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May 2011

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Russia Against Napoleon
divideandparishReviewed by Donald Kursch

Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon, The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, Viking Press, 2010, ISBN- 0670021571, 618 pp., $27.72

Dominic Lieven wants to set the record straight. It was not the notorious Russian winter that defeated Napoleon and the Grande Armeé, nor was the war even close to over when the battered French legions completed their retreat from Moscow and departed from the Czar’s domains. He argues that the British, French and Soviet historical accounts, and Tolstoy’s classic fictional rendering of the epic clash between France and Russia at the beginning of the 19th century present a seriously distorted picture of what actually happened and has left us with unfortunate stereotypes which have impeded our understanding up to the present day.

Professor Lieven, Professor of Russian History at the London School of Economics, makes a persuasive case that the key factors to defeat Napoleon were Russia’s good understanding of the enemy’s thinking, effective planning for the expected invasion, a well developed system of logistical support, the careful development of alliances, the courage and endurance of the ordinary soldier and far-sighted leadership, particularly by Czar Alexander. Lieven has painstakingly researched Russian military archives, most of which became available to foreign scholars only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and read all the regimental histories of Russian units that participated in the Napoleonic Wars. Some of his passion for this project is no doubt due to the fact that his own ancestors were important Russian actors in this great historical drama.

The author emphasizes how effectively Russian intelligence efforts in Paris in the years prior to 1812 kept the Czar informed of French plans and insights into Napoleon’s thinking. Information bought by Russian agents from senior French officials included a top secret document on the future of French policy written for Napoleon in March 1810, which noted the intention to push back Russia’s western borders. Evidence that the French were building large quantities of special equipment to survive fierce Russian winters provided a clear indication that France was taking practical steps to support its plans. The careful cultivation of senior French generals by Russian Embassy officials also produced valuable insights into Napoleon’s thinking including his strong preference for large battles and quick, decisive victories and his fear of being away from Paris for more than one year.

The Russians prepared accordingly and, on the whole, effectively. Prof. Lieven highlights enormous improvements made in Russian artillery to bring it up to European standards in less than a decade, experience gained by Russian units at all levels from previous campaigns, and greatly enhanced Russian logistical capability, including a large and continuing supply of healthy horses. Alexander’s leadership, strong nerves, determination to mobilize all of Russia’s resources and effective diplomacy are also presented as critical factors. It was the Czar’s decision to adopt a plan that would draw Napoleon further and further into Russia in order to stretch out his supply lines, play for time and ultimately eliminate the almost 2 to 1 advantage enjoyed by the French and their allies when they crossed the Russian frontier in June 1812. As the Russian officer corps had been conditioned to view retreat before the enemy almost as shocking as failing to defend one’s honor in a duel when challenged, it was Alexander alone who could take responsibility for this unpopular, but ultimately successful strategy.

Although Napoleon’s enormous frustration upon reaching Moscow and still finding an opponent unwilling to surrender is well known, Lieven highlights critical albeit less familiar elements that contributed to the French withdrawal and demise of the once mighty Grand Armeé. The shortage of horses was one key factor. Once in Moscow, trying to find enough feed for the French army’s already badly depleted stock of horses became a logistical nightmare as French foraging parties suffered heavy losses and brutal treatment from both regular and irregular Russian forces when they ventured into the countryside. In contrast, by the time Napoleon left Moscow on October 19, the Russians had obtained new horses for 10,000 regular cavalry, as well as for 26 regiments of Don Cossacks totaling 15,000 men. These forces inflicted great damage on the French during Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia.

With the departure of Napoleon from Russian territory, many of the Czar’s advisors were willing to take the position of “mission accomplished.” Alexander thought otherwise, assuming that Napoleon would pose a threat to Russia as long as he was able and that in peacetime Russia would not be able to sustain the level of military expenditures needed to counter a revived Napoleon. He also concluded that it was essential to push France back within its “natural borders” to the West of the Rhine, but understood that this could not possibly be achieved without the cooperation of Austria and Prussia.

