November 20, 2015

Ten Years of Napoleon

Ten Years of Napoleon

In the strange way that historic dates sometimes line up, this Friday, November 20, marks two anniversaries in stark contrast with each other. On this day in 1805, Napoleon destroyed Russian and Austrian troops at Austerlitz. Ten years and one burnt Moscow later, on this same day in 1815, Napoleon was defeated for good, the Treaty of Paris was signed, and 30,000 Russian troops were stationed in Paris.

In the interim, Russia and France managed to sign another peace treaty, the Treaty of Tilsit, and yet still went to war with each other. How did that happen? Amateur historian Georgy Sudanov takes a look in his book 1812: That’s Not How It Was!


Napoleon’s “Duplicitous” Attack on Russia

Since we were in school it’s been hammered into our heads that Napoleon, like Hitler in 1941, launched a duplicitous attack on Russia. Here are just a few examples: “Napoleon went back on his word and, without declaring war, attacked Russia (The History of the Belarussian SSR); “France didn’t declare war and attacked Russia duplicitously” (The History of Russian Journalism in the 18th and 19th Century); “In violating the alliance between Russia and France, Napoleon went back on his word” (1812: For the Sesquicentennial of the Patriotic War); “In the early hours of June 12, 1812, Napoleon broke his promise and, without declaring war, began a campaign to conquer Russia” (Polotsk: A Historic Sketch)…

The list of similar statements could be extended indefinitely.

The reality was quite different. On June 10 (22), 1812, Napoleon officially declared war on Russia and did so through the French ambassador in St. Petersburg, Jacques Alexandre Bernard Law, future Marquis de Lauriston, who transmitted the appropriate missive to the head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Nikolayevich Saltykov.

Lauriston’s message read: “My mission here has ended, as Prince Kurakin’s request for passports indicated a rift, and from this point on his imperial and royal majesty considers himself to be at war with Russia.”

Lauriston then left the Russian capital.

Lauriston with Napoleon, looking rather sad about how it all turned out. (Vereschyagin, "Peace at Any Cost")

To clarify: prince Alexander Borisovich Kurakin was the Russian ambassador in Paris 1808-1812. He never deluded himself with regard to Napoleon and the latter’s attitude toward Emperor Alexander. In his letters to St. Petersburg, the prince advised Alexander to seek a timely alliance with Prussia and Austria, and if not that, then at least a promise of their neutrality, then make peace with the Turks and ally with the Swedes. He even suggested an alliance with England.

He wrote of Napoleon: “Our best course of action is to not only not reject him in the present circumstances, but to seek him out, because if, despite all the goodwill Your Majesty has shown in performing your obligations toward France, she still intends to attack you, Your Majesty has the right, by all human and divine laws, to pay no more attention to past obligations, and the right, in all fairness, to employ any means that may help you in repelling the attack.”

Translated by: Eugenia Sokolskaya

Source: Георгий Суданов, "1812: Всё было не так!"

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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