Russia Against Napoleon

Back in 2009 Dominic Lieven wrote a book, “Russia Against Napoleon“, that challenged Leo Tolstoy’s view of history as expressed in “War and Peace.” I read it recently and it’s excellent, heavy on military analysis but brimming with other kinds of insights as well.

The subtitle, “The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace,” is a bit of a misnomer, because the book is mainly a straight-up history that only occasionally mentions Tolstoy. But Lieven argues persuasively that two great historical events – Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812, and the 1813-14 pursuit of Napoleon all the way back to Paris by Russia and its allies – were largely the results of actions taken by specific governments or individuals, and not, as Tolstoy argued, the results of impersonal collective forces beyond the ability of individuals to influence on any grand scale.

In fact Lieven writes that the individual most responsible for Napoleon’s eventual overthrow was Russian Emperor Alexander I.

Lieven takes on Tolstoy directly in his introduction:

One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that her top leaders out-thought him. In 1812 they planned and then successfully imposed on him a drawn-out campaign, knowing full well that it was precisely the kind of war he was least equipped to wage. In 1813–14 Alexander’s combined diplomatic and military strategy contributed to isolating Napoleon first in Europe and then even from French elites. Of course Napoleon played a huge part in his own downfall. But his enemy’s capacity for self-destruction was always part of Alexander’s calculation. Russian policy in these years was intelligently conceived and was executed with consistent purpose. It was very far removed indeed from Tolstoyan mythology. 

Tolstoy viewed history as the sum total of collective actions and not the result of a few actions taken by individual leaders. You might say that Tolstoy rejects what later became known as the Great Man theory of history. And Lieven is mostly correct in how he characterizes Tolstoy’s thinking, as expressed in ‘War and Peace.’ However, Tolstoy did not adhere to his own theory with perfect consistency. There is one brief passage in ‘War and Peace’ in which Tolstoy speaks of Alexander almost in words that Lieven would use.

It’s a passage late in Tolstoy’s novel, as 1812 is coming to a close. Napoleon’s army has retreated westward and its survivors have finally crossed the Russian border. What would Russia do now? Napoleon would soon raise a new army of half a million men. The commander in chief of the Russian armies, General Kutuzov, thought that Napoleon could safely be left alone after the disaster that the Russians had brought upon him. Alexander believed that there would be no peace as long as Napoleon remained in power. As Lieven puts it, “Napoleon believed that the legitimacy of his new dynasty required military victory and glory.” Of course, the final word in the internal Russian debate rested with Alexander, so Kutuzov dutifully took his hundreds of thousands of soldiers westwards to join other nations in a common effort to push back Napoleon and to work toward his eventual downfall.

Of the critical moment of internal Russian debate, Tolstoy writes:

The war of 1812, besides its national significance dear to every Russian heart, was now to assume another, a European, significance.

The movement of peoples from west to east was to be succeeded by a movement of peoples from east to west, and for this fresh war another leader was necessary, having qualities and views differing from Kutúzov’s and animated by different motives.

Alexander I was as necessary for the movement of the peoples from east to west and for the refixing of national frontiers as Kutúzov had been for the salvation and glory of Russia.

Kutúzov did not understand what Europe, the balance of power, or Napoleon meant. He could not understand it. For the representative of the Russian people, after the enemy had been destroyed and Russia had been liberated and raised to the summit of her glory, there was nothing left to do as a Russian. Nothing remained for the representative of the national war but to die, and Kutúzov died.

Book Fifteen: 1812-13, Chapter XI, translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude

Kutuzov was far from the only Russian who felt as he did. Lieven, in a human and humorous passage, describes a conversation between Kutuzov and another patriot who was uninterested in embarking on new campaigns:

Admiral Shishkov was too old and too virtuous for such adventures. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool isolationist. Shortly after returning to Vilna with Alexander, he questioned Kutuzov as to why Russia was advancing into Europe. Both men agreed that after the devastation he had suffered in 1812 Napoleon was unlikely to attack Russia again and, ‘sitting in his Paris what harm can he do us?’ When asked by Shishkov why he had not used all his present prestige to press this view on Alexander, Kutuzov answered that he had done so but ‘in the first place he looks on things from a different perspective whose validity I cannot altogether reject, and in the second place, I tell you frankly and honestly, when he cannot deny my arguments then he embraces and kisses me. At that point I begin to cry and agree with him.’

Here you can see why Tolstoy clearly admired and even loved General Kutuzov. The old man is possibly the closest thing in “War and Peace” to a genuine hero, albeit one quite different from the traditional warrior.

In any case, let’s circle back to Tolstoy’s view of history. When Tolstoy describes Alexander as critical for the westward movement of armies in 1813-14, it’s easy to see the tension between this statement and his overall philosophy of history, in which individual leaders — except for Kutuzov — grossly overestimate their influence on events. But I think there are still other places in “War and Peace” where you can feel this tension, particularly when Tolstoy judges Napoleon from a moral perspective.

See for example the passage below, where Tolstoy castigates Napoleon for thinking that he brought about the great movements of French power across Europe but also castigates Napoleon for not feeling the horrors that followed, especially when said horrors fell on non-Frenchmen:

Napoleon, predestined by Providence for the gloomy role of executioner of the peoples, assured himself that the aim of his actions had been the peoples’ welfare and that he could control the fate of millions and by the employment of power confer benefactions.

“Of four hundred thousand who crossed the Vistula,” he wrote further of the Russian war, “half were Austrians, Prussians, Saxons, Poles, Bavarians, Württembergers, Mecklenburgers, Spaniards, Italians, and Neapolitans. The Imperial army, strictly speaking, was one third composed of Dutch, Belgians, men from the borders of the Rhine, Piedmontese, Swiss, Genevese, Tuscans, Romans, inhabitants of the Thirty-second Military Division, of Bremen, of Hamburg, and so on: it included scarcely a hundred and forty thousand who spoke French. The Russian expedition actually cost France less than fifty thousand men; the Russian army in its retreat from Vílna to Moscow lost in the various battles four times more men than the French army; the burning of Moscow cost the lives of a hundred thousand Russians who died of cold and want in the woods; finally, in its march from Moscow to the Oder the Russian army also suffered from the severity of the season; so that by the time it reached Vílna it numbered only fifty thousand, and at Kálisch less than eighteen thousand.”

He imagined that the war with Russia came about by his will, and the horrors that occurred did not stagger his soul. He boldly took the whole responsibility for what happened, and his darkened mind found justification in the belief that among the hundreds of thousands who perished there were fewer Frenchmen than Hessians and Bavarians.

Book Ten: 1812, Chapter 38, translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude

That passage, I wrote in an old blog post, nailed Napoleon for being defective in soul, or in character, if you will. I think Tolstoy succeeds in that purpose. But it does harm the argument to some degree, to also say that Napoleon was not truly responsible for these great movements of French power. Tolstoy is having it both ways: you’re a fool for thinking yourself responsible, but you’re a monster for not feeling the responsibility as you should.

In short, the novelist has sufficiently nailed the inner man. That’s surely what a novelist will excel at — the excavation and depiction of the inner life. But a man who starts an invasion is surely culpable, on moral and legal terms, for much more than defects in character.

See the New York Times for a full review of “Russia Against Napoleon.”

Professor Lieven covers the main points of his book, including the topic of Tolstoy, in this lecture and Q&A from 2009:

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