Tag Archives: Napoleon

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.


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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Read literature like a Pro: A Cheat-Sheet

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the LinesHow to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Foster comes across for the most part of the book as Captain Obvious, or rather Prof. Obvious and maybe even as Dr. Condescending, M.A., Ph.D., etc.

But no matter how frustrated with the book I was at times, Foster does have a language that reminded me constantly of all my english professors and since I have always loved my literature classes and the teachers, it was easier to swallow.

The book treats only very obvious and surface level things like ‘if he almost drown then he is symbolically reborn’ etc. He takes us through a variety of such things ‘hidden’ in literature that we should be on the lookout for to truly enjoy any reading. The only problem is that he never goes deep enough to let help a reader think analytically of what can be considered challenging literature.

But sometime obvious things are worth restating too and sometimes they help us develop a pattern of thinking that will eventually evolve by itself into what is really required. And that in the end might be the real goal of the book. In that case Foster can consider it a reasonable success.

So here is a quick list of easy things to watch out for when you read literature:

1) Every time a character in the book takes any journey/trip of any sort, start looking for tropes like gatekeepers, dragons, treasures etc. Chances are high that it is a mythic Quest of some sort.

2) If you come across a scene involving the characters eating together, especially if a whole chapter is dedicated to it, chances are that it is being used to explore their relations and it is an act of Communion with all that the word implies.

3) Vampires exist, even when they don’t. If it is not Twilight, chances are that it has literary significance. And if it does, the vampire figure is probably being used to hide a lot of sexual and societal undertones about chastity and selfishness. And even when a book has nothing to do with vampires, it would serve you well to identify vampires who suck others blood to survive.

4) Sonnet is the most used type of poetry? _ Frankly i am not sure why this chapter came in and how it helps the readers in anyway except to recognize when they meet a sonnet – they look square.

5) You will meet historical figures like Napoleon, Caesar and Gandhi in many guises even when the situation does not seem to indicate it. If you do recognize this hidden historical aspect of the character, then the story will acquire a new dimension

6) References and quotations from Shakespeare and Bible, including situations and entire plots abound in literature. (Duh)

7) Fairy tales form an important part of literature too and you might want to have a look-out for Hansel and Gretel‘s witch anytime people get lost in unfamiliar territory.

8) Greek symbolism and myths crop up everywhere and be ready for your author being a Homer in disguise trying to tell a modern version. And most of western literature taps this well-spring

9) Weather is always symbolic and Rain, spring etc has deep rooted meaning which authors exploit consistently. If it is raining and thin look gloomy, that might be irony or they might have hear dof London (Foster doesn’t seem to have).

10) When violence is used in a text, it is probably a plot device. So start thinking about why did he have to hit him with a baseball bat and not with a table lamp and why the character had to climb that mountain to die.

11) Almost everything that is repeated can be symbolic, even events and actions. There is no way to list them out so get in the habit of being paranoid.

12) Politics of the day inevitably seeps into any work and knowing that helps in understanding any prejudices which might not be acceptable today and also in understanding the real motivations. Who can read and understand Hemingway without knowing of his history?

13) Christ figures are everywhere and anytime anyone is even slightly noble be on the lookout for christ archetypes like disciples and sacrifice and betrayal.

14) If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.

15) Lot of things can stand for sex and it is important to understand the meaning of tall buildings. If they write about sex when they mean strictly sex, we have another word for that – pornography.

16) If anyone gets wet in a book, they might change their life after that. They might be baptized into another life in short

17) Geography is probably the most important part of any novel. Geography and Season – think about why the author used that setting and the motifs of the novel will become clearer.

18) There is only One Story – whatever that means.

19) If any character has a scar (lightening?), it usually is a means to set him/her apart and the nature of the scar is symbolic. It could be scar/defect or ever a mild skin coloration – but it is a device to set up for greater things.

20) If a character is blind, ask what he is blind to or what others are blind to. It certainly is not just about physical sight.

21) Whenever any sort of illness comes in, it is usually a metaphor – especially if it is heart disease, TB (consumption), AIDS, Cancer or mysterious in some way. In literature disease is never caused by microscopic mundane things – it is caused by society and character.

22) Read any work from the time frame in which it was written.

23) Irony trumps everything else. If the author defeats your expectation with any symbol, he is so ironing you. This can work at many levels of course, he might defeat your expectation of being subject to irony by suing the actual meaning and so on.

So. Long list? Not if you read a lot. You can see all this in three days of light reading. In fact I am tending to be lenient in this review mostly due to that wonderful last chapter where he gives an example short story and analyses it. That one chapter makes the whole book worth reading. The reading list at the end is also useful and I have reproduced it here.

But getting back to the means of analyses listed above.

Were they too obvious? Or are you not confident that you will start spotting them from tomorrow? Either way, it might help us get into the habit as I said earlier and that is what really matters.

The only way to catch on to all these devices and symbols is to be familiar with them. And the only way to do that? Read of course. Read a hell lot.

So you can see that you need to have read a lot. I mean a lot. And be very conversant with all the tropes and history of literature and myth to fully enjoy or critique serious works – that is, you need to have had a life dedicated to reading to enjoy reading.

In other words, to read literature like a professor you need to be a professor of literature. Bingo. Insight

PS. Of course the iterative growth in the pleasure of reading is known to every bookworm – we are addicted to books as it keeps getting better with every new book we read – the connections, the intertextuality and the by-lanes all become clearer and more and more FUN.

PPS. Susan Sontag makes another arbitrary appearance, haunting my reading list.

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Poetry, Thoughts


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