In September of 1812, French troops were in Moscow, fruitlessly waiting for Emperor Alexander I to begin peace negotiations – on Napoleon’s terms, of course. By September 1814, there had been a dramatic turnaround. The intervening years had seen the Fire of Moscow, the deadly retreat of the Grande Armée along the snow-covered Smolensk Road, heavy fighting in Europe, and, finally, the capitulation of French forces and Napoleon’s banishment to Elba.
In his never-completed tenth chapter of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin describes this turn of events in terms not terribly kind to Russia’s leadership:
A monarch weak and also cunning,
A fop gone bald, toil’s arrant foe,
Whom fame had, by strange chance, been sunning,
Was then our ruler, as you know.
He looked more crestfallen than regal
When all the foreign cooks were bent
On plucking the two-headed eagle
Not far from Bonaparte’s tent.
And who, then, came to our assistance
When we were bowed beneath the rod
In 1812? The folk’s resistance,
The winter, Barclay, Russia’s God?
God helped, complaints did not embarrass
The State for long; the course of things
Soon brought us, if you please, to Paris,
Where Russia’s tsar was king of kings.*
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