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Napoleon in Russia: Saviour or Anti-Christ?

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Janet Hartley discusses the mixed responses of Russia's populations to Napoleon's great gamble on an invasion and the part they played in the eventual French catastrophe. 

On June 24th, 1812 Napoleon crossed the river Niemen and entered Russian territory with a multi-national army of between 400,000 and 450,000 men. By June 28th, Napoleon was in Vil'na. The French First Corps was at the gates of Mogilev by July 8th and entered the town the next day after repulsing the Russian forces. On August 18th, after the first major battle with the Russian forces, the French entered Smolensk. As the Russian armies retreated, Napoleon was drawn into the heartland of Russia and, after the battle of Borodino, entered the almost deserted city of Moscow on September 14th.

Napoleon hoped that the occupation of Moscow would force Alexander to respond to his peace overtures, but Alexander could not afford to make peace on any terms while foreign troops were on Russian soil. The Grand Army left Moscow on October 19th, taking the road south-west towards the town of Kaluga, but after the costly battle of Maloiaroslavets (a small town in Kaluga province) the army was forced to retreat along its path of invasion through Smolensk and Vil'na, the remnants of the Grand Army crossed the Berezina on November 26th-29th, and reached Prussian territory by crossing the Niemen on December 13th-14th.

The French were, therefore, in the Russian Empire for less than six months, and the brevity of their stay meant that they never regarded the administration of Russian territories under their control as anything other than temporary, with the sole aim of procuring supplies for the army. What then was the Russian response to the Napoleonic invasion? And how was the Grand Army perceived by the local population? In attempting to answer these questions we shall mainly consider evidence from the towns and provinces of Mogilev, Smolensk and Kaluga. Smolensk and Mogilev were occupied by the French and temporary administrations were set up; Kaluga remained under Russian control but was threatened by the proximity of the enemy and had to cope with the consequences of the invasion in neighbouring areas.

As the Napoleonic army moved towards Vil'na and Mogilev there was the possibility that the Lithuanian and Polish nobles there would look to Napoleon as their saviour. Vil'na was the capital of Lithuania, which had been acquired by Russia as a result of the three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Mogilev is in Belorussia, which had once been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and had been incorporated into the Russian Empire as a result of the first partition of Poland in 1772. The population of Belorussia was mixed in race and religion. The landowners were for the most part Polish-speaking and Latin-rite Catholic, while the peasants were largely Orthodox or Uniate (Uniates follow the Slavonic rite hut acknowledge the authority of the pope).

Napoleon had created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 from Prussia’s Polish lands, and many of the Poles in the Grand Army (who probably numbered about 100,000) hoped that a new Polish kingdom would emerge which would include at least the lands lost as a result of the three partitions of Poland, and possibly the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Polish-speaking nobility of Lithuania, however, proved more interested in the possibility of a restored kingdom of Lithuania, which would be independent from Poland. Some individuals in Belorussia willingly supported Napoleon in 1812. A confederation of Polish-speaking nobles was formed in Mogilev which promised devotion to Napoleon 'as citizens of ancient, inseparably Poland' while Mogilev was under French control, Napoleon's birthday was celebrated. A banner with the words 'Restore Poland' was hung in the square, and the Poles allegedly cried nut 'hurrah' and rejoiced wildly.

In the event, NapoIeon did not fulfil the expectations of the Poles in his army or of the Lithuanians, and was not regarded by the majority of the Belorussian Polish-speaking nobility as their saviour. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Napoleon was only concerned with the success of this campaign and was not prepared to prejudice negotiations with Alexander by granting further concessions to the Poles. He established a separate administration in Vil'na, which he called the government of Lithuania, but this was not joined to the Duchy of Warsaw and excluded the Belorussian provinces of Mogilev and Vitebsk, where separate administrations were set up. Secondly, with a few exceptions, the Polish-speaking nobility of Belorussia showed little inclination to support Napoleon. The confederation in Mogilev remained inactive during the campaign, and Polish-speaking landowners failed to flock to join the Grand Army. Poles serving with Napoleon commented with disgust on the apathy and passivity of their fellow Poles who refused to commit themselves until the outcome of the contest was clear.

