This site may load slowly at times because of the numerous images. Please reload the page if some of the images do not appear. Thank you.

Search This Site

Great War History Books: RUSSIA AGAINST NAPOLEON The True Story of the Campaigns of ‘War and Peace’ By Dominic Lieven

The True Story of the Campaigns of ‘War and Peace’
By Dominic Lieven 

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a classic describing the struggle of the Russian people to defeat Napoleon. But was it really the Russian nationalist spirit that made Napoleon to retreat? Neither was it the Russian winter as some French historians say. Dominic Lieven tells us the real reasons in his new book.

(From The New York Times)
‘Russia Against Napoleon’

There are usually three stages in the creation of empires, though these stages often overlap. First comes the conquest of empire and the elimination of foreign threats. This is generally a question of military power, diplomatic craftiness, and geopolitical context. To survive, however, an empire needs institutions, otherwise it will disintegrate with the death of the conqueror and his charisma. Establishing these institutions is the second stage in creating an empire and is often harder than the first stage, particularly when huge conquests have occurred in a short period. The third stage requires the consolidation of imperial loyalties and identities in the subject populations, and above all, in the pre-modern world, in their elites.

Napoleon made great progress in the first stage of empire-building, took some steps towards creating imperial institutions but still had a very long way to go in legitimizing his power. To do him justice, he faced a daunting task. A thousand years after the death of Charlemagne, it was rather late in the day to dream of restoring a European empire. Three hundred years after the printing of the vernacular Bible, the imposition of French as a pan-European imperial language was unimaginable. An imperial project backed by a universalist, totalitarian ideology might have gone some way towards establishing empire in Europe for a time. But Napoleon was in no sense a totalitarian ruler, nor was his empire much driven by ideology. On the contrary, he had put the lid on the French Revolution and done his best to banish ideology from French political life. Even the uprooting of local elites in conquered Europe went well beyond Napoleon's desires or his power. In 1812 his empire was still very dependent on his personal charisma.

Many European statesmen understood this and acted accordingly. On the eve of his departure for the Americas in 1809, Count Theodor von der Pahlen, the first Russian minister to the United States, wrote that despite the triumphs of France and its current dominance, within less than fifty years nothing will remain to it but the empty glory of having overthrown and oppressed Europe. It will have acquired no real benefits from this for the French nation, which will find itself exhausted of men and treasure once it can no longer raise them from its neighbours. France's immense current influence depends wholly on the existence of a single individual. His great talents, his astonishing energy and impetuous character will never allow him to put limits on his ambition, so that whether he dies today or in thirty years' time he will leave matters no more consolidated than they are at present.

Meanwhile, added Pahlen, as a new European Thirty Years War continued, the Americas would grow enormously in strength. Of the European powers only the English would be in a position to derive any advantages from this.

The implication of this comment is that in the eyes of history the triumphs and disasters of the Napoleonic era would seem the proverbial tale full of sound and fury, not (let us hope) told by an idiot but also not adding up to much. There is some truth in this. Aspects of the Napoleonic saga were more spectacular than significant. Nevertheless it would be wrong to be too dismissive of the fears and efforts of Europe's statesmen in these years.

Like all political leaders, Russia's rulers had to confront pressing contemporary realities. They could not live on hopes for a distant future. They might well share Theodor Pahlen's longer-term perspectives and believe that, if they could buy time and postpone the conflict with Napoleon, it might actually pass them by. The emperor himself could die or lose his fire. That after all was the rationale behind Nesselrode's spies assiduously reporting whether Napoleon was still eating a good breakfast. Unless fortune intervened, however, Russia's leaders from mid-1810 had to confront the reality that Napoleon was preparing to invade their empire. No doubt if they caved in to his demands war might be averted for a time. But to subscribe to his current version of the Continental System was to undermine the financial and economic bases of Russia's position as an independent power. By definition, this would leave it open to Napoleon to establish a powerful Polish client state which would shut Russia out of Europe.

The chances of Napoleon establishing a lasting empire across Europe may have been poor, though this was far from self-evident in 1812. His regime certainly could put down deep roots west of the Rhine and in northern Italy. It was also well within his power to implement the strategy set out in Champagny's memorandum of 1810, which Russian espionage had acquired for Alexander. There was every reason to fear in 1812 that Napoleon would defeat the Russian army and force peace on Alexander I. This would have resulted in the creation of a powerful Polish satellite kingdom, with its own ambitions in Ukraine and Belorussia. Austria could easily have become the loyal client of Napoleon after 1812, as it became Prussia's first lieutenant after 1866. With its ambitions turned to the Balkans and against Russia, it would have been a useful auxiliary of the French Empire against any threat from the east. Within Germany, a stroke of Napoleon's pen could have abolished Prussia and compensated the King of Saxony for losing his largely theoretical sovereignty over Poland. Meanwhile for at least a generation the combination of French power and regional loyalties would have kept the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) under Paris's thumb. Russia would be permanently under threat and at the mercy of a Europe organized along these lines. On top of this the consequences of defeat might well include a crushing indemnity and the sacrifices a victorious Napoleon might require Russia to bear in his ongoing war against the British. 

Share this PostPin ThisShare on TumblrShare on Google PlusEmail This


Post a Comment

You Might Like These....

Search This Site

Popular Articles On This Site

More History Sites

Illustrated History

A Lousy Journalist?

A Lousy Journalist?
"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
-- George Santayana

History Quotes

May 1945 - If hell on earth existed, than it existed in Prague after May the 5th. 1945. Old men, women and children were beaten to death and maimed. Rapes, barbaric cruelties, horror-scenarios of hellish proportions - here they had been let lose.

- Ludek Pachmann, Czech Chess-Grand Master and publicist, forty years after the fact.

Copyright Issue

All the images on this site have been uploaded from the internet. Their copyrights lie with the respective owners.

If inadvertently any copy-righted material is published on this site, the owners of the material may contact us at We will remove the relevant portion immediately


"History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are."

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.


HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
-- Ambrose Bierce

We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.


"I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past."

"Patriotism ruins history."

Snippets from History

This short but important battle played a key role in the decision to use atomic bombs when attacking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The battle showed just how far Japanese troops would go to defend their country.

Snippets From History

Paulus didn't give the order to 6th Army to surrender, but his troops no longer had much fight left in them. Resistance faded out over the next two days, with the last die-hards finally calling it quits. One Red Army colonel shouted at a group of prisoners, waving at the ruins all around them: "That's how Berlin is going to look!


History is Philosophy teaching by examples.


"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
-- George Santayana

Points to Ponder: Why Is China Unstable?

The aim of individuals in any society is money and power. Societies that give equal chance to all its members to get them will be the most stable. That is why democracies are more stable than other systems of governance.

China after Deng's reform gave the chance to get rich but power is in the hands of an elite; the Communist Party of China. Membership to the party is at the whims of the local party bosses. This leaves out many people who crave political power dissatisfied and disgruntled. There in lies the roots of instability. The Party suppressed these demands once at Tiananmen in 1989. But force is hardly the way to deal with things like these.

READ MORE: Tiananmen Square Massacre