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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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Towards the End of Poverty: A Manifesto – by Jeffrey D. Sachs

The End of PovertyThe End of Poverty by Jeffrey D. Sachs

My Rating★★★☆☆

Towards the End of Poverty: A Manifesto

The difference between a solid policy prescription book and an evocative manifesto is hard to make out if it is an economist writing it. I should have known which side this would fall on once I saw that the introduction was by Bono, but I let the forceful and articulate Bono force me into buying this one. In the store, Bono’s righteous anger was infectious and the book could not be put down. It sounded like a moral obligation:

Fifteen thousand people dying needlessly every day from AIDS, TB, and malaria. Mothers, fathers, teachers, farmers, nurses, mechanics, children. This is Africa’s crisis.

That it’s not on the nightly news, that we do not treat this as an emergency—that’s our crisis.

Sachs has often come into some criticism for advocating a too-simple model. But, perhaps the point is that one has to take his prescriptions as those of a reformist, of an evangelist, of one who is willing to put his reputation on the line to get the ball rolling. He is okay to work out the details later. His prime interest is to convince the world that progress in the fight against poverty is possible, and that depends on giving them a believable model, a get-go plan.

The model he presents is the Ladder of Development. This is the easy and feel-good model, the one for the headlines. The more realistic prescription is hidden inside. It is what he calls ‘Clinical Economics’. This review wont be covering that. Another interesting part of the book is Sachs’ analysis of China. It is an insightful take on why socialism failed in Russia but flourished in China. It is worth a read, but again won’t be covered in this review since it will take away from the forcefulness of the main thrust. The reviewer is determined to be a disciple of Sachs in this respect.

In the simple model, Sachs tells us that there exists a Ladder of Development. It is made of many successive rungs that have to be climbed to reach where the developed world currently is. The Ladder is not a normal ladder, the rungs are not equally spaced – they get closer together as you climb higher. So that it gets easier and easier to climb the higher you are. This is illustrated by countries who were poor only a few decades ago but had so called ‘economic miracles’. To Sachs, there was nothing miraculous about it, it was all about getting high enough in the ladder for the growth to be self-sustaining.

The very hardest part of economic development, according to Sachs, is getting the first foothold on this Ladder. This is so because, true to its peculiar nature, the lowest rung of the Ladder is very high off the ground. Most of the poor countries cannot easily reach there. If only they could, they would then be climbing as if they were born ladder-climbers, Sachs is sure. Economic development works. It can be successful. It tends to build on itself. But it must get started.

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This is where the ones on top of the Ladder has to step in. This is where the role of aid, the crux of Sachs’ advocacy, becomes crucial. If the developed nations could just pull these countries on to the First Rung and perhaps even hold their hand for the next few rungs, we could soon be at The End of Poverty.

So, the rich countries should stop obsessing over trivialities (too much economic thinking, Sachs says, has been directed at the wrong question—how to make the poor countries into textbook models of good governance or efficient market economies) and focus on making sure that every country is safely on the Ladder. All the squabbling and fighting happens when they can’t get on it and focus all their abundant energies towards the exciting adventure of climbing it. Once they are on that task, other peripheral aspects of development would follow naturally. So stop breaking your head over it and get on the real task – this is Sachs radioing the world, loud and clear.

Sachs sees the Ladder and knows that a better world is there for the taking. He sees that much of the world is focused on comparatively trivial things when they could be saving lives and ending misery. That is why Sachs is angry. And this book is the result. It leaves little doubt about the duty of this generation. Sachs is supposed to be most important economist of this generation, and based on his results, he might indeed be. There is definitely no doubt that he is the loudest (especially with Bono for company). You can question his approach, but not his passion.

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Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield

On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World LooksOn the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A collection of entertaining anecdotes. Not particularly mind expanding, not at all knowledge-expanding, unfortunately. One good sample tidbit is that the popular ‘Hic sunt dracones’ (here there be dragons) is just a misrepresentation, those words never permeated medieval maps after all. Another is the origin of the expression ‘orienting oneself’. If the bulk of the anecdotes were similarly obscure or offbeat, the book might have been worth it. The poetical intro by Dava Sobel is the best chapter. Not for Mapheads, this one. Not the right kinda trivia.

Another tidbit for the curious (from the second best chapter in the book): Steinberg’s Manhattanite’s view of the world – the precursor to many of the maps that invade your facebook timelines periodically.

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“The parody has been parodied many times, but the best modern parallel, and certainly the rudest, is to be found in the work of the much travelled Bulgarian graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov. Tsvetkov, who works under the name Alphadesigner, may well have constructed the most offensive and cynical atlas in the world, all of it stereotypical, some of it funny. His Mercator projection entitled The World According to Americans showed a Russia labelled simply ‘Commies’, and a Canada labelled ‘Vegetarians’. He has also produced the Ultimate Bigot’s Supersize Calendar of the World, which includes Europe According to the Greeks. In this one, the bulk of European citizens live in the ‘Union of Stingy Workaholics’, while the UK is categorised as ‘George Michael’.”

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Posted by on August 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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