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Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace

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  • Posted June 2, 2010

    The Russian Side of 1812: Dominic Lieven's "Russia Against Napoleon"

    Dominic Lieven's "Russia Against Napoleon" is presented as "The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace," though it is in truth much more than that and in some respects less. Tolstoy's masterpiece began with the outbreak of war after Napoleon's coronation and covered the 1805 campaign of Austerlitz in detail from the Russian viewpoint, resuming the military action in 1812 with Napoleon's invasion of Russia but ending the "war" part of the story after the French retreat from Moscow and the death of Kutuzov. Lieven, on the other hand, gives more limited attention to Austerlitz and Russia's early role in the Napoleonic wars, focusing instead on the buildup to war from 1807 onward following the peace of Tilsit and covering in detail both the great invasion of 1812 and the subsequent campaigns of 1813-14 in Poland, Germany and France, in which the Russians led the liberation of Europe from Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I at last reached Paris. What both Tolstoy's fiction and Lieven's history have in common, however, and what makes them nearly unique among books available in English on the Napoleonic Wars, is their concentration on the Russian viewpoint and Russia's role in the struggles against Napoleon. Lieven, like Tolstoy, had ancestors who served in the Russian army fighting against Napoleon, giving him a feel for the Russian side of the story that few other authors share.
    Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 -- a vast multinational enterprise in which half of the forces under Napoleon's command were not even French -- is one of the most frequently described events in the whole of the Napoleonic Wars. It is matched in popularity among works in English only by Waterloo and Trafalgar. The story is so dramatic, encompassing the destruction of the greatest army in Europe, over half a million men, in only half a year's campaigning, and the humbling of Napoleon's vast power, that it has proven irresistable for generations of authors. Recently Alexander Mikaberidze has written excellent books on Borodino and the Berezina that provide more military detail than Lieven does, and have in common with Lieven the use of Russian archival sources, some of which were unavailable to Western writers before the fall of the Soviet Union. But Lieven supplies an unexcelled description of the Russian side of the buildup to war in 1812, including diplomacy and military reforms, and covers the Russian home front and the logistical issues of supplying Russia's huge army mobilized in 1812, in the end nearly as large as Napoleon's Grande Armee. He then seamlessly integrates the 1812 campaign into the two years of war that followed, when Russia was allied with Austria and Prussia but Napoleon had build a new army following his disaster in Russia. These critical campaigns commonly receive much less attention from other authors. Lieven is clearly at home working with the Russian archival sources, a great strength of his book. He effectively counters the widespread myths about Russia's role in the Napoleonic Wars that have been perpetuated in different forms both in the West and in Russia, and provides a balanced perspective on such controversial subjects as the abilities of the Russian commanders and the role of Tsar Alexander I. Though Lieven is a professor of Russian history, this book is far from pedantic and the author's deep knowledge is woven into a highly readable narrative. A book well worth reading!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 10, 2011

    Not For the Weak

    I will admit that I am still slogging through this book. Slogging is a very correct term. I have just finished the Battle of Leipzig(thank goodness for Blucher!) and am moving on into the invasion of France in 1814. Lieven has certainly written a detailed and thorough history of the Russian view of the battle against Napoleon and I have mostly enjoyed the book. There is SO MUCH DETAIL and the book is so geography dependent that it really requires the reader to have an open atlas with western Russia, Poland and Germany readily available to understand the movements of the many units covered. The best part of the book for me, is the extensive coverage of the interactions between Alexander, his generals, and the allies. Alexander was a fascinating individual trying to rule an immense area with limited means of transportation--an area which was inundated with mud during much of the year--and bitter cold for the rest. The effort required to mobilize a national effort to defeat Napoleon is very well portrayed. The hero of the story is the Russian foot soldier and his stolid performance of duty is admirably portrayed. And, of course, thank goodness for Blucher!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    Napoleon's Russian Disaster

