What a Disaster!

“Oh please, Nurse, tell me again how the French came to Moscow.” Thus the writer Alexander Herzen starts My Past and Thoughts, one of the great works of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Born in 1812, Herzen had a special fondness for his nanny’s stories of that year. His family had been forced to flee the fire that engulfed Moscow on its capture by the French, and it was only through a safe conduct pass from Napoleon himself that they managed to escape to their country residence. Herzen was proud to have “taken part in the Great War” (he had been carried out in his mother’s arms). The story of his childhood became part of the national drama he so loved to hear about: “Tales of the fire of Moscow, of the battle of Borodino, of the Berezina, of the taking of Paris, were my cradle songs, my nursery stories, my Iliad and my Odyssey.”*

History and myth are intertwined in the story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It is a story of such epic scale, one retold so often and so closely linked to national cults and works of fiction, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that sometimes it appears more legendary than real. In France the tragedy of the retreat from Moscow gave birth to the Napoleonic myth of greatness in adversity, of the superhuman hero in a battle with his fate, which inspired the Romantic imagination. In Russia the memory of 1812 was central to forming powerful political mythologies about the Russian people and their destiny, which in turn shaped the national and personal identity of educated Russians in the nineteenth century.

For democrats, like Herzen, the war against Napoleon was a “people’s war.” It was the point at which the Russians, as a nation, came of age, and with their triumphant entry into Europe, the moment when they should have joined the family of modern European states. But for conservatives, the war symbolized the holy triumph of the Russian autocratic principle, which alone saved Europe from Napoleon.

From these two historical mythologies, a “Russian version” of the war emerged in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In personal memoirs, history books, and novels, the war against Napoleon was portrayed as a “patriotic war.” In this version the Russians had prevailed through “Russian principles”—through their patriotic sacrifice, their stoical resilience and military cunning, as exemplified by their greatest commander, the “Russian hero” Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who lured the Grande Armée into a fatal trap by retreating deep into the continent and waiting for the Russian winter to destroy the French.

By and large, this was the view in Russia until the Revolution of 1917, when the idea of patriotic Russian peasants fighting for the tsarist cause was rejected. But Stalin encouraged a return to the traditional view following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when the “Patriotic War of 1812” was recast as a sort of dress rehearsal for the “Great Patriotic War” of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.