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Was Tolstoy Right?

Writing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in War and Peace, Tolstoy remarked: “The historians provided cunningly devised evidence of the foresight and genius of the generals, who of all the blind instruments of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.” It is not a comment that Dominic Lieven would endorse. His new book is all about the foresight and genius of generals—and politicians as well. More specifically, it is about the foresight and genius of Russian generals and politicians. If Napoleon failed in his bid for European domination, Lieven argues, the credit goes first and foremost to Tsar Alexander I, and to the generals and administrators who served him.

In making this argument, Lieven must take on a host of opponents. First, there are the Western historians of the Napoleonic wars, who have often presented these conflicts as the tragic epic of a single individual’s hubris, with the Russians reduced to supporting parts. Then there are the Russian historians and politicians who long downplayed the Tsar and his generals, while highlighting the heroism of the Russian people as a whole. And there is the looming figure of Tolstoy himself, with his disdain for historians, and his own mystical exaltation of the Russian people, and of historical destiny. In War and Peace, the great Russian military characters are the common soldier Platon Karataev—“the very personification of all that was Russian”—and General Kutuzov, whose genius and skill “sprang from the purity and fervor of his identification with the people.”

Lieven, by contrast, not only downplays the role of the common people, but spends little time with them. In contrast to Adam Zamoyski in Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March, a vivid recent account of the invasion of Russia that highlights the experiences of ordinary soldiers on the French side, Lieven remains for the most part in the palaces of the monarchs and the tents of the generals. This is partly owing to a lack of source material: only two memoirs from ordinary Russian soldiers have survived. But it is mostly because Lieven believes in a very traditional sort of military and diplomatic history. It will also not escape the reader’s notice that the book’s dramatis personae includes an attractive young Russian major-general—“calm, tactful, self-effacing and hard-working”—named Christoph von Lieven, a direct ancestor of the author.

For the general reader, this method has its costs. While Zamoyski quotes liberally from personal correspondence and memoirs, Lieven cites very little, and then, in the manner of Leopold von Ranke, mostly from dry official correspondence and memoranda. When it comes to the burning of Moscow in 1812, Zamoyski draws on Napoleon himself: “mountains of red rolling flames, like immense waves of the sea, alternately bursting forth and lifting themselves to skies of fire, and then sinking into the ocean of flame below.” But Lieven is content to state flatly that “Moscow burned for six days,” and then to enumerate the damages.

Still, Lieven has a serious argument to make, and he makes it persuasively. “One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon,” he writes, “was that her top leaders out-thought him.” As early as 1810, it became clear to the Tsar and his men that the fragile French-Russian alliance would soon collapse, and that Napoleon would invade. They understood that the French emperor would attempt to destroy the Russian army in series of quick major battles, so as to force the country into political subordination. In response, they planned for “a war exactly contrary to what the enemy wants,” to quote a key memorandum from 1812: namely a strategy of “deep retreat” to exhaust and deplete the French, followed by a full counter-attack that would bring Russia’s massive armies back into the heart of Europe, and ultimately (along with its allies) to the gates of Paris.

In 1812-1814, Lieven argues, the Russians followed this strategy, and with brilliant success. In doing so, they could count on several key resources, including superior cavalry (in some ways, Lieven nicely quips, the greatest Russian hero of the war was the horse), and the masses of serfs who were ruthlessly conscripted with little hope of seeing their homes again. In 1812-1814 alone, the Russian army conscripted some 650,000 men. Thanks to their status as semi-slaves, they were cheap, receiving pay equal to only 1/11th of what British soldiers received.

Finally, and in sharp distinction to Tolstoy and the Russian nationalist historians of the conflict, Lieven believes that the “aristocratic, dynastic and multi-ethnic” qualities of the Russian empire constituted a real strength as well. In particular, he highlights the effective cooperation of the nobility and the tsar, and the key role played by military officers of foreign descent, especially Germans from the Baltic states such as his ancestor. (They made up 7 percent of all Russian generals.) While he gives due credit to Tolstoy’s idol Kutuzov, he reserves his greatest praise for the war minister and then supreme commander Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the descendant of Baltic Germans and Scots.

At times Lieven pushes his argument very hard. Were the Tsar’s fits of hysterical anger a sign of the mental instability for which his family was famous? Lieven prefers to call one of them “the performance of a brilliant actor letting off steam.” Maybe. Was the Russian army’s escape after the key battle of Borodino a matter of luck, and Napoleon’s blunders? Lieven thinks the Russians planned well enough that they would have escaped even if, at a key moment, Napoleon had thrown his reserve into the fray On most of these specific points, though, Lieven deserves the benefit of the doubt, thanks to the heroic job of research that he has brought off. He has explored a wealth of new archival material (some of it only available since the fall of the Soviet Union), and his book will stand as the definitive account of the Russian war effort unless and until other historians go through the same material and reach different conclusions.

When it comes to the war as a whole, however, Lieven’s account suffers from being nearly as one-sided as the Western ones that he criticizes. He rarely cites the abundant French source material, and French works of history even less. He gives scant attention to the strengths and the weaknesses of the French imperial regime that the Russians helped to defeat, and surprisingly little to Napoleon—including such pertinent factors as the painful physical ailments that distracted the emperor during the invasion, and quite possibly made a crucial difference at Borodino. Enormously useful as it is for understanding the Russian side of the equation, Lieven’s work cannot fully explain the overall course of events.

Similarly, Lieven’s focus on military decision-making limits the extent to which his book can contribute to a broader political and cultural understanding of the period. There is no trace here of the Romantic and occasionally messianic Napoleon who saw himself as the new Alexander the Great, and proposed to the Tsar a joint conquest of India. Lieven even characterizes Napoleon’s invasion of Russia as a “cabinet war fought for strictly limited political purposes,” similar to the limited wars undertaken by European monarchs before the French Revolution. One would hardly guess from such a description that it was also the largest military operation in European history up to that point, a colossal gamble by a man who had altered European borders and politics more violently than anyone since the Caeasars, and a conflict widely seen across the continent as an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. By 1815, as the historian Paul Schroeder has put it, Tsar Alexander himself dreamed of making the Gospels the basis for European politics, and “banishing war and conflict from the earth,” but Lieven’s book dwells little on this dimension of the war, even on the Russian side. To grasp it, readers will still need to turn elsewhere—perhaps even to Tolstoy.

David A. Bell, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Princeton.