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Where Napoleon Failed to Make Russia European

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 1998



STUDYONKA, BELARUS

The route from Moscow to Paris is a well-worn path, and its staging posts are heavy with history. But it was in this tiny riverside village that the most ambitious historical figure to pass this way came to grief.

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The river that runs quietly past a string of small wooden homes is the Berezina. And nowadays when a Frenchman says "C'est la Berezina," he means that something absolutely catastrophic has happened.

The original catastrophe struck Napoleon Bonaparte here in November 1812. Exhausted, half-starved, and freezing after a marathon retreat from Moscow, his Grande Arme was cut to pieces as it tried to cross the river on bridges thrown together from tree trunks.

The victorious Russian Army once and for all ended Napoleon's dream of bringing Russia into his European empire.

Who knows how European history might have unfolded had he succeeded. As it was, when I boarded the train to Borisov, the nearest town of any size to the Berezina battlefield, I was almost as unexpected a sight as a 19th-century French infantryman in full battle dress.

In Western Europe I would have been entirely anonymous in my Reebok sneakers, Levi's bluejeans, and Lands' End black-fleece pullover. However, those standard-issue clothes, well-made and properly cut, branded me as an alien among local travelers as we jolted through the countryside.

My fellow passengers were poor, like almost everybody in Belarus, and their clothes - shoddy and shapeless - reflected that.

Since I was unmistakably foreign, people steered clear of me. Was this merely a holdover from Soviet days, when it was dangerous to talk to foreigners? I wondered. Was it still dangerous in the repressive and anti-Western atmosphere the government had imposed?

Or did this mistrust of foreigners spring from deeper wells of the Belarussian psyche, scarred by repeated invasion?

At any rate, every other seat in the coach was taken before anybody came to sit by me.

The battlefield, when I got there, turned out to be a long, gently sloping field of unripe wheat, sodden from persistent rain, running down to the village of Studyonka on the other side of the river. Here 20,000 men died over three days of carnage as the tattered remnants of one of the greatest armies ever raised scrambled to escape. And Russian troops marked one of their greatest victories, sealing their country's salvation from the Napoleonic yoke.

Four monuments - three Russian and one French - mark the site today, but none of the locals seems to care much anymore about the history that lies under their plows. More immediate questions occupy their minds.

"Why doesn't anybody think about the battle nowadays?" posed Mikhail Smorgovich, a retired farm worker. "Just look at that flooded field," he replied, answering himself. "It hasn't stopped raining for five weeks now and what people are worried about are their potatoes. What do they care about Napoleon?"