Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXI, 4

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XXI, 3 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXI, 5

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXI, chapter 4
The French advance – Rostopchin – Bonaparte on Salutation Hill – The View of Moscow – Napoleon enters the Kremlin – The Burning of Moscow – Bonaparte reaches the PetrovskyPalace with difficulty – Rostopchin’s proclamation – A halt among the ruins of Moscow – Bonaparte’s pastimes

Between the Moskva and Moscow, Murat joined battle outside Mojaïsk. The town was entered: ten thousand dead and dying were found there; the dead were thrown through the windows to make room for the living. The Russians fell back in good order towards Moscow.

On the evening of the 13th of September, Kutuzov had summoned a council of war: all his generals declared that ‘Moscow was not the motherland.’ Buturlin (Histoire de la campagne de Russie), the same officer whom Alexander sent to the Duc d’Angoulême’s headquarters in Spain, and Barclay in his Mémoire justificatif, give the reasons which motivated the council’s opinion. Kutuzov proposed a ceasefire to the King of Naples, while the Russian soldiers passed through the ancient capital of the Tsars. The ceasefire was agreed, since the French wanted to preserve the city intact; Murat alone pressed the enemy rear-guard hard, and our grenadiers trod in the footsteps of the retreating Russian grenadiers. But Napoleon was far from the success which he though to be within reach: behind Kutuzov was Rostopchin.

Count Rostopchin was the Governor of Moscow. His vengeance promised to drop from heaven: a huge balloon, constructed at great expense, was to float above the French army, pick out the Emperor among his thousands, and fall on his head in a shower of fire and steel. In trial, the wings of the airship broke; forcing him to renounce his bombshell from the clouds; but Rostopchin kept the flares. The news of the disaster at Borodino had reached Moscow while the rest of the Empire was rejoicing over what one of Kutuzov’s bulletins called a victory. Rostopchin issued various proclamations in rhythmic prose; he said:

‘Come, my friends the Muscovites, let us march too! We’ll gather a hundred thousand men, we’ll take an icon of the Holy Virgin, and a hundred and fifty cannon, and put an end to all this.’

He advised the inhabitants to arm themselves simply with pitchforks, since a Frenchman weighed no more than a sheaf of corn.

We know that Rostopchin later denied all part in the burning of Moscow; we also know that Alexander never commented on the matter. Did Rostopchin wish to avoid the reproaches of the merchants and nobles whose fortunes had perished? Was Alexander afraid of being called a Barbarian by the Institute? This is such a wretched age, and Bonaparte had monopolized all its splendours to such a degree, that when something worthy happened, everyone repudiated it and disclaimed all responsibility.

The burning of Moscow remains a historic decision which preserved the freedom of one nation and contributed to the liberation of several others. Numantia has not lost its right to the admiration of mankind. What matter that Moscow burned! Had it not been burnt seven times before? Is it not brilliantly restored today, despite Napoleon’s twenty-first bulletin prophesying that the burning of its capital would put Russia back a hundred years? ‘Moscow’s very misfortune,’ as Madame de Staël so admirably said, ‘regenerated the Empire: that holy city perished like a martyr whose blood once shed grants new strength to the brothers who survive him.’ (Dix années d’exil)

Where would the nations be, if Bonaparte, from the heights of the Kremlin, had covered the world with his despotism as if with a funeral pall? The rights of the human race are supreme. For myself, if the world were a combustible globe, I would not hesitate to set fire to it if it were a question of freeing my country. Nevertheless, it takes nothing less than the superior interests of human liberty for a Frenchman, his head covered in mourning and his eyes full of tears, to bring himself to speak of a decision which proved fatal to so many Frenchmen.

Count Rostopchin, an educated and spiritual man, has been to Paris: in his writings, his thoughts are hidden beneath a certain buffoonery; he was a sort of civilized Barbarian, an ironic even depraved poet, capable of generous inclinations, while scornful of nations and kings: Gothic churches admit grotesque decorations amidst their grandeur.

The rout of Moscow had begun; the roads to Kazan were covered with fugitives, on foot, in carriages, alone or accompanied by servants.

An omen had momentarily raised everyone’s spirits: a vulture was caught in the chains which supported the cross on the principal church; Rome, like Moscow, would have seen Napoleon’s captivity in that omen.

With the arrival of long convoys of wounded Russians at the city gates, all hope evaporated. Kutuzov had promised Rostopchin that he would defend the city with the ninety-one thousand men left to him: you have read how the council of war obliged him to retreat. Rostopchin remained alone.

