4 December 2012, 12:59

How Napoleon's soldiers settled in Russia. Part II

How Napoleon's soldiers settled in Russia. Part II

Part of the soldiers and officers of the Grande Armée chose to settle in cities rather than provinces. French POWs easily found jobs as tutors or French teachers with wealthy Russian families. The French language was highly popular in those days and knowledge of French was a must for Russian government officials, noblemen and aristocrats.

In a word, nearly 150,000 former foes were easily ‘converted’ into ordinary Russian folk. The Russian authorities made the so-called ‘émigrés’ meet fairly strict requirements: assimilation into national community, or exclusion. Without any political games that stipulate “inviolability of national mentality”, the 19th century migration policy was based on a simple principle: once in Russia, do as the Russians do and whatever good you brought in with you will be accepted with gratitude.

Napoleon’s officer Jean-Baptiste Savin was ordered to take valuables stolen from the Moscow Kremlin out of Russia. However, as he crossed the Berezina, the carriage with the Kremlin treasure sank. Frostbitten Jean Savin was picked up by Cossacks. After a year in a POW camp near Yaroslavl, he decided not to return home for fear of being brought to trial for defiling an officer’s honor and failing to fulfill the emperor’s order. He feared that he would never be able to explain the loss of the stolen treasure. The French officer settled in Saratov on the Volga, was baptized into Orthodox faith, swore allegiance to Russia and changed his name from Jean-Baptiste Savin to Ivan Savin. Ivan Savin taught at the local high school and opened an art studio. He developed a passion for painting and did historical research. In 1894, he was buried with military honors, in the presence of the governor and district commander.

French POWs helped to address a number of other issues as well. The defense of the borders of the Russian Empire was one of them. Napoleon dreamed of an empire but his dreams never came true while Russian Emperor Alexander I, dubbed ‘undercover Bonapartist’, succeeded in making these dreams come true.

As Russia continued to expand, a Siberian Cossack border regiment sprang up on the outskirts of its territory, one fourth of which consisted of soldiers and officers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. French Cossacks still live in the Nagaybaksky District of Southern Urals. They wanted to assimilate at once but were prevented by the neighbors, who wanted them to continue as an ethnic group. Napoleon’s veterans were then called up to join the Orenburg Cossack Regiment. The map of the Chelyabinsk Region still has French names – Paris, Berlin, Kassel, Fershampenuaz. Most of those fresh-baked Cossacks used to be Wurtemburg horse keepers. Over time, their names changed to acquire Russian endings.

Soldiers of the Grande Armée settled as far as Altai, in Southern Siberia. A small French community still exists in a village near Biysk. This time, it took longer to figure them out as French. Corporal Louis Albert, for one, became Andrei Vasiliev.

A detailed analysis of the biographies of the Grande Armée’s former soldiers and their descendants sheds more light on the assimilation’s time frame – former French soldiers became completely ‘russianized’ in about 20 years and their first-generation descendants easily joined the Russian elite. French ‘settlers’ made an invaluable contribution to Russia’s cultural development. The outcome of Napoleon’s campaign eastward thus serves as the best illustration to the Russian saying “every cloud had a silver lining”.

Ancestors of a number of Russian celebrities fought with Napoleon’s army in 1812. These include poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, statesman and revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinsky, Commanders Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Konstantin Rokossovsky, singer Eduard Khil.

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