Peasants in Arms

Geoffrey Hosking

  • Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 by Dominic Lieven
    Allen Lane, 618 pp, £30.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9637 1

We are not short of descriptions of Russia’s war against Napoleon; so at least you might think. This was, after all, Russia’s first ‘great patriotic war’, and Russian historians, pre-revolutionary, Soviet and post-Soviet, have not missed the opportunity to extol the heroism and patriotism of their soldiers and peasants. The spirit of War and Peace still hovers over them. Western accounts are more sober, and tend to see things from the French point of view, thanks to the massive amount of available French documentation. They emphasise Napoleon’s mistakes, the effects of winter and the travails of the French soldiers in their long retreat through the snow.

Dominic Lieven offers something that has hitherto been lacking, a lucid and detailed account of Russia’s diplomatic, administrative and military leadership, without which the people’s heroism would have remained diffuse and ineffective, and Napoleon might well have won the war. Lieven argues that Tolstoy actually underestimated Russia’s achievement by dismissing the contribution of its generals and statesmen (especially those with German surnames). Making exhaustive use of Russian archives, Lieven explains how the Russian commanders equipped and moved hundreds of thousands of men, as well as their weapons and horses (crucial participants in early 19th-century war), not just across Russia, but all the way to Paris. Not the least virtue of this book is that it devotes as much attention to the campaigns of 1813-14 as to the more celebrated one of 1812. Lieven illuminates his narrative with a clear and cogent analysis of European geopolitics in the Napoleonic era. His book will undoubtedly become the standard account of the Russian aspect of the Napoleonic wars.

David Bell has recently argued that Napoleon introduced ‘total war’ to Europe. Following the 1789 Revolution, all male Frenchmen, on reaching a certain age, were called up as citizens to the armed forces. As a result of the levée en masse the French army soon became much larger than any other in Europe. In other countries monarchs were still nervous about arming too many of their subjects and training them to fight. With a huge and well-motivated force at his disposal, Napoleon could deploy large and flexible formations – divisions, corps and armies rather than regiments – backed up by professional staff and his own charismatic leadership. Most European armies of the time consisted of regiments commanded by aristocrats; on the whole they tried to avoid all-out combat, which was expensive and risky, and to achieve their aims by conspicuous but cautious manoeuvring. Napoleon, on the contrary, had abundant reserves at hand and so could risk heavy casualties. The call-up of whole age groups for a (relatively) short period of military service enabled France to put much larger armies in the field, and also to have a reserve of trained and able-bodied men who could be remobilised if reinforcement were needed. Confident in their patriotism and martial spirit, Napoleon could let his soldiers live off the land, finding food where they could, rather than depending on supply trains; most earlier commanders had avoided this, as damaging to discipline. He was thus in a position to confront rather than avoid any opponent’s main army, in the expectation (usually fulfilled) of being able to overwhelm it by force of numbers, stronger morale and superior leadership. In this way France repeatedly defeated the two most powerful countries in Central Europe, Austria and Prussia, and indeed Russia too in 1805-7.

How well was the Russian army equipped to fight ‘total war’? As Lieven shows, it was in most respects a traditional monarchical army, but with distinctive features which made it especially formidable when defending its own territory. Recruitment took place once a year, at the rate of between one in a hundred and one in five hundred male ‘souls’ (i.e. serfs). Nearly all ordinary soldiers were peasants by origin, but their induction into the army ended their contact with peasant society, since military service lasted for 25 years. When a new recruit left home, his fellow villagers expected never to see him again, and accordingly gave him a kind of civil funeral. In normal times communities avoided sending married men for military service, but in 1812-14 the need for recruits was so great that they often had no choice. Many families lost their breadwinner, and for the wife the loss of her husband was a catastrophe: she would probably never see him again, but could not remarry, and her status in the village was abruptly downgraded.

As a mark of his changed status, the new recruit’s head was shaved (peasants of Orthodox faith normally had beards and long hair); he was also freed from serfdom and became in a sense a patriotic citizen – though harsh army discipline precluded any element of civic freedom. Ordinary soldiers could be decorated for exceptional courage in battle, and they could be promoted, though not beyond the rank of NCO, so the army was a place where the former serf could achieve a status unthinkable in the village he had left behind. The regiment became the new recruit’s home, and the members of his platoon his family and close friends. Most contemporary accounts of the Russian army agree that its infantrymen enjoyed high morale and were prepared for adversity and hardship by their previous experience of using collective action to cope with deprivation.

