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

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Overview


The first history of the epic defeat of Napoleon's empire told from the Russian perspective.

Though much has been written about Napoleon's doomed invasion of Russia and the collapse of the French Empire that ensued, virtually all of it has been from the Western perspective. Now, taking advantage of never- before-seen documents from the Russian archives, Dominic Lieven upends much of the conventional wisdom about the events that formed the backdrop of Tolstoy's masterpiece, War ...

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

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Overview


The first history of the epic defeat of Napoleon's empire told from the Russian perspective.

Though much has been written about Napoleon's doomed invasion of Russia and the collapse of the French Empire that ensued, virtually all of it has been from the Western perspective. Now, taking advantage of never- before-seen documents from the Russian archives, Dominic Lieven upends much of the conventional wisdom about the events that formed the backdrop of Tolstoy's masterpiece, War and Peace. Lieven's riveting narrative sweeps readers through epic battles, tense diplomatic exchanges on which the fate of nations hung, and the rise of Russia from near-ruin to Europe's liberator. Rich in detail, Russia Against Napoleon is a groundbreaking masterwork.

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Editorial Reviews

John Steele Gordon
"War," Thomas Hardy once wrote, "makes rattling good history." If you would like an example of exactly what Hardy meant, I commend Russia Against Napoleon…Mr. Lieven…does the English-speaking reader a service by telling this story from a distinctly Russian perspective, one looking west, not east…His character sketches of the main Russian players in this epic drama are sure, his depiction of Russian social, economic and military realities revelatory…This is a story of great sweep and drama, played out over the map of Europe by larger-than-life characters whose names are still familiar to us today. And Dominic Lieven, a master of the material and a fine writer, tells it rattling well.
—The New York Times
Mark Mazower
Dominic Lieven…is a distinguished scholar of the czarist empire, and in this superb book he has written his masterpiece. The story he tells—Russia's gargantuan struggle with Napoleon—will be known to most people through Tolstoy's War and Peace, and it takes a brave man to challenge the great novelist. But that indeed is Lieven's goal, and for the most persuasive of reasons. He believes that Tolstoy's account is badly misleading (Lieven has a historian's natural concern for the facts) and perhaps more important has skewed our view of Russia and contributed to our tendency to misunderstand and belittle its role in international affairs.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Lieven, professor of history at the London School of Economics, uses Russian archives as the basis for this seminal reinterpretation of Napoleon’s defeat in 1812-1814. Russia’s leaders cleverly engaged Napoleon in a kind of drawn-out campaign the French system was least able to wage. Russia’s armies outfought Napoleon’s, thanks in good part to the “courage, endurance, and loyalty” of soldiers led by officers whose central virtues were honor and courage. Russian staffs and administrators kept the troops supplied despite the long and increasing distances between bases and theaters of operations. And coordinating the effort was Tsar Alexander II, whose “courage, skill, and intelligence”held together the final alliance against Napoleon all the way from Moscow to Paris. Lieven weaves these threads together with flair and offers insight into the specifics of everything from infantry tactics to diplomatic negotiations. He concludes that Russian and European security were mutually dependent, and that Russia’s war was seen by Europeans a one of liberation from Napoleon’s exactions and ambitions. While debatable, neither point can be dismissed. Illus., maps. (Apr. 19)
Library Journal
This is the story of Napoléon's invasion of Russia in 1812, but addressed here primarily from the Russian viewpoint. Using Russian military archives only accessible to Western researchers since 1991, Lieven (Russian history, London Sch. of Economics) studies the Russian war effort against Napoléon, most familiar to readers either through British and French historians or through Tolstoy's renditions in War and Peace. Lieven begins with the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 and ends with the triumphant Russian entry into Paris in 1814, describing the longest military campaign in European history in an engaging narrative, without the embellishments of Tolstoy in War and Peace (Tolstoy is barely covered here, in spite of the subtitle's implication) or the usual Western prejudices. Among Lieven's points are that a certain percentage of senior officers serving in the Russian army were foreign born (mostly from the Baltic States), and that the Russian mobilization was not only extremely large but also extremely cheap, with the troops being given raw cloth and told to go and make their own uniforms. VERDICT Highly recommended for all who study this era of European and Russian history, or keep up with Napoleonic studies.—David Lee Poremba, Keiser Univ., Orlando, FL
The Barnes & Noble Review

"Brave descendents of courageous Slavs! You always smashed the teeth of the lions and tigers who sought to attack you. Let everyone unite: with the Cross in your hearts and weapons in your hands no human force will defeat you." With these words, Tsar Alexander I appealed to the Russian people to join the fight against Napoleon's Grande Armée, which began pouring into Russia at the end of June 1812.

Much has been written about how and why Napoleon came to lose more than a half-million men in the Russian invasion. Hitler and his generals even studied the ill-fated campaign hoping to avoid making similar mistakes. But missing from western scholarship on the Napoleonic Wars is a full-fledged account of how Russia came to smash Napoleon. With Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, Dominic Lieven, one of the preeminent scholars of nineteenth-century Russia, aims to fill the void, tackling not only the French invasion of 1812, but also the battles of 1813-1814. What sets Lieven's book apart from the handful of other accounts is his prolific use of Russian sources, particularly regimental histories available to western researchers only since 1991.

