The more than 70,000-hectare estate of Baki in Kostroma province was one of Charlotta Lieven’s ten properties. Hundreds of kilometres north of Moscow, Baki was no place for agriculture. The 4,000 or more peasants who lived on the estate were self-sufficient as regards food but the estate’s wealth was derived from its enormous forests. The richer peasants were in reality merchants: they owned barges on which they shipped the produce of the forests down the Volga, sometimes all the way to Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea. One of Baki’s wealthiest peasants, Vasili Voronin, owned many barges and employed scores of peasants. The clerk of the peasant communal administration, Petr Ponomarev, was his son-in-law. As the only truly literate peasant on the estate Ponomarev was a very powerful intermediary between the two worlds of the estate manager and the peasantry. In 1800–1813 Voronin used his power to ensure, for example, that conscription never touched his family, their clients, or men who worked for him. The estate steward, Ivan Oberuchev, accepted the Voronins’ power. Maybe there was an element of corruption here. Maybe Oberuchev just wanted a quiet life. Perhaps he would have argued that he was defending his employers’ interests by recognizing the realities of power on the estate.
Charlotta Lieven’s instructions had been that the entire peasant community in its assembly should determine which households were eligible for conscription and that these families should then draw lots to decide the order in which their members would be called up. She had also ordered that smaller households must be spared. In 1812–13 these principles were ignored. Many sole breadwinners were targeted for conscription, with tragic consequences for wives and children left behind, for a family without an adult male lost its right to land. In Staroust, one of the estate’s many villages, six men were conscripted and two of them were the only adult males in the household. As bad was the case of the Feofanov brothers, of whom two out of three were conscripted in 1812. Meanwhile the Makarov family, the cocks of the village with seven eligible males, not merely provided no recruits in 1812–14 but had never done so for the fifty years that recruitment records had existed on the estate.
In 1813 Charlotta Lieven dismissed the estate manager and replaced him by Ivan Kremenetsky, who had previously worked as Barclay de Tolly’s private secretary in the war ministry. Kremenetsky’s subsequent investigation revealed that fifty households on the estate had provided no recruits in the more than three decades for which records existed. Kostroma was part of the third militia district: unlike in the first two districts, only part of its militia was embodied. Subsequently the government required forty new army recruits from Baki in order to equalize the burden of conscription across the country on private and state peasants.
Charlotta von Lieven ordered that exemption certificates – each costing 2,000 rubles – should be bought in place of all forty recruits and that the households who had failed to provide recruits in the past should pay for them. Seventeen peasant households contributed 2,000 rubles each, which was roughly the annual salary of a Russian major-general. It says something about the confusing reality of Russian society at that time that seventeen illiterate peasants from the backwoods of Kostroma could pay such large sums without ruining themselves. Though in the short run a sort of justice had prevailed, in the longer term Kremenetsky’s tactics united the richer peasants against him and made the estate unmanageable and bankrupt. There was probably a moral to be drawn from this story. The emperor could not govern early nineteenth-century Russia without the nobility’s support. Probably Baki, a microcosm of the empire, could not be governed, or at least effectively exploited, without the cooperation of its wealthy peasants.
The emperor and Arakcheev were acutely aware of the need to get reinforcements to the field armies urgently. Harassed by the war minister, who was himself under pressure from the emperor, the governor of Novgorod responded in early March 1813 that he was enforcing conscription with great strictness but that in his province some villages were well over 700 kilometres from the provincial capital and at this time of year the ‘roads’ were a sea of mud. No excuses saved the governor of Tambov province, who was dismissed in December 1812 for slowness and incompetence in running the recruit levy.
The governors themselves put pressure on their subordinates, and above all on the internal security troops, to complete the recruit levies as quickly as possible. These troops were usually of poor quality and hugely overburdened. In provinces affected by Napoleon’s invasion internal security was a major issue, with peasants sometimes threatening to ‘mutiny’ and marauders roaming the villages and forests. Many men were away escorting prisoners of war, while some of the best officers had been detached to serve in Lobanov-Rostovsky’s regiments. On top of this the internal security forces were obliged to escort vastly increased numbers of recruits to their training areas, which were usually hundreds of kilometres from their native provinces. The Riga Internal Security Battalion arrived in the town of Wenden in the province of Livonia on 2 February 1813 to help with the new recruit levy. On arrival it comprised 25 officers and 585 men: by the time it departed it had detached so many parties on escort and other duties that it was down to 9 officers and 195 men. Its troops were so exhausted and frustrated by sweeps through the countryside to catch conscripts in hiding that they sometimes seized any man they found by the roadside to make up their quota of recruits.
The bureaucracy and the noble marshals strained every muscle to implement conscription but coercive mass mobilization for war was in many respects the raison d’être of tsarist administration. The system was meeting the challenge for which it was designed. Finding enough officers for the expanded army was often more difficult, partly because the pool of loyal and educated candidates was not enormous but above all because potential officers could seldom be coerced into the army. In 1812–14 generals in the field complained more often about a shortage of officers than of soldiers.
