Reviews: Reference Books

The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815

Mikaberidze, Alexander. The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815. N.Y.: Savas Beatie, 2005. 480 pages. ISBN# 1932714022. Hardcover. $64.95.

The Russian Officer Corps in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815

Alexander Antonovich Balmain, son of the Russian General Antoine Bogdanovich Balmain, descended from the Scottish Ramseys, entered Russian service in the Life Guard Horse Regiment, but after beating a police officer and the accession of tsar Alexander I, served in Russia's diplomatic corps in Sardinia, Naples and Vienna. Following Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia, Balmain reentered the Russian army with the rank of lieutenant colonel, fighting at Gross-Beeren, Dennewitz, Kassel and Hanau. When the wars finally ended, Balmain, experienced in diplomatic as well as military matters, was named the Allies' Russian representative on the island of St. Helena for four years of Napoleon's exile (producing a memoir of the ex-Emperor's captivity). Returning to Europe, he served as ambassador to Britain, before again returning to military service in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829 and in putting down the Polish insurrection of 1831. Balmain died in April 1848, just one of hundreds of Russian officers who fought in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

With but a handful of exceptions, the Russian officer corps is the least known of those who served and led in the wars of the Napoleonic era. While careful readers and hobbyists might be able to name most of Napoleon's marshals, they might be hard-pressed to identify even a fraction of as many Russian generals. Georges Six's Dictionnaire of French officers or Mulli's Biographie of early nineteenth century military men, as well as any number of English-language reference tools on the Napoleonic era military have been available to students of history, but no comparable biographical work on the Russian military has been available to the non-Russophone reader. The Russian language, the Cyrillic alphabet and the relative unavailability of Russian sources has presented a barrier to those seeking more information on the Russians who fought Napoleon's armies.

Dr. Mikaberidze has written what will undoubtedly be the essential work of reference on the Russian officer corps. He begins with an overview of the Russian officer corps, giving a brief history from its beginnings under Peter the Great through to the Napoleonic era. We learn how Russia's military was trained, as well as the cultural milieu of the officer corps. Mikaberidze manages to pack a great deal of information into this introduction, supplementing the text with numerous tables and graphs. Included is a discussion of the ranks in the Russian military, with a number of tables marking their evolution over time. Finally Russian military orders are detailed with illustrations of their use.

Dr. Alexander Mikaberidze, an assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University, holds a law degree from the Republic of Georgia and a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University, where he was a member of the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution. He serves as president of the Napoleonic Society of Georgia. Mikaberidze is also the author of the forthcoming Lion of the Russian Army: Life and Career of General Peter Bagration.

The Russian officer corps was made up almost exclusively of nobles (86.5 % in 1812), and many had entered the service at the age of sixteen or younger (nearly 500 of the officers serving in 1812 were sixteen or younger at their enlistment13 had been five years of age or younger). Promotion for the nobility could be relatively quick if the officer had the right connections, while soldiers from the ranks might have to wait a quarter of a century to advance from the ranks of NCOs to commission officer status.

The meat of the books is the 800 biographies of Russian officers who fought against the French, Turks, Swedes, and Russia's other enemies during "our" era (naval officers are included as well). These biographies generally include dates of birth and death, family and educational history, military and civil service including notable battles and events, promotions and awards (including foreign orders) as well as other details of the subject's professional history. Black-and-white portraits accompany more than half the biographies. The biographies are arranged alphabetically, in an attractive double-column format. Individual entries run from a single paragraph to a couple of pages.

Dr. Mikaberidze has consulted a small library of archival, primary and secondary sources in compiling this unique and solid dictionary. These biographies will be a boon for historians wishing to distinguish, for instance, officers of the same surnames who are frequently identified by numbers (Mikaberidze points out that there were eighteen officers named Grekov, of whom six are detailed here). The volume also includes foreign-born officers serving in the Russian service, including British, Irish, German, Austrian, Polish, Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, Danish Dutch, Serb, and Armenian officers in the Russian military, demonstrating the cosmopolitan nature of war in the Napoleonic era.

The biographies include lives of Pavel Stroganoff, the Russian Jacobin; Fedor Tolstoy who was abandoned for insubordination on the Aleutian Islands; Pozzo de Borgo, a former Corsican associate of Napoleon who became his nemesis; Ustin Moore, a British naval officer who ended up a Russian admiral; Alexander Kutaisov, the excellent Russian artillerist who was killed at Borodino leading an infantry charge and buried in a mass grave; Nadezha Durova, daughter of a petty official, who fought in the wars disguised as a man.;

Attractively produced, well-bound (though it will undoubtedly get heavy use), this work should be in libraries everyone with a keen interest in the Napoleonic wars and Russian history. The Russian Officer Corps is certain to be a standard reference source for years to come. Though I can't recommend this book more highly, I would have liked to have seen an index. An index, for example, would have allowed the reader the reader to locate all the officers who participated in a particular battle. A glossary of Russian military terms might also have been useful.


Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
August 2005


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