One of the most significant events in Russian history is the Patriotic War of 1812. Was Alexander I going to attack Napoleon shortly before her? What did the US-UK war have to do with the French invasion of Russia? Who actually won the Battle of Borodino and then burned Moscow down? Why exactly the Patriotic War of 1812 gave birth to the Russian nation and how are the quasi-historical works of the fashionable publicist Ponasenkov harmful? Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor of the European University at St. Petersburg Vladimir Lapin told about all this to

A Thunderstorm Of The Twelfth Year

Soviet history textbooks wrote that Napoleon invaded Russia to enslave and dismember it. Now you can often hear that the war of 1812 was provoked by the policy of Alexander I, who constantly violated the conditions of the Tilsit Peace. Vladimir Lapin Both of these polar statements are completely wrong. Napoleon had no intention of conquering and dismembering Russia he was a sober-minded politician and commander who understood the unreality of such a task. Therefore, there was no question of any threat to our statehood then.

If we argue hypothetically, even in the event of defeat in the war, Russia could only lose Finland, conquered in 1809, and the western provinces gained after the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century. It can also be assumed that in this case, Turkey and Persia, longtime allies of France, would again try to take revenge in Transcaucasia. Russia fought with them for several years at the same time, with the first of them it concluded a peace treaty a month before the invasion of Napoleon, with the second – already in the next 1813. In any case, the loss of its indigenous territories in 1812 did not threaten the Russian Empire at all. Is it true that in the fall of 1811, Alexander I himself was going to start a war with France, invading the territory of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw?

Yes, there were such plans. But the war of the Fourth Coalition of 1806-1807 was largely caused by the desire of the Russian emperor in a coalition with Prussia to drive the French over the Rhine. However, at the end of 1811, the Prussian king Frederick William III, remembering his past defeats, did not dare to oppose Napoleon. Without the participation of the European allies, the new war lost all meaning, so the campaign to Poland had to be abandoned. In fact, it does not matter at all who first wanted to start a war. The military conflict between Russia and France in 1812 became a natural development of the protracted confrontation between the two powers.

Let’s not forget that they first collided back in 1793, when, during the war of the First Coalition, the Russian fleet sailed to the French coast. In 1798, during the war of the Second Coalition, the Black Sea squadron led by Admiral Fyodor Ushakov acted against the French in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1799, Russian troops opposed them in Western Europe – the expeditionary corps under the command of Alexander Suvorov fought in Italy and Switzerland, and the corps of General Hermann fought unsuccessfully in Holland.

New clashes between Russia and France took place at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1805, during the war of the Third Coalition, Russian troops were defeated at Austerlitz, and the defeat at Friedland in 1807 forced Alexander I to conclude the Treaty of Tilsit, humiliating and disadvantageous for our country, with France. But even after that, Napoleon understood that in the east of Europe there was a huge and potentially dangerous empire with a strong army and powerful navy. Therefore, a new war between Russia and France was only a matter of time, and both sides were actively preparing for it. That is, Napoleon’s invasion did not become a bolt from the blue for Russia, like the situation on June 22, 1941?

Of course not. Such an idea in our country comes, I think, from the film “The Hussar Ballad”, the main characters of which are unexpectedly informed about the outbreak of war in the middle of the ball. In fact, the Russian army was not just preparing for a clash with Napoleon but was looking forward to it. Officers and generals were eager to take revenge on the French for the humiliation of Austerlitz and Friedland, for the senseless and shameful war with Austria in 1809, in which Napoleon dragged Russia against its recent ally, for the unpopular war with Sweden, which also became a consequence of the Tilsit Peace.

Borodin Day

What did Napoleon really want when he crossed the Niemen in June 1812? He had no far-reaching plans. He intended to quickly defeat the Russian army in a general battle near the border and force Alexander I to sign a new peace treaty on his own terms. Napoleon hoped to neutralize Russia for a long time so that she would not interfere with him to finish off England and completely subjugate Europe. But the French emperor, even in a nightmare, could not dream that his huge army would the reproaches justified that Russia did not observe the continental blockade of England, to which she was forced to join after the Peace of Tilsit?

