A Moscow Napoleonic reenactor faces a murder charge after dismembering his lover, The Washington Post reported. He had her severed arms in a backpack when he was found drunk in a river last week. It isn’t Napoleon’s first blunder in Russia.
While being questioned by police, history professor Oleg Sokolov, 63, admitted to murdering his girlfriend, 24-year-old student Anastasia Yeshchenko. Sokolov is believed to have dismembered and decapitated Yeshchenko after shooting her. Professor Sokolov is also widely considered to be Russia’s premier performer in historical reenactments of the Napoleonic Wars. The irony is that Napoleon himself began his historical decline in Russia after an utter failure of an invasion in 1812.
Doomed from the Start
Long before Adolf Hitler struggled to have a military invasion of Russia, Napoleon planned a military campaign in the country, equally as prone to failure, if not more so.
“Anyone who hoped to conquer Russia had two formidable obstacles to overcome before even considering the Russian army,” said Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete, Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. “The first of these was the sheer size of the country, which could just swallow up an invading army—it could stretch out the army’s supply lines and wear it down. To reach any of the key Russian cities, such as St. Petersburg or Moscow, an attacker had to traverse hundreds of miles of featureless grassy plains.”
Then there was the winter. “If a campaign was not concluded before the onset of Russia’s legendarily harsh winters, the cold and the snow could obliterate an entire army,” Dr. Aldrete said.
Despite knowing all this, Napoleon’s ego got the better of him. He planned to march rapidly towards Moscow, assuming that as soon as word reached the Russians of his army, they would try to stop him well before he reached Moscow. He was sure that his army, delivering a swift and terrible blow to the Russian military, would essentially scare the Russians into submission, devastating their morale and their will to fight.
Things did not go according to plan.
Expectation vs. Reality
If Napoleon considered the Russian winter, his first setback was in failing to consider Russia’s summer. He marched 700,000 men through 100-degree heat and they dropped like flies.
“The soldiers suffered from dehydration, some were felled by dysentery, and others just dropped dead of heatstroke,” Dr. Aldrete said. “Before even encountering the Russians, the army was decreasing rapidly. For example, one especially hard-hit company was reduced from its normal strength of 150 men down to only 38 combat-ready soldiers.”
Along the road to Moscow, every time Napoleon approached a band of Russian soldiers, rather than give him the symbolic battle he sought, they retreated further in order to draw Napoleon’s army into the country. The French army’s numbers dwindled alongside their chances, but Napoleon refused to cut his losses and retreat. After a bloody battle in the town of Borodino, the Russians even abandoned Moscow itself and fled further east in order to regroup. Even this, however, didn’t give Napoleon a decisive victory in the country.
“On October 13, the first light snow fell on the city, and this event seems to have finally galvanized Napoleon into action,” Dr. Aldrete said. “Swallowing the bitter pill that the invasion had failed to achieve its strategic objective, he realized that the priority now was to extract what was left of his army so that it could live to fight another day.”
This retreat dragged on into Russia’s bitterly cold winter. Napoleon abandoned his army and returned to Paris alone, leaving them to fend for themselves.
“The last weeks of the abandoned army’s march were among the worst,” Dr. Aldrete said. “The temperatures dipped to 25 degrees below zero, the food was long gone, and the men were reduced to shambling, frozen, skeletal figures. Even now, so close to the end, many could take no more and they shot themselves. Also, incidents of cannibalism increased.”
Word of the ordeal reached Paris and many of Napoleon’s allies turned against him, opening the path for his downfalls at Leipzig and Waterloo. Russia had broken Napoleon.
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete contributed to this article. Dr. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master’s degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan.