General Winter Had Help
By Dominic Lieven
The traditional recipe of Napoleon Bonaparte’s war against Russia calls for several pounds of bone-chilling winter weather, some choice cuts of tactical incompetence (French and Russian varieties, depending on the season), and a pinch of imperial overreach – add serfs as needed. When describing Bonaparte’s 1812 invasion, customary schoolbook renderings tend to favor meteorology over tactics, stressing that the Grande Armee, more than a match for the hordes of often poorly-armed peasants the Russian Tsar Alexander deployed, was thwarted by the remorseless Russian winter. In the 20th century, this has made for a neat parallel with the Second World War, during which Hitler’s troops faced the same brutal climatological opposition. The Russian folklore of the parallel referred to ‘General Winter,’ who could be relied upon to defend the mother country when all else had failed.
That’s 1812. The campaigns of 1813-14, as Dominic Lieven points out in his richly researched and thoroughly enjoyable mammoth new study Russia Against Napoleon, usually receive far less generalized study, even though their significance is greater. And the reason for this is surprisingly simple: Leo Tolstoy.
In 1869, Tolstoy published War and Peace, which dramatizes Bonaparte’s 1812 invasion of Russia, most memorably the epic Battle of Borodino. Tolstoy, whose brother Petr rose to the rank of general in the Russian army, uses a cast of hundreds of characters, including Russian Generals Kutuzov and Bagration and Bonaparte himself, and he refines his long and numerous descriptions of camp and battle to the point of literary immortality: in pointed human insight and sheer scope, War and Peace is of course one of the greatest novels ever written. In that particular contest, the French never stood a chance.
But according to Lieven, Tolstoy’s novel also swamped the actual history of the war Russia fought against France in 1812-1814: the fiction proved more powerful, more seductive, ultimately more appealing, than the events themselves. Given the fact that Tolstoy’s novel hovers over Russia Against Napoleon like a watchful ghost (real-life counterparts to Tolstoy’s fictional characters are constantly, even distractingly, sought out), Lieven is fairly philosophical about its status as the elephant in the room, and when he reflects on the uneven historical coverage that’s resulted from Tolstoy’s dramatic bullying, he’s content to let the numbers speak for themselves:
… Tolstoy ends his novel War and Peace in December 1812 with the war only half over and the greatest challenges still to come. The long, bitter but ultimately triumphant road that led from Vilna in December 1812 to Paris in March 1814 plays no part in his work … For every one publication in Russian on 1813-14 there are probably more than a hundred on 1812. The most recent attempt to write a grand history of 1812-14 which is both popular and scholarly devotes 490 pages to 1812 and 50 to the longer and more complicated campaign of the two following years.
The work he refers to in that final line is B.F. Frolov’s Da byli liudi v nashe vremia (Moscow, 2005), and in fairness it should be said that Frolov’s book doesn’t read as lopsided as it looks – yes, his discussion of the earlier campaign far outweighs that of the later, but the significance and ramifications of 1813-14 aren’t stinted, and the reader can come away from the book with a fairly balanced conception of the war. Saying such a book is distorted – as Lieven all but does of virtually every account prior to his own – is like calling a standard scholarly account of the Second World War distorted because it devotes more space to the reconquest of Europe than it does to the ‘island-hopping’ of the latter stages of the Pacific campaign. Most such accounts do exactly that, and yet they find favor in the eyes of the Lord.
To an extent, the disproportion is understandable (certainly Tolstoy understood it): in the 1812 campaign, Russia is on the defensive against one of the largest land armies ever assembled – half a million men, a moving assemblage larger than the populations of all but a handful of the cities on Earth at the time. And this staggering force was led in person by Bonaparte, whose successes in Prussia and Spain had prompted many (most certainly including himself) to proclaim him the military genius of the age. Expecting even trained historians – especially patriotic Russian historians – to maintain their equanimity in the face of such wonderful material is expecting a great deal of fallible human flesh.
