Patriotic War of 1812

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Patriotic War of 1812


Russia’s just war of national liberation against the invading forces of Napoleonic France.

The war was the result of the profound political and economic contradictions that had arisen between bourgeois France and feudal-manorial Russia in the late 18th century and became particularly acute in connection with the Napoleonic wars of conquest. The aggressive policy of Napoleon I provoked counteraction by the European powers, including Russia, which took part in the wars between Russia, Austria, and France in 1805 and Russia, Prussia, and France in 1806–07. The Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, which the Russian government was forced to accept, could not eliminate the Franco-Russian contradictions and was in essence nothing but a prolonged truce. After the military defeat of Prussia in 1806 and of Austria in 1805 and 1809, Russia was the one great power on the European continent that stood in the way of Napoleon’s path to world domination.

A testimony to the continuing aggressive aspirations of France was Napoleon’s aggressive policy in Europe, which encompassed the annexation of Holland and the Hanseatic cities and North German states all the way to the Elbe River, including Oldenburg, whose duke was a relative of Alexander I. The economic contradictions between Russia and France also became more acute. The continental blockade, which Russia was forced to join in 1807, proved extremely disadvantageous and led to a sharp decrease in Russian foreign trade, a drain on gold, and a drop in the exchange rate of the ruble. A tariff war began between Russia and France in 1810. At the end of that year, Napoleon began preparing for a war against Russia. After Russia’s defeat, he intended to settle with his last and chief enemy, Great Britain. Napoleon took special care in preparing for the Russian campaign, attempting to ensure rapid victory over the Russian Army. The enormous Grand Army was created. It had about 610,000 soldiers and 1,372 field guns. More than half of the troops were contingents from France’s allies, including Prussian, Austrian, Bavarian, Saxon, Italian, Polish, and Spanish units.

The Russian government recognized the danger of war and tried to prevent it. Russian diplomats, taking advantage of Napoleon’s military and economic difficulties, particularly the war in Spain, were able to delay slightly the beginning of the armed conflict. They also succeeded in creating a more favorable foreign policy situation for Russia as a result of the conclusion of the Treaty of Bucharest with Turkey in May 1812 and a secret alliance with Sweden in March of the same year. In addition, Russia was able to increase the strength of its army by 23 infantry and ten cavalry regiments and eight static battery and six horse-drawn artillery companies and raise the number of its armed forces (including irregular troops) to 900,000, including about 500,000 field troops. Because a significant number of troops were in Moldavia, the Crimea, the Caucasus, Finland, and the internal regions, only about 240,000 troops with 934 field guns could be concentrated on the western borders by June 1812. These forces made up three armies. The First Army of General M. B. Barclay de Tolly (127,000 men) was deployed on the Raseiniai-Lida line on the St. Petersburg axis. The Second Army of General P. I. Bagration (45,000–48,000 men) was deployed to the south between the Neman and Bug rivers on the Moscow axis. The Third Army of General A. P. Tormasov (43,000–46,000 men) was covering the Kiev axis in the Lutsk region. General P. K. Essen’s detached corps (18,500 men) was deployed in the Riga area. In addition, the reserve corps of General P. I. Meller-Zakomel’skii and F. F. Ertel’ were located in the rear in the Toropets and Mozyr’ regions.

On the eve of the war, the Russian Army received new regulations and instructions reflecting progressive trends in the art of war—in particular, the tactics of columns and the extended order. Foreseeing the inevitability of war with France, Russian military figures (Barclay de Tolly, P. I. Bagration, P. M. Volkonskii, P. A. Chuikevich, and others) and certain foreigners in the Russian service (L. von Wolzogen, D. F. Saint-Priest, and K. A. von Pfuel) worked out and proposed their strategic plans to Alexander I. Some of the plans called for drawing Napoleon into a protracted war that would prove fatal for him on the boundless expanses of Russia, far from French bases. Most of the plans recognized the overwhelming superiority of the Napoleonic army over the Russian in forces and weapons. Alexander I, however, adopted Pfuel’s plan, which involved a withdrawal maneuver by the Russian First Army to the Drissa camp on the Zapadnaia Dvina River, where it was supposed to stop the enemy. The Second Army would strike the enemy in the flank and rear from the Volkovysk-Mir region.