Russia as a whole respected it. Another thing is that the severance of trade relations with England caused enormous damage to our economy, so many Russian landowners and merchants, suffering colossal losses and trying to avoid final ruin, found some kind of loopholes to break the continental blockade. This is very similar to the current situation with Western sanctions and our anti-sanctions, which are now also trying to bypass by all available means. A few days before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, on June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on England, France’s worst enemy. Is there a connection between these two events?

I will answer you with a pun: there is no connection because then there was no connection. I.e? Before the advent of the telegraph, information about events spread around the world very slowly. Packet boats from the New World to Europe at that time went for about a month, so Napoleon learned about the outbreak of the Anglo-American war when he was already in Smolensk. In general, this is a very funny historical curiosity. The Americans hoped that Britain was bound hand and foot by the struggle with Napoleon. If they knew about the French invasion of Russia, they would hardly have dared to go to war with the British. And then, for sure, Washington, together with the White House, would not have burned down, and the words of the US national anthem would have been different.

By the way, these two wars have a lot in common. In the United States, the conflict with Britain is called the War of 1812, or the Second War of Independence; our conflict with France is called the Patriotic War of 1812. They burned down Washington, we have Moscow. In both our countries, the war caused an unprecedented patriotic upsurge and contributed to the growth of national consciousness. This dispute, as it began in the evening after the end of the battle, is still ongoing. We consider Borodino a day of glory for Russian weapons, and the French are confident of their victory. To me, this discussion seems completely meaningless, since both sides have their own reasons. The only question is, from what point of view to assess the results of the Battle of Borodino.

If you approach it strictly formally, following the then rules of warfare, then the French definitely won. Indeed, the battlefield remained behind them, and the Russian troops not only retreated but also surrendered Moscow. But if you look at Borodino from the point of view of the overall picture, then this, of course, was a great success for the Russian army. The fierce and bloody battle severely crippled the French army, having a significant impact on its combat effectiveness and, ultimately, on the outcome of the entire war. By the way, French historiography is reluctant to recall Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812. This is understandable.

Although the French consider themselves the winners of the Battle of Borodino, they cannot deny that they later lost the war anyway.
No one likes to remember their defeats, so the battles at Austerlitz and Friedland are almost forgotten here, not to mention the Dutch expedition of 1799. Who do you personally consider the true winner of the Borodino battle? This question does not really bother me. On the one hand, the Russians retreated and left Moscow, which burned down after the entry of enemy troops. On the other hand, the capture of Moscow had severe psychological consequences for the French. After all, they did not fulfill their main task – to finally defeat the Russian army. Although our troops suffered heavy losses, they retained their combat capability. However, any unsuccessful victory demoralizes soldiers and officers much more than defeat. As subsequent events showed, the stay in Moscow did not have the best effect on the morale and combat state of the French army.

Who burned Moscow

Is it true that after the Battle of Borodino, first in Mozhaisk, and then in burning Moscow, tens of thousands of Russian wounded were left to the mercy of fate? I would be more careful about numbers. Now no one will give exact data on losses. There are different numbers in the literature, but all of them must be treated with caution. Some of the wounded, who, after the Battle of Borodino, could not move independently, were left in the near rear, in the Mozhaisk region, others were sent to Moscow. But then, when leaving the city, they did not have time to evacuate. As a result, most of the wounded left there (at least several thousand people) died during the Moscow fire.

But why didn’t the command and city authorities take them out? Because in Moscow, before the arrival of the French, chaos, and confusion reigned. Until the very last moment, the authorities assured residents that under no circumstances would the city be surrendered. Therefore, no evacuation historical science now says for sure why a fire actually happened in Moscow then? Who was to blame for this?

There is a well-known Russian proverb, Moscow burned out from a penny candle.” This is part of the answer to your question. In the 90s, I somehow had a chance to talk with a fire safety specialist. It was he who proposed, in my opinion, the most convincing version of the causes of the Moscow fire of 1812. According to him, in those conditions, Moscow was simply doomed to burn down.

Under What Conditions?

When a huge and mostly wooden city, in which cooking, lighting, and heating is done with the help of open fire, leaves most of its inhabitants, and in a hurry and panic, then a big fire is inevitable. If somewhere there is even the slightest fire that there is no one to extinguish, it instantly turns into a fiery tornado. Leo Tolstoy also pointed to this in War and Peace. Also, in those days, the weather was dry and windy, and most of the expensive fire extinguishing equipment was taken out of the city along with the rest of the valuable property. Was this the main cause of the fire? The main one, but not the only one. Before the surrender of Moscow, by order of the Russian command, several huge warehouses of weapons and ammunition were set on fire, the contents of which were not removed in time. As a result, there were at least seven large pockets of flame throughout the city.

