Every first Sunday in September, the Russians commemorate the Battle of Borodino, which Napoleon called the Battle of Moskova. This grandiose reconstruction over a 100 km2 perimeter, in front of huge crowds, is an additional manifestation of a strong attachment to history. In the spirit of Tolstoy who, full of humanity above all, made years later in War and Peace the story of this “Battle of the Giants”, the celebration is paradoxically an expression of the closeness of the peoples constituting a kind of large family because they are marked by extreme conditions experienced in common. Napoleon even became a Russian hero.
On September 7, 1812, the battle of Moskova between the Napoleonic troops and those of Marshal Kutuzov, commander of the Russian forces ended. This was the largest clash during the Russian campaign and one of the emperor’s most important battles. Apparently won by the French – who still deplored 30,000 victims out of 70,000 soldiers killed, including the famous Bagration who succumbed to his wounds – on the immense battlefield of Borodino, the battle of Moskova, as Napoleon himself called it, was followed by the occupation, then the still imperfectly explained fire of Moscow and the retreat of Russia, marked by the famous passage of the Berezina today in Belarus. Victory at the Pyrrhic, if there was victory, which inspired both Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, it announced the end of the Napoleonic Empire after the two abdications of the one who had reigned over Europe.
Historians are still discussing the reasons why Napoleon, instead of St Petersburg, the capital, chose to head for Moscow. The emperor once said that he “made his battle plans with the dreams of his sleeping soldiers.” But in reality, he pursued his own dream in Moscow: to conquer the Great, the Holy, the “cities of a thousand churches”, one of the capitals of the East and to be sacred in a way once again at the head of a new empire of the East and the West, on the same footing as Alexander the Great.
This general presentation summarizes. the paradoxes of Borodino: the climax of the confrontation of two considerable powers is not necessarily the reflection of an eternal division; an apparent military victory, whose memory remains glorious, can conceal a total political defeat and herald a final collapse, the “beginning of the end,” according to Talleyrand’s judgment.
It is not a question of doing the work of a historian, but of trying to understand the perception that one can have of great men and events. While the Bicentenary of the Emperor’s death was commemorated on May 5, 1821 at Saint Helena, Napoleon is likely to remain for the Russians a glorious incarnation of France as he is for the French, despite the dark part of the balance sheet.
Installed in the Kremlin on September 15, it is first of all from what is today called the Mount of Sparrows (NB: ex-Mount Lenin) that he contemplated the countless golden bulbs to infinity, object of his reveries. But inaction and boredom in the face of an opponent who had fled turned into a nightmare. Elements of the cavalry of General Davout, who had settled there, desecrated the convent known as the tsarins of Novodievichi before attempting to set fire to it at the time of departure; as for Murat, he led a great life in a mansion near the Taganka Plaza, which has now become a hospital with very few facilities. The first snow on October 13 was a warning signal before the fire in Moscow the next day finally forced Napoleon to retire on October 19. Of a city entirely in flames, few buildings remained. Today, in the historic district of Zamoskvorietche, most of the buildings are neo-classical in style and have the inscription “rebuilt after the fire of 1812″ on their pediment. The rest is well known, since from a Great Army of 600,000 men, 20,000 crossed the Niemen River, on which the Franco-Russian peace of Tilsit had been signed five years earlier in 1807.
The Conqueror of the World left a bloodless country that had lost a million and a half of its young men in combat, not to mention a million of the European victims and a country reduced in size in relation to the starting point of the Napoleonic epic; the Egyptian campaign, decided by the Directoire mainly for internal reasons, was not carried out for exclusively «civilizing» purposes illustrated by the presence of French scientists and scholars; the Spanish War, of which little is said, was a bloody abomination, the victim of which was a patriotic insurrection; and what about the Russian campaign against Alexander I, grandson of the Great Catherine, a tsar rather enlightened though inconstant – whom Talleyrand considered «civilized whereas the sovereign of the French was not» -, that it was a matter of coercing the policy of the Continental Blockade against England?
Napoleon was defeated not only by the «general Winter» but also by the fierce and legitimate resistance of a great people refusing to be enslaved. However this character of a living legend was also perceived, within the autocracy, as being bearer of values of freedom bequeathed by the French Revolution and distinguishing himself from other reigning monarchs. Spain and Russia were two great wars of national resistance and no longer that of the Princes of the eighteenth century. The Russians called the Russian campaign the “Patriotic War of 1812”. Spain probably knew other Guernica before the time and a century passed after Borodino until the battles of the Somme of the First World War to know – sad record – so many victims in a single day of fighting.
But Napoleon also remains, in the minds of his compatriots at least, a brilliant modernist and entrepreneur, an outstanding legislator and administrator, creator of great institutions that survive today, Not to mention the famous Civil Code, which has evolved well. There is even at the time of the great pandemics, the memory of the compulsory vaccination against smallpox imposed by the emperor on his own son, for example.
But in the end, at the time of the Bicentenary, is Napoleon still really modern? Can the Republic still make a model of those who have violated its fundamental principles? Can the figure of the emperor still inspire? This is not certain and the Bicentenary demonstrations, dominated by the health crisis, did not have the expected scale. The Bicentenary of Austerlitz had also not been celebrated in 2005 ostentatiously while the Republic had sent, in a form of repentance, an aircraft carrier to participate in the ceremonies of Trafalgar.
Does Napoleon remain the good historical reference, for example at the time of the necessary decentralization of a country that is still corseted without being always really directed, of triumphant feminism and struggle – in counterpoint to a catastrophic colonial balance sheet, including the re-establishment of slavery in 1802 – against the last hints, hopefully, of racism in the so-called developed world? And one could even add the irrational and permanent struggle against England – which became invincible after the disaster of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 – which has unfortunately left until today conditioned reflexes against our well understood interests. The absurd Continental Blockade decided in 1806 and which will be the origin of the Russian campaign led to privations in Europe and is naturally out of proportion with the Brexit which imposes neither tariffs nor quotas.
Isn’t the Bicentenary finally an opportunity to turn the page on a great story and finally open a new one? At the risk of appearing iconoclastic, is Napoleon’s place even at the Invalides – in a building that is a classic model of balance where rests a man who was never endowed with it -, should it not rather be in Vincennes where the murder of the very young duke of Enghien was coldly conceived and executed? Chateaubriand had immediately analysed the consequences of this crime in order to turn away from the one who had fascinated him like so many others. Is it not the time to finally free oneself from a certain mental oppression instilled by Napoleon. Instead of the flight of a unique and majestic Eagle, concentrating all eyes, isn’t it better to see millions of talents and energies deployed?
If we must assume its history, especially when the past is a very heavy burden, should not the Bicentenary that we should celebrate be that of Germaine de Staël that Napoleon hated and compelled to an exile of ten years? Germaine was entirely in her time and she embodied the cause of freedom, including for women and is therefore often considered a precursor of feminism. Her close friends included Goethe and Schiller, Lord Byron and William Wilberforce, Madame Récamier, Friedrich Schlegel, and Benjamin Constant.
Would the Borodino fighters have suspected that their sacrifice would lead two centuries later to the celebration of the liberal and European spirit? They were of their time, we must be of ours.