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The Foresight of Tsarist Generals

When time finally allows, I’m looking forward to reading Dominic Lieven’s new history of the Russian defeat of Napoleon, which he argues had much more to do with foresight, strategy, and cunning of the generals and staff surrounding Tsar Alexander I than simple accidentalism.  The book is drawing out some critical views and interesting discussion (it came out last year in the UK) – but at least Lieven hasn’t been caught writing fake reviews on Amazon.com against competing historians.

From David A. Bell, who teaches history at Princeton, in the New Republic:

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 fitsof hysterical anger a sign of the mental instability for which hisfamily was famous? Lieven prefers to call one of them “the performanceof a brilliant actor letting off steam.” Maybe. Was the Russian army’sescape after the key battle of Borodino a matter of luck, and Napoleon’sblunders? Lieven thinks the Russians planned well enough that theywould have escaped even if, at a key moment, Napoleon had thrown hisreserve into the fray On most of these specific points, though, Lievendeserves the benefit of the doubt, thanks to the heroic job of researchthat he has brought off. He has explored a wealth of new archivalmaterial (some of it only available since the fall of the Soviet Union),and his book will stand as the definitive account of the Russian wareffort unless and until other historians go through the same materialand reach different conclusions.