Here a new misfortune also happened. At first, they wanted to take out the gunpowder stocks from Moscow by the river to have time to quickly transport them to the rear. But when the barges with the powder barrels were fully loaded, it suddenly became clear that the depth of the Moskva River (and in those days it was not only shallower but about three times narrower than now) would not allow them to go far. I had to burn these barges with gunpowder right in the middle of the river. Numerous asocial elements and criminals released from prisons, who began to loot in the deserted city, contributed a lot to the fire. Arson for theft in those days was a very common practice among the urban mob.

Also, one of the last to leave Moscow was the Cossacks, who had the habit of always “letting the red rooster” after themselves. Finally, other Russian units left many unmarked campfires before leaving the city. And if we add to all this the numerous testimonies of deliberate arsonists both among the French and among Russian patriots, then it is understandable why, under such conditions, Moscow could not help but burn.

Moscow Victim

How do you feel about the version that Moscow was ordered to be set on fire by its mayor, Count Rostopchin? It’s a complicated story. When Russia first learned that three-quarters of Moscow had been burned out in a terrible fire, the French were initially blamed for this catastrophe. But soon the fire began to be perceived as a kind of heroic act, as a form of desperate resistance and the highest manifestation of patriotism.

Alexander I, in his rescript to Rostopchin of November 11 (23), 1812, wrote that “this fire will illuminate the cruelty of enemies and our glory in generations.” Now the fire was considered a cleansing after the dishonor inflicted by enemies on the ancient Russian capital that Moscow sacrificed itself on the altar of victory. It is not surprising that after this Rostopchin began to prove to everyone that it was he who ordered the burning of the city.Is it true that over the course of two centuries the versions about the causes of the fire in Moscow changed several times depending on the ideological expediency?

Absolutely right. Almost all baseline assessments of the key events of 1812 varied greatly depending on the era and prevailing political attitudes. For example, in the late 1930s Stalin instructed Soviet historians to present Kutuzov as a great commander. Soon an article appeared in the journal Istoricheskie zapiski, where it was proved that it was he who deliberately burned Moscow. Allegedly, Mikhail Illarionovich had such a brilliant plan to fence off the burning Moscow from the French like a wall and make a flanking maneuver. When shortly before Stalin’s death the Cold War broke out and the struggle against groveling before the West the concept changed dramatically only the French were again blamed for the Moscow fire. Why in the first years after the end of the Patriotic War of 1812 in Russia the Moscow fire was considered a more significant event, and not the Battle of Borodino?

In the mass consciousness of the majority of the population of the Russian Empire, the Battle of Borodino looked like only one of many battles, where one army fought with another. But the burning of the ancient capital of the country, the death, and desecration of many of its shrines for the Orthodox Russian people of that time was a strong psychological shock. The emphasis began to shift much later when historiography about the Patriotic War of 1812 and memoirs appeared. The authors of all these works were mainly the military, for whom military actions were considered more important and memorable events. It was because of the fire that the capture of Moscow became a Pyrrhic victory for Napoleon?

I would not say so unambiguously. Napoleon could have spent the winter in the city until spring, despite the fire. It is known that the French, before leaving Moscow, took with them a huge amount of supplies and valuables. Tellingly, they did not carry all of them. Why then did Napoleon leave Moscow soon? He feared that Moscow would be a trap for him. Napoleon saw that every day of inaction was in favor of Alexander I, that the Russian army recovered its strength much faster than his pretty battered army. Sitting and waiting for something in someone else’s ruined city was unbearable for the French emperor. He desperately needed new victories.

Can Napoleon’s departure from Moscow be considered an indirect recognition of his defeat?It is unlikely because then nothing was clear yet. If we evaluate all the hostilities of the Patriotic War of 1812 strictly formally, then before the battle at Krasnoye, military success was more accompanied by the French. I already spoke about Borodino, the skirmish at Tarutino was not expressive, in the battle of Maloyaroslavets Napoleon also won a landslide victory. Is it? It seems to us that at Maloyaroslavets, the Russian army blocked his path to Ukraine, and the French had to retreat along the devastated Smolensk road.

