Retracing Napoleon’s Russian Footsteps

I posted a few days ago about how enjoyable Moscow can be in the wintertime despite the horrific cold weather which is so legendary in the Russian capital.

The Russian winter, however, has regularly proved fatal to one type of traveler intent on reaching Moscow: the foreign soldier.

Most recently, it was Hitler’s troops who fell to the ravages of winter just 41 kilometers outside of Moscow. Before that it was Napoleon’s. Napoleon, however, accomplished what Hitler never could; he actually reached the Russian capital. He waited there for five weeks for the Czar to surrender (which he never did) and then hastily retreated as the worst part of the winter hit.

The result was catastrophic.

A fascinating article in City Paper (The Baltics States) retraces this failed military campaign and tells the story of how Napoleon marched into Russia via the Baltics with 500,000 soldiers–only to return a few months later during his winter retreat with just 40,000 remaining.

The account of this tragedy has recently resurfaced due to the discovery of a mass grave in Vilnius containing more than 2,000 of Napoleon’s soldiers who had frozen or starved to death.

It was a horrific campaign through harsh lands and stark conditions. I’ve traveled the same route via train and suffered through equally as cold Moscow winters, but I simply can’t imagine doing so on foot, across such great distances, with 19th century clothing and gear, and Cossacks shooting at me.

History, geography, and travel are indeed strange, and at times, horrific bedfellows. When you have the opportunity to combine all three together and understand their correlations, it makes for a very powerful experience indeed.