Review: "A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia, in the Year 1817"
Throughout Sir Robert Thomas Wilson’s book, A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia, in the Year 1817, the author provides a detailed and rich analysis of the post-Napoleonic years, and describes the chaotic political and military situation facing Europe during its aftermath. As Wilson asserts, the early 19th Century was plagued with political and military disasters across the European continent. With Napoleon’s aggressive military campaigns and his relentless conquests, a great disruption in the delicate balance of power emerged within Europe. The conflicts that European nations faced with Napoleon not only resulted in mass death and casualties, but it also devastated the economies of Europe through the vast destruction it inflicted. Following Napoleon’s eventual defeat and the Congress of Vienna, countries across Europe attempted to reestablish this power balance as a means of preventing future warfare for the sake of “tranquility” (Wilson, vii). As Wilson’s book clearly suggests, however, this balance proved difficult to institute as the Russian Empire emerged from the war bigger, and stronger than ever before.
Wilson's Main Points
Through an examination of the reign of Peter the Great to the year 1817, Wilson asserts that Russian history, in itself, demonstrates Russia’s desire to always dominate (Wilson, xi). This aspect of Russian history, he asserts, is problematic since the Russian Empire emerged as the dominant power across Europe following the defeat of Napoleon. In order to counter the onslaught of the French army, Russia greatly expanded its military forces and production capabilities to repel Napoleon’s invasion. By the end of the war, Wilson proclaims that these tremendous advances placed the Russian Empire into a preeminent position since its forces outnumbered any army on the European continent. As Wilson states: “Russia…has not only raised her ascendancy on natural sources sufficient to maintain a prepondering power, but…she has been presented by her rivals with the scepter of universal dominion” (Wilson, vii). This prospect is troubling, he proclaims, since the European powers possessed no army capable of standing against the vast Russian army and its nearly unlimited resources. Equally troubling is the fact that the war with Napoleon “electrified the spirit of the people” within Russia as well (Wilson, 35). With this combination of nationalist spirit and military might, Wilson suggests that Russia’s expansion and gains, following the Napoleonic Wars, was both dangerous and disruptive to any prospect of peace in Europe. Why is this the case? Wilson, reflecting the uncertainty and fear for his time period, argues the point that the Russian Empire only wished to dominate European affairs, and possessed no interest in promoting peace across Europe (Wilson, xi). Rather, he argues the case that the tsars only desired to emulate Napoleon’s France in both its military and political supremacy. In light of this prospect, Wilson’s book argues in favor of both diplomatic and political measures aimed at stifling these ambitions. If ignored, Wilson argues that all of Europe faced the potential of tyranny and devastation on a scale not seen since the conflicts with Napoleon.
Part of Russia’s strength, Wilson proclaims, lies in its sheer size and the vast amount of resources under its control. This aspect, in turn, allowed Russia to maintain a high level of self-sufficiency in comparison to other countries across Europe (Wilson, 126). Additionally, Wilson proclaims that the Russian Empire possessed a tremendous amount of manpower through its enormous population. By 1817, Wilson estimates that Russia’s population numbered around “forty-two millions at the lowest calculation” (Wilson, 127). With so many people at the tsar’s disposal, Wilson asserts that Russia possessed the ability to simply overwhelm her enemies through sheer numbers, even if their technological advances did not match up with other European armies. This logic is well supported if one considers the success of Napoleon and his conquests throughout Europe. Napoleon willingly sacrificed thousands of troops in his engagements, and relied heavily on overwhelming European armies with vast numbers of troops. By employing this same concept, Russia possessed a tremendous opportunity to use their vast population for this same purpose. Thus, Wilson’s evaluation of Russia’s military capabilities does not seem fallacious in this regard.
While obviously dated, Wilson’s observations are interesting since they reflect the deep rooted fear and uncertainty facing Europe during the post-Napoleonic years. Specifically, Wilson demonstrates both the mindset and mentality of Europeans in their desire to end war and promote peace following the destructive years of the early 19th Century. As such, Wilson’s analysis is both informative and enlightening in its overall approach, especially for a modern reader interested in the years following the Congress of Vienna.
For his time, Wilson does a tremendous job at analyzing the primary sources available to him, and bases much of his book around diplomatic records, letters, and political correspondences. As a result, Wilson’s work feels both scholarly and well-researched in its overall approach. His inclusion of footnotes is a welcome addition as well, since this allows Wilson to expand on key terms and concepts that he does not include within the rest of his text. This is important, since it makes his work readable to both a scholarly and general audience with interest in this particular field of study.
Finally, though his prediction of Russia’s dominion over Europe appears a bit premature, his insight and logic are interesting since this type of domination did eventually occur in the 20th Century. For his time, however, this prediction and fear does not appear erroneous if one considers the situations facing Europe at this time. In fact, the danger and fear of Russian dominance appears well-founded, given the aggressive aspects of Russian history and its newfound power at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. As such, it is reasonable to conclude that Wilson’s book will continue to be a useful resource for history students and researchers for the foreseeable future.
All in all, I give this book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone who interested in Imperial Russian history. Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity.
Do you believe that Wilson's prediction of Russian power is still relevant today?
"French Invasion of Russia." Wikipedia. September 11, 2018. Accessed September 22, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_invasion_of_Russia.
Wilson, Robert Thomas. A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia, in the Year 1817, (London: J. Ridgway, 1817. https://archive.org/details/sketchofmilitary00wils.
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© 2018 Larry Slawson