Napoleon’s plan was to allocate more than 440,000 troops of the Grand Army (492,000 infantry, 96,000 cavalry, 20,000 sappers, a siege contingent, and others) for the first line at the Russian border. The remaining troops (more than 160,000) were deployed in reserve between the Vistula and Oder rivers. Napoleon concentrated his main forces in three groups. The left group was under his direct command (218,000 troops). The central group was commanded by the Italian viceroy E. P. de Beauharnais (82,000 men), and the right group was under the command of the Westphalian king Jerome Bonaparte (78,000 men). These forces were supposed to use enveloping strikes to surround and destroy the Russian First and Second armies piecemeal. On the left flank in the Riga region the Prussian-French corps of J. Macdonald (32,500 men) was operating. On the right flank K. Schwarzenberg’s Austrian corps (34,000 men) faced the Third Army.

During the night of June 11 (23), 1812, Napoleon’s army, without a declaration of war, crossed the Russian border at the Neman river in the Kaunas region. Alexander I made an attempt to halt military actions and avoid war. For this purpose on June 14 (26) he sent Adjutant General A. D. Balashov from Vilnius to the French advance posts with a personal letter for Napoleon. But Balashov’s mission ended in failure. On June 13 (25), guided by the decision made earlier, the Russian command began to withdraw its forces into the depths of the country. The First Army escaped from the blow that Napoleon intended to inflict on it in the Vilnius region and reached the Drissa camp on June 26 (July 8). But the defensive-offensive operation outlined in Pfuel’s plan had to be called off, because the position at Drissa proved unfavorable and the Second Army was unable to approach the planned region for cooperation with the First Army in time. On July 2 (14) the First Army abandoned the Drissa camp and began a withdrawal toward Vitebsk, assigning General P. K. Vitgenshtein’s corps (more than 20,000 men) to cover the St. Petersburg axis.

Alexander I was with the First Army and, according to the Charter for Control of the Great Active Army, was commander in chief. He saw the failure of the Pfuel plan, which he had approved, and did not wish to take responsibility for the inevitable further retreat. He, therefore, abandoned the army in Polotsk on July 6 (18) without appointing a successor. Barclay de Tolly then fulfilled the functions of commander in chief, based on his position as war minister. Having received information that the Second Army would be unable to reach Vitebsk, he withdrew the First Army toward Smolensk on July 20 (August 1) with rear guard actions at Vitebsk and Ostrovno. General Bagration’s Second Army withdrew first toward Minsk and then to Nesvizh-Bobruisk, waging desperate rear guard actions against superior enemy forces (near the populated points of Mir and Romanov), which were attempting to encircle and destroy the army. The Second Army’s attempt to break through at Mogilev and join up with the First Army failed (the battle at Saltanovka on July 11 [23]). But with a skillful retreating maneuver, Bagration withdrew toward Smolensk through Mstislavl’ and on July 22 (August 3) joined up with the First Army. The two armies totaled 120,000 men, while there were 200,000 in Napoleon’s main forces.

The vigorous actions of Russian troops on the flanks pinned down significant forces of the Napoleonic army (up to 115,000 men). At Kobrin the Third Army inflicted a defeat on J. Reynier’s corps, which was being sent to help Schwarzenberg, and then pinned down Schwarzenberg and Reynier’s corps in the Volyn’ region. On July 19 (31), Admiral P. V. Chichagov’s Danube Army moved from Moldavia to join up with the Third Army. On July 14 (26), C. Oudinot’s corps, which Napoleon had allocated for the offensive on the St. Petersburg axis, took Polotsk. However, in fighting at Kliastitsy on July 18–20 (July 30-August 1), it suffered a defeat and withdrew toward Polotsk. Napoleon was forced to send G. Saint-Cyr’s corps there too. Macdonald’s corps was pinned down near Riga. Napoleon’s initial plan to encircle the Russian Army and destroy it piecemeal was defeated, and his troops had suffered significant losses in men and horses. Discipline was failing, and looting was growing more widespread. On July 17–18 (29–30), difficulties with supply forced Napoleon to stop his army for seven to eight days of rest in the region from Velizh to Mogilev.