After Napoleon destroyed the Russian army at Austerlitz in 1805 and drove the Russians out of Poland, it was only a matter of time before another showdown occurred between the two powers. Russia was unhappy about losing Poland and being compelled to adhere to the Continental System, which circumscribed Russia's ability to trade, to the detriment of its economy. Faced with economic collapse, Tsar Alexander I decided to ignore France's blockade against Britain. Napoleon, who abhorred disloyalty, vowed to make Russia see the error of its ways.

Intelligence collected by Russian agents working in Paris in 1810, as well as military intelligence gathered in 1811, suggested that Napoleon wanted a quick, decisive victory. Alexander and Minister of War Mikhail Barclay de Tolly refused to give Napoleon the war he wanted. Instead, they made plans for a long defensive war -- one that would last at least two years or more. Initially avoiding a big battle, the Russian army would systematically retreat further into Russia, drawing out and weakening French supply lines. As Alexander explained to Prussia's Frederick William III: "This system is one which has brought victory to Wellington in wearing down the French armies, and it is the one which I have resolved to follow." Adopting this strategy also meant forsaking Austrian and Prussian support. Russia would have to go it alone.

The Grande Armée began crossing the Neman River into Russia in late June 1812, but it would take Napoleon more than two months to force engagement with the retreating Russians. At the Battle of Borodino on September 7, Napoleon won the day, but failed to destroy the Russian army. As Russia's forces retreated, Alexander faced the choice of defending Moscow or saving the army. He chose the army. After installing himself in the Kremlin, Napoleon made what Lieven regards as a "fatal mistake" by dallying in Moscow for six weeks. The Emperor foolishly believed that Alexander would accept his peace overtures. He also thought he could manipulate the Cossacks into revolting or, failing that, ignite the Russian peasants into dethroning their tsar for forsaking Moscow. After a month it became clear that Napoleon was the one who had been duped; he had no choice but to retreat.

Lieven calls "mostly nonsense" the idea, posited by Napoleon and his admirers, that the brutal Russia winter destroyed the French army. The Grandee Armée, exhausted from marching across Europe and living on poor rations, was in bad shape even before the fighting began. Indeed, most of the army had perished by December when the weather became unusually fierce. As Lieven writes: "The basic point, however, is that Russian Novembers are cold, especially for exhausted men who sleep in the open, without even a tent, with very inadequate clothing, and with little food." What crippled the Grande Armée was a poor supply line.

For the first half of his book, Lieven wages a surreptitious war with Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which has shaped cultural and historical perceptions of the Russian war against Napoleon. Tolstoy the novelist celebrates the patriotism of the Russian peasant, while heaping scorn on the feeble brains of the professional soldiers. Lieven shows that professionalism and planning -- along with patriotism -- carried the Russian army through to the end. The Russians stored six months worth of food at strategic points. They made sure that each battalion was properly outfitted. The Russian army that met the Grand Armée wasn't a rag-tag peasant force, but a rationally-planned fighting machine.

While Tolstoy finishes his tale in 1812, Lieven believes the real story doesn't end until 1814, when the Russian army marches triumphant into Paris. The experiences of 1812 resulted in a better-trained Russian army, prepared to fight the campaigns of 1813-1814. Consider the logistical accomplishment alone: 500,000 Russian soldiers were regularly fed and clothed as they fought and marched to Paris and back.

Lieven attributes the omission of the battles of 1813-1814 from Russia's grand military narrative to the fact they were fought to restore the European balance of power. Alexander understood that defeating Napoleon and his French empire -- thereby securing Russia's future security -- required helping Prussia and Austria shake off the Napoleonic yoke as well. If you're constructing a patriotic mythology, it is much easier to celebrate the sacrifices of the men who fought at Borodino to defend Russian soil than to laud the Russian contributions to the battles at Kulm, Leipzig, and Craonne, which were fought in Prussia as part of a coalition.

Lieven also throws another wrench into Russian patriotic mythology by singling out the pivotal role played by the horse. "In many ways the greatest hero of the Russian war effort in 1812-14 was not a human being but the horse," he writes. The "enormous superiority" of the Russian light cavalry, which he regards as the most disciplined in Europe, prevented Napoleon from getting food or rest as he retreated from Moscow. In 1814, the cavalry intercepted French dispatches detailing Napoleon's plans and the weak spots in Paris's defense.

In addition to the corrective provided to Napoleonic military history, the book is an achievement in another regard. Lieven paints a vivid portrait of the Russian home front, which takes the book beyond the realm of military affairs and into social history. In order to fight Napoleon, Alexander appealed to the people's patriotism, religious sentiment, and xenophobic fears. Such appeals were important when roughly one million men were drafted between 1812 and 1814. Alexander also adeptly courted the support of the nobility, who controlled most of the food, fodder, horses, and manpower required by the army. Lieven is also at his best when describing the organization of a Russian regiment and the bonds that formed between the men.

Having waged a long campaign with the Russians, Lieven deserves accolades for crafting an insightful and sometimes mischievous book. It will be difficult in the future to discuss the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars or debate what country deserves credit for defeating Napoleon without giving Russia its due. In many ways, Lieven's book is akin to the works on the Eastern Front in the Second World War that have provided a corrective to the dominant Anglo-American narrative. Hopefully, this is the first of more to come.

--Meredith Hindley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143118862
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/29/2011
  • Pages: 656
  • Sales rank: 941,114
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Dominic Lieven is professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics. His previous books include Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals and Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire. Three of his direct ancestors were generals in the Battle of Leipzig.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • 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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