Each company had its own mess co-operative, or artel, to which each man contributed a large part of his pay. The artel organised the feeding of its members, sometimes actually growing the food. Uniforms often came from the commissariat in the form of rolls of cloth, which had to be made up by the artel tailors. The co-operative’s funds could also be used to buy the extras that made men’s lives easier, and wouldn’t be provided by a tight-fisted state. The company was thus a kind of peasant society in miniature, its members interdependent and used to working together in ways that seem to have boosted their solidarity and morale on the battlefield. Contemporaries agreed that Russian infantrymen were well disciplined, courageous, resourceful and tenacious. The Russian army was not quite the nation in arms, but it was a peasant society writ large.

The problem was that such a system presupposed a concept of armed citizenship incompatible with serfdom: no landowner would welcome having youngish men, energetic, trained to fight and well informed about the outside world, sent back to their estates to unsettle fellow villagers with exciting stories. Nor could an army of citizen conscripts be relied on to fire on their own kind in the suppression of internal unrest. For these reasons, in Russia the army and peasant society were kept strictly apart.

Morale and discipline were maintained at least in part by the Orthodox faith. Religious services helped to steel the Russian soldier against the terrors of military life and strengthened his identification with his unit and his country. One observer reported after the Battle of Zurich in 1799 that ‘there was hardly one of the mortally wounded Russians who had not clutched at the image of the patron saint which he wore about his neck, and pressed it to his lips before drawing his last breath.’ At Borodino, the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God was placed beside the bivouac of the Izmailovsky Guards, and the men prayed to it before going to battle.

The people also had faith in the tsar. When, shortly after the French invasion, Alexander came to Moscow, the route into the city was lined with ordinary people even though it was late in the evening. The next morning, as he made his way to the Uspensky cathedral, he was greeted by church bells and crowds so tightly packed that he had difficulty getting through. People pressed forward to see him and if possible touch him. At such a moment he was the symbol of their hope to save their country from the Antichrist. The same was true of ordinary soldiers.

The Russian army’s most obvious deficiency was the quality of its officers. Lieven’s account excels in giving a sketch of most of the senior ones, and of their relations with one another, which could be exceedingly fractious. Several times promising actions were called off because of their mutual jealousy. An egregious example was the abortive attempt to cut off Napoleon’s retreat at the river Berezina, in western Russia, when poor communications and irresolution, combined with the jealousy and egotism of senior commanders, thwarted a set of manoeuvres which had begun promisingly. If Napoleon had been captured then, or his exhausted and underarmed troops exposed to more serious fighting, the huge sacrifices of the following two years might have been unnecessary. As it was, he, his Guards and several thousand battle-hardened veterans lived to fight again.

The war against Napoleon strikingly illustrates the positive and negative features of the Russian empire. On the one hand, its sheer size meant that the army could retreat almost endlessly and recover from reverses that would have destroyed a lesser power. It had rich and diverse reserves of food, raw materials, equipment and manpower. On the other hand, endless retreat entailed terrible suffering, the destruction of homes, equipment, animals and crops, the demoralisation of both the civilian and military population. The huge distances also meant that the mobilisation of resources was slow and cumbersome.

As a result, Russia always needed a long lead-time for the planning of any military campaign. Its leaders laid great emphasis on intelligence work, on obtaining reliable information about where and when the enemy was liable to strike. One of Russia’s advantages in this war was that its high command knew far more about Napoleon’s intentions and preparations than he did about theirs. During the Tilsit peace of 1807-12, as Lieven shows, Count Karl von Nesselrode, deputy head of mission at the Paris embassy, and Alexander Chernyshev, a Guards officer and aide to Alexander I, cultivated their contacts among the Parisian elite, some of whom were indiscreet and not well disposed to Napoleon; others were well paid for their services. As a result, Alexander knew well in advance that Napoleon was planning to attack Russia and how he intended to do so.

One might then ask why he did not prepare for the war by creating a popular militia to supplement the regular army and make up for the deficiency in reserves. There were a number of reasons: he did not want to provoke Napoleon before war was inevitable, and he feared the effect of the expense of mobilisation on Russia’s flaky finances. Above all, though, he was nervous about arming serfs, however good the cause. One of his advisers warned him that ‘the weakening of ties of subordination to the landowners is more dangerous than foreign invasion.’ He worried that Napoleon might free the serfs in the Russian territories he occupied, and stationed special units in provinces neighbouring the invasion route, in case it proved necessary to suppress peasant uprisings. They were indeed needed after the invasion, especially in Vitebsk guberniia, where landowners were murdered and their manor houses set on fire. Such incidents were not widespread, however, and Napoleon never issued an emancipation proclamation. As it turned out, he feared free Russian citizens as much as Alexander did.