Barclay de Tolly, giving in to pressure from the tsar, who was demanding energetic action, decided to strike at Rudnia and Porech’e and, taking advantage of the scattered deployment of the enemy troops, to attempt to break through the center and then wipe out the other forces piecemeal. Because of differences of opinion among the commanders and Barclay de Tolly’s lack of confidence, however, the right moment was lost. Meanwhile Napoleon unexpectedly crossed the Dnieper, threatening to capture Smolensk, and the Russian armies began a hurried withdrawal. The stalwart defense of General D. P. Neverovskii’s division at Krasnyi on August 2 (14) enabled the Russian forces to take up the defense at Smolensk. On August 4–6 (16–18) in the bitter battle of Smolensk of 1812 the Russian troops fought courageously against superior enemy forces but were nonetheless forced to abandon the city. After repulsing an enemy attempt to encircle the First Army in the battle of Valutina Hill on August 7 (19), the Russian troops retreated toward Dorogobuzh.

The invasion of foreign aggressors called forth a surge of patriotism among various strata of Russians and other peoples in Russia. By early autumn of 1812 the partisan movement of the Patriotic War of 1812 was under way. Russian peasants began an active struggle against the aggressors. The patriotism of the Russian people was also manifested in the formation of the people’s volunteer corps in the Patriotic War of 1812. Serfs hoped that after victory over the foreign enemy they would also achieve freedom from serfdom.

Although Barclay de Tolly’s actions were correct, the continuous retreat aroused general discontent. Some people even accused Barclay de Tolly of treason. This forced Alexander I to appoint General M. I. Kutuzov commander in chief of all active armies on August 8 (20). Kutuzov was especially popular because of his victories over Turkey and his conclusion of the Bucharest Peace Treaty of 1812, which was both honorable and extremely necessary for Russia. Kutuzov arrived in the army and took command on August 17 (29), when Barclay de Tolly had finally decided to offer the enemy a general battle near Tsarevo Zaimische. Kutuzov found the army’s position unfavorable and the forces inadequate for a general battle, so he withdrew the troops further to the east, making several marches to join up with approaching reserves. He stopped near the village of Borodino, where he decided to bar the Napoleonic army’s road to Moscow. The reserves, which arrived under the command of General M. A. Miloradovich, and the Moscow and Smolensk volunteer corps made it possible to increase the forces of the Russian Army to 132,000 (including 21,000 volunteers and 7,000 cossacks) with 624 field guns. Napoleon had 135,000 men with 587 guns.

On August 26 (September 7) the battle of Borodino of 1812 took place. It began at dawn and ended at dusk. The desperate, bloody battle basically took the form of frontal attacks by the Napoleonic forces on fortified Russian positions, including the Semenov flèches and Raevskii’s battery. It accomplished neither the missions assigned by Napoleon—to wipe out the Russian Army—nor by Kutuzov—to bar the road to Moscow. The French Army, which lost 58,000 men (30,000 according to French figures), was seriously weakened. Late that night Kutuzov, having received information on Russian losses (44,000), refused to resume the battle in the morning and ordered a retreat.

The Russian army, having demonstrated unwavering steadfastness and heroism and still able to fight, began a retreat toward Moscow, intending to engage the enemy again at the walls of Moscow after receiving reinforcements. But Kutuzov’s hope of receiving reinforcements was not realized, and the position chosen by General L. L. Bennigsen at Moscow proved extremely unfavorable. On September 1 (13), Kutuzov gathered a military council at Fili. To protect the forces of the army and await the arrival of reserves, Kutuzov ordered that Moscow be abandoned without a fight. This was done on September 2 (14).

On the very first day of the entry of Napoleon’s troops into Moscow, fires began in the city and continued until September 6 (18), devastating two-thirds of the city. Kutuzov first carried out a skillful flanking march and moved the army from the Riazan’ road to the Kaluga road. He then stopped at the Tarutino camp, having covered the southern regions of Russia and begun intensive preparations for going over to the offensive. From the growing “small war” Napoleon’s army was experiencing steadily increasing hardships—especially from the bold operations of army partisan detachments created by Kutuzov and peasant partisan detachments, which surrounded Napoleon’s forces in Moscow and disrupted their supply. The critical situation forced Napoleon to send General J.-A. Lauriston to the headquarters of the Russian commander in chief with peace proposals addressed to Alexander I. Kutuzov rejected the proposals for peace or an armistice, stating that the war had just begun and would not end until the enemy had been driven from Russian soil.