Lieven highlights Alexander’s personal role in obtaining this cooperation, which was no mean task. Although Frederick William, the King of Prussia, harbored a great dislike for Napoleon, he was a skeptical and pessimistic man, and these traits had been deepened by a series of disastrous defeats he had suffered at the hands of the French. Alexander’s leadership and the performance and behavior of his forces gradually won Prussian confidence and cooperation.

The alliance concluded with Prussia in February 1813 committed both countries to give top priority to adding Austria. Although the Austrians were a tougher nut to crack, Russian/ Prussian military successes in Central Europe, and the Czar’s careful handling of Austria’s concerns brought Vienna around just in the nick of time to deal with the new army that Napoleon had raised in France with unexpected speed in the months after his retreat from Russia. Despite Napoleon’s military genius, this new force was not quite strong enough to defeat the new alliance of three Emperors, which defeated it soundly at the Battle of Leipzig in mid-October 1813.

After Leipzig Alexander was determined to press on, believing that Napoleon would never honor any settlement acceptable to the allies and that lasting peace could only be made in Paris. He was also determined not to give his adversary breathing room to raise yet another army and, together with his allies, launched a winter invasion of France. Lieven provides a fine account of these battles and diplomatic maneuvering of this campaign making it clear that despite Napoleon’s much weakened condition, the ultimate allied success that ended in a parade down the Champs-Elysees on March 31,1814, was the result of well coordinated action by the allies, much bravery and sacrifice, and surprisingly good Russian logistical support. Of course, the allied celebration of the final Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 proved to be premature. However, the author argues persuasively that if the allies had not taken Paris Napoleon’s ability to mount yet another challenge to Europe would have been a good deal more serious than what occurred at Waterloo a year later. He concludes that even if Napoleon had prevailed at Waterloo he would have had to fight many additional fresh allied forces that were on their way to deal with him, including a fresh 150,000 man Russian force that had just crossed the Rhine from the east at the time of the Waterloo battle.

In 1814 Russia became directly and positively involved in mainstream European politics to an extent unequalled either before or after. Examining Napoleon’s downfall from the Russia perspective, as Lieven does, makes a compelling case for the argument that a Napoleonic Europe might have lasted for a long time, had Russia not defeated Napoleon on its territory and then become the lynchpin of an alliance that pursued him all the way to Paris. Napoleon’s underestimations of Alexander and of overall Russian capabilities proved to be devastating miscalculations, and ones that were to be repeated 129 years later by another European bent on creating a new order. While no military genius, Alexander clearly possessed a keen understanding of his adversary’s strengths and weaknesses and used these to great effect. And the Czar was consistent in his aim of ridding Russia and Europe as a whole from the menace of Napoleon, while making it clear to the French and others that a post-Napoleonic regime in France should not be seen as one that was imposed by the victorious allies.

As the Russians and their allies marched in review in Paris, America’s first armed intervention on the continent was a bit more than a century into the future. Lieven reminds readers that the U.S. although not a player then, was an interested observer. He notes that the distinguished American Minister in St. Petersburg, and future President, John Quincy Adams, wrote home in December 1812 of the great relief among the Russian elite that the Russian peasantry had shown no indication of using Napoleon’s invasion as an opportunity to obtain their freedom.

Professor Lieven is to be highly commended on this thought- provoking new look at one of Western history’s most recognized events. Admittedly, this reader was at times a bit overwhelmed by the myriad details of numerous battles and felt that better marked maps describing campaigns might have him helped to deal with this material. However, this is a small quibble with an outstanding piece of scholarship.


author Donald Kursch had a 37-year career in the Foreign Service with postings in Hungary, Germany, the U.S.S.R., Belgium and Switzerland. He served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Budapest, Bonn and at the US Mission to the European Union, as the Deputy Special Coordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, and as Senior Advisor to the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress. Since retiring from the Foreign Service in 2003, he has been associated with the Institute for Defense Analyses, where he has dealt with specific aspects of U.S.-Russia relations. He is currently a Senior Advisor to the State Department's Coordinator for Counterterrorism.

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