Streetwise Professor

July 14, 2010

La Marseillaise vs. the 1812 Overture

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:30 pm

I won’t testify to Conrad Black’s ethics or business acumen, but he is a good writer and a decent historian who has some interesting takes on things.  Something in a recent Black piece caught my eye as a counterpoint to Lavrov’s claim that it is Russia’s “historic mission [to save] Europe from forced unification” (a thinly-veiled jab at NATO, btw).  Black argues that the world would have been a better place had Napoleon prevailed in Russia:

These lamentations of what might have been are generally fruitless and tiresome, but can be useful, because the perverse topiary work of historians often needs questioning. I will not agitate the horses in this stable with further reflections on the American Revolution. But the defeat of Napoleon in Russia, from which Britain more than made up for its échec in the New World, is generally reckoned a good thing.

Apart from a few obscure Frenchmen, I am the only historian I know of who recognizes what a disaster the defeat of Napoleon in Russia was for the world. As a result of it, the Russian nativists prevailed over the Western-emulating successors of Peter the Great and traditionalist myth-makers led by Tolstoy put over the fraud of the nobility of medieval, barbarous, yet somehow Holy Russia, with its hopeless serfdom, mindless oppression of the dull Slavonic masses, pogroms, and indifference to Dostoyevskyan, not to say Stalinist, violence.

Napoleon, as Goethe and Beethoven famously decided, was no great agent of democracy. But by his lights, and certainly by the primitive standards of Eastern Europe, he was an agent of enlightenment. If he had been able to assert any influence at all on Russia, as he did on most of the rest of Europe, he would have ended serfdom, created some sort of legislative tradition, and modernized the creaking Russian state. He would have anchored Russia in the West, as Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, working with Adenauer and Kohl, anchored Germany in the West. The lives of Lenin and Trotsky would have been the longer and less violent annals of Ulyanov and Bronstein, and the life of Stalin, the Siberian bank robber Djugashvili, shorter and less consequential. Charles XII was an adventurous, swashbuckling Swedish parvenu, Hitler a genocidal maniac; Napoleon was the only serious invader Russia has had who would actually have improved the country, however inexcusable his presence in the country at the head of the Grande Armée was (and inexcusable it was).

Interesting, and provocative.  I too am no real fan of counterfactual history.  It is an ill-posed problem.  But it cannot be gainsaid that massive social and legal change followed in the train of Napoleon’s armies.  Many of the changes were modernizing and salutary.  (Which is why aforementioned Goethe and Beethoven were originally supporters of Napoleon.  Beethoven composed the Eroica Symphony in Napoleon’s honor, only to rip Napoleon’s name from the title page after he declared himself Emperor.)

I’m not going to spend too much time on this, because considering the might have been is for the most part an idle endeavor.  But it is a quite contrasting take to Lavrov’s.  Whereas Lavrov adopts an almost Nicholas I-esque attitude of Russia as the savior of Europe from its own demons, Black argues that at least one of those demons would have done Russia some good, and made the world a better place.

Feel free to discuss among yourselves.

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  1. Blacks is a good writer? Parse the first sentence: “These lamentations of what might have been are generally fruitless and tiresome, but can be useful, because the perverse topiary work of historians often needs questioning.”

    A is generally fruitless, tiresome, but can useful, because …

    I am sorry, but this is opaque.

    Comment by michael webster — July 14, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

  2. “gainsaid”? Wow, cool word.

    Comment by Howard Roark — July 14, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

  3. nope, I think Napoleon was Europe’s founding fascist. But that’s just me.

    Comment by Mr. X — July 15, 2010 @ 1:47 am

  4. Up to a point, some have made a comparison with Hitler.

    Both sought to conquer Europe with national liberation as a cover. Like Hitler, Napoleon had a simlar motive for wanting the establishment of newly independent states.

    FYI, towards the end of his rule, many French drifted from Napoleon.