Night fell: messengers knocked mysteriously on every door, announcing that all must leave, that Nineveh was doomed. Inflammable material was piled in public buildings and markets, in shops and private houses; fire-fighting equipment was removed. Then Rostopchin ordered the prisons to be opened: from a filthy gang of prisoners a Russian and a Frenchman were brought forward; the Russian, a member of a sect of German Illuminati, was accused of attempting to betray his country and of having translated the French proclamation; his father ran up; the Governor granted him a few moments to bless his son: ‘Me, bless a traitor!’ the old Muscovite cried, and cursed him instead. The prisoner was handed to the people and killed.

‘As for you,’ Rostopchin said to the Frenchman, ‘you were right to desire your countrymen’s arrival: go free. Tell your comrades that there was only a single traitor in all of Russia, and he has been punished.’

The other malefactors who were released, were given, with their freedom, orders to set the city on fire, when the moment arrived. Rostopchin was the last to leave Moscow, as a ship’s captain is last over the side in a shipwreck.

Napoleon, on horseback, had joined the vanguard. One height remained to be crossed; it overlooked Moscow as Montmartre does Paris; it was called Salutation Hill, because the Russians prayed there in sight of their holy city, as the pilgrims do on catching sight of Jerusalem. Moscow of the gilded cupolas, as the Slav poets say, shone in the sunlight, with its two hundred and ninety-five churches, its fifteen hundred castles, its wooden houses in yellow, green and pink: it lacked only cypress trees and the Bosphorus. The Kremlin formed part of this mass, covered with polished and painted metal. Amongst elegant villas of brick and marble, the Moskva flowed through parks planted with fir, the palm-trees of that region: Venice in the days of its glory was not more brilliant, rising from the Adriatic wave. It was at two in the afternoon, on the 14th of September, that Bonaparte, by the light of a sun glittering with polar diamonds, saw his new conquest. Moscow, like a European princess at the edge of his Empire, adorned with all the riches of Asia, seemed there for marriage with Napoleon.

Shouts rose: ‘Moscow! Moscow! cried our soldiers; they clapped their hands yet again; in the days of our past glory, in victory or defeat, they were wont to shout: ‘Long live the King!’ ‘It was a wonderful moment,’ says Lieutenant-Colonel de Baudus, ‘that in which the magnificent panorama presented by the whole of that immense city suddenly offered itself to my gaze. I will always remember the emotion that manifested itself in ranks of the Polish division; it struck me especially in that it was revealed in an impulsive moment of religious feeling. On seeing Moscow, whole regiments threw themselves to their knees and thanked the God of Armies for having led them in victory to the capital of their bitterest enemy.’

The acclamation ceased; they descended silently towards the city; no deputation emerged from the gates to present the keys in a silver bowl. All signs of life had been suspended in that great city. Moscow fell mute before the stranger: three days later she had vanished’ the Circassian of the North, the beautiful intended, had lain down on her funeral pyre.

While the city was still standing, Napoleon, marching towards it, cried: ‘So, this is the famous city! and he gazed: Moscow, abandoned, resembled the city mourned over in Lamentations. Eugène and Poniatowski had already climbed the walls; some of our officers entered the city; they returned to tell Napoleon: ‘Moscow is deserted!’ – Moscow deserted, that’s unlikely! Bring me the boyars.’ There were no boyars, only a few beggars in hiding. The streets were abandoned, the windows shuttered: no smoke rose from the houses from which torrents would soon pour. There was not the slightest sound. Bonaparte shrugged his shoulders.

Murat, advancing as far as the Kremlin, was greeted with howls of fury from the prisoners set free in order to defend their country: he was forced to blast the gates open with cannon.

Napoleon was taken to the Dorogomilov Gate; he installed himself in one of the first houses in the suburb, took a ride along the Moskva, and saw no one. He returned to his quarters and appointed Marshal Mortier Governor of Moscow, General Durosnel Commandant, and Monsieur de Lesseps, in his capacity as Quarter-Master General, as Head of Administration. The Imperial Guard and the troops were in full-dress to parade before the absent populace. Bonaparte soon learnt that the city was positively threatened with disaster. At two in the morning he was told that a fire had broken out. The conqueror left the Dorogomilov suburb and took shelter in the Kremlin: this was on the morning of the 15th of October. He experienced an instant of joy on entering Peter the Great’s Palace; his pride assuaged he wrote a few words to Alexander, by the light of the bazaar which had just caught fire, just as the defeated Alexander had previously written to him from the field of Austerlitz.

