Beyond Tolstoy’s Legend: Russia and the Defeat of Napoleon
Historians face a challenge in finding something new and important in a familiar story. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 offers a case in point as the classic example of military overstretch and the backdrop to Leo Tolstoy’s magisterial novel War and Peace. Dominic Lieven rises to the challenge in Russia Against Napoleon by teasing reality out of the myths spun from the epic campaign that set Napoleon on the path to defeat and exile. Pointing out that Russia remains the largest gap in Western understandings of the Napoleonic era. Lieven, a a distinguished historian of Tsarist Russia and descendant of the soldier-diplomat Christoph von Lieven, draws on Russian archives and memoirs for a different perspective than a standpoint grounded in the usual French and German sources.
Distance had shielded Russia from the direct impact of the wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France until Napoleon successively defeated Austria and Prussia in 1805–7. Those years inflicted heavy losses on Russia, while leaving it with French armies on its frontier and no allies capable of deploying troops to aid resistance. French imperialism had already upset the balance of power in Continental Europe, and the rapprochement with Napoleon at Tilsit in June 1807 made Russia a junior partner. That partnership drew Russia into the economic war against Britain through the Continental System which damaged Russian interests while strengthening France at Europe’s expense. Pressure to tighten the blockade undermined Franco-Russian relations and eventually led Napoleon to choose war as a means to bring Russia completely under control.
Lieven points out that many Russians focused more upon conflicting interests with Britain and Austria than the threat from France. Alexander concluded early on that peace with Napoleon could not be sustained on acceptable term and resented Napoleon’s condescending treatment. Final policy decisions lay with the tsar. Alexander complained to his sister Catherine that “Bonaparte thinks that I am nothing but an idiot” and reportedly promised Prussia’s king and queen that despite outward appearances he would prove to them his friendship. Alliance with France sprang from Russia’s need for peace to recover and escape further setbacks in a war it could not sustain alone. The need to dissemble before foreigners and subjects alike made Alexander’s behavior seem complicated, if not devious and erratic, and it gave him a negative reputation that stuck. Talleyrand unsurprisingly—and unflatteringly—called him the “Talma of the North” after the French dramatic actor François-Joseph Talma.
An effective intelligence system gave Alexander and his ministers prior knowledge of Napoleon’s plans. The warning enabled them to out-fight Napoleon by out-thinking him and imposing the kind of war the French were least suited to wage. Since Napoleon’s style of military campaigning and the infrastructure supporting it relied upon quick victories in big battles, the Russians determined to deny him those opportunities. A long campaign drawing the French into Russia would make their situation increasingly desperate. Russia’s victory over the Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in 1709 offered a precedent. The Duke of Wellington had recently shown in Iberia how strategic retreat, scorched earth, and field fortifications could exhaust and destroy a larger French army. Russian strategic culture, however, emphasized the offensive. Retreating armies risked a breakdown in discipline and desertion, while a prolonged retreat ceding territory to an invader had political costs. Preferring instead to stand and fight or even attack, Russian generals opposed the strategy of Alexander and his commander, Barclay de Tolly. Barclay’s willingness to give up even the historic capital Moscow “because it was necessary to save the empire and Europe and not to protect towns and provinces” exasperated Russian patriots, and the tsar warned him against remarks that would upset morale. Alexander’s willingness to stick with the strategy of strategic retreat under such pressure showed considerable moral courage.
Alexander remained in St. Petersburg, leaving command in the field to Barclay. Napoleon’s advance on Smolensk in August 1812 forced choices on both sides. Barclay determined to evacuate the city despite almost unanimous opposition among his subordinates. Although Napoleon might have stopped, consolidated his position, and resumed fighting after the winter, he gambled that the Russians would have to make a stand before Moscow. The Battle of Borodino inflicted severe casualties on both sides. Lieven describes the battle microcosm of the 1812 campaign in showing how the Russian high command forced Napoleon to fight in a way that suited them but not him. Crippling losses forced a further Russian retreat, and Alexander’s commander in chief, Mikhail Kutuzov reluctantly determined to abandon Moscow, which Napoleon entered on September 15. When fire destroyed the city, the French found themselves with limited supplies amidst the ruins. Kutuzov had preserved the army and losing Russia’s ancient capital did nothing to hinder its capacity for continued operation.
Despite Tolstoy’s celebration of ordinary Russians and later myths of a people’s war used by Tsarist and Soviet officials, nobles and state officials directed resistance. While Napoleon waged a cabinet war for limited objectives, Russia, like Spain, fought a national war of survival. Russia’s ancien regime successfully mobilized not only resources and manpower, but popular support, and Lieven argues persuasively that the system worked far better in managing the war effort than historians realize. Morale not only held, but the army’s logistical support worked astonishingly well. Retreat had drawn down supplies over areas the French now held, leaving the occupiers with a shortage crisis worsened by mismanagement. Russia gained a formidable advantage by solving the supply problem and making up losses the French could not replace and continued doing so right up to the fall of Paris. Whether or not the horse was really the greatest hero of the Russian war effort as Lieven suggests, superiority in cavalry and transport also made a great difference. Mobility provided by an abundant supply of good horses provided another vital asset through 1814.
Alexander planned his counter-offensive even before Borodino. Pressure on Napoleon’s flanks and rear involved coordinating operations across a vast distance, but the system needed only to work well enough rather than perfectly. Kutuzov cleverly gave the French opportunities to withdraw instead of risk their giving his army a sharp blow from desperation. Napoleon crossed the Berezina, but fewer than 20,000 men survived to fight again in his armies. Many Russians hoped the burden of the war could be passed on to Britain, Prussia, and Austria. Alexander had determined to continue beyond the frontier, however, and Lieven carries the story through his eventual entry into Paris. Russia could have no security while Napoleon controlled Germany.
Diplomacy forged a new coalition against France that eventually included Austria, and the allies steadily improved their military effectiveness over successive. Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig shattered his position east of the Rhine. Alexander played a key part in holding the coalition together—with Russia’s army at its core—and keeping the focus on defeating Napoleon rather than accepting a compromise. Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary who joined the allied monarchs on campaign, thought Alexander had “a personal feeling about Paris, distinct from all political or military combinations.” Entering the enemy capital at the head of his army would allow the tsar to contrast his clemency and forbearance with the destruction of Moscow.
Lieven points out that while no puzzle exists as to why Russia fought Napoleon, how it fought and why it won raise important questions. Alexander’s commitment to fighting until a sustainable peace could be made had a vital impact that merits the analysis Lieven provides. The tsar believed that Russian and European security relied upon each other, a view his generals and ministers would never have taken to the same lengths. Showing Russia’s contribution to Napoleon’s eventual defeat—and the factors behind it—sharpens our understanding of a pivotal era that still resonates today.
William Anthony Hay is an historian at Mississippi State University and a fellow of Britain’s Royal Historical Society. Author of The Whig Revival, 1808–1830 (Palgrave, 2005), he is presently completing a biography of Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, Britain’s prime minister from 1812 to 1827.
Posted: January 30, 2011
Universities: American, European, Third World
Volume 21, Number 3 (Spring 1981)