Lieven’s book is a corrective, then, and oh, if only all correctives could be so pleasant! Russia Against Napoleon is high-spirited narrative history at its very best: Lieven has a long and complicated story to tell, and he’s just the man to tell it, although he’s justifiably sardonic about the attempt:
No Western professor has ever written a book on the Russian war effort against Napoleon. The surest way to make yourself unappointable in any British, let alone American, university is to say that you wish to study the history of battles, diplomacy and kings.
“I am an old-fashioned historian,” Lieven informs us, “who likes his stories to be true, or at least as close to the truth as an honest, knowledgeable and meticulous study of the available evidence allows.” The quest for that truth, in this instance, is immeasurably aided by the 1991 opening of Russian military archives, and a glance at Lieven’s bibliography makes it clear his is the first English-language account of these events to thoroughly utilize those new sources. Kutuzov’s staff included dozens of generals and hundreds of lieutenants and sergeants, and a startling number of them wrote forbiddingly detailed memoirs (often giving the kind of precise troop statistics and breakdowns that would be redacted in such accounts today). Ransacking this vast archive has allowed Lieven to give flesh and blood to the many military stories he has to tell, with the result that this book is as dramatic as it is informative. This is as close as scholarly history can come to reading like Tolstoy.
The vast canvas helps. By 1810 Bonaparte had conquered or cowed nearly all of Europe and the Iberian peninsula. He’d imposed the “Continental System” – basically a pan-Europe boycott of all British goods and services – in order to strangle the commerce of his great enemy nation, but the system hurt his own client nations more than it hurt England, and its instant unpopularity gave rise to widespread smuggling – and grumbling.
Early in Bonaparte’s successes, he’d been able to impose the Peace of Tilsit on Russia in 1807, but by 1810 Tsar Alexander I – a man by turns shrewd and dim, cosmopolitan and provincial, an altogether maddening historical figure (among other things, Lieven calls him “a great actor”) whose impenetrable mysteries are overshadowed only by the fact that Bonaparte’s own mysteries were bigger and less resolvable – felt his country’s position was strong enough in relation to Bonaparte that he need no longer fawn and temporize in fear of the war with France that his advisors told him was all but inevitable. Lieven is uniformly excellent in his character sketches, and from the start he’s alive to the centrality of Alexander’s weirdly divided nature:
Brought up on enlightened European ideas by his Swiss tutor and then forced to operate within a Russian context, at one level Alexander believed that Russia was unworthy of him. One side effect of this was a tendency to trust foreign military advisers more than his own generals. There was something in Alexander’s nature which made him want to seduce and win the sympathy of every person he met. If this applied most strongly as regards women, he used seduction, sensibility and charm on men too.
To the extent that it was possible to charm Bonaparte, Alexander had done so when the two met at Tilsit, but the Russian Tsar held no illusions about the Corsican dictator: conquest begets a hunger for conquest – Bonaparte’s eyes would eventually lift from the victorious battlefields of the West and turn toward the East which had always beguiled him, and when that happened, Russia would face invasion along its largest and most vulnerable border. Lieven is openly sympathetic to the Russians (and seems to bear a very healthy, very refreshing contempt for Bonaparte), but he’s not blind to the nature of the combatants in the war which embroiled Russia in 1812. “Napoleon’s greatest rivals, the British and Russian empires,” he tells us, “were not peace-loving democracies anxious to stay at home and cultivate their gardens. They were themselves expansionist and predatory empires.”
And when they came to fight, Tsar Alexander was determined not to give Bonaparte the kind of war he wanted – and just how determined he was has only recently become evident from piecing together newly-released Russian documents. Alexander, it turns out, was quite a bit more wily than his hale-and-hearty court exterior has previously suggested. Lieven gives him a lot of credit – and successfully makes the case that he deserves it:
But the basic point was that France was too powerful and Napoleon far too ambitious for either the Austrians or Russians to use safely. Attempts to do so merely condemned Europe to more years of conflict and instability. Alexander’s insight that Napoleon would never honour any settlement acceptable to the allies, and that lasting peace could only be made in Paris, was correct. More than any other individual, he was responsible for Napoleon’s overthrow. If leadership of the coalition had rested with [German and Austrian diplomats] Metternich or Schwarzenberg, there is every likelihood that the 1814 campaign would have ended with Napoleon on his throne, the allies behind the Rhine, and Europe condemned to unending conflict and chaos.
