Jim's Reviews > Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace

Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven
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's review
Jun 11, 12

bookshelves: russia, history, france
Read from June 01 to 11, 2012

I gave this book five stars not because it is beautifully written, but because Russia Against Napoleon delivers not only more than its subtitle promises, but manages to upset much of the apple cart of Napoleonic history. Everyone knows the War and Peace story of Mikhail Kutuzov's courageous "escort" of the Napoleonic invading force to the borders of Central Europe.

But what happened next? That's where history commonly ignores the fact that the Russians continued their advance after Kutuzov's death -- continued it, in fact, into the heart of France, where they, with the help of Prussia and Austria, forced Napoleon to surrender. Lieven writes:
At one level it is absurd to call Leo Tolstoy the main villain in this misunderstanding. A novelist is not a historian. Tolstoy writes about individuals' mentalities, values and experiences during and before 1812. But War and Peace has had more influence on popular perceptions of Napoleon's defeat by Russia than all the history books ever written. By denying any rational direction of events in 1812 by human actors and implying that military professionalism was a German disease Tolstoy feeds rather easily into Western interpretations of of 1812 which blame the snow or chance for French defeat. By ending his novel in Vilna in December 1812 he also contributes greatly to the fact that both Russians and foreigners largely forget the huge Russian achievement in 1813-14 even getting their army across Europe into Paris, let alone defeating Napoleon en route. One problem with this is that marginalizing or misunderstanding as crucial an actor as Russia results in serious errors in interpreting how and why Napoleon's empire fell. But it is also the case that to understand what happened in 1812 it is crucial to realize that [Czar] Alexander [I] and Barclay de Tolly always planned for a long war, which they expected to begin with a campaign on Russian soil that would exhaust Napoleon but that would end in a Russian advance into Europe and the mobilization of a new coalition of anti-Napoleonic forces.
Under Lieven's interpretation, the hero of the Napoleonic wars was not Wellington, but Alexander I. He planned it, was at the battles, and exerted powerful diplomacy to raise anti-Napoleonic armies from two powers that Napoleon had already defeated: Prussia and Austria. Wellington beat Napoleon once, at Waterloo, but he had never encountered the Corsican in his battles in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular Campaign.

When one reads Russia Against Napoleon, the name of Lieven crops up frequently. General Prince Christoph von Lieven and Lieutenant-General Prince Johann von Lieven were two Baltic German nobles in the Russian military who were ancestors of the Dominic Lieven, Professor of Russian History at the London School of Economics, who wrote this excellent and most deserving history.
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