Again, from which side to look at it. Hardly anyone will deny that after the battle at Maloyaroslavets, the Russian army again retreated to the Polotnyany Zavod. In that situation, there was even a threat of loss of Kaluga, among the inhabitants of which, before whose eyes there was an example of burnt Moscow, panic began. And only then the French army turned to the Smolensk road, but without any pressure on itself from Kutuzov. Napoleon hoped to reach Minsk, where there were large supplies of provisions and weapons, and spend the winter there. How do you assess the battle of the Berezina? Who is the winner?

It also depends on the interpretation. Berezina, like Borodino, can, if desired, be considered both a victory and a defeat for each of the opposing sides. On the one hand, the Battle of Berezina was the same heroic retreat after military failure as Suvorov’s crossing of the Alps. Like the Russian corps in Switzerland in 1799, here, at the cost of enormous sacrifices and efforts, Napoleon managed to slip out of the trap into a completely seemingly hopeless situation for him, preserve the backbone of his army and break out into the operational space. If you look at the battle at Berezina with different optics, then it certainly became an impressive victory for Russian weapons. The damage inflicted on the French army in crossing the river was colossal. It is no coincidence that the word “Berezina” in French has become a common noun (C’est la Bérézina) and denotes a severe irreparable catastrophe.

But under Berezina, as before near Krasnoye, the Russian army had a chance to completely defeat the French. And then the war would not have dragged on for another two long years, and bloody battles at Dresden and Leipzig would have been avoided. Why didn’t Kutuzov, Chichagov, and Wittgenstein fulfill the order of Alexander I to surround and capture Napoleon? Why was he allowed to leave?

It is easy to give orders, but it is difficult to carry them out. And the point here is not even in the annoying mistakes of the Russian command, which failed to find in the time the real place of the enemy’s crossing over the Berezina. For some reason, our historiography likes to downplay the power of the French army in November 1812. It is considered to be a demoralized and hungry crowd of ragamuffins. In fact, by that time, the combat capability of Napoleon’s troops was still great.

Kutuzov was often accused of excessive passivity, that he was too cautious and wary of engaging in open clashes with the French. But he had his own reasons for that. First, in open battles, the French could still inflict heavy losses on the Russian troops. Secondly, the quality of the recruits hastily recruited in the fall of 1812 to replenish the Russian army left much to be desired. Many regiments consisted of about 80 percent of poorly trained and incapacitated recruits. With such a replenishment, rushing into battle against the French was a clear gamble. Also, Kutuzov was an experienced courtier who did not want to unnecessarily jeopardize his authority, which had been restored with such difficulty after the surrender of Moscow.

General Frost

How significant was the natural and climatic factor in those events? After all, we often heard the version about the decisive role of “General Frost” from the losing side not only in 1812 but also in 1941. The natural and climatic factor was of great importance, but not in the sense that it is often written in popular literature. Everyone suffered from the cold alike – both the French and the Russians. The difference was that some marched through territory with a hostile population, while others with a friendly one.

In most cases, the French soldiers did not dare to stay overnight in the surrounding villages, because this meant almost guaranteed death: in their huts, Russian pecans could one by one hammer them with logs or lift them onto a pitchfork. And the peasants greeted our soldiers cordially: they warmed them up, fed them, gave them a glass of vodka, and laid them on the stove for the night. Therefore, Napoleonic soldiers had to spend the night in the open air, warming themselves near their campfires, often fighting off sudden forays of the Cossacks and partisans. As a result, in the morning not all of them woke up, freezing to death in their sleep. And this happened not only during severe frosts. I got acquainted with special studies on hypothermia, which said that a person (especially if he is hungry, demoralized, and poorly dressed) begins to freeze at freezing temperatures.

Therefore, one cannot say that the army of Napoleon was destroyed by severe frosts.
Its soldiers and officers were mostly freezing from the fact that they did not have the opportunity to dry out and warm up. Therefore, the peculiarities of our climate, of course, influenced the course of the military campaign of 1812, but not directly, as they sometimes write, but indirectly. Did England help Russia in the war with Napoleon?

