Sunday, February 20, 2011

Serfs Into Soldiers

In the London Review of Books, Dominic Lieven says that Geoffrey Hosking's book, Peasants in Arms, Russian Against Napoleon: The Battle For Europe 1807 to 1813, explains Russia's victory over France in the Napoleonic Wars in refreshingly Russian terms. France was not merely defeated by the Russian winter, or by Napoleon's hubris. Rather, Russia succeeded as a result of its officer corps and peasant army.

What did that army look like? It was, of course, enormous. It was built by recruitment, which happened once a year in the Russian villages. The serf communes regularly surrendered one in 100 or so villagers to the levy. Ordinarily, married serfs were exempt from the draft. But the Napoleonic Wars meant that even married serfs could expect to be inducted, although their wives could be expected to suffer terribly from the nearly permanent absence of their husbands, who could no longer help in the fields. When a serf was inducted, he served for a period of twenty-five years and was, therefore, severed from his kinfolk and the life of the commune in general. To signify the separation, villagers held a kind of a funeral for him.

The czar and aristocracy naturally encouraged a complete separation between soldiers and serfs. For it was a well-established historical fact that armed serfs were dangerous to the Russian political order. Serfs who took up arms for the czar were subject to severe discipline but technically earned their freedom, becoming citizens in a manner of speaking--but Geoffrey Hosking reminds us that this wasn't true in the Napoleonic Wars. Here, Alexander only very reluctantly created serf reserves to support the regular army, but insisted that these recruits would remain serfs.

The Napoleonic Army had a lot to recommend it. The former serfs bonded with one another and retained many of the traits of their communal life. In fact, they entered into military cooperatives, who pooled their salaries to pay for clothes, food, and other essentials. The collective life of the Russian army led to solidarity, good morale, and collective action. The Orthodox Church, and personal loyalty to the czar, supplied ideological reinforcement to Russian camaraderie. All this was observed by foreign experts as well as Russian ones. The peasant soldiers even had the opportunity to be promoted, but only to the level of NCOs. Coupled to the strength of its soldiers, the Russian army specialized in intelligence work.

Notwithstanding the strengths which helped the large Russian army to overwhelm Napoleon, the Russian army had flaws. The army was not, after all, built up by passionate volunteers. Moreover, its officer class was by ethnicity and affiliation to one of two major centers of political authority: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Aristocratic intrigue and unrest also weakened Alexander's hold over the direction of military policy. And again, the possibility that the serfs might rise up against the landowning class severely limited Alexander's willingness to create a large system of military reserves. And yet the Russians officer corps and peasant soldiers and Cossack cavalrymen did prevail.

No comments:

Post a Comment