The intelligence at his disposal meant that Alexander could plan Russia’s response to the French invasion. But he faced grave dilemmas. He and his commander-in-chief, Barclay de Tolly, knew that the Russian army was not ready to take on Napoleon. The French army was both much larger and more battle-hardened, and Napoleon was an outstanding military leader. Undoubtedly the best strategy was to retreat indefinitely, avoiding major battles and making use of Russia’s space and (eventually) its severe climate to wear the French down. Yet no one was prepared to state this openly, since the sacrifices entailed by such a policy were horrific. Alexander and Barclay originally intended to retreat only a certain distance, to fortified lines where they hoped they could make a stand. Each time the army reached such a line, however – on the river Dvina, at Vitebsk and Smolensk – it turned out that Napoleon was too strong, and so, after skirmishes, it resumed its retreat.

Alexander’s dilemmas were exacerbated by the fact that he had internal enemies only somewhat less formidable than Napoleon. He knew that what seemed to be a craven policy was stirring indignant opposition and accusations of lack of patriotism among aristocrats in St Petersburg; his sister Catherine constantly reminded him of the dangers in urgent and rather breathless letters. He constantly had in mind too that his own father had been murdered by an aristocratic clique. But he also knew that at all costs he must avoid having his main field army destroyed, as Napoleon had destroyed the armies of Prussia and Austria, because Russia’s recruitment system meant that there was a shortage of reserves.

The elites of the Russian empire were extraordinarily diverse: they included Baltic Germans, Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians, even Tatars, not to mention foreigners. Nearly one in five staff officers at the Battle of Borodino were not subjects of the tsar, and many more had non-Russian surnames. This meant that the usual frictions among military leaders were exacerbated by ethnic jealousies. Napoleon’s invasion had naturally intensified national feeling, and the repeated retreats tested morale to the utmost. The diary of Vasily Viazemsky, a middling serf-owner, illustrates the feelings of the provincial gentry. As the French army approached the heartlands of Russia he wrote:

One’s heart trembles at Russia’s condition. It is no wonder that there are intrigues in the armies. They are full of foreigners and are commanded by parvenus … The whole army and the whole people condemn the retreat of our armies from Vilna to Smolensk. Either the whole army and the entire people are idiots or the person who gave orders for this retreat is an idiot.

The problem of national consciousness was especially fraught. There were in essence two kinds of Russian patriotism, both crucial to the survival of the empire, yet not wholly compatible with one another: that of Barclay de Tolly, a Baltic German, dedicated to the emperor personally, to the Romanov dynasty and to the imperial state; and that of Mikhail Kutuzov, ethnically a Russian, who identified with the Russian land, the Russian people and the Orthodox Church. The first kind of patriotism centred on St Petersburg, the second on Moscow. At the most threatening moment of Napoleon’s campaign, before the Battle of Borodino, Alexander felt he had to dismiss the very competent Barclay as commander-in-chief and replace him with Kutuzov. The ‘German’ Barclay could never have got away with the momentous decision to abandon Moscow. It was the ancient capital of the empire, and the coronations of new emperors still took place there. The spectacle of Moscow being surrendered to French marauders and uncontrollable fires deeply affected ordinary Russians, some of whom regarded it as proof of the collapse of Russia, the triumph of the Antichrist and probably therefore the imminent end of the world. The truth though, was that the outcome of Borodino had made it impossible to defend the city. The Russian army had lost so many of its hardened troops and experienced officers that Kutuzov knew it could not mount another major battle. To do so would be to lose both the army and Moscow; retreating and surrendering the city ensured that at least the army would survive.

And survive it did, battered and not in good enough condition to confront the French army in battle, but well able to cause trouble to the increasingly demoralised and undersupplied French troops. Kutuzov shrewdly placed his main forces south and south-west of Moscow, so that they could attack the French in the rear if Napoleon decided to march on St Petersburg, or alternatively ‘escort’ him westwards if he decided to retreat. Marching in parallel at a discreet distance, the Cossacks and light cavalry could keep an eye on French progress and mount sudden raids on stragglers and foraging parties.

Eventually, Alexander took the difficult decision to raise a popular militia, but in such a way as to avoid any appearance of freeing its recruits from serfdom. The militiamen were not volunteers: they were chosen and paid for by their serf-owners. One genuine volunteer who turned up at the recruiting centre of Dorogobuzh was arrested as a deserter. They were mobilised for the duration of the war only, and kept their beards, as a sign that they had not become regular soldiers. A reserve was thus built up, though inevitably with considerable delay and at some risk to internal order. Many nobles were reluctant to leave civilian life to command such units. Moreover, at least some of the peasants, perhaps deliberately, misunderstood their status and assumed that, like regular soldiers, they were being freed. The poet Gavriil Derzhavin was told by his returning militiamen that they were no longer his serfs and had no further obligation to serve him. In one town in Penza guberniia, militia recruits refused to set out for the front without seeing the tsar’s command, signed and sealed, and taking an oath on it. They feared that the local nobles were deceiving them and that, if the proper formalities were not observed, they would not be freed. When several were arrested for insubordination, the remainder set them free and then ran amok, plundering property from the regimental office and the nobles’ town houses.

Soviet historians laid great stress on the ‘guerrilla’ fighters who harassed the French army on its retreat. As Lieven shows, they were not guerrilla fighters in the usual sense. They were mostly light cavalry, often supplemented by Cossack detachments, and led by regular officers. A more genuine ‘people’s war’ was waged by peasants from whom the French tried to requisition supplies: their resistance was sometimes ferocious and considerably aggravated the deprivations suffered by Napoleon’s army. Some peasants retreated into the forest and formed their own armed bands, which would ambush French foraging parties, but their most important contribution was to provide intelligence of the location of French units.

After Napoleon’s disastrous forced retreat, most of Alexander’s advisers wanted to call it a day. They had, they felt, offered Napoleon a ‘golden ticket’ out of Russia and had no business rescuing the rest of Europe as well. Both Kutuzov and the foreign minister, Nikolai Rumiantsev, thought such an effort would exhaust Russia and would in any case mainly benefit her great rival, Britain. These were quite persuasive arguments. However, Alexander decided, rightly in Lieven’s view, that as long as Napoleon remained at large he would be a constant threat to the stability and peace in Europe which Russia desperately needed to maintain secure frontiers. In any case, in addition to the militias, the army had already increased the levies of 1812-14 to the maximum, absorbing more than 600,000 new recruits and equipping and training them. It would never be so formidable again, and this was the time to act.

Organisational miracles were required to move the Russian troops and all their equipment into Central Europe and ultimately France. It all nearly proved too much. Even the well-stocked fields of Bohemia, Saxony and Bavaria could not feed such a massive body of men and horses, so that supply lines had to be created and maintained in all seasons over thousands of miles. The finance ministry sank deep into deficit, which it had to plug by issuing paper money, even though to go on doing so indefinitely would fatally undermine Russia’s credit and threaten the army with starvation. Without a considerable British subsidy Russia could probably not have carried the campaign through to its successful conclusion.

On top of that, Russian diplomats had to work assiduously and skilfully to persuade first Prussia, then Austria, to take part in the combined military campaign which overpowered Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig (1813) and then on the battlefields of France itself. Here Alexander appears at his best: determined, focused, clear about his overall goal but flexible as to the means, capable of selecting the best subordinates and giving them the necessary powers. Not that all went smoothly: the relationships between the top generals and diplomats continued to be complex and often fractious. Lieven draws extensively on their usually peevish correspondence. But Alexander, though sometimes doubtful about his own abilities, put total trust in God: he believed he was called on to deliver Europe from a great evil and he allowed that faith to carry him over numerous obstacles.

The great victory made Russia the dominant land power in Europe, a position it held till the unification of Germany more than half a century later. Yet in some ways the triumph was damaging. Military success impeded rather than advanced the modernisation of state and society. Alexander more or less abandoned his attempts to turn Russia into a constitutional monarchy. His younger brother Nicholas, who succeeded him in 1825, resisted all arguments for reform and ruled the country in an authoritarian manner, largely with the help of officers and officials who had participated in the Napoleonic campaign. It was left to a later generation, students under Nicholas but maturing in the 1860s, to face the full implications of the post-Napoleonic style of war, and to replace the selective levies with full-scale conscription. To do that they had to accept the inevitable consequence, which was the emancipation of the serfs: the Russian army would consist of citizen-soldiers and, in the words of the war minister Dmitry Miliutin, become ‘a school of Russian nationhood’, rather than a bastion of dynasty and empire. That momentous change set in motion upheavals whose ultimate result, it could be argued, was the revolution of 1917.