In the bazaar long rows of locked and shuttered shops could be seen. At first the fire was contained; but during the second night it broke out everywhere; star-shells hurled into the air by rockets burst and fell in sheaves of light over the palaces and churches. A fierce northerly drove the sparks before it and scattered flakes of fire over the Kremlin: it contained a powder magazine; an artillery-park had been left under Bonaparte’s very windows. Our soldiers were driven from quarter to quarter by the eruptions from the volcano. Gorgons and Medusas, torch in hand, rushed through the livid crossroads of this inferno; others poked the fires with spears of tarred wood. Bonaparte, in the halls of this new Pergamos, rushed to the windows, crying: ‘What amazing resolution! What people! They are Scythians!’

A rumour spread that the Kremlin was mined: servants discovered they were ill, while the soldiers resigned themselves to their fate. The mouths of the various fires outside grew wider, approached each other, and met: the tower of the Arsenal, like a tall taper, burnt in the midst of a blazing sanctuary. The Kremlin was nothing but a black island against which broke a sea awash with fire. The sky, reflecting the glow, seemed as if traversed by the flickering lights of the aurora borealis.

The third night fell; one could scarcely breathe in the suffocating atmosphere: twice fuses had been attached to the building housing Napoleon. How to escape? The flames had merged blocking the gates of the citadel. After searching around, a postern was found leading to the Moskva. The conqueror and his retinue slipped away through this exit to safety. Around him in the city, arches were collapsing with a roar, and belfries from which showers of molten metal poured, were leaning, breaking and falling. Beams, rafters and roofs, cracking, sparking, and crumbling, plunged into a Phlegethon whose burning waves they sent leaping in a million golden spangles. Bonaparte made his escape over the cold embers of a district already reduced to ashes: he gained Petrovsky, the Tsar’s palace.

General Gourgaud, criticising Monsieur Ségur’s work, accuses the Emperor’s orderly of being in error: indeed, it seems proven, by Monsieur de Baudus’ narrative, he being aide-de-camp to Marshal Bessières, and who himself acted as guide to Napoleon, that the latter did not escape by a postern, but left by the main doorway of the Kremlin. From the shores of St Helena, Napoleon recalled the Scythian city in flames: ‘Never,’ he said, ‘despite all their poetry, could the fictional accounts of the burning of Troy equal the reality of that of Moscow.’

Remembering that catastrophe later, Bonaparte further wrote: ‘My evil genius appeared, to announce my destiny, which I met with on the Island of Elba.’ Kutuzov had first set out towards the east; then he fell back towards the south. His night march was partially lit by the distant fires of Moscow, from which rose a dismal noise; one would have said that the great bell, which had never in fact been mounted because of its immense weight, had been magically suspended at the summit of a burning steeple to sound the death-knell. Kutuzov reached Voronovo, Count Rostopchin’s estate; scarcely had he set eyes on that splendid residence when it vanished in the depths of a fresh conflagration. On the iron door of the church one could read this inscription, the scritta morta (last words), from the proprietor’s hand: ‘I have improved this land for eighteen years, and lived here happily in the bosom of my family; the inhabitants of this place, to the number of seventeen hundred and twenty, have left at your approach, and I have set fire to my house so that it might not be soiled by your presence. Frenchmen, I have left you my two houses in Moscow with contents worth half a million roubles. Here you will find nothing but ashes.


Bonaparte at first had admired the Scythian fires as a spectacle that suited his imaginings; but soon the evil which that catastrophe had worked on him chilled him and made him revert to his abusive diatribes. Sending Rostopchin’s letter to France, he added: ‘Rostopchin seems insane; the Russians consider him a kind of Marat.’ He who does not understand greatness in others will not comprehend it on his own behalf when the time for sacrifice arrives.

Alexander understood adversity without becoming despondent. ‘Retreat,’ he wrote, ‘when Europe encourages us with its regard! Let us serve it as an example; let us salute the hand which chose us to be first among nations in the cause of virtue and liberty.’ An invocation to the Lord On High follows.

A style in which the words God, virtue and liberty are found is powerful: it pleases men, reassures and consoles them; how superior it is to those affected phrases, sadly imprinted with pagan locutions, and Turkish fatalism: it was to be, they had to be, fatality has overcome them! sterile phraseology, always idle, even when applied to the greatest of actions.

Leaving Moscow during the night of the 15th of September, Napoleon re-entered it on the 18th. While returning he had come across camp-fires burning in the mud, fed with mahogany furniture and gilded panelling. Around these fires in the open air were blackened, mud-stained soldiers, dressed in rags, lying on silk sofas or sitting in velvet armchairs, with Kashmir shawls, Siberian furs, or golden fabrics from Paris as carpets, in the mud, beneath their feet, and eating blackened paste, or the blood-stained flesh of dead horses, from silver dishes.

