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Tolstoy As Villain: Tolstoy, Tolstory, Tall Story

Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and PeaceRussia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace by Dominic Lieven

My Rating★★★★☆

 

Tolstoy As Villain: Tolstoy, Tolstory, Tall Story

Russia’s defeat of Napoleon is one of the most dramatic stories in European history. The war has been immortalized by Tolstoy in his epic, War & Peace. There is no great puzzle as to why Russia fought Napoleon. How it fought him and why it won are much bigger and more interesting questions. To answer these questions requires one to demolish well-established myths.

It is not surprising that myths dominate Western thinking about Russia’s role in Napoleon’s defeat. What happened in 1812–14 is usually distorted in British, French and American books. Popular works on the Napoleonic era necessarily follow a rather set pattern.

Fascination with Napoleon, with the timeless lessons to be learned from military genius, along with the fame of Clausewitz, generally seen as the greatest of all thinkers on modern war, has meant that the Russian side of the story paled in comparison. And got short shrift. The result is that the Russian side of the story is ignored or misinterpreted, with historians largely seeing Russia through the prism of French- or German-language sources.

The European Myths

The distortions manifest first as sort of colonial racism. Napoleon himself set the tone by finding few words of praise for any Russian troops other than Cossacks – ascribing to them the cause of his own retreat. Blaming defeat on the Cossacks or the weather was useful. Since the French army had no Cossacks and the weather was an ‘unfair’ act of God, no French officer need fear that by invoking these sources of disaster he was questioning his own superior virility or professional skill.

Thus, studies of the 1812 campaign in English mostly concentrate on Napoleon’s mistakes, on the problems created for the French by Russia’s geography and climate. The year 1813 traditionally belongs to German authors celebrating the resurgence of Prussia and the triumph of German patriotism.

The Russian Distortion

Thus the rest of Europe had a complete version of how events transpired. But, what of Russia itself?

In Russia, the later Decembrist revolt and its suppression was the beginning of the exceptionally bitter split between right and left in Russia which eventually ended in the revolution of 1917. The violent hatred between the two camps helped to poison and distort memories of 1812–14.

When it took over the 1812 myth and made it an integral part of Soviet patriotism, the Communist regime to a great extent set such ideas in stone. The historical reality of Russia’s war effort had to be startlingly distorted to suit official ideology in the Stalinist era. Nobles and the Royalty had to be vilified; a folk hero in the form of Kutuzov had to be elevated; and the significance of mass resistance to Napoleon had to be exaggerated.

The Loudest Voice: Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was by far the most important nineteenth-century mythmaker as regards his impact on Russian (and foreign) understanding of Russia’s role in the Napoleonic era. Tolstoy depicts elemental Russian patriotism as uniting in defense of national soil.

War and Peace has had more influence on popular perceptions of Napoleon’s defeat by Russia than all the history books ever written. By denying any rational direction of events in 1812 by human actors and implying that military professionalism was a German disease Tolstoy feeds rather easily into Western interpretations of 1812 which blame the snow or chance for French defeat.

And, perhaps most important in the context of this work, Tolstoy, by ending his novel War and Peace in December 1812 with the war only half over and the greatest challenges still to come, he also contributes greatly to the fact that both Russians and foreigners largely forget the huge Russian achievement in 1813–14 even in getting their army across Europe to Paris, let alone defeating Napoleon en route. Thus, the long, bitter but ultimately triumphant road that led from Vilna in December 1812 to Paris in March 1814 plays no part in his work, just as it was entirely marginalized in the Soviet patriotic canon and in contemporary Russian folk memory.

So instead of being a voice for Russia, this popular or ‘Tolstoyan’ Russian interpretation of the war fits rather well with foreign accounts that play down the role of Russia’s army and government in the victory over Napoleon.

Napoleon himself was much inclined to blame geography, the climate and chance; this absolved him from responsibility for the catastrophe. Historians usually add Napoleon’s miscalculations and blunders to the equation but many of them are happy to go along with Tolstoy’s implied conclusion that the Russian leadership had little control over events and that Russian ‘strategy’ was a combination of improvisation and accident.

Inevitably too, Russian lack of interest in 1813–14 left the field free for historians of other nations who were happy to tell the story of these years with Russia’s role marginalized.

Conclusion

The above is a summation of the basic premise of the book. The author goes on to demonstrate that these ‘stories’ are myths and tries to give a detailed analysis of how Russia really defeated Napoleon. He gives details of every campaign, including logistics, troop recruitment, weather patterns, foreign policy manipulations, chance events, etc. It is fascinating yet quite tedious.

For now, I can provide no comments on the author’s thesis and can only form an opinion after further exploration of the events through other histories. To me, the premise of the book was more interesting and perhaps more important than the actual content itself, which is passably good but never intriguing.

I can comment on whether this really is essential reading or not for explorers of Tolstoy (and students of Russia, by default) only after finishing War & Peace, but for now it does seem to be.

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Posted by on December 25, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Classics Club 77

Jillian over at A Room of One’s Own, had the amazing idea of hosting a book club of sorts, which she has called The Classics Club. Each person picks a list of classics they want to read over a certain period of time (say, 100 classics over a period of five years). It’s a very stress-free project; each person picks their own books and sets their own pace. I’m going to reward myself with five full snickers bars for every couple that I finish along the way. I’m a lover of classics and there are so many I have yet to read, so I am jumping in to join Jillian and the other participants.

My current goal is to read the following 77 classics over the next 2 years. Some of the books on the list will be re-reads for me, but I either read them so long ago (when I was a kid/teenager) that I have forgotten almost everything about them or they are part of my “thirty books to read thirty times” list.

Most of the books will receive a full review here on the blog but if it is too overwhelming (or underwhelming), you may have to check over at goodreads for the short informal review.

Anyone is welcome to join the Classics Club, so if you’re interested, just click on the Classics Club link at the top of this page to be taken to the sign-up page on Jillian’s website (or click here to get more detailed information).

Start date: March 23, 2012
Goal finish date: March 23, 2014
Books in blue = re-reads
Linked books in green = read (links will take you to full blog posts or goodreads reviews)

*The books are in chronological order (more or less)

  1. The Mahabharata and Ramayana in original
  2. The Thousand and One Nights 
  3. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
  4. The Iliad By Homer
  5. The Aeneid by Virgil
  6. Metamorphoses by Ovid
  7. Gargantua and Pantagruel by Françoise Rabelais
  8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  9. The Complete Works of Shakespeare
  10. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  11. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  12. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
  13. Reveries of a Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  14. The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
  15. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
  16. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
  17. The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox
  18. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  19. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
  20. Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol
  21. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  22. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  23. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  24. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  25. Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
  26. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  27. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
  28. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  29. Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
  30. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  31. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  32. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  33. Erewhon by Samuel Butler
  34. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
  35. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  36. Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz
  37. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  38. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
  39. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  40. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
  41. A Passage to india by E.M. Forster
  42. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
  43. Howards End by E.M. Forster
  44. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  45. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  46. The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
  47. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  48. Rashomon by Akutagawa Ryunosuke
  49. Ulysses by James Joyce
  50. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  51. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
  52. Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
  53. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  54. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
  55. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  56. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
  57. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
  58. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  59. The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis
  60. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
  61. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  62. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  63. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
  64. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  65. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  66. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
  67. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  68. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
  69. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
  70. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  71. The Death of Virgil Hermann Broch
  72. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  73. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  74. The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzákis
  75. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  76. All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani
  77. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Do check back from time to time to see the progress and the reviews!

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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