Home > History, Literature, Politics, Reviews > Russia Against Napoleon and the Politics of Historical Authority

Russia Against Napoleon and the Politics of Historical Authority

Historian Dominic Lieven warns in the introduction of Russia Against Napoleon, his monumental opus on the Russian Empire’s defeat and deposition of the French Emperor and master general from 1812 to 1814, that the sort of historical study he is about to engage in for upwards of 500 pages is not considered very fashionable by the academy. Obsessed as current progressive-leaning university history departments are with representing the experiences of the more ordinary denizens of society in the midst of historical upheavals as well as understanding the systemic operations behind historical change, Lieven feels that something has been recently neglected. In his view, the saga of the Napoleonic Wars, in particular the struggle between Bonaparte and his Russian counterpart Czar Alexander I, is best expressed in historical terms as a contest of aristocratic planning and military prowess, areas of study that have been missed by the more sociological approach to history that now predominates.

Most of what I knew about Russia’s defeat of Napoleon I learned from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace. It’s reasonable to assume that this is generally the case for those who claim some knowledge of the conflict. Lieven certainly assumes this as well, and it most certainly sticks in his craw. In between Tolstoy’s intricately, lively details of quotidian life before, during, and between Russia’s wars with Bonaparte (the novel’s true measures of greatness), War and Peace is marked by lengthy philosophical diatribes about the nature of warfare and the role of human agency in the flow of historical development. Tolstoy, mainly targetting the Great Man theory prevalent in 19th century historiography, denied that human actors had any purposeful role in defining the unfolding of events in the case of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or any other large-scale happening. Tolstoy is a little vague about what exactly does direct history, but it seems to be down to a combination of fortune, environment, pre-existing social and cultural circumstances, and other forces beyond the understanding of mere mortals (divine ones, apparently; the Count did end his life as a bit of a God-fearing cult leader, after all).

Although Lieven acknowledges Tolstoy’s magnificent ability as a novelist, he takes issue with this conception of history. He argues, with some evidence to back him up, that Alexander and his on-again, off-again commander-in-chief Mikhail Barclay de Tolly conceived of and executed a long-game strategy that sought to draw Napoleon into a long war of attrition on Russian territory and then pursue his depleted forces all the way back to Paris and overthrow his predatory regime. The narrative of how this strategy was implemented is indeed a dramatic one with plenty of military, logistical, and diplomatic challenges to be overcome, and Lieven tells it with meticulously-researched detail.

What he does not tell it with is excitement, empathy, or deeper psychological insight. In other words, he doesn’t tell it like Tolstoy did, even if he follows the Russian armies into Europe when Tolstoy left them at the vast empire’s Western edge. Although Tolstoy’s historical methodology was not exactly rigorously arrived at, his ideological approach to history anticipated that which was eventually favoured by the academic historical mainstream. Lieven is reacting against this hegemony of sociology and psychology, and doing so from a very conservative place.

In his hands, military history becomes an annal of the exploits of aristocratic gentlemen-generals, every victory in every skirmish explained, essentially, by manly courage. Perhaps this is what military history always is. Perhaps those who have flipped through the volumes upon volumes of war history on their uncles’ bookshelves could confirm that, as it remains a mystery to me. But it makes for a highly tedious read in this case at least.

Lieven does provide some compelling character sketches of the major players on the side of Russia and its allies along the way, even if he is clearly in the tank for the enigmatic, pragmatic (Obama-like?) Alexander and the stubborn, often-unpopular Barclay de Tolly. The brief author’s biography reveals that Lieven named his dog after the latter, even while remaining entirely silent concerning his descent from not one but two Baltic German nobles who play roles in the Russian war effort. His historical objectivity is therefore in some doubt, although the patrician Lieven evidently comes from an intellectual tradition that substitutes the birthright of nobility for such bourgeois affectations as objectivity (much like the historical dilletante Tolstoy, in this way at least).

Whatever the politics of his position of historical authority, Lieven mixes intricate knowledge of the basic structure of imperial Russian society (the logistical chapters are fascinating, if a little dry) with mind-numbing directness in rendering the criss-crossing movements of armies across landscapes and eventually into each others’ paths. The basic problem with Russia Against Napoleon is that Lieven commences by telling us that everything we know about Russia’s wars with Napoleon is wrong, and that Tolstoy made it that way. Once this is done, he proceeds to demonstrate that being historically right is insufficient fodder for a great historical narrative. Even if Lieven is accurate and Tolstoy is not, I’d gladly pick up War and Peace again before suffering through another salvo of this sort of history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: