Russia’s Pivotal Role in Napoleonic Europe

A new book has been published about a very interesting period in continental history – Russia’s confrontation with Napoleon in 1812, just one of the many conflicts with Western Europe over the past few centuries which continues to have its impact on the collective memory and security orientation of the modern Russian state.  The work was authored by the London School of Economic professor Dominic Lieven – the elder brother of Anatol Lieven.  Holidays in that household must be entertaining.

Yet the gap is an extraordinary one: to cite just a few aspects of the situation, from 1805 onwards Russia was a key player – indeed, in some respects the key player – in the international relations of Napoleonic Europe; the campaign of 1812 was not just an episode of positively epic dimensions, but also a moment of seminal importance in the history of modern Russia, the echoes of which continued to reverberate throughout the life of the USSR, if not beyond; and finally in the bloody battles of 1813-14 it was Russian troops who made up the largest part of the Allied armies and, arguably at least, Russian leadership that ensured the overthrow of Napoleon.

Fortunatelyfor all students of the Napoleonic era, this massive gap in thehistoriography has now been filled by a massive book. Crafted byDominic Lieven, perhaps one of the most distinguished specialists innineteenth-century Russia of his generation, Russia Against Napoleontruly reaches the parts that other works do not. Beginning with thefailed alliance of Tilsit between Russia and France, which Lievenpresents as an arrangement that was based on a cool and realisticappreciation of Russian interests, the author charts Alexander I’ssteadily deteriorating relationship with Napoleon and explains how by1810 the tsar had been forced into a position of open enmity with theFrench empire, in part because of the latter’s relentless aggression,but also because of growing internal pressure (throughout the book,indeed, great stress is placed on the importance of domestic Russianpolitics). Hostility to France, however, did not necessarily mean warand, as Lieven shows, in 1811 Alexander eschewed the idea of attackingNapoleon: rather, he would wait to be attacked and, initially at least,adopt a purely defensive strategy. When war came in 1812 it wastherefore very much the responsibility of the French ruler, and inarguing thus Lieven places himself in the camp of those who argue thatthe struggles of 1803-15 were in the most literal sense Napoleonic wars.