In Tarutino, the commander in chief completed his plan to encircle and crush the Napoleonic troops in the region between the Zapadnaia Dvina and Dnieper rivers with the forces of Admiral Chichagov’s army and General Vitgenshtein’s corps in coordination with the main forces under his own direct command. On October 8 (20), Vitgenshtein drove the enemy out of Polotsk, an important strategic point in the rear of Napoleon’s army. On October 6 (18), Russian forces inflicted a powerful blow on J. Murat’s advance guard on the Chernishne River (north of Tarutino), which marked the beginning of the rout of the Napoleonic army.

News of the defeat of the French forces on the Chernishne River hastened Napoleon’s decision to withdraw from Moscow. The withdrawal began on the evening of October 6 (18). On October 10 (22) the forward detachments of Russian forces entered liberated Moscow. Napoleon’s attempt to break through to the southern regions of the country ended in failure. Russian forces blocked the enemy’s path at Maloiaroslavets on October 12 (24) and forced the enemy to return along the devasted Smolensk road.

Recognizing the collapse of his aggressive plans, Napoleon now used every means to avoid the decisive battle which the Russian command was trying to force on him. The main forces of the Russian Army had 110,000–120,000 men. After joining with Tormasov’s army, Chichagov’s army had about 60,000 men. Vitgenshtein’s corps was reinforced to 50,000 men. Chichagov forced Schwarzenberg’s troops beyond the Iuzhnyi Bug; then, leaving General F. V. Saken’s corps to face Schwarzenberg, he moved against Minsk on October 18 (30) with 30,000 men. Meanwhile, Kutuzov was organizing a parallel pursuit of the retreating Napoleonic forces. From the rear they were pressed by Ataman M. I. Platov’s cossack regiments, while the powerful detachment of General M. A. Miloradovich (two infantry and two cavalry corps) and the flying detachments (corps volant) of A. P. Ozharovskii and D. Z. Davydov moved to the south of the Smolensk road and the detachments of P. V. Golenishchev-Kutuzov and P. M. Volkonskii, among others, moved north of the road. The retreating Napoleonic forces were continuously attacked by cossack and partisan flying detachments. From lack of feed the horses in Napoleon’s army began to die en masse, forcing the enemy to abandon their artillery.

On October 22 (November 3) the forces of Miloradovich and Platov defeated L. Davout’s rear guard near Viaz’ma. Threatened by encirclement, Napoleon was forced to abandon Smolensk, and soon after he suffered a major defeat in the battle at Krasnyi of November 3–6 (15–18). In the battle M. Ney’s rear guard was crushed. During one month of fighting, Russian forces captured 90,000 prisoners and more than 500 field guns. Cold weather began in November, and the poorly dressed, hungry Napoleonic soldiers became less and less able to fight. Only the guards and C. Victor and G. Saint-Cyr’s corps, which had joined the main forces, were prepared for combat. Of the surviving soldiers of the main forces of the Grand Army (about 75,000), about 40,000 were in formation and the rest were a demoralized mob.

The final episode occurred on the Berezina River, where the strategic encircling ring around Napoleon’s army was closed. Despite the difficulties of coordinating the combat of several Russian armies and corps separated by significant distances and the imprecise execution of the commander in chiefs directives by Chichagov and Vitgenshtein and their inability to see through Napoleon’s diversionary maneuvers, Kutuzov was able to inflict a crushing defeat on the Napoleonic forces. After crossing the Berezina River on November 14–16 (26–28), the Grand Army ceased to exist as an organized combat force, having lost about 30,000 men alone as prisoners.

On November 23 (December 5) in Smorgon’, Napoleon transferred command to Murat and left for Paris. On November 28 (December 10), Russian troops occupied Vilnius. The Russian Army had also suffered from the cold and a shortage of food and had endured considerable losses (more than 80,000 men) during the offensive and, therefore, stopped there to rest. On December 14 (26) the remnants of the Grand Army (about 30,000 men, 1,000 of them in formation) crossed the Neman. During the Patriotic War of 1812, Napoleon’s army lost up to 550,000 men. Only the flank corps of Macdonald and Schwarzenberg survived. On Dec. 21, 1812 (Jan. 2, 1813), Kutuzov issued an order to the army congratulating the troops for driving the enemy out of Russia and calling on them to “finish the defeat of the enemy on enemy fields.”

