Professor Lieven, author of Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, on the factors that contributed to Napoleon’s famous defeat in Tsarist Russia.
1812 is one of the most famous stories in European history. Nevertheless much of the story, as usually told, is untrue. Outside Russia, 1812 is usually told just from Napoleon’s point of view and without regard for Russian sources. In Russia the story is distorted by nationalist myths. Leo Tolstoy was a great novelist but also a key myth-maker as regards Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. In his interpretation, governments and generals count for little and Napoleon is defeated by the elemental patriotism of the Russian people.
In reality, the tsarist government planned and executed an intelligent grand strategy which exploited Russia’s strengths and Napoleon’s weaknesses. It could do this partly because in the years before the invasion it possessed excellent sources of intelligence about Napoleon’s intentions and about the strengths and weaknesses of his military and political system. On that basis the Russians planned for a long war of attrition. By retreating deep into Russia they would wear down Napoleon’s initially enormous and invincible army and mobilise Russian society for a lengthy conflict.
Though not even Barclay de Tolly (the commander-in-chief), let alone Alexander I, expected to retreat all the way to Moscow, their strategy worked. It would not have done so, however, without the fierce discipline of the Russian army, the skill of its rearguards, and the moral courage of Barclay, who refused to bow to enormous pressure to commit his army to battle prematurely. In imagining that the fall of Moscow would force Alexander to negotiate, Napoleon betrayed his ignorance of Russian politics and society. After delaying too long in Moscow, his army was forced to undertake a long retreat as the Russian winter closed in. The indiscipline of the French army and the overwhelming superiority of the Russian light cavalry contributed in almost equal measure to his army’s destruction.
It is, however, a great illusion to imagine that 1812 spelled the final defeat of Napoleon. He put 450,000 men in the field in Germany in 1813. The resources of Napoleon’s empire were equal to those of Russia, Austria and Prussia combined. By ending War and Peace in Vilno in December 1812 Tolstoy once again distorts reality. Alexander was determined to carry the war beyond Russia’s borders and undermine Napoleon’s power because he rightly believed that this was the only way to guarantee Russia’s long-term security. He showed great political and diplomatic skill in creating and sustaining the Russo-Prusso-Austrian coalition which (together with British financial and military power) defeated Napoleon in 1813-14.
Also contrary to Russian nationalist mythology, the Russian army performed better in 1813-14 than in 1812. Improved tactics, staff-work and use of reserves help to explain why Russian troops emerged victorious from most of the major battles of 1813-14. The Russian army also met the challenge of deploying, arming and supplying 500,000 men and scores of thousands of horses beyond their empire’s frontiers. In a Europe where only two cities had more than 500,000 inhabitants this was a great achievement.