Friday book # 55: Russia against Napoleon

Today’s book is Dominic Lieven’s history of the struggles between Russia and France, 1807-1814. Lieven, who comes from a distinguished family of Baltic German nobles, is an excellent scholar. His journalist brother Anatol is one of the saner voices to comment on Russian affairs in the Western media.


10 thoughts on “Friday book # 55: Russia against Napoleon”

  1. I think it unfortunate that an endorsement from Orlando Figes appears on the cover of this volume, but Dominic Lieven really is a very fine historian.

    To my regret, this volume of his is still sitting on my shelves waiting to be read, but a concise – and also entertaining – summary of its argument in a lecture by Lieven at the LSE is up on the net.

    (See .)

    In brief, the book might be called ‘Lieven against Tolstoy’. What he argues is that Russia won against Napoleon not as a result of vast impersonal historical forces, as was suggested in ‘War and Peace, but because Alexander I and his advisers – in particular, Barclay de Tolly – were better strategists.

    They worked out the kind of war their adversary wanted to fight, and the kind of war he could not afford to fight, and made sure that the contest was fought on their terms, not his. It is the kind of thing which may look easy after the event, but actually wasn’t.

    A critical part of the story – Barclay’s creation of Russian military intelligence after he became Minister of War in 1810, and the decisive intelligence superiority this provided – was also also covered in a piece on the ‘Russkiy Mir’ site in 2012, entitled ‘Two Hundred Years of Russian Military Intelligence.’

    (See .)

    Another central argument of Lieven’s study is that both Russian and Western historians have massively underplayed the enormous achievements of Russian arms in the destruction of Napoleon’s power in the campaigns of 1813-4.

    Also fascinating here is his discussion of the fundamental disagreement between Alexander, who believed that it was necessary totally to destroy Napoleon, and ‘nationalist’ figures like Rumiantsev, and also Kutuzov, who feared that doing so would play into the hands of Britain.

    As a quite a few of the issues of that time echo onwards into the present, I think Lieven’s lecture is of a great deal more than historical interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Also fascinating here is his discussion of the fundamental disagreement between Alexander, who believed that it was necessary totally to destroy Napoleon, and ‘nationalist’ figures like Rumiantsev, and also Kutuzov, who feared that doing so would play into the hands of Britain.”

      Historians who researched the papers of field Marshal Kutuzov claim that his alleged unwillingness to crush Napoleon is a myth


      1. From a letter from Kutuzov to Sir Robert Wilson, a British officer serving with the Russian army, who – like many Russian generals – had objected to its commanders reluctance to commit his forces to pitched battles against the retreating French:

        “I don’t care for your objections. I prefer giving my enemy a ‘pont d’or’ [golden bridge], as you call it, to receiving a ‘coup de collier’ [blow born of desperation]: besides, I will say again, as I have told before, that I am not means sure that the total destruction of the Emperor Napoleon and his army would be of such benefit to the world; his succession would not fall to Russia or any other continental power, but to that which commands the sea, and whose domination would then be intolerable.”

        (quoted on p. 259 of Lieven’s book.)

        On the question of whether his view of the danger from British power materially influenced Kutuzov’s strategy, Lieven is agnostic.
        His study is among other things a defence of Alexander’s belief that experience had demonstrated that Europe could never be at peace until Napoleon was destroyed. But, obviously, the point could be argued both ways.


      2. David Habakkuk: “From a letter from Kutuzov to Sir Robert Wilson…..”

        This is not a letter but a distorted retelling of the conversation ( Kutuzov felt justified disgust towards Wilson)

        But the real action Kutuzov was aimed at the complete destruction of Napoleon.. Clausewitz:
        “Never the pursuit of the enemy on a large scale
        was carried out so energetically, as in this campaign. . In November and December, after a very heavy, intense campaign among the snows and ice of Russia, with the largest food difficulties, to pursue fleeing enemy at a distance of 120 miles in 50 days is, perhaps, something unprecedented…This effort makes a great honor to Prince Kutuzov.
        Thanks to the energy with which they conducted this pursuit, the French army was completely destroyed. Best results, it is impossible to imagine”

        In Germany (before his death), Kutuzov acted with the same vigour


  2. Thanks, malanf, on this… juicy expose of Figes’ earlier shenanigans.

    From “The Nation” article (2012):

    “According to a detailed account by one participant, the group tried to find a way to salvage the project, but the researchers had documented too many “anachronisms, incorrect interpretations, stupid mistakes and pure nonsense.” All of The Whisperers’ “facts, dates, names and terms, and the biographies of its central figures, need to be checked,” the participant added. It was too much…

    Unfortunately, The Whisperers is still regarded by many Western readers, including scholars, as an exemplary study of Soviet history. These new revelations show, however, that Figes’s work cannot be read without considerable caution. Historians are obliged to be especially meticulous in using generally inaccessible archive materials, but Figes cannot be fully trusted even with open sources.”

    The article itself, while exposing Figes as a fraud, is totally handshakable liberast Russophobic boilertape, replete with the expressions of the Anti-Sovietism de-jour and obligatory needling of the “authoritarian Putin’s regime” (c) which just recently mercilessly crashed the Adorables of Bolotnaya.

    Professor Robinson did mention this book by Figes a year ago.

    I guess, the old principle of the so-called “liberal historians”, (who, naturally, “live-not-by-a-lie”) still remains the old “as long as it helps in the bashing of the Bloody Regime, libel is allowed”.


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