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Russia: The Tsar's Victory Over Napoleon, 200 Years Later

Across Russia, celebrations have commenced honoring the 200th anniversary of Tsar Alexander I's defeat of France's Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon's Blog contextualized the Russian Campaign amid the greater scheme of the Napoleonic Wars, as well as other conflicts with similar names:

The French invasion of Russia in 1812 was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. The campaign reduced the French and allied invasion forces to a tiny fraction of their initial strength. […]

Napoleon’s invasion is better known in Russia as the Patriotic War (Russian Отечественная война, Otechestvennaya Vojna), not to be confused with the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война, Velikaya Otechestvennaya Vojna). The Patriotic War is also occasionally referred to as the ‘War of 1812,’ which is not to be confused with the conflict of the same name between the United Kingdom and the United States.

The post went on to examine Napoleon's decision to invade Russia:

At the time of the invasion, Napoleon was at the height of his power with virtually all of continental Europe either under his direct control or held by countries defeated by his empire and under treaties favorable for France. No European power on the continent dared move against him. The 1809 Austrian war treaty had a clause removing Western Galicia from Austria and annexing it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. This Russia saw as against its interests as well as being seen as a launching point for an invasion of Russia. Tsar Alexander found Russia in an economic bind as his country had little in the way of manufacturing and being rich in raw materials yet being part of Napoleon’s continental system denied it the trade that was its lifeblood for both money and manufactured goods. Russia’s withdrawal from the system was a further incentive to Napoleon to force a decision.

Reconstruction of a historical 1812-era military parade, in St. Petersburg, Russia. (10 September 2009) Photo by GENNADY CHERNYAVSKY, copyright © Demotix.

Reconstruction of a historical 1812-era military parade, in St. Petersburg, Russia. (10 September 2009) Photo by GENNADY CHERNYAVSKY, copyright © Demotix.

Patriotic War of 1812 Blog incorporated excerpts from Wikipedia into a greater analysis of the Battle of Smolensk — the first major confrontation of the war:

The Battle of Smolensk, the first major battle of the French invasion of Russia took place on August 16–18, 1812, between 175,000 men of the Grande Armée under Napoleon Bonaparte and 130,000 Russians under Barclay de Tolly, though only about 50,000 and 60,000 respectively were actually engaged.[…]

An initial probing force captured two suburbs but failed to bring the Russians out to battle. Napoleon ordered a general assault with three corps of the Grande Armée, supported by two hundred artillery pieces. This was initially successful, the intense artillery bombardment setting the city on fire but the French forces lacked ladders or climbing apparatus to scale the city walls and were under counter fire from Russian artillery. By nightfall, most of the city was burning. [..]

Technically the battle of Smolensk was a victory for Napoleon as he captured the city. However his soldiers were already running short of food and its destruction denied him a useful supply base, adding to the logistics problems caused later by the Russian scorched earth tactics.

In another post, Patriotic War of 1812 Blog provided a timeline of the major events of the Russian Campaign, including the occupation of Moscow, as well as the Grande Armee's retreat:

1812

  • August [16-18]: Battle of Smolensk.
  • September 1: Moscow evacuated.
  • September 7, 1812: Battle of Borodino.
  • September 14: Napoleon arrives in Moscow to find the city abandoned and set alight by the inhabitants; retreating in the midst of a frigid winter, the army suffers great losses.
  • October 19: Beginning of the Great Retreat.
  • October 24: Battle of Maloyaroslavets.
  • December 1812: last French troops are expelled from Russia.[…]

Several bloggers of the RuNet have also highlighted the various celebrations around the Russia marking the 200th anniversary of the French Retreat.

In a post last February, 1812-2012 LiveJournal blog discussed [ru] an earlier event in southern Moscow and identified even grander events to come:

The first event was already held on January 7 at the Tsaritsyno palace [ru] (now a museum and memorial grounds), which Napoleon's troops occupied in 1812. ‘Although it was somewhat improvised, around 2,000 people attended,’ said the President of the International War History Association, Alexander Volkovich, who was certain that future events will draw larger crowds. Another two mass events are planned to take place at Tsaritsyno on May 18 and between June 23 and 24. During May's ‘Night of Museums’ [en] festival, the Tsaritsyno mansion will host a large-scale battle reenactment, with several hundreds of people taking part in the spectacle. […] In the summertime, between June 23 and 24, Tsaritsyno will host a ball dance, reenacting the very ball in honor of Alexander I where he first learned of the start of the war.

LJ blogger Residents of Perlovka introduced [ru] an exhibit that will be on display until September, beginning by quoting Tolstoy's ‘War and Peace':

‘The Rostov train on this night was in Mytischi, 20 versts [13 miles, 21 km] from Moscow.’

The blogger then cited the exhibit's designers:

Tolstoy's references to Mytishchi in the pages of his novel inspired us to create the exhibit ‘1812. War and Peace,’ which describes prominent military leaders (including Denis Davydov [en] — a pioneer of the guerrilla movement that played a vital role in the defeat of Napoleon's army), the combat valor of Russian warriors, the famous battles, the military uniforms and weapons, as well as the perspective of life in the year 1812, and of the Russian nobility in the first half of the 19th century.

Mainstream news outlets have also reported on the 200th anniversary of Russia's victory over the French. An Italian source discussed how a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church has proposed making the French expulsion from Russia into a national holiday. RIA Novosti — Russia's State News Agency — provided  several photographs of battlefield reenactments. Voice of Russia joined the coverage, discussing issues surrounding the historiography of the Russian Campaign.

Finally, this author's own blog illustrated the lingering cultural effects of Russia's victory over Napoleon by recounting a past conversation with a Russian-American taxicab driver in Los Angeles:

On one occasion I'd arrived home and, when the West LA van pulled up, I noticed that the driver was the same driver who I'd met on my previous trip. He was from Russia and so I immediately spoke to him in Russian and explained to him that we'd met before. […] Two other passengers boarded the van with me. […] I translated for the driver and the four of us had a lively conversation about travel and Los Angeles, etc. until at one point the driver suddenly switched to English. He pointed to a sign that said, BISTRO and said in English, ‘Do you know why they call cafes ‘bistros'?’

I then explained in English that the Russian army had fought all the way to Paris during the Napoleonic Wars. Russian officers would sit in French cafes and they'd taunt the Parisian waiters by saying, ‘Bistro Bistro Bistro.’ ‘Bistro,’ I continued, was the Russian word for ‘quickly’ and, as a result, cafes where patrons expect quick service have come to be known as ‘bistros.’

1 comment

  • […] preservation of the battlefield), Borodino continues to inspire passion and incite controversy. Recently [en], RuNet Echo examined the historical and modern contexts of Russia's victory in the […]

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