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 Napoleon's Invasion of Russia


Origins of the Russian Campaign

Napoleon chose to invade Russia for numerous reasons, however one of the most significant was Russia’s failure to co-operate with the Continental System. Designed to starve Britain of trade, and to cause the collapse of its economy, the Continental System forbade the import of British goods into any European countries allied to or dependent on France, and placed a general trade embargo on exports to Britain. As Russia had become France’s ally by signing the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, it was forced to comply, however, the Russian economy was generally weak in manufacturing and rich in resources, and therefore became largely dependent on trade with countries of the Continental System to sustain itself. By 1810, declining trade to these countries and its subsequent impact on the faltering Russian economy inspired the Tsar, Alexander I, to withdraw Russia from the Continental System, and open trading with Britain, mainly exporting grain and porcelain, which found willing buyers in British markets. The trade in grain allowed Britain to keep its sailors and the allied armies it supported fed, especially during the Peninsular Campaign (1808-1814), which was becoming Napoleon’s ‘Spanish Ulcer’, robbing him of the resources and men to enact campaigns elsewhere, whilst generally draining French morale.


Tsar Alexander I

Stepan Shchukin (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Alexander was also aware that Russia’s largely farming-based economy was maintained by serf peasants, a slave class, who worked on the farms belonging to local landowners. Any damage to the Russian economy would inspire localised revolts against the land-owning nobility, and possibly even generate an uprising against his own reign. Russia’s failure to comply with the restrictions of the Continental System greatly angered Napoleon, as it severely undermined it, and allowed Britain to continue to supply, arm and finance the coalition’s armies, and enact campaigns of its own.

A further irritation for the Russians was the Treaty of Schönbrunn. Signed in 1809 between France and Austria, it had removed Western Galicia from Austria and annexed it to the French-dependent Duchy of Warsaw, which Russia considered to be a threat to its interests, viewing it as an area from which France could invade Russia, if it wished. Given that the Russian General Staff studied and drew up a war plan for the invasion of Western Galicia in 1811, tensions between the two countries were mounting, with each beginning to view the other as hostile. In 1812, Napoleon assembled the Grand Armée, and declared war on Russia, hoping to defeat it and impose the Continental System on Europe more definitely, in an attempt to reverse his fortunes in the Peninsula, bolster French morale, and smash Britain’s economy.

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Interested in Learning More?

Adam Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London, Harper, 2005)

Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon from Tilsit to Waterloo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969)


George Nafziger, Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia (New York, Presido Press, 1998) 

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