According to the testimony of an official in Mogilev, Matshal Davout expressed surprise that he did not find the same enthusiasm and 'Polish spirit' in Mogilev that he had encountered in other provinces. Even in Vil'na, where the French were made more welcome, it was hard to find people to serve Napoleon – Caulaincourt wrote that:

The Lithuanians were full of praise for the Tsar Alexander, and the utmost difficulty was experienced in organising the country and inspiring the Lithuanians with any desire or feeling for the re-birth of the Polish fatherland.

Both contemporary French and Russian accounts attributed the loyalty of the Polish-speaking nobility to the fact that they dreaded the French liberation of their serfs – a subject to which I shall return.

Another group whose loyalties were suspect were the Jews, whose numbers in Belorussia have been estimated by historians as anything between 32,000 and 200,000 (the most recent study favours the lower estimate). The first partition of Poland in 1772 had created a 'Jewish problem'. Both Catherine II and Alexander I had tried on the one hand to assimilate the Jewish population, while on the other hand attempting to protect the peasantry by limiting Jewish economic activities. The result was resentment by the Jews of interference in their traditional Jewish administrative organisations and disruption of their means of livelihood – without any progress towards assimilation.

The policies of Napoleon towards the Jews gave the Russian government cause for further alarm. In 1806 Napoleon had called an assembly of Jewish notables from French lands and Italy and fears were aroused when in 1807 he held a further assembly, now titled a 'Great Sanhedrin', to which Jews from all over Europe were invited, At the time the Russian government feared that Jews would regard Napoleon as their liberator, to the extent that a temporary stop was put to its resettlement policy for Jews in Belorussia. In 1812 the Grand Army made use of Jews, both as spies and as suppliers of necessary provisions, and, given their knowledge of languages (many spoke French) and occupation as traders, the Jews were in a position to provide this assistance. But French accounts, and some of the accounts by officers serving in the Russian army, generally stress the loyalty of the Jews to Russia. Davout, for example, reported to Napoleon on August 8th from near Smolensk, that some Jews had deliberately misled the French about the presence of Cossacks and that this had cost the lives of many Uhlans. The Estonian, Boris Uxhill, serving in the Russian army, wrote that 'the Jews regard us everywhere as liberators. They detest the French and help us where they can'.

The greatest fear of the Russian government, of course, was that Napoleon would pose as the liberator of the serfs. Rumours spread amongst the serfs before the invasion that this was Napoleon's intention, and the Russian government responded by stationing troops in each province to counter any peasant unrest. There is evidence that Napoleon considered taking this step. While in Moscow he ordered material relating to the Pugachev revolt (the last great peasant/Cossack rebellion in 1773-75) to be sought out in the archives and private libraries.

The French proclamation 'Reponse d'un grenadier francais' which condemned Russian serfdom, promised liberation and called on Russian soldiers to support this cause, had been translated into Russian. There is some evidence to believe that this proclamation was in the possession of Polish troops in Moscow although the extent of its dissemination is not known. In the event, Napoleon failed to act, although he expressed regret over his decision when in exile in St Helena. In his address to the Senate on his return to France, Napoleon claimed that he took this decision to prevent a bloodbath taking place with serfs massacring their masters, but there were other good reasons for his inactivity, As his policies towards the Poles and the Lithuanians showed, Napoleon's aims were limited. He was not attempting to overthrow Russian society or Russian tsardom; he wished to defeat the Russian army in battle and then to force Alexander to make peace on his terms, which would involve Alexander agreeing to impose the continental blockade on England. An appeal to the serfs would have made the possibility of peace with Alexander more difficult and the prospect of future co-operation impossible.

There were, however, revolts by serfs against their masters, and damage to their property during the invasion, particularly in territories occupied by the French but also in neighbouring provinces. Serf disturbances were especially prevalent in Smolensk province. A deacon from Smolensk, whose comments were recorded later in the century, recalled that '... during the invasion many of the local peasants behaved in an ungovernable fashion, like brigands'. The Russian government was clearly alarmed by the situation, and detachments of the Russian army moved quickly to crush these risings after the French retreat.

