Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace

In This Review

Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace
By Dominic Lieven
Viking, 2010
656 pp. $35.95
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This is a large, booming riposte to all those histories and novels that downplay Russia's role in Napoleon's ultimate defeat, leaving the credit mostly to "General Winter" or, according to Tolstoyan myth, to the patriotism of the Russian people. No, says Lieven, the Russian government itself defeated Napoleon, and it did so because Tsar Alexander I and his war minister had anticipated the war, knew the enemy and his weaknesses, and had designed a superior strategy. "From the start," Lieven writes, "their plan was to wear down Napoleon by a defensive campaign in Russia, and then to pursue the defeated enemy back over the frontier and raise a European insurrection against him." Hence, the importance of the years 1813-14. This was the decisive phase of the Napoleonic Wars, but it has been neglected thanks to self-serving retellings found in British, French, and Prussian histories and in later Russian novels and musical overtures. Lieven not only makes his case in rich, probing detail; he also encases it in a fluent reading of Russia's larger political and social dynamics during this period.