    Again with the suggestion that non-Russian officials aren’t known to give rosey imagery of their respective nations’s past.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 15, 2010 @ 5:27 am

  5. Mr. X–don’t disagree. I’m definitely not a Napoleonophile: indeed, I’m somewhat partial to Paul Johnson’s scathing mini-biography of Bonaparte. He was a proto-fascist in many ways. But the point is that we are often confronted with choices of “bad” and “worse.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 15, 2010 @ 6:57 am

  6. Professor,

    Black is, of course, a total hack; very shocking to see you someone as intelligent as yourself fall for his shtick. He’s like a 3rd rate Bill Buckly without any of the charm and intelligence but with all of the needlessly high-handed and aristocratic diction. Also he’s a criminal, which is pretty funny (whenever I read one of Black’s “columns” I always picture him yelling “CO, on the gate!” and handing off the manuscript)

    I honestly can’t believe that you’re actually surprised/angry at Lavrov adopting “an almost Nicholas I-esque attitude of Russia as the savior of Europe from its own demons.” What do you expect the guy to say? Do you expect him to lament the fact that his country beat Napoleon? And I can’t believe you honestly think that French imperial control of Europe was the “bad” not the “worse” outcome.

    I’m sure if someone called you a Russophobe you’d be pretty upset but here you are infantilizing the Russians to the most absurd degree imaginable and telling them that “you’re too primitive to rule yourselves, let your more advanced French breathren bayonet you into modernity!”

    Comment by Mark Adomanis — July 16, 2010 @ 7:07 am

  7. France beating Russia is progressive unlike France beating Britain.

    This particular “what if” gig leaves open how France and Britian would exist. What of the Prussians and Austrians?

    On the matter of “progressive” and contrary to Saakashvilian history, Armenia and Georgia saw Russia as a better imperial preference to Turkey. The non-Russophile John Lukacs acknowledges that Russian rule over Finland was comparatively freer when compared to what many other future nations under European empires experienced.

    Russia’s drive into Central Asia didn’t seem to result in a greater genocide (as some use that word) than America’s westward push.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 16, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  8. @Mark–You are terrible at interpreting my reactions. Did I say I was surprised or angry at what Lavrov said? No. Did I even imply it? No. I just stated, matter of factly, a straightforward interpretation of Lavrov’s remarks, and contrasted them to Black’s. They are polar opposites, no? No anger. No surprise, certainly. Do you disagree with my characterization of what Lavrov said? Nicholas I certainly believed that he was on a mission to save Europe from unholy modernity. Lavrov also makes clear reference to Russia’s historical mission. I think the comparison is apt, and it was certainly not made in anger.

    Methinks you are so sensitive to any perceived insult/slight of Russia/Russians that you go off at anything that even might be interpreted as an oblique criticism. So I suggest, whenever you read something here again: (a) deep breaths, (b) chill, (c) consider whether there might be something other than anger/outrage/surprise behind what I write. Usually–not always, but usually–there is.

    With respect to “lament.” There’s a difference between pride at fending off an aggressor, and anointing one’s nation as a world savior on a messianic mission–which is what Nicholas and latterly Lavrov have done. (And as you know, that’s part of a long Russian tradition, 3d Rome and all that.) And between Russian autocracy–and imperialism, for remember that it was the “Russian Empire”–and French imperialism, well it is possible to find some good that came out of the latter, in comparison to the fruits of the former. Unless you’d like to persuade me on the merits of autocratic rule, serfdom, etc.

    And re “ruling yourselves”: well that’s the issue, isn’t it? In what way, other than that they were ruled by a Russian emperor or empress (who, you know, wasn’t necessarily even Russian), can you say that Russians during this period ruled themselves? And whether you agree with Black or not, his argument is essentially that a Napoleonic sundering of the Russian autocratic state would have accelerated the process of true Russian self-rule.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 16, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  9. @Mark–and if you want to read me when I’m mad, check out what I write about the US government’s shenanigans. That may help you calibrate your instruments.

    Re Russophobia–Probably before you started reading here, I wrote this post: On Russophobia where I lay out my views on the subject, and the origin of my views on Russia.

    I have been called a Russophobe. More than once. Believe it or Not! Doesn’t really upset me at all.

    But we do have common ground: we both detest Tom Friedman. It’s something to build on. LOL.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 16, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  10. Contrary to anti-Russian and left propaganda, pre-1917 Russia had positive aspects.

    It’s great to see how this thought has been accepted in post-Soviet Russia.

    Negative views on Friedman can in part be for different reasons.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 16, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

  11. Well, I kind of like Napoleon. But then again, I like Stalin too. Sometimes kicking with an iron boot is the only way. However, when it comes to the complex of “saviour of Europe/Christendom/White People”, methinks Russia has nothing on Poland or even Serbia.

    Comment by So? — July 16, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

  12. Serbia doesn’t get bashed enough?

    Consider how some of its neighbors have carried on.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 16, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

  13. Well at least Croatians have no messiah complex. They just think they are Germans.

    Comment by So? — July 16, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

  14. You think so?

    During WW II, the Ustasha policy involved the killing off of a large number of Serbs, with the idea of converting the rest.

    The Chetniks had nothing coming close to Jasenovac.

    Tudjman had more of a messiah complex than Milosevic.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 16, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

  15. From awhile back, what’s now a bit of an outdated spoof on the former Yugoslav peoples:

    Comment by Siegfried — July 16, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

  16. I know. It’s just that the Croats are content with being “German”, but the Serbs bow to no-one. They only remember their big Russian “brother” when they get in trouble.

    Comment by So? — July 17, 2010 @ 12:58 am

  17. Messianic complexes are the exception rather the rule for all confident and big countries. Mission civilisatrice. White man’s burden. Kultur. Soviet man. The city upon a hill. Manifest destiny. The “liberal democracy” meme promoted by today’s West is just the latest in a long line of odious cultural imperialisms and only contemporary ideological blinkers prevent it being more widely recognized as such.

    Now as for the specifics of this thread, this assumes that Napoleon’s armies would have ensured “true Russian self-rule” (how?). But this seems hopelessly optimistic given the historical dynamics of the time. Napoleon’s intention was not to reorganize Russia, but to inflict a crushing defeat on it so as to isolate Great Britain (which was his prime enemy anyway). Chances are that a Russian defeat would have merely served to weaken the Tsarist state relative to the rent-seeking nobility, and thus accentuated its regressive feudal characteristics.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 17, 2010 @ 4:54 am

  18. The Russian led defeat of Napoleon into Paris led to some Russian officers getting influenced by consitutional/republican governance.

    Many seem to write this off as small potatoes, having little if any influence on Russia’s political development. One wonders? Did it not have some spiraling effect in Russia that carried on to a degree of influence?

    For sure, the history of Russia prior to 1917 lacks. I’m looking forward to reading Dominic Lieven’s overview of Russia’s war in 1812.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 17, 2010 @ 8:27 am

  19. “I have been called a Russophobe.”

    Mark, Craig isn’t a Russophobe.

    He’s a Procrustean. No price is too great if it makes a society fit his ideology.

    Comment by rkka — July 18, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

  20. Well, Siegfried,the Georgians in particular were soon to realise the Russians were a far less pleasant bunch of imperial overlords than the Turks or the Persians.

    Russian depradations quickly resulted in uprisings in Guria and Imereti, and the full scale uprising in 1812, funny how it only took the Georgians having to suffer a decade or so of Russian occupation to put aside centuries of animosity with the Turks and request Turkish assistance in a desperate attempt to drive out the Russians.

    Comment by Andrew — July 23, 2010 @ 4:35 am

  21. RFE/RL cites a not so distant poll showing that Georgians prefer Russians over others.

    Comment by S — July 24, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

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