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Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe 1807-1814

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe 1807-1814

Dominic Lieven

Allen Lane 618pp £30 ISBN 978 0713996371

Russia Against Napoleon is an ambitious and wide-ranging work. Lieven, Professor of History at the London School of Economics, wishes to tell the history of the Napoleonic Wars through the Russian campaign and to show how the battle against the French laid the foundations for the modern Russian state. He blames western historians and Russian writers alike for perpetrating a mythology in which Napoleon was defeated by ‘snow or chance’, an unforgiving terrain and a harsh winter. Western historians do so because they are reliant on French sources, while Russians have wished to denigrate the aristocratic and dynastic state as inefficient for political reasons. For Lieven, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace has exercised a particularly baleful influence, thanks to its habit of presenting military excellence as a ‘German disease’.

Lieven’s Russia, by contrast, was responsible for its own victory, thanks to the committed leadership of Alexander, an efficient military and political administration and a disciplined and highly ordered army. The country was fortunate in the ‘near-legendary, courage, resilience and loyalty of the rank and file’. Around a million men were drafted into the army in the two years between 1812 and 1814. The average age of a conscript was 22 and he served for 25 years, usually in the same regiment. Very few of those who survived returned home and when one died, the others received his possessions. Their only loyalties were to each other.

Napoleon underestimated the weather and made grave errors. His army arrived exhausted by the march across Europe and he tarried too long in Moscow, so the bitter winter had taken hold when he departed in 1812. But still Lieven proves his thesis: the Russian counter to Napoleon was sustained and determined and ran from top to bottom. ‘Although I am convinced that our people would not accept the gift of freedom from such a monster, it is impossible not to worry,’ wrote the private secretary to Alexander’s wife, the Empress Elizabeth. But the serfs defied Napoleon with vehemence, much less eager for his ‘gift’ than other European peoples.

War is a miserable and complicated business, but Lieven’s book is lucid, engaging and reflects his deep love for Russia. This is a fascinating, exhaustively researched work, an elegant handling of a welter of confusing sources and a vital account of Russia from 1807 to 1814 that is unlikely to be bettered.

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