Artistic Moscow : Vasily Vereshchagin in the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812
by Olivia Kroth
Vasily Vasilyovich Vereshchagin was a Russian painter who created landscapes and portraits, but gained international fame especially for his battle scenes, both contemporary and historical. He was born on the 26th of October 1842 in Cherepovets, Novgorod Governate, and died on the 13th of April 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, on the Russian battleship “Petropavlovsk“, when it detonated a Japanese mine just outside of Port Arthur in Russian Manchuria. Vasily Vereshchagin did not own a house in Moscow, where his work could be exhibited, but 18 of his paintings can be seen in the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812. This war has influenced Russian composers, painters and writers up to this very day because it was an incisive event in Russian history. Napoleon’s Russian campaign, Russia’s war against the French invaders and their final retreat from Russian soil has remained a dark memory in Russia’s collective psyche. In 2012, the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 opened to commemorate the 200-years-anniversary. This museum tells the true story of the war through sculptures and paintings, graphics and maps, documents and household items, arms and munitions, awards, medals and uniforms. The detailed reference materials make this museum truly unique. One of the halls is dedicated to Vasily Vereshchagin’s paintings of «1812: Napoleon I. in Russia». The artist worked for more than a dozen years, from 1887 until 1900, on this cycle. «Napoleon I. in Russia» moved the painter deeply, although he was born 30 years after the event.
Vasily Vasilyovich Vereshchagin (1842 – 1904):
Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812
Revolution Square 2/3 (in front of the Kremlin)
Metro stations: «Teatralnaya» or «Ploshchad Revolyutsii»
Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closed on Tuesday)
Admission fee: 200 rubels
Vasily Vereshchagin’s father, a landowner of noble birth, sent the boy to Tsarskoe Selo when he was eight years young, to start a military career in the Tsar’s Sea Cadet Corps. After graduating from the naval school of Saint Petersburg, he decided to become a painter and joined the Imperial Academy of Arts. His father, who had envisaged a military career for his son, was so enraged that he cut off all financial aid to Vasily. But the painter was able to sell his artwork very soon, towards midlife he had become wealthy, selling his pictures in Russia and abroad. Today many museums and private art collectors around the globe are proud to own some of his extraordinary paintings.
The Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 in Moscow has dedicated an entire hall to Vasily Vereshchagin’s pictures. On one side, there are ten paintings showing the Battle of Borodino and Napoleon in Moscow. On the other side, visitors can look at eight works depicting Napoleon’s retreat from Russia.
The Battle of Borodino proved to be the turning point in this war, about a third of Napoleon’s soldiers were killed or wounded. By withdrawing, The Russian Imperial Army preserved its combat strength, eventually forcing Napoleon out of the country. In this decisive battle, which took place near Borodino, a village in Mozhaysky District of today’s Moscow Oblast, the Russian Imperial Army was led by General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov (1745 – 1813), who is considered to be one of the best Russian generals of the 18th century. In recognition, Kutuzov was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal and awarded the title “His Serene Highness, Prince of Smolensk” (Kuyaz Smolensky).
War Memorial in Borodino near Moscow
The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a famous elegy for Field Marshal Kutuzov, who is also a literary figure in Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace.” Tolstoy characterizes him as a patient and wise leader, which might not be far away from the historic truth. Kutuzov was popular among the Russian troops. He was a brave man who looked out for his soldiers’ well-being. Kutuzov strongly believed in the Russian Orthodox Church. Therefore, the clergy regarded him highly. An obelisk in Borodino and a statue in Saint Petersburg commemorate Kutuzov. Furthermore, a memorial was built in Moscow in 1973 to honor Kutuzov’s leadership in the Patriotic War of 1812. An order of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation is named after him.
Field Marshal Kutuzov decided to withdraw the Russian army after this battle in order to save it as long as possible. This came at the price of losing Moscow, whose population had to be evacuated. Moscow was burned down on purpose so that Napoleon’s troops would find neither food nor water supplies in the devastated city. Kutuzov’s decision ultimately proved to be right. Napoleon had to retreat and lost most of his “Great Army” on the way back to France.
Leo Tolstoi wrote in his novel War and Peace (Part Two, Book Three): «Today, we can clearly see the reasons for the defeat of the French army. Nobody will doubt that it was wrong to march into Russia without being prepared for the winter season. Another reason was the nature of this war. Russian towns burned down, which caused the Russian population to despair and hate the enemy.» It was Napoleon’s hubris that caused his fall. His arrogance and unbridled ambition led to his loss of contact with reality. He overestimated his own capability and competence, while underestimating the Russian Imperial Army, the vastness of the Russian territory and the severity of winters in Russia.
Suffering and punishment were soon to follow. A painting with the title “Peace at all costs!” shows Napoleon in Moscow. Vasily Vereshchagin depicts the French Emperor at the height of his hubris. We are looking at a square, fattish man with pot belly and a peasant’s face. His lips are tightly closed, his eyes fierce and furious because the Russians will not surrender. His facial expression is still childish, but pouting now. He looks like a peasant bully in a Moscow salon, standing next to an elegant marble fire-place. We expect him to stamp his foot on the ground any moment, shouting “Peace at all costs!”