Irregular looting having started, it was regularized; each regiment fell upon the quarry in turn. Peasants driven from their huts, Cossacks, and enemy deserters, roamed around the French camps and fed on whatever our squads had left behind. Everything that could be carried away was taken; soon, overloaded with their spoils, our soldiers threw them away, on happening to remember that they were fifteen hundred miles from home.

The expeditions they undertook, searching for provisions, produced some pathetic scenes: one French squad brought back a cow; a woman approached them, accompanied by a man carrying a child of a few months old in his arms; they pointed to the cow that had just been taken from them. The mother tore at the wretched clothes covering her breasts, to show she had no milk left; the father made a gesture as if to break the child’s head on a stone. The officer made his men return the cow, and he adds: ‘The effect this scene had on my soldiers was such that, for a long time, not a single word was spoken in the ranks.’

Bonaparte’s dreams had altered; he announced that he wished to march on St Petersburg; he had already mapped out the route; he explained the excellence of his new plan, the certainty of entering the empire’s second capital: ‘What had he to do from now on with ruins? Was it not sufficiently glorious for him to have been enthroned in the Kremlin?’ Such were Napoleon’s fresh fantasies; the man touched madness, but his dreams were still those of a great spirit.

‘We are only fifteen day’s march from St Petersburg,’ says Monsieur Fain: ‘Napoleon thinks of falling back towards that capital.’ Instead of fifteen day’s march, at that time, in those circumstances, one ought to say two months. General Gourgaud adds that all the information from St Petersburg indicated fear regarding Napoleon’s movements. It is certain that in St Petersburg no one doubted his victory if he appeared; but they prepared to leave him the carcass of a second city, and a retreat to Archangel was planned. You cannot subjugate a nation whose final citadel is the Pole. Moreover the English fleet, penetrating the Baltic in the spring, would simply have destroyed St Petersburg once taken.

But while Bonaparte’s unbridled imagination toyed with the idea of an expedition to St Petersburg, he was seriously occupied with the contrary idea: his belief in his dreams was not such as to rob him of all good sense. His dominating thought was to carry a peace treaty to Paris signed in Moscow. In that way he would avoid the dangers of a retreat, he would have accomplished an astonishing feat, and he would return to the Tuileries olive branch in hand. After the first note he had written to Alexander on arriving at the Kremlin, he had neglected the opportunity of renewing his advances. In an affable discussion with a Russian field officer, Monsieur de Toutelmine, assistant director of the FoundlingsHospital in Moscow, a hospital miraculously spared by the fire, he had let slip words favourable to reaching an accommodation. Through Monsieur Jacowleff, brother of the former Russian Minister in Stuttgart, he wrote directly to Alexander, and Monsieur Jacowleff undertook to hand this letter to the Tsar personally. Finally General Lauriston was sent to Kutuzov: the latter promised his good offices towards a peace negotiation; but he refused to grant General Lauriston a safe-conduct for St Petersburg.

Napoleon remained convinced that he exercised the same power over Alexander that he had exercised at Tilsit and Erfurt, and yet, on the 21st of October Alexander wrote to Prince Michael Larcanowitz: ‘I learn, to my extreme dissatisfaction, that General Bennigsen has met with the King of Naples………………..All the specifics contained in the orders which were addressed to you by myself should have convinced you that my resolution is unshakeable, and that at this time no proposal by the enemy could commit me to terminating the war, and so weakening the sacred duty of avenging the motherland.’

The Russian generals took advantage of the self-esteem and naivety, of Murat, who commanded the vanguard; continually delighted by the Cossacks’ attentiveness, he borrowed jewels from his officers to give them as presents to his courtiers from the Don; but the Russian generals, far from desiring peace, dreaded it. Despite Alexander’s resolve, they knew their Emperor’s weakness, and feared the persuasiveness of ours. In order to achieve vengeance, it was merely a matter of gaining a month, in order to await the first frost: the Muscovite Christians’ prayers were supplications to heaven to bring on the storms.

General Wilson arrived, in his capacity as English emissary to the Russian Army; he had already crossed Bonaparte’s path in Egypt. Fabvier, for his part, had rejoined our army of the north from that of the south. The English urged Kutuzov to attack, and everyone knew that the news Fabvier brought was far from good. At two ends of Europe, the two nations who alone fought for their freedom, threatened the head of Moscow’s conqueror. No reply came from Alexander; the French troops lingered; Napoleon’s anxiety grew; the peasants warned our soldiers: ‘You don’t know our climate,’ they said, ‘in a month’s time the cold will make your nails drop off.’ Milton, whose great fame embellishes everything, in his Brief History of Moscovia, says, as naively, that it is: ‘so cold in winter, that the very sap of their wood fuel burning on the fire, freezes at the brand’s end, where it drops.’

