Suffer Winter's Wrath With Napoleon

The Russian psyche bears the scars of many tyrants. But few dictators have left such a positive impression on the people and the country as Napoleon, who spent only four months here during his fateful campaign of 1812.


Some of Russia's greatest writers have taken inspiration from this brief historical excursion, including Tolstoy in "War and Peace" and Dostoevsky in "Crime and Punishment." Raskolnikov, justifying the sordid murder he committed, explains : "I wanted to make myself a Napoleon." The campaign also produced some of modern Russian history's only untarnished military heroes: the skittish Tsar Alexander I, who distinguished himself during the assault on Paris, and the sly, corpulent Field Marshal Kutuzov, who is widely credited with the Russian victory.


More significantly, the campaign against Napoleon introduced one of Russia's greatest military weapons -- a force that would be put to even more effective use against Nazi Germany more than a century later. By late September, when Bonaparte's Grand Imperial army was shivering in the burnt-out husk of Moscow in their flimsy summer uniforms, the Russians found a name for their great, climactic war machine: Field Marshal Winter.


Alan Palmer casts a punctilious historian's eye over these events in his new book, Napoleon in Russia. Without beating around the academic bush with long introduction or foreword, he launches straight into the campaign as it took shape in June 1812 with the French army, numbering over 160,000 men, amassing along the River Neimen ready to cross into Russian-dominated Lithuania. Palmer does not even dwell much on the reasons for Napoleon's invasion, except briefly to mention some diplomatic bickering and breaches of an earlier treaty: "'It was at Tilsit that Russia swore eternal alliance with France and war with England,' the Emperor told his soldiers. 'Today she is breaking her plighted word. She confronts us with war or dishonor: there can be no doubt about our choice.'"


Palmer then guides us alongside the advancing army during Napoleon's fruitless pursuit of the fleeing Russians, who relinquished city after city. Particularly striking are descriptions of the emperor's frustration at waking up ready for battle only to find that the enemy had disappeared once again: "Do you think I have come so far to conquer these huts," he fumes after the Russians have abandoned Vitebsk.


The approach to storytelling employed by Palmer is almost cinematic as he cuts from one side of the front-line to another. This method accentuates the Russian's lack of coherency and strategy in the early stages of the campaign. They intended to give battle, but were constantly prevented from doing so by circumstance: by the delayed arrival of reinforcements or the unsuitability of defensive positions. Drissa, Vitebsk and Smolensk fell for such ad hoc reasons.


Only when the obese and aging Mikhail Kutuzov was put in overall charge of the Russian army did it stand and fight at Borodino, and it is here that Palmer's book begins to sizzle with all the tension and excitement of a desperate, vicious, unrelenting battle. Forty-three thousand Russians and 34,000 or Napoleon's troops died on that anonymous blood-soaked patch of ground in an engagement so indecisive that both sides claimed victory. Back in St. Petersburg, relatives of the dead stared at the interminable list of casualties and wondered how something that came at such a price could possibly go by any name other than defeat. It was a battle that introduced the concept of cannonfodder and was a chilling prelude to the fields of Flanders a century later.


But Borodino also convinced Kutuzov that it was impossible to engage directly with the French and shortly afterward he resolved to switch tactics: "Napoleon is a torrent which as yet we are unable to stem," he remarked, and "Moscow will be the sponge that will suck him dry." The poor emperor was to be left to the mercy of Mother Russia. He reached the deserted city of Moscow just in time to see it go up in flames, torched by its own governor. Palmer's description of the scene is evocative: "A mile of fire continued to light the evening sky. It could be seen from far off in the country. Miserable clusters of refugees stood weeping as they watched the glow growing brighter in the night sky: Mother Moscow is burning, they cried."


But it is at the point when French fortunes turn that the faults of Palmer's book become glaring. The closest he can bring us to Napoleon at the crucial point at which he decided to retreat is the vague phrase: "It is not possible to assign a precise date to the moment when Napoleon made up his mind to quit Moscow. Perhaps, in a sense, there never was such a time, for doubt and indecision continued to plague the expedition as they had done for more than three months."


Palmer is no better on the motivations of the Russians. From the action we can only assume that Kutuzov was not the sly tactician that history has branded him, but a somnolent prevaricator whose retreat was, for the most part, forced upon him by events and by his own laziness and caution. But Palmer never betrays an opinion about Kutuzov, and virtually ignores him throughout the long retreat. The book is very light on opinions and analysis in general. There are no new theories, no new readings of documents, not even the occasional indulgent dash of speculation. "Napoleon in Russia" is a strangely literal book that does nothing more or less than tell the story of Napoleon in Russia.


The book is redeemed by being a good read, much in the manner of a novel. Palmer manages effectively to conjure up the excitement of battle, the romantic bombast of a flamboyant emperor hurtling toward self-destruction and the tragic situation of the once-proud troops shuffling through desolate ice on the frozen steppe.


With such good subject matter, what author could fail to assemble an engaging narrative? But readers hoping for new insight or analysis should look elsewhere.





"Napoleon in Russia" by Alan Palmer. Constable Publishers, 224 Pages, ?15.95 (about $26).