Soviet historians, and some Western historians, have interpreted these revolts in terms of class war. As Russian authority was reasserted fairly rapidly it is impossible to know how this situation would have developed had the French presence, and the chaos caused by the invasion, continued, It seems more likely that the Grand Army gave the peasants not so much ideological inspiration as the opportunity to commit sporadic violence, taking advantage of the temporary collapse of law and order.

If the peasants were making a determined effort to overthrow the social order, then the Grand Army's direct involvement was to subdue revolts rather than to encourage them – R. Villeblanche, the French intendant of Smolensk, instructed his commissioners to send disobedient serfs to Smolensk where he would punish them 'with all the severity of the law'. Disruption of supplies by peasant unrest was not in his interests.

In addition to particular groups of society which might be expected to favour Napoleon, there were individuals who served the French during the invasion. Russian officials in Mogilev and Smolensk left with the retreating Russian army, and the French had to establish their own administration – in Mogilev a civil commission of eight members in the town and similar commissions in the districts; in Smolensk a town council and commissioners in the countryside – and to find local inhabitants to staff these institutions. After the expulsion of the French, these officials were investigated by special commissions. Almost all of them claimed that their service was involuntary, that they had been forced to serve the French against their will or face severe punishment and that they had tried to impede, rather than assist the French war effort. A typical case was that of a secretary, Nikolai Velikanov, who claimed that he could not leave Smolensk before the French arrived because his wife was ill and he could not find any transport. He was then ordered by the intendant Villeblanche on October 21st to join the town council, and, although reluctant to do so, could not refuse this order because if he disobeyed he would be killed. With a few exceptions, the commissions released most of the accused. On September 11th, 1814 a general amnesty was given to all those still in custody.

The mild treatment of such individuals by the Russian authorities suggests that such activity had not been viewed as a serious threat; indeed, French contemporary accounts comment on the ineffectiveness of the administration and the unwillingness of the co-opted officials to co-operate. Certainly Villeblanche, the intendant, found the performance of the town council unsatisfactory, He had ordered it to sit until at least two o'clock but complained that at one o'clock not even a clerk was present. On another occasion he complained that he had to ask for everything three times. As time went on, the administration began to disintegrate. Puibusque, an officer in the Grand Army, commented on November 10th from Smolensk that:

Tiredness overwhelmed all the employees in Smolensk; several have left without permission: some do not obey any more, the others obey badly.

The poor service received from Russian subjects in French employ was probably as much a result of their unsuitability for office as a question of patriotism. The town council of Smolensk, for example, was staffed by a motley collection of mainly retired officials and foreign shopkeepers: three retired officials aged sixty, sixty-five and sixty-six; a teacher (who does seem to have co-operated willingly – he died in custody); a sixty-four-year-old Italian innkeeper; a registrar; a secretary; a German baker; an artisan and a retired major. Anyone with money or influence had left the town – the French had little to choose from.

Although Russian officials escaped, members of the clergy usually remained, and in both Smolensk and Mogilev clergy were accused of collaboration with the French. The most notorious case was that of Archbishop Varlaam in Mogilev. Amongst other things, he was accused of taking an oath of loyalty to Napoleon, forcing junior members of the clergy to do the same, celebrating Napoleon's birthday, saying prayers for Napoleon's and not the tsar's family and publicising papers, in Polish, demanding that serfs should obey their masters. After a long trial by the Holy Synod, Varlaam was found guilty, stripped of his rank and confined to a monastery.

There has been much speculation on the reasons for Varlaam's treason. He himself claimed that he had acted through fear, but others claimed that he was captivated by Napoleon's charm and force of personality, that he sought to become the senior archbishop in the Orthodox church if and when the Belorussian lands were united with Poland, and that he was tempted by Napoleon's promise of a cardinal's hat if he became a Catholic!

