinations.
Particularly in 1813-14, 'war, war' was at all times accompanied by 'jaw, jaw', as the growing number of members of the Allied coalition jostled for position with one another and gradually elaborated a common position in respect of Napoleon (a process that, in testimony to the immense differences that bedevilled the anti-Napoleonic camp, was not completed until March 1814). In this respect, Lieven places great weight on the efforts of Alexander himself. Having already been the heart and soul of Russian resistance in 1812 and, according to the author at least, a leading influence in the great victory of Leipzig, the tsar struggled to ensure that the Allies aimed at nothing less than the overthrow of Napoleon. In this, of course, he was not alone (Britain's Lord Castlereagh was a strong exponent of the same policy), but, as Lieven points out, it is almost certainly the case that, without the Tsar's commitment to war to the death, Napoleon could well have been left on the throne of France in 1814, thereby rendering null and void all the slaughter and suffering of the previous two years.
Thus far, thus good, but if this was the limit of Lieven's work one would have to ask whether all that Russia Against Napoleon consists of is a reworking of a well-known story from a Russian point of view. Fortunately, however, the reader gets much more than this for his money. Where Lieven is at his most useful is in imparting detailed information on the Russian home front. The informed reader might wish that he had gone much further here, but there is nonetheless sufficient coverage to ensure that the jarring note struck by the incident referred to at the beginning of this review receives at least a measure of contextualisation: in Russia, as everywhere else, the populace often resented the demands of the state and frequently did what they could to resist it.
This brings us to another major feature of Lieven's work, in that we learn a great deal about the reasons why the Russian army was always such a steadfast foe on the battlefields of the Napoleonic era. Given what has just been said, patriotic enthusiasm can seemingly be left out, but what about the much touted idea that Russian soldiers were simply too stupid to run away? As might be expected, Lieven does not dignify such claims with a direct response, but instead we hear a great deal about the internal organisation of the Russian regiment. Utterly isolated from civilian society, Russian soldiers evolved in a very close-knit world of their own, and this imbued them with immense loyalty to one another; it was this loyalty that sustained them in such dramatic fashion on the battlefields of Borodino and Leipzig.
This leads to the central message of Lieven's work. For him, the Russian army of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was clearly a force of great strength and versatility that was more than capable of meeting the challenges posed by the French Revolution and Napoleon without having to engage in fundamental change. And, as with the Russian army, so with the whole of the Russian state. Far from being some ramshackle eastern despotism, this was in many ways a vibrant and forward-looking organism that possessed extraordinary resources and even offered a number of the advantages that are normally associated only with the French Revolution: a regime that could place such a figure as Mikhail Speransky at the head of its affairs was hardly one in which careers could not be said to be open to talent. In writing about the Russia of Alexander I, Dominic Lieven has also made a major contribution to wider debates on the Napoleonic epoch, and for this, as for so much else, he is to be congratulated.
Charles Esdaile is Professor in History at the University of Liverpool and the author of numerous books on Napoleon's wars.