November 01, 2015

Russians in Switzerland

Russians in Switzerland
Modern highways make light work of difficult Alpine terrain, although many mountain routes are still only open for traffic during the snow-free summer months. Early Russian travellers through the Alps had to contend with very difficult conditions; that applied equally to those who, like writer Nikolai Karamzin, came as inquisitive explorers, or to those who, like General Alexander Suvorov, arrived as military adventurers. The image above shows the Italian-Swiss borderlands. Susanne Kries

High in the Alps, just north of the village of Andermatt, the turbulent waters of the River Reuss tumble through a fierce gorge. Gray-green rocks tilt at angles so steep that even the nimble chamois keeps its distance from the precipitous cliffs. The spray from the furious waters creates a faint haze. A lone eagle circles in the Swiss sky, patient, watchful, alert to every movement in the deep valley below.

He who hopes to control the north-south trade through the Swiss Alps must first secure control of this wild gorge. The ancient stone bridge that ambitiously links the two sides of the chasm is called the Teufelsbrücke (Devil’s Bridge). In a huge rocky amphitheatre above the bridge, two flags flutter in the moist breeze. One is the bold, square Swiss ensign – a white cross on a red background. The other comes as a surprise to those who know nothing of the history of Switzerland in general or the Gotthard region in particular. It is the Russian tricolor: a bright splash of white, blue and red against the dark, alpine backdrop.

No other spot captures so perfectly the rich web of links between Switzerland and Russia. In fact, the two flags are part of a dramatic memorial to the army of General Alexander Suvorov, which in 1799 battled its way over the Gotthard Pass and confronted Napoleon’s forces at the Teufelsbrücke. In the ensuing military campaign, Suvorov’s army took to the mountains to avoid territory held by the French. Thousands of men, with their horses and equipment, crossed ice fields and wilderness, enduring conditions that are heroically recalled in paintings by the Russian artists Alexander Kotzebue (1815-1889) and Vasily Surikov (1848-1916).

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