Although individuals might seek advantage from Napoleon, the general picture given by most contemporary and later accounts is one of a patriotic outburst against the invader. This was manifested in particular by the partisan movement and by individual acts of violence by peasants against the French, the 'people's war'. In addition to organised partisan groups, there are many popular accounts of heroic resistance by individual peasants. One such was published, on the centenary of the invasion. It paid tribute to the heroic women of Russia: in Smolensk, a girl came across two drunken Frenchmen, knocked them down with a club, cut off their heads with their swords and took their weapons to the partisans. An old woman, Vasilisa, invited some soldiers into her hut, let them get drunk and then burnt the hut to the ground. Had Napoleon known of such women, commented the author of this book, he would not have invaded Russia!

Some of the heroic exploits of the partisans and peasants have doubtless been exaggerated, but the damage inflicted by partisan groups cannot be dismissed. In Sychevka district (in Smolensk province) between August and the end of October, partisans killed over 3,000 members of the Grand Army and captured over 1,000, at the cost to themselves of over 100 dead and 250 wounded. Certainly memoirs of soldiers in the Grand Army testify to the impact of partisan groups and peasant violence. De Schubert wrote of:

... a merciless war against supply trains, attacks on couriers, massacre of the sick and the wounded who were being sent back to Smolensk, and complete isolation of all the French army...

In practice, peasants were more influenced by the effect of pillaging by members of the Grand Army than they were by any revolutionary ideas which might emanate from the soldiers. Baron von Lowenstern, serving with the Russian army, commented that the peasants did not believe in demonstrations of fraternity by the French but:

They only saw their homes overrun, their wives and their daughters violated, their churches defiled, and so every one of them flew to arms. Their exasperation reached the limit and became a kind of fanaticism.

Napoleon's army entered Russia with far more supplies than for any previous campaign, but even so, it only had provisions for twenty-four days. This meant that once Napoleon decided to penetrate further than Smolensk, the exploitation of the countryside for supplies was inevitable, The French generals were aware that the behaviour of their troops was alienating the peasantry (Napoleon set up special military courts to try marauders and several were shot) but lacked the means either to control their forces or to provide food through other means. For many soldiers in the Grand Army the choice was between starvation and pillage.

Other members of Russian society also contributed to the cause. In Kaluga, for example, nobles contributed men and equipment to the militias. Landowners in Kaluga, excepting those who owned less than ten souls, promised to provide recruits to the militia at the rate of five men for every hundred souls. In all, 2,199 nobles in Kaluga participated in this levy. It should be noted that although a substantial contribution was made (only the provinces of Moscow, Vladimir and St Petersburg provided more men) in practice less than the promised five men for every hundred souls in fact joined the militia – the province should have provided 20,843 recruits for the militia but in fact only levied 15,370. Recruits could also arrive ill-equipped. In one district, only 257 of the prescribed 277 recruits appeared, and of these sixty-nine lacked uniform and forty more were unsuitably dressed.

The militia, incidentally, is often portrayed by historians as part of the 'people's war'. The militias, however, were not really voluntary organisations, but formal supplementary units of the regular army, levied on a territorial basis. Although there were some volunteers, most members of the militia were serfs, who were not in the position to volunteer even if they had wished to do so, and were recruited in the same way as were soldiers in the regular army. Some landowners deliberately sent their least valuable serfs in order to be rid of them in the hope that they would be deducted from their contribution to the next recruit levy.

Considerable donations were also received, mainly from merchants, but also from artisans and members of the clergy. The town dumas in Kaluga province contributed a total of 239,652 roubles. Town dwellers also donated clothes such as boots, shirts and cattle and individual landowners donated money, arms, foodstuffs or looked after sick and wounded at their own expense. The clergy of Kaluga donated 9,204 roubles and ten pounds of silver vessels.

Complementary to the devotion to the Russian cause, shown by donations of men, money and goods, was a hostility shown to, and suspicion of, foreigners in Russia during the invasion. In Kaluga province a list was drawn up of all foreign residents – fifty-five in all, of which twenty-four were French (the others were German, English, Swiss, Danish, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Italian – a reflection of the variety of foreign residents in a backwater like Kaluga). As at least thirty foreigners were deported from Kaluga, clearly some of these were not French. The Grand Army was multinational, but this policy probably resulted from the general xenophobic feelings at the time.

