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 his capital. 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.
Stand and fight, or conduct that hardest of maneuvers — the sustained and orderly retreat? Hold Moscow, or risk the monarchy and leave it to its fate? Entrap the French Army and try to destroy it in the Russian wastes, or allow it to retreat in its turn? — the favored policy, on the eminently sensible grounds that if French power were eradicated, Russia would face new enemies in its place.
Above all, stop at the borders of the empire in 1813 and negotiate a new peace with the chastened French — which much of the Russian military elite wanted — or spur the exhausted troops on to a feat unknown in the annals of European warfare, making them march as far across Europe as it took to topple Napoleon? This was Alexander’s policy, ambitious and cogent, and one he pursued in the face of counterarguments for many months until he was proved right.
If this was a war between modernity, as represented by the revolutionary French armies, and empire, it was empire that won. And this is Lieven’s deeper point: to remind us of empire’s vitality and single-mindedness, of the rational efficiency of the ancien régime when faced with its would-be destroyer. Empire could throw together armies as fast as a revolutionary regime could, if not faster, and Russian equipment and provisioning were a match for the French. The French, of course, communicated with one another in their own language, but this made it easy for the Russians to read captured letters; Russian generals, on the other hand, could communicate in a variety of languages — including, in one case, Latvian, which virtually guaranteed complete confidentiality. Moreover, Alexander worked easily and well with the numerous Frenchmen who fled Napoleon’s regime and wanted to help in his downfall.
As a result, his intelligence operation was far superior to that of his enemy. Exhaustion was the toughest enemy of all in this struggle of epic marches. Prussia’s best commander, the elderly Blücher, was under such strain that at one point he started hallucinating about giving birth to an elephant. But the imperial military machine could cope even with this, and with victory in the air Blücher himself recovered sufficiently to be carried on toward Paris in full view of his troops, wearing a lady’s green silk hat to shade his eyes.
Lieven wants us to remember a time when a Russian army entered a Western European capital and was hailed as a liberator. It is a salutary image today when our abiding memory of the last great war systematically plays down the Russian contribution — both military and political. Hollywood glamorizes the Anglo-American Normandy landings but is silent about the far vaster Operation Bagration — the most lethal offensive in history — that pummeled the Germans in the summer of 1944 and saw Russian troops charge across Europe in a fashion reminiscent of their forebears. This book reminds the reader that Russia’s deep and intimate involvement in European security has taken many forms. In doing so it shows how a magisterial lesson about the past can hold a message for the future as well.
Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Columbia University.
... tal como em tempos recuados, barbárie, de TREVAS bem profundas... tal como estas, outras surgiram ao longo de décadas de MATANÇAS, por IMPÉRIOS, por GANÂNCIAS, se arrastam AINDA, não CURAM!!!... TANTOS criminosos de GUERRA à solta... GENOCÍDIOS cometidos, bem calados, PROTEGIDOS!!!... TRISTEZA!!!... Sherpas!!!...