The essential lesson Alexander had learned about Bonaparte was that he preferred smashing, bravura set-piece battles – preferred, and in the case of 1812, absolutely counted on them; the Grand Armee’s plunge into Russia depended upon forage and resupply conducted on levels not seen since the hordes of Xerxes, and the linchpin of such dependence was the taking of Moscow as a working capital. There was only one way to counter this kind of attack, as Lieven writes of Borodino:
The dense Russian deployment was designed to force Napoleon to fight a battle of attrition. The cramped battlefield would give his units little room to manoeuvre or to exploit tactical successes. It would in the most literal sense cramp Napoleon’s own genius. The price to be paid, as the Russian commanders knew, was very high casualties. In addition, committing oneself to a battle of attrition more or less precluded any chance of a striking Russian victory. With Napoleon present in person and his army considerably out numbering the Russians as regards trained troops, such a victory was in any case unlikely.
The stark realities of 1812 – the Russians’ slow withdrawal, the incessant, successful raiding of the Cossacks, the fact that Alexander was willing to leave Moscow in flames rather than let the French use it as a base of operations, and yes, the increasingly bitter weather (the worst cold and storms even the Russians could remember in many, many years) – told on Bonaparte, as did decidedly mundane details such as cavalry supply (one of Lieven’s main points is that better-quality horses played a significant part in Russia’s defeat of the French), which Bonaparte accurately (albeit belatedly) saw:
After only two weeks of campaigning, Napoleon wrote to his war minister in Paris that there was no point in trying to raise new cavalry regiments since all the horses in France and Germany would barely suffice to remount his existing cavalry and make up for the enormous losses he had already suffered in Russia. Deserters and prisoners of war informed the Russians of hunger and disease in the French ranks, and above all of the devastating loss of horses.
The history here is superbly managed, as is the military history; readers unfamiliar with such major battles such as Bautzen and Leipzig will hold their breath during Lieven’s skillful, suspenseful narration, and even readers who know their Napoleonic history will still find plenty to learn from the author’s immense research. In the dozens of pages of close-typed end notes, everything from the diaries of John Quincy Adams to the memoirs of Gouvion Saint-Cyr make their appearance, and note after note demonstrates the fact that our author has done a mountain of work to produce this book. The best things in it, as noted, are often the word-portraits Lieven creates of his enormous cast of characters, from Count Aleksandr Ostermann-Tolstoy, who kept a trained bear on his Kaluga estate and brought a hunting eagle with him on campaign to General Petr Konovnitsyn, who played the violin “badly but with great gusto” and was “above all a calm man, who in moments of stress puffed away at his pipe, invoked the intercession of the Virgin Mary and seldom lost his temper. He controlled his wayward subordinates more by irony than by anger.”
And naturally the stars of the show get similar treatment, including the main Russian general (a man Tsar Alexander didn’t particularly like, but one whom he was objective enough to know he couldn’t do without):
Mikhail Kutuzov became a Russian patriotic icon after 1812, thanks partly to Leo Tolstoy. Stalinist historiography then raised him to the level of a military genius, superior to Napoleon. Of course all this is nonsense, but it is important not to react too far in the other direction by ignoring Kutuzov’s talents. The new commander-in-chief was a charismatic leader who knew how to win men’s confidence and affection.
That gently, firmly corrective tone – “Of course, this is all nonsense” – is perfectly balanced throughout the length of this long book by that omnipresent note of wise caution – “it is important not to react too far in the other direction.” And the picture that emerges from that fine balance is all the more startling for having been in front of us all the time: that Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia was a cataclysmic blunder, and that Tsar Alexander and his generals immediately pounced on it, using every tactical and strategic trick they knew, and that those tricks – far more than General Winter – slowly gained them back the ground the French had taken, eventually gained them Paris itself. This book deserves acclaim for resetting the Napoleonic balance with such assurance; it certainly deserves to become the standard account of the death of Bonaparte’s dreams in the East.
Karl Beckendorff is the son of an architect and a parks designer. He studied politics and international affairs at college, he works now as a freelancer in Bonn. This is his first piece for Open Letters.