THERE are certain people in history who never go out of discussions. Napoleon is one of them. 200 years after he died, he continues to be written about. The latest is a book on Napoleon from the Russian perspective. The author Dominic Lieven in his book Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace thoroughly demolishes several long held myths on the French Emperor’s disastrous war in Russia.
One of the myths he says is “The truly bizarre and unique element in Russian mythology about the defeat of Napoleon is, however, that it radically underestimates the Russian achievement.” He bemoans the fact that no Western scholar or soldier has ever studied this from a Russian perspective. The Russian victory was attributed to snow or chance, a view buttressed by Leo Tolstoy in his fiction War and Peace, which “has had more influence on popular perceptions of Napoleon’s defeat by Russia than all the history books ever written.” The author says all the foreign accounts play down the role of thee Russian army as well as the government. “Napoleon himself was much inclined to blame the geography, the climate and chance. Historians usually add Napoleon’s miscalculations and blunders to the equation.” The present book does not end with the war in Russia but follows the course of events and Russia’s military contribution to the final defeat of Napoleon and the Russian march into Paris on behalf of the allies.
Lieven has done tremendous research into the archival material on the 1812 campaign and has analysed the war in the perspective of the then prevailing political scenario. “One of the key triumphs of the Russian war effort was its success in feeding and supplying more than half a million troops outside Russia’s border in 1813-14. How this was done in a European continent which in those days had only two cities with populations more than 500,000 is a key part of the book.”
Russia’s alliance with Napoleon was because of the geopolitical compulsions. Britain was growing strong, getting unlimited wealth supply from new colonies in Asia (India). Napoleon acted as a check on them. However, the Russians had a deep seated antipathy to Napoleon, as revealed in papers of the politicians then. Over the years the Russians perceived French as a greater threat at their borders and it was inevitable that he be opposed. Friendship with Napoleon was also causing harm to Russia’s mutually beneficial trade relations with other countries, especially Britain.
Russians had an elaborate espionage network in Paris. Each and every move of the Emperor was reported back to Moscow. The informers sent even reports on Napoleon’s increasing forgetfulness, his eccentricities and food habits. In 1810, Russian king Alexander had declined to give its princess to Napoleon in marriage and the situation for the French-Russian confrontation had stared brewing, according to the Lieven. In a report received from Paris much before the war, one of the Russian information collectors Alexsandr Chernyshev said “With one accord these Frenchmen had told him that Napoleon would long for his battles and rapid victories, so the Russians should avoid giving him what he wanted and should instead harass him with their light forces.” The Russian government prepared for a war that would last two years. Retreating and encircling was an important part of it, as was revealed in events that came later.
The book describes in detail the war manoeuvres, mile by mile accounts of the movements if the troops and the men who led them. Napoleon entered Moscow on September 15, 1812, and set up headquarters in the Kremlin. “That very day the fires started. Moscow burned for six days. Three- quarters of its buildings were destroyed. In all, during the summer and autumn of 1812, 270 million rubles’ worth of private property was destroyed in the city and province of Moscow, an astronomical sum for that era.” Who started the fire has always been a source of dispute, says Lieven. But, “what mattered at the time, however, was the perception that Napoleon was to blame and that the city’s destruction was a huge sacrifice to Russian patriotism and Europe’s liberation.”
The cost of Napoleon’s Russia campaign was huge in terms of human lives. The retreat in October was cruel on his men. A description in the book says “Dead and dying men littered the road in large numbers. For the Russian troops the sight of French soldiers eating often semi-raw horsemeat was deeply disgusting. Commander Iavn Radhozhitsy recalls one particularly awful scene of a French soldier frozen in death at the very moment he was trying to rip the liver out of a fallen horse.” Yet another account says “The river (Berezina) was covered with ice which was as transparent as glass: there were many dead bodies visible beneath it across the whole width of the river.” The living envied the dead. In pursuing the retreating enemy Russia also suffered heavy casualties.
The Russian contribution does not end here. During the 1813-14 war, “In the longest campaign European history, the Russian army had marched from Vilna to Moscow and then all the way back across Europe to Paris.” By sheer logistical planning and support Russia fed and maintained half a million troops outside its borders.
The history of the campaign against Napoleon has been written profusely by the Western scholars who have ignored the Russian role, not only in 1812 but also during the 1813-14 campaign. This was also because Britain gained in strength with Napoleon out of the way. As Lieven says, “For a century after Waterloo Britain enjoyed global pre-eminence at a historically small price in blood and treasure. Russian pride and interest suffered from this, most obviously in the Crimean War.”
The book by Lieven is an excellent academic work, supported by thoroughly researched accounts that give a new perspective on the wars of 1812 and 1813-14. The book brings alive the hitherto untouched archival material from Russia. As Lieven rightly said Tolstoy’s fictionalised account of the 1812 campaign has been taken as history, which he has sought to demolish. The book seeks to balance the British and French account on Napoleon, which marginalise the Russian role. This book is a must read for serious students of history for the sheer rich perspective it adds to the events of the early 1800s.
(Viking, Penguin Group (USA) 375, Hudson Street, new York, NY 10014)