Napoleon’s Vision of Empire and the Decision to Invade Russia

  • Alan Forrest
Part of the War, Culture and Society, 1750–1850 book series


For the Russians, of course, the campaign of 1812 would always be the Patriotic War, the war which they had so desired and so carefully planned to save their country from Napoleon, and a war that would easily find its place in the country’s national mythology. It was depicted not only as an outpouring of patriotic endeavour, both by regular troops and by partisans, but as a victory for Russian ways and traditions pitted against the Antichrist of enlightened Europe with its liberalizing and modernizing reforms. In the short term it allowed Alexander I to turn his back on further reforming measures in favour of the patriarchal traditions of the Russian Fatherland, from the Orthodox Church to the institution of serfdom.1 In the longer term it fed a dearly-held Russian myth of war, nation and empire that inspired nineteenth-century nationalist writing and lay at the heart of Tolstoi’s great novel of the 1812 campaign, War and Peace. This emphasized the moral (rather than the professional) qualities of the Russian army and insisted that it was a deeply-held patriotism that motivated the Russian soldier to resist Napoleon’s invasion. Implausible as this interpretation is — and Dominic Lieven has shredded it pretty effectively in a recent essay2 — it would prove a powerful myth, one that appealed to Russians’ sense of their nationhood and self-worth. But for the French, 1812 was a painful tragedy that seemed to undermine so much that Napoleon had achieved in the political and imperial arena.


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© Alan Forrest 2015

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  • Alan Forrest

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