In 1812–14 much the biggest source of new officers was noble NCOs, usually called sub-ensigns in infantry regiments and junkers in the cavalry. They were the equivalent of the British navy’s midshipmen, in other words officer cadets who were learning on the job before receiving commissions. The great majority of peacetime infantry and cavalry officers won their commissions this way. The Russian army therefore went to war in June 1812 with a large number of young cadets ready to fill posts caused by casualties or by the army’s expansion. They were almost always the first choice when vacancies occurred. In the Guards Jaegers, for instance, thirty-one young men were commissioned as ensigns in 1812–14 and of these eighteen had served as noble NCOs in the regiment before the war. All but one of the eighteen were commissioned in 1812. Subsequently the regiment had to draw on other sources for its new officers. This was a pattern familiar across the army.
The next largest group of new officers were NCOs who were not the sons of nobles or officers. Most of these men were commissioned into the regiments in which they had served as NCOs in peacetime, though Guards NCOs often transferred to line regiments. The two key requirements for promotion were courage and leadership in action, and literacy. Some rankers had been commissioned in the eighteenth century and in the first decade of Alexander’s reign but wartime needs hugely increased the number in 1812–14. The key moment came in early November 1812 when, faced with a dire shortage of officers, Alexander ordered his commanders ‘to promote to officer rank in the infantry, cavalry and artillery as many junkers and non-commissioned officers as are available, regardless of whether they are nobles, so long as they merit this by their service, their behaviour, by their excellent qualities and by their courage’.
Once the army had exhausted the supply of potential officers from within its regiments it was forced to look elsewhere. One key source was cadets from the so-called Noble Regiment, the cut-price and accelerated version of a cadet corps which had been the ministry of war’s main new initiative in the pre-war years to find additional officers for an expanding army. In 1808–11 the ‘Regiment’ had commissioned 1,683 cadets into the army. In 1812 it graduated a further 1,139, though many of these young officers only reached their units in early 1813. With so many cadets graduating and many of the Noble Regiment’s instructors drafted to lead reserve units in late 1812 there followed a lull, but a new inflow of young men into the ‘Regiment’ began in the winter of 1812–13 and many graduated in 1814. By then, however, former cadets were outnumbered by the many young civil servants who were transferring into the army, sometimes under pressure from their bosses. A few of these men had served in the army before entering the civil service, as had a larger number of the many militia officers who transferred into regular regiments in 1813–14.
In the winter and early spring of 1812–13 the new reserve formations were concentrated and trained in four main centres. Petersburg and Iaroslavl in north-west Russia prepared reinforcements for the Guards, the Grenadiers and Wittgenstein’s corps. The 77,000 infantry and 18,800 cavalry reinforcements for Kutuzov’s main body were concentrated near Nizhnii Novgorod, 440 kilometres east of Moscow. Andreas Kleinmichel and Dmitrii Lobanov-Rostovsky had been responsible for forming the regiments created on Alexander’s orders immediately after Napoleon’s invasion. Now the emperor appointed them to command the new reserve formations in Iaroslavl and Nizhniii Novgorod respectively. More than seven weeks after orders had gone out to Kleinmichel, Alexander instructed Lieutenant-General Peter von Essen to train 48,000 reinforcements for Chichagov’s army. Essen’s headquarters was the fortress town of Bobruisk in Belorussia, 150 kilometres south-east of Minsk. Essen was so short of officers to train and command his recruits that great delays occurred. In the end, his battalions arrived in the theatre of operations three months after the other reinforcements and only just in time for the battle of Leipzig. Had similar delays occurred to the rest of the reserves, the Russian army would have played a far smaller role in the autumn campaign and Napoleon might well have defeated the allies in August and September 1813.
In the late autumn and winter of 1812 Dmitrii Lobanov-Rostovsky struggled to begin the formation of his battalions amidst the chaos which followed Moscow’s surrender. Alexander and Kutuzov, hundreds of kilometres apart with Napoleon between them, were sending him contradictory orders. He had lost touch with many of the officers and even the generals who were supposed to be helping him train the new battalions. Equipment was also a big headache. The destruction of the commissariat stores in Moscow made it unthinkable to provide proper uniforms, wagons or the copper kettles which the men used for cooking, the latter a particular problem for inexperienced recruits unused to scrounging for themselves.
By the winter of 1812 Russia was also running short of muskets. Production at Tula had been disrupted and it took time for imported British muskets to arrive and even they did not fully cover demand. Early in November Alexander ordered Lobanov-Rostovsky to supply only 776 muskets for each 1,000-strong reserve battalion he was forming. Given the high drop-out rate from sickness and exhaustion among the new recruits, the remaining 224 men were supposed to acquire muskets from comrades who were left behind in the long march to join the army in the field. Though perhaps realistic and necessary, this policy cannot have helped the new recruits’ morale.
Given the immense difficulties faced by Lobanov, it was inevitable that the war ministry would be heavily criticized for its slowness in feeding and equipping his troops. In the circumstances, however, Aleksei Gorchakov and his subordinates performed reasonably well in the winter of 1812–13: the ministry’s senior commissariat and victualling officers both went to Nizhnii Novgorod in person to help Lobanov. Their job was made even more difficult when Lobanov’s troops set off in December on the long march from Nizhnii to their new deployment area at Belitsa in Belorussia, well over 1,000 kilometres away. The move made obvious sense. With the theatre of operations moving to Germany the reserves needed to be concentrated in the western borderlands. Having struggled to get arms and equipment to Nizhnii, however, the war ministry now had to redirect them in the middle of winter and through a countryside turned upside down by war.