Day 292: Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace

Cover for Russia Against NapoleonDominic Lieven explains in the introduction to Russia Against Napoleon that the popular conception of Russia’s role in the battles with Napoleon in 1812-14 is mostly derived from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Tolstoy posited that the fate of Napoleon’s army was mostly a result of luck on the part of the Russians and the brutality of the Russian winter. Lieven also explains the reasons why most scholarship on this subject has been done from French, German, Austrian, or British records.

However, Lieven is able to convincingly show that the Russian victories, although of course partially due to luck, were mostly because of the understanding of Russia’s Emperor Alexander I and his field marshall, Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, of the kind of war Napoleon was good at and their refusal to give it to him. That is, Alexander and Barclay de Tolly planned from the beginning for a long, drawn-out war that would lure Napoleon deep into Russia, to be followed by a second campaign in Germany and France.

Lieven is a professor of history with the London School of Economics and an acknowledged expert on Russian history. Interestingly, he is also the descendent of three of the generals at the Battle of Leipzig.

Lieven’s book explains in the clearest terms the details of every campaign in those three years, taken from the Russian letters, diaries, and records that have not been readily available until recent years, as well as from the records of British observers and others of the combatants. He provides insight into the political jealousy and maneuverings and even to the details of staffing and provisioning the armies and maintaining the long supply lines needed when the Russian army entered western Europe.

Lieven’s analysis of war is comprehensive, and even though it is very detailed, it never seems to get bogged down in minutia. It introduces us to some colorful characters and vividly and suspensefully describes the battles.

The book’s only weakness for me was that it assumed a little more knowledge of the events immediately preceding these years than I had and knowledge also of the functions of the vast numbers of different types of troops. However, that lack of knowledge on my part did not really impede my understanding or detract from this very interesting history.

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