Bonaparte, believing that one reverse step would lesson his prestige and cause the fear of his name to evaporate, could not bring himself to back down: despite the warnings of imminent peril, he remained there, waiting all the while for a reply from St Petersburg; he, who had conducted himself with such contempt, sighed for a few wretched words from the defeated. In the Kremlin he occupied himself with regulations for the Comédie-Française; he spent three evenings completing this majestic work; with his aides he discussed the merit of some new verses received from Paris; those around him admired the great man’s sang-froid, while the wounded from his latest battles were still dying in terrible pain, and while, by delaying a few more days, he condemned to death the hundred thousand men who remained. The servile stupidity of the age tries to pass this pitiful affectation off as the design of an incommensurable spirit.

Bonaparte toured the Kremlin buildings. He descended and then re-ascended the staircase on which Peter the Great had the Strelitz guards murdered; he walked up and down the banquet hall where Peter had the prisoners assembled, lashing out at the head of one of them between each glass, proposing to his guests, princes and ambassadors, to divert themselves in the same way. Men were then broken on the wheel, and women buried alive; they hung two thousand of the Strelitz whose bodies were left dangling from the walls.

Instead of instructions regarding the theatre, Bonaparte would have done better to write to the Senate (Conservateur) the letter which Peter wrote to the Moscow Senate from the banks of the Pruth: ‘I announce to you, that misled by bad advice, and without it being my fault, I find my camp here surrounded by a force four times larger than mine. If I am taken, you are no longer to consider me as your lord and Tsar, nor to take account of any order which may be sent to you in my name, even if you recognise it as being in my own hand. If I perish, you must choose the worthiest of you as my successor.’

A note of Napoleon’s addressed to Cambacérès contained unintelligible orders: there was some deliberation, and though the signature on the note was a lengthened form of a classical name, the writing being recognised as Bonaparte’s, it was decreed that the unintelligible orders be executed.

The Kremlin contains a Double Throne for a pair of brothers: Napoleon chose not to share his. In one of the rooms a stretcher could be seen, shattered by a cannonball, on which the wounded Charles XII had been carried at the Battle of Pultava. Always eclipsed in the ranks of generous feeling, did Bonaparte remember, on visiting the tombs of the Tsars, that on feast-days they were covered with magnificent palls; that when a subject had some favour to solicit, he laid his petition on one of the tombs, and only the Tsar had the right to remove it?

These requests of the unfortunate, presented by death to majesty, were not to Napoleon’s taste. He was occupied with other cares; partly out of a desire for deception, partly because it was his nature, he planned, as he did on leaving Egypt, to summon actors to Moscow, and he declared that an Italian singer would be arriving. He despoiled the Kremlin churches, filled his wagons with sacred ornaments and icons, along with the crescents and horse-tails captured from the Mohammedans. He had the huge cross taken down from Ivan the Great’s bell-tower; his plan was to install it on the dome of the Invalides: it would have complemented the masterpieces of the Vatican with which he had adorned the Louvre. While they were detaching this cross, crows flew about it cawing: ‘What do those birds want with me?’ Bonaparte asked.

The fatal moment approached: Daru raised objections to various plans sketched out by Bonaparte: ‘What path should we take, then?’ the Emperor exclaimed. – ‘Remain here; turn Moscow into a vast fortified camp; spend the winter here; salt down the horses that we are unable to feed; and wait for spring: our reinforcements and the Lithuanian army will relieve us and complete the conquest.’ – ‘That’s a lion’s counsel,’ replied Napoleon; but what would Paris say? France will not countenance my absence.’ – ‘What do they say of me in Athens? Alexander the Great would ask.

He plunged again into uncertainty: should he go, or should he stay? He was unsure. Countless deliberations followed. Finally a skirmish at Vinkovo, on the 18th of October, persuaded him to leave the ruins of Moscow with his army: that same day, without fuss or noise, without a backward look, wishing to avoid the direct route to Smolensk, he took one of the two roads to Kaluga.

For thirty-five days, like those fearsome African serpents that sleep when they have dined, he had lost sight of himself: this it would seem was the time needed to alter the fate of such a man. During that period the star of his destiny sank in the sky. At last he awoke, caught between winter and a burned-out capital; he slipped away from ruin: it was too late; a hundred thousand men were condemned to die. Marshal Mortier, commanding the rear-guard, was ordered, on his retreat, to blow up the Kremlin.