Of course, and very active. The British supplied us with weapons, provided money, and also diverted Napoleon’s forces in western Europe, supporting his opponents in Spain and Portugal. Why exactly the war of 1812 occupies a special place in our history? Because 1812 gave birth to the Russian nation. In the imperial period of our history, the Patriotic War of 1812 and the Battle of Borodino as its main event became a founding myth – it was on them that Russian national consciousness was based. No wonder Belinsky in the 40s of the XIX century pointed out that Russia has lived more and stepped further from 1812 to the present moment than from the reign of Peter to 1812. He went on to say that 1812 awakened “dormant forces in Russia and discovered new sources of strength in it rallied private wills that were inhibited in a sense of separated interests into one huge mass, aroused popular consciousness and national pride, and contributed to all of this. the emergence of publicity as the beginning of public opinion.

That is, the war of 1812 contributed to the emergence of Russian society and the Russian intelligentsia? Undoubtedly. Not even the war itself, but the memory of the war and the Russian national myth based on it. The role of the Patriotic War of 1812 for pre-revolutionary Russia is comparable only to the significance of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 for the late Soviet Union and the modern Russian Federation, A colossal number of parallels can be found between these two Patriotic wars of our history. This also applies to the ways of interpreting individual events, and emphasizing their sacred character, and heroizing their participants. To put it in newfangled abstruse words, commemorative practices a set of ways by which the memory of the past is consolidated, preserved, and transmitted in society approx.  Victories in World War II in the USSR were based on the experience of the Patriotic War of 1812? Quite right. The message was this, we defeated Hitler in the same way that our ancestors defeated Napoleon. After all, the symbolic design of the past plays a more significant role for the mass consciousness than real historical events. Man is so constructed that he perceives everything through symbols.

False Notes Maestro

How can you explain the Ponasenkov phenomenon? Why is this freak’s pseudo-historical opuses on the theme of the Patriotic War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars now very popular? In my opinion, in this case, we are not dealing with a phenomenon of a scientific, academic nature, but with a phenomenon of mass culture. Similar phenomena have arisen before, they will appear in the future. Take, for example, the works of the writer Valentin Pikul, which were wildly popular in the 70-the 80s of the last century. His books attracted the readership by the fact that, in comparison with the impersonal and schematic Soviet historiography, they very vividly and dashingly show the real historical figures of our past. And Pikul portrayed them as living people with their passions and emotions. Another thing is that the content of his books had little to do with real historical events.

Yes, in my youth I read Pikul and I remember what a strong impression some of his stories made on me. In Favorite, Catherine II removes the young cornet from the guard in the palace and drags him to her bed, and in The Unclean Force, Alexander III, secretly from his wife, who calls him Sasha, runs into the basement to the royal kitchen and, surrounded by his chefs, drinks vodka there from the bucket to the bottom. These are even the most harmless of his inventions, there have been worse. But then the glory of Pikul faded away, and in the 90s the notorious New Chronology of academician-mathematician Fomenko appeared. Unfortunately, quite a few well-educated people took this pseudoscientific theory seriously. Now they have forgotten about Fomenko, although there are still fans of his “teachings”, now Ponasenkov has replaced him. The time will come, and people will lose interest in it too.

The problem is that many Russians today are not used to critical analysis. They do not want to think independently, search and understand, develop their own opinion. We need someone who will give a simple and only correct answer to all questions. We need a guru, an indisputable authority, whose words one wants to listen with reverence. Therefore, characters claiming absolute knowledge of how everything really was are now in great demand. Maybe the problem is also the lack of humanitarian knowledge in our country? During the years of Soviet power, several generations of the technical intelligentsia have grown up, well versed in drawings and formulas, but condescending to the humanitarian sphere. Remember the dispute between physicists and lyricists in the 60s?

Yes, and in this, of course, too. And also the fact that many do not understand two simple things. First, a story is a collection of verbal images created based on other verbal images. Simply put, these are events of the past, described in words. Secondly, historians use sources that were not created to most reliably and objectively reflect the events that took place, but for completely different purposes, often small and momentary. Not a single historical document was created for future historians. But scientists are forced to use them, considering them critically. How to deal with such figures who parasitize on academic science?

I think it is better to refrain from the term parasitism. The authors of the so-called alternative versions of history really bring confusion into people’s heads. Unfortunately, such characters have always been, are, and will be. They are an integral part of mass culture and modern society. I have neither recipes for dealing with them nor confidence in the possibility of such a struggle. It presupposes a dialogue, which is difficult even to imagine. One has to rely only on education.