It was questionable whether these foreigners posed a serious security threat. Many had lived in Russia for a long time – three of the French residents in Kaluga had been born in Russia and another had taken Russian citizenship – and most were private tutors in nobles houses and unlikely to be in a position to influence events. Indeed, the employers of these foreigners sometimes resisted their deportation. In the case of Iosef-Iogan Terkse, a steward on an estate, the Civil Governor of Kaluga province instructed that he should be allowed to stay because he had killed enemy soldiers and '... such praiseworthy disposition in favour of Russia' should not go unnoticed. Foreigners remained in internal exile after the expulsion of the French.

It is harder to determine the perception by Russians of the soldiers of the Grand Army with whom they came into contact. 22,000 prisoners of war passed through Kaluga province alone, in three months (these included Frenchman, Poles, Italians, Austrians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Westphalians, Bavarians, Danes, Swedes, Dutchmen, Americans and a Greek, demonstrating the multi-national composition of the Grand Army). Some memoirists in the Grand Army commented bitterly on the cruelty of their treatment as prisoners of war especially at the hands of the Cossacks. On the other hand, some prisoners chose to remain in Russia after the end of the campaign, which suggests that their experience had not been too traumatic.

Heinrich Roos, a German doctor, was well treated by his Russian captors, continued to practise as a doctor during captivity and remained in Russia after the war. There was a feeling that foreigners had skills and a capacity for hard work which Russians could not match, and at the end of the war they were encouraged to remain in Russia. In January 1813 the Civil Governor of Kaluga instructed that Polish prisoners were to be sent to the Caucasus and Siberia to serve in the army; the French prisoners, however, could join the army but could also be employed as artisans or factory workers, and were to be paid at the same rate as Russian workers. Prisoners who were peasants could become colonists in Saratov and Ekaterinoslav. Standards of medical care were so poor in Russia that many prisoners had perished before this time of course.

However much the skills of foreigners might be valued by the government, at a lower level the invading troops were more likely to be regarded as the agents of Antichrist. The invasion of Russia had unleashed an almost religious war against the French. Segur accused the Orthodox clergy of deceiving the peasants by telling them that the French were a 'legion of devils commanded by the Anti-Christ'. Armand Domergue formed the same opinion:

It is certain that the hatred that they felt towards Napoleon was further stimulated by the priests themselves and their other ministers of religion, who saw in the person of the Emperor [Napoleon] only ungodliness wishing to overthrow all religions.

In Mogilev province simple people saw Napoleon as the Anti-Christ. This view of Napoleon was evidently widespread; at the level of peasants and tradespeople the Old Believers had a long tradition of discovering Anti-Christs while at the more sophisticated level we may note Pierre's Rosicrucian discovery of the same fact in Tolstoy's War and Peace. He then discovers, of course, that the calculation for his own name rendered very awkwardly as L'Russe Bestuhof also made 666, so determining that he would be the one who would put an end to Napoleon!

The Russian government had reason to be concerned about internal security as Napoleon’s armies penetrated into Russia. The greatest danger was that the serfs would be aroused, but non-Russians, and to a lesser extent Jews, were also a concern. 1n the event its fears were not realised. Partly this was due to the fact that the French presence was short-lived, and partly to Napoleon's limited aims which led to restraint. In the main, it was due to the inability of the French to offer anything to groups which, under other circumstances, might have been disloyal to the tsar, and to the indiscipline of their troops. The majority of the population of course had no reason to welcome the French. To them the invading soldiers were enemies to be resisted, while their fellow countrymen within Russia were to be deported or put under surveillance. At a popular level the invaders could be seen as devils, but not all Frenchmen were hated and despised. In western Russia, Polish troops were the ones who were most disliked. And not all French prisoners of war suffered at the hands of the Cossacks. Some prisoners chose to remain in Russia. One prisoner became a professor of French at Khar'kov University – as the memoirist A.A. Leslie commented '... it was not difficult for him to become a professor of French from being a soldier'.

Historical dictionary: Napoleonic era


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