Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Invasion of Russia

Every one knows the story of Napoleon's invasion of Russia; how day by day the Grand Army was tempted on to its destruction; how it melted away in the long march through Poland and Lithuania; how its very victories were defeats. It counted one hundred and fifty thousand lost before it reached Mogilef: Thousands fell in the three battles at Smolensk; fifteen thousand were left on the bloody field of Valutina. Then came Borodino. Old Kutuzof was at the head of the Russians. "Kutuzof," they said, "had come to beat the French." They knew it was their last chance to save Holy Mother Moscow. On the morning of the battle the priests sprinkled them with holy water; the wonder-working Virgin of Vladimir was carried in solemn procession to the front. An eagle hovered over the head of their favorite leader. Their religious and patriotic enthusiasm was put then to the test. The outworks of Borodino were lost and won and lost again. Irresistible the onrush of Murat's cavalry, the assault of Caulaincourt's cuirassiers. Here again the French lost thirty thousand men, forty-nine generals, and thirty-seven colonels." The beast was wounded to the death," says the great novelist, Tolstoi.

Kutuzof withdrew beyond Moscow, and the French entered the city singing the "Marseillaise." Napoleon took up his abode in the palace of the Tsars. The legend tells how he made up his mind to go to the rich convent of St. Sergi. He climbed Ivan's Tower to examine the route: "All that wealth is mine," he said, "there is no one to gainsay me." Then, as he looked forth across the city, he saw an old man come out of the monastery with a cross in his hand and behind him swept a mysterious army which covered all the fields. It was the spirits of the dead heroes of Russia coming to defend their beloved land. All at once the old man lifted his cross, and Napoleon in affright covered his eyes, and when again he looked the city was in flames.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Napoleon had to flee from the Kreml for his life. Almost perishing he reached the Petrovski Palace. More than a month the "pitiless army" loitered in Moscow; four fifths of the houses were in ashes; at last food began to fail; they had to kill their horses for meat; around them the toils of the Russians drew closer. Kutuzof's army was daily growing; twenty-six regiments of Don Kazaks came to his aid. He shut off the road to Riazan, the road to Kaluga; only the desolated road to Smolensk was left for the French retreat. The October snows had begun to fall when Napoleon ordered the first divisions to quit Moscow. As a last revenge Mortier blew up the Kreml walls; Elizabeth's palace was ruined; the Tower of Ivan the Great was cracked; great gaps were left in the sacred gates.

Napoleon and his army reached Smolensk before the cold grew very severe; here too they suffered severely from hunger. The Russians hung upon their rear. Kutuzof captured twenty-six thousand stragglers, two hundred and eight cannon, and five thousand carriages; his exultation knew no bounds; he threw his cap into the air and cheered lustily "for the brave Russian soldier." Then he told his officers a fable: "Listen, gentlemen, to a pretty fable that Krilof, the good story-teller, sent me. A wolf entered a kennel and tormented the dogs. As to getting in he managed that well enough, but it was another thing to get out! All the dogs were at him, and he was driven into a corner with hair on end, saying, 'What is the matter, friends? What have you against me? I came just to see what you were up to, and now I am going away.' By this time the huntsman had come and replied, 'No, friend Wolf, you cannot fool us; you are an old rascal with gray hair, I know, but so am I gray and no more stupid than you." And with that the old man took off his cap again and shook his gray locks.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The situation of the French grew desperate. General Jack Frost, as the Russians expressed it, smote them hip and thigh. Then came the awful passage of the Berezina, the still more frightful massacre at Vilno, and the flight across the Niemen. More than half of the "Grand Army" had perished in the wilds of Russia. Napoleon was not crushed by the disaster; he hastened back to France and levied four hundred and fifty thousand men with twelve hundred cannon. Paris, Lyons, Rome, Amsterdam, and Hamburg came to his aid. But once more the allies joined against him; his star was on the decline; neither the victories of Lutzen and Bautzen, nor of Dresden, could save him. The tide turned at Kulm; then came the "Battle of the Nations "at Leipzig, when the French, reduced to one hundred and sixty thousand men, for four days withstood three hundred thousand under the fiercest cannonade of the century. Napoleon, deserted by his German allies, crossed the Rhine. Alexander, not discouraged by the defeat of Blucher and the armies of Silesia and Bohemia, nor by the bloody battles of Craonne and Laon, cried, "No peace while Napoleon is on the throne." He ordered his army to march into France. Napoleon threw himself on the rear of the Russians, but he was lost. After the battle of Paris the allied sovereigns entered the capital. By Alexander's efforts Napoleon was reduced to the throne of Elba; Louis XVIII. once more dwelt in the palace of the Louvre.

Then came the congress of Vienna, the fourth partition of Poland, the sudden return of Napoleon, the new coalition against the "man of destiny," the battle of Waterloo, the second abdication. Alexander again led his army into Paris, where he won the hearts of the people by his protests against Prussian exactions. In Paris he met the mysterious adventuress, Madame de Krudener, who filled his mind with her visions of absolute justice and universal brotherhood. Here he wrote the first draught of the "Holy Alliance," by which all the sovereigns of Europe, except the Pope and the Sultan, should agree to live like brothers of one Christian family, and to protect religion and maintain peace.

After Napoleon's fall Alexander appeared as "the liberator of nations," the champion of freedom. Suddenly his ideas changed; he fell under the influence of Arakcheef, "the born enemy of all new ideas and all thoughts of reform, the apostle of absolute power and passive obedience." Henceforth the Emperor stood forth as the champion of the divine right of kings; the "Holy Alliance," founded for the brotherhood of man, became an alliance against the liberty of man. With all his might he opposed the new constitutions of Spain, Portugal, and Naples; he allowed the Greek war of independence to fail; the Mussulmans massacred three metropolitans, eight bishops, and thirty thousand Greeks at Constantinople; the Patriarch was hanged in his sacred robes at the very door of his church; all Russia burned to take part in a holy war of revenge, but Alexander turned his head away and refused to raise his hand. The people saw in the sorrows which darkened their Emperor's latter days, the scourge of God to avenge the desertion of their brethren in the East. A fearful flood devastated St. Petersburg, his new state of Poland was boiling with insurrection, secret societies honey-combed the Empire, his military colonies caused fierce riots; he was about to abdicate when he learned of the plot to assassinate him; "Ah! the ungrateful monsters," he cried, "I meant nothing but their good." Far away on the shores of the Azof Sea he died, suddenly, mysteriously.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


It is not hard to judge his character. He was Alexander the Weak; by his position "he ruled for a dozen years the fate of the Continent," but he in turn was ruled now by an "inspired prophetess," now by the incarnation of old narrow Russia. At first he sowed the seed boldly; when it sprang up he was unwilling for the harvest to ripen. He set the cup of knowledge to the lips of his nation, and when they had tasted and would drink more he dashed it away. But in spite of the later acts of tyranny, the growing rigor of the censorship, the stifling of all free thought, and the summary treatment of liberal professors, the reign of Alexander was memorable; it was indeed "an epoch of magnificent blossom." New universities sprang up, old ones were revived; newspapers were founded and encouraged the new school of poets and writers; literary societies began to flourish; the great cities were better cared for, and were adorned with statues and cathedrals. By conquest and convention he added to his vast empire Finland and Bessarabia; Persia, as far as the ancient Araxes; Bieolstok, and the Kingdom of Poland.