In the Patriotic War of 1812 the peoples of Russia and the Russian Army showed great heroism and courage and dispelled the myth of Napoleon’s invincibility by liberating their native land from foreign aggressors. Napoleon’s defeat in 1812 set in motion the liberation of Western Europe from Napoleonic rule. It was the signal “for a universal uprising against French domination in the West” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 22, p. 30). The Napoleonic empire collapsed as a result of the liberation struggle of the peoples of Europe and the foreign campaigns of the Russian Army in 1813 and 1814.

The farsighted strategy of the Russian command triumphed over Napoleon’s military art, which had gained him victories in Western Europe but brought about his downfall in the aggressive war against Russia. The skillful retreat combined with a stubborn defense to wear down the enemy, the brilliant flank march to Tarutino, the parallel pursuit, and the plan for strategic encirclement of the enemy greatly enriched the Russian art of war. Solving the problem of strategic reserves during the war was very important. During the Patriotic War the tactics of columns and the extended order were reinforced, the role of aimed artillery fire increased, greater coordination among the combat arms was effected, and the organization of new military units—the division and corps—took final shape.

The Patriotic War left a deep mark on Russian public life. The ideology of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) revolutionaries, the Decembrists, began to form under the influence of the Patriotic War. The graphic events of the war inspired many Russian authors, artists, and composers. The events of the war have been recorded in numerous monuments and works of art, the best known of which are the monuments on the field of Borodino; the Borodino Museum; the monuments at Maloiaroslavets, Tarutino, and other populated points; the triumphal arches in Moscow and Leningrad; the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad; the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace; the Battle of Borodino panorama in Moscow; and monuments to heroes of the war.


Marx, K. “Barklai de Tolli.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 14.
Marx, K. “Bennigsen.” Ibid.
Engels, F. “Borodino.” Ibid.
Engels, F. “Vneshniaia politika russkogo tsarizma.” Ibid., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. “O broshiure Iuniusa.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 30.
Akhsharumov, D. Opisanie voiny 1812 g. Moscow, 1819.
Buturlin, D. Istoriia nashestviia imperatora Napoleona na Rossiiu v 1812 g., 2nd ed., parts 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1837. (Translated from French.)
Mikhailovskii-Danilevskii, A. I. Opisanie Otechestvennoi voiny v 1812 g., 3rd ed., parts 1–4. St. Petersburg, 1843.
Bogdanovich, M. I. Istoriia Otechestvennoi voiny 1812 g. po dostovernym istochnikam. vols. 1–3. St. Petersburg, 1859–60.
Popov, A. N. Otechestvennaia voina: Ot Maloiaroslavtsa do Bereziny. St. Petersburg, 1877.
Kharkevich, V. Berezina, 1812 g. St. Petersburg, 1893.
Kharkevich, V. Voina 1812g.: Ot Nemana do Smolenska. Vilnius, 1901.
Polikarpov, N. P. K istorii Otechestvennoi voiny 1812 g., vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1911.
Otechestvennaia voina i russkoe obshchestvo, 1812–1912, vols. 1–7. Moscow, 1911–12.
Clausewitz, K. von. 1812 god, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1937. (Translated from German.)
Tarle, E. V. Nashestvie Napoleona na Rossiiu 1812, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1943.
Beskrovnyi, L. G. Otechestvennaia voina 1812 g. Moscow, 1962. Zhilin, P. A. Gibel’ napoleonovskoi armii v Rossii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1974. Chambray, G. de. Histoire de l’expédition de Russie, 2nd ed., vols. 1–3. Paris, 1825.
Fabry, G. Campagne de Russie (1812), vols. 1–5. Paris, 1900–03. Chuquet, A. 1812: La Guerre de Russie, vols. 1–3. Paris, 1912. Geller, I. L., comp. Bessmertnyi podvig naroda (Otechestvennaia voina 1812 g.). Moscow, 1963. (List of recommended reading.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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