Russia's Defeat of Napoleon

It is not very often that a historian writes a book to counter the “myths” created by a novelist.  Dominic Lieven, a professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics, wrote his 528-page book, Russia Against Napoleon, in order to give “the true story of the campaigns of [Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel,] War and Peace.

Professor Lieven sets the stage by making it clear to his readers that before the reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725), most European elites considered the Russians to be “barbarous, alien and unimportant.”  However, following the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (1762-1796), the power and international status of Russia had grown enormously.  Its series of successful military campaigns had increased the legitimacy of the Romanov dynasty and its autocratic system of government.

The Leadership of Alexander I

Tsar Alexander I

Lieven’s study emphasizes the key role that Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825) played in this dramatic struggle against Napoleon.  On its own, Russia could never have destroyed Napoleon’s empire and the struggle between the armies of these two countries from 1812 to 1814 strained almost every sinew of Russian power to the breaking point.  It was Alexander I’s greatest achievement that he could put together a European grand alliance and hold it together, despite conflicting national priorities of Austrian, Prussian and British leadership.

Alexander I’s faith was a key factor in his leadership role and his religious convictions grew as the pressures of war increased.  He read his Bible every day and underlined passages that he found most relevant.  As he shared with other Russian leaders, his faith sustained him during the difficult challenges of war. 

Historians and contemporary observers have found Alexander I a difficult man to understand.  While he was charming on one level, he also operated in a secretive fashion and was often elusive and distrustful of others.  Perhaps the fact that his father and grandfather were both overthrown and murdered, as well as the previous monarch, Ivan VI, may explain some of his behavior.  Nevertheless, his significance in the victory over Napoleon deserves to he highlighted.

The Crucial Battles at Borodino and Moscow

One of Tolstoy’s myths that Lieven attacks is the elevation of Mikhail Kutuzov, the Supreme Commander of the Russian forces, to a Russian patriotic icon; this myth was embraced by Stalin who described Kutuzov as a military genius far superior to Napoleon.  In Lieven’s judgment, “all this is nonsense.”  Kutuzov struggled with his age and lack of energy and had an aversion to risk.  It was also clear to Lieven that Kutuzov did not share Alexander I’s views on strategy for defeating Napoleon and liberating Europe.
The famous battle at Borodino in September 1812 pitted 130,000 French soldiers against 125,000 Russians, many of whom were armed with pikes and axes and had no military training.  Both armies lost between 35,000 and 50,000 men in this struggle, but these losses were especially devastating for Napoleon because of the distance from his source of supplies and re-enforcements.

The battleground then shifted to Moscow and the Russians decided to vacate the city and retreat further into the interior of their vast country.  When Napoleon entered Moscow on September 15 and set up his headquarters in the Kremlin, fires started all over Moscow and the fires burned for six days destroying three-quarters of its buildings.  The causes for these fires has never been determined, but Lieven insists that neither Alexander or Napoleon ordered the city to be burned. 

Napolean’s retreat

It was Napoleon’s fatal mistake to spend six weeks in Moscow, before he began his retreat.  Napoleon and his supporters later argued that the unusually cold winter was responsible for destroying his army, but Lieven argues that the French army was largely defeated before December when the weather really turned cold.

Not only did the Russian army retreat for hundreds of miles into the interior of the country, but it then marched forward all the way to Paris entering the French capital on Sunday, March 31, 1814.  It is also important to note that Tsar Alexander ordered his generals and allies to preserve the strictest discipline as they marched into France, stressing the importance of cultivating French opinion in their favor.  Russian troops did not pillage, which was a common wartime behavior, but set a remarkable example for their allies.

The Russian Victory

The defeat of Napoleon may be the greatest victory in Russia’s history.  It is the judgment of Lieven that the Russian leaders out-thought Napoleon.   He failed to exploit Russia’s weaknesses, while Alexander I accurately understood the strengths and weaknesses of the French army and used these insights to defeat Napoleon.  It is to Alexander I’s credit that he assembled a grand alliance with Austria and Prussia, getting them to fight side by side against the French.

It is the opinion of Lieven that Tsar Alexander I excelled in his leadership role because he was convinced that Russian and European security depended on each other.  The Russian army was an army of liberation and its soldiers ended an era of constant war and restored European trade and prosperity.  It is Lieven’s hope that this legacy will inspire Russia’s rulers today.