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Russia Against Napoleon

by Dominic Lieven (Viking)

Recently, a general discussion I had with a Russian colleague about the history of the War of 1812 turned into a rather heated exchange on the relative roles of Generals Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly. It reminded me that this war, even though 200 years removed in history, still sits just below the surface of Russian consciousness, a central pillar in the historical argument that Russia has repeatedly been beseiged by hordes, imperialists and racists. And one challenges the Conventional Wisdom only at one’s peril.

What Lieven does in this monumental, two-pound tome, subtitled “The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace,” is take on much of Western Conventional Wisdom (as well, it might be said, as Tolstoyan and Soviet C.W.) about this war. What we know about Napoleon’s war against Russia, Lieven asserts, tends to be that written by British and French historians. To counter this, he dove into the Russian military archives and surfaced with a fulsome new account of the war as seen from the Russian perspective.

Most specifically, Lieven seems to want to counter the prevailing notion that somehow Napoleon lost the war, whether due to winter conditions, disease among his troops, and the whims of Fate. Instead, he argues, Russia won it. Not because of some Tolstoyan rising of the people, and not because of the monumental efforts of some singular hero like Kutuzov. Instead, it was because Russian leaders out-thought and out-spied their French counterparts, because Russia’s professional military was highly meritorious and better trained, and because Russia was far superior when it came to light cavalry. The horse was key.

Yet Lieven also wants in this history to focus attention away from just 1812, and onto 1813-1814, when Russia really finished off Napoleon, when it achieved the monumental task of securing supply lines all the way to Paris (something Napoleon failed at).

This is a superb history and not just for military historians who revel in battle details. On the contrary, Lieven focuses on the home front and on the wider context in a way that makes his history both readable and essential for understanding this complex and portentious conflict. Includes loads of excellent illustrations and nearly two dozen pages of helpful maps.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2010