Leo Tolstoy also made some snide remarks about Napoleon in his novel War and Peace (Book Three, Part Three), describing the French Emperor as pretentious and pompous. Napoleon was kept waiting at the entrance of Moscow after his invitation of the Russian Boyars who were supposed to negotiate the surrender of the city with him. The Boyars, however, did not appear: «Two hours had already passed. Napoleon had lunch and placed himself on Poklonnaya Hill, waiting for the delegation. The speech he was going to hold had already formed in his mind, a speech full of grandiose dignity, as Napoleon knew. It ended with a generous attitude of condescendence towards the city of Moscow. But why did the delegation make him wait so long?»
The author used a whole page to describe the thoughts of Napoleon’s officers: «His underlings asked themselves anxiously how to tell him the news, how to let him know the truth without placing His Majesty into that shameful position which the French call ridiculous. They shrugged their shoulders but did not dare to speak the awful word aloud – ridiculousness. The Emperor, however, tired from long waiting, sensed with an actor’s instinct that by procrastination the grandiose minute began to lose its grandiosity. So he gave a wink with his hand. A cannon boomed, and after this signal the French troops started to pour into Moscow from several sides.»
Instead of accepting a peace treaty the administration of Moscow decided to burn the city so that the French troops would not find any supplies. On the 14th of September 1812, a fire broke out in the quarter of Zamoskvorechye. The name means «On the other side of the Moskva» because it was situated on the south side of the river. Zamoskvorechye was a quarter of Moscow where mostly merchants lived. They set fire to their warehouses. Wooden buildings caught on to the fire and strong winds helped to spread it fast. Vasily Vereshchagin’s painting «Blaze of Zamoskvorechye» shows a sea of orange and red flames between Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the Spasskiye Gate of the Kremlin.
The costs of this war proved to be high. On the way back the «Grande Armée» was badly damaged, almost annihilated. Over 400,000 French soldiers had set out to conquer Russia, barely 40,000 returned home. Their horses had no traction on snow and ice, due to lack of winter horseshoes. The French soldiers were not equipped for survival in temperatures below zero. Many of them froze or starved to death, as the Russians used scorched-earth tactics, burning all the villages the French troops passed through, leaving no food or water for them. Napoleon was used to foraging and plundering occupied land during his wars, but this was not possible in Russia.
Leo Tolstoi described in detail the French army’s retreat in War and Peace (Book Four, Part Three): «When harsh frosts set in, on the 28th of October, the French retreat took on a yet more tragic character. Some of the Frenchmen were freezing or roasting around camp fires until they nearly died, others – the Emperor, kings and dukes – were transported in coaches, clad in furs, taking their spoils of pillage with them. The French soldiers marched without knowing where or why they were marching. Least of all the ingenious Napoleon knew because nobody informed him.»
Vasily Vereshchagin: «Napoleon wearing Russian fur hat during his retreat»
Another painting by Vasily Vereshchagin with the title “Night Bivouac of Great Army, 1812″ shows the poor rest of the French soldiers, huddled together under thin blankets, sleeping on frozen earth. A snow storm is sweeping past them, in the foreground we see a broken wagon buried in heaps of snow. Rows of rifles are pointing upwards into the bluish-green-grey air, and we wonder how many of those soldiers are still alive, how many dead. Vasily Vereshchagin clearly was no friend of the French. The viewers can feel the painter’s satisfaction, depicting the French losses during their shameful retreat.
Some of these sleeping soldiers probably never reached France. They were constantly attacked by Russian peasants and Cossack Light Cavalry. The Cossack horsemen of the Russian steppes were well suited for reconnaissance, scouting, and harassing the enemies’ flanks, rear, supply lines and communication. Napoleon admired the Cossacks. “Cossacks are the best light troops that exist. If I had them in my army, I would go through all of the world with them,” he stated.
Vasily Vereshchagin: «French army retreating»
As Vasily Vereshchagin depicted the events of Russian history with artistic means, so Leo Tolstoy as a writer succeeded in focusing on Russia’s Patriotic War of 1812 in his famous novel of 2.000 pages. In reflective, philosophical passages of War and Peace (Book Three, Part One) he presented his thoughts about the nature of war and the importance of so-called «great men». He believed that each human life shows two faces, a personal and a social face: «Consciously, man lives for himself, but unconsciously, he serves as an instrument for historical and social purposes. The higher he is placed on the social ladder, the wider his network of human relations is spun and the more authority he wields over other people.»
On the Russian side there was Tsar Alexander. He felt personally offended by the French invasion: «To invade Russia without a declaration of war! I will not conclude peace as long as one single armed enemy can be found on the soil of my country.» Leo Tolstoy described the consequences of this war, which occured due to an unfortunate mixture of high-ranking men’s personal and political motives: «¨People from the West moved to those of the East in order to slaughter each other.» Who suffered most, though, was the Russian population. Losses and suffering are deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche, just like the battles fought and won. The victories gained in the Patriotic Wars form a strong layer in the collective memory of the Russian nation.
USSR 1987: One ruble coin “Borodino”
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.