    Perhaps Dominic Lieven's "Russian Against Napoleon" provides more than you'll ever want to know about Napoleon's failed attempt to conquer Russia in 1812. But that does not mean it is not a superb read, a thorougly researched work of historiography, and above all a new look at an old story. Despite its length of 618 pages, including the index, this effort to correct the record and to present a revised history of the great invasion is well worth the time spent in reading it. Lieven has researched the sources tirelessly, and even come up with a reasonable answer to the age-old question: Who burned the city of Moscow? A few days after Napoleon entered the city on September 15, Moscow mysteriously burned to the ground. Lieven blames the Russian army, following a scorched earth policy. But the record is vague, and Lieven admits that there is no unequivocal answer. Still he believes that fires set by the Russians in various quarters of the city, led to a total holocaust.
    Readers daunted by the length of this excellent book should not complain, but devote themselves to the scrutiny of this intensive study of the hubris-laden campaign of Napoleon's, which cost the lives of over 250,000 Frenchmen. It was the beginning of the end of Napoleon's ambition to conquer the world.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    Outstanding history

    What has been missing in the histories of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia has been the Russian side of the story. Until now. Leiven's analysis of the campaign from the Russian standpoint is immeasurably rewarding and packed with information that heretofore has been missing in histories of the period. Wonderfully detailed, and a pleasure to read. Leiven knows how to write! Moreover, his (previous) history of the reign of Nicholas II established him as a scholar of unusual perception and great insight. Who better to illuminate the 1812 campaign for Russia? Very, very highly recommended!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Not Waterloo

    This is a well-researched book about Russia's efforts to restrain and ultimately defeat Napoleon's army. Lieven has a stake in the outcome--some of his relatives fought for Russia. Lieven has reasearched the devil out of this subject and provides a lot of interesting details about preparations and battles. The best part so far (only about half way through the book) is the information about Alexander and the steps he took to prepare Russia for the onslaught. Lieven does go overboard with details, and so this is not as readable as some other books about the topic, but it's still a very good book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 1, 2011

    2-Year Campaign caps 20 Years of World War

    The author is professor of Russian History at the London School of Economics and descended from Russian aristocrats, one of them a general and division commander during Czar Alexander's campaigns in 1812-1814. Endless detail about battles and heroic Russian soldiers and the superiority of Russian light cavalry and particularly Russian horses. Executive summary of the 528 pages: 1. Napoleon planned to dominate Europe politically; also economically with his embargo on everyone's maritime trade, particularly with UK. The west German princelings went along. The Poles saw him as a benevolent liberator from Russia, Prussia, and Austria. 2. He hoped for a knock-out blow to imperial Russia, did not succeed. Russians didn't rise against the Czar when Boney occupied Moscow. French army never quite recovered from the retreat from Moscow. 3. Austria continued to waver between making peace with Boney and making war. Metternich up to no good. Feldmarschall Schwarzenberg and Gen. Radetzky very cautious and slow in action. 4. Britain played its own game, dominating the seas, grabbing French colonies, fighting in Spain, furnishing muskets and money to the Czar. 5. The Czar understood that Napoleon had to be defeated decisively and Paris occupied, France limited to its 1792 borders for a lasting peace; any peace allowing France its "natural" borders (Rhine including Holland and Belgium, Vosges, Pyrenees, and Italy, plus repatriation of captured Grande Armee soldiers) would inevitably allow Napoleon to come back 2 years later, when the Russian army was back in Russia and start 20 years of war all over again, picking off all the German and Austrian states one by one. Therefore a knock-out blow was needed against Napoleon, but not against the French people: restore the Bourbon dynasty with Louis XVIII if necessary. 6. Blucher and the Prussian troops very important. Blucher himself as impetuous as Schwarzenberg was cautious. Bernardotte a self-dealing and only partially dependable ally who really wanted the crown of France for himself. Invading Russian army impressed by appalling poverty of Polish countryside, prosperity of Saxony, poverty of rural France. 7. After victory in Paris in 1814, Napoleon's exile to Elba, "100 days," and Waterloo finished the job. 8. During the 1812-1814 campaigns, Russia bled Poland dry of food, vodka, horses etc. Author has no sympathy for the Poles, expresses some surprise at Polish hatred of the Russians. After the war, Czar Alexander granted the Duchy of Warsaw some freedoms (with himself as king.) Poles were not impressed or grateful, Russian nobles led Decembrist Revolution against Czar in resentment that Poles had been granted more liberty than they. 9. Subsequently, Russia's autocratic political system, lack of population density, lack of railways, coal, and iron industry, caused it to lag British and western European Industrial Revolution. Author draws displays the inevitable parallel between Napolean and Hitler and WW 2. But Napoleon made war, not racial Holocaust. Useful to see what the world looks like from Russia. Guess it all depends where you stand.

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