Tag Archives: Russia

“The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

27 Aug

“The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (597p)1

The Idiot is considered one of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces. Dostoyevsky is a literary giant from the Golden Age of Russian literature in the 19th century – The Idiot was first published in 1869 in St. Petersburg, later being published into English after the turn of the century. The Idiot is the story of Prince Lev Myshkin, an “imperfectly perfect man”, and his return to Russia following convalescence for his idiocy (epilepsy), where upon he is thrust into the middle of a struggle between a right kept woman and a gorgeous, virtuous girl, both after his affection.

(plot summary from SparkNotes)
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a fair-haired young man in his late twenties and a descendant of one of the oldest Russian lines of nobility, arrives in St. Petersburg on a November morning. He has spent the last four years in a Swiss clinic fir treatment of his “idiocy” and epilepsy. Myshkin’s only relation in St. Petersburg is the very distant Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin. Madame Yepanchin is the wife of General Yepanchin, a wealthy and respected man in his late fifties. The prince makes the acquaintance of the Yepanchins, who have three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya, the latter being the youngest and the most beautiful. General Yepanchin has an ambitious and rather vain assistant by the name of Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin (nicknamed Ganya) whom Myshkin also meets during his visit to the household. Ganya, though he is actually in love with Aglaya, is in the midst of trying to marry Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov, an extraordinarily beautiful “fatal woman” who was once the mistress of the aristocrat Totsky. Totsky has promised Ganya 75,000 rubles if he marries the “fallen” Nastassya Filippovna. As Myshkin is so innocent and naïve, Ganya openly discusses the subject of the proposed marriage in front of the prince.

The prince rents a room in the Ivolgin apartment, also occupied by Ganya, his sister, Varvara Ardalyonovna (Varya); his mother, Nina Alexandrovna; teenage brother, Nikolai (Kolya); his father, General Ivolgin; and another lodger by the name of Ferdyshchenko. Nastassya Filippovna arrives and attempts to insult Ganya’s family, which has refused to accept her as a possible wife for Ganya. Myshkin, however, stops her, putting her behavior to shame. Suddenly a rowdy crowd of drunks and rogues arrives, headed by Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, a dark-haired twenty-seven-year-old who is passionately in love with Nastassya Filippovna. Rogozhin promises to bring 100,000 rubles to Nastassya Filippovna’s birthday party scheduled for that evening at which she is to announce whether she will marry Ganya or not. Among the guests at the party are Totsky, General Yepanchin, Ganya, Ferdyshchenko, Ptitsyn—a usurer friend of Ganya’s who is a suitor to Varya Ivolgin—and a few others. With the help of Kolya, Prince Myshkin arrives as well, though uninvited. Following the prince’s advice, Nastassya Filippovna refuses Ganya’s proposal. Rogozhin arrives with the promised 100,000 rubles, but suddenly Myshkin himself offers to marry Nastassya Filippovna, announcing that he has recently learned he has a large inheritance. Though shocked at such a generous offer by an honest and generous heart, Nastassya Filippovna only deems herself worthy of being with Rogozhin, so she leaves the party with Rogozhin and his gang.

Prince Myshkin spends the next six months following Nastassya Filippovna as she runs from Rogozhin to the prince and back. Myshkin’s inheritance turns out to be smaller than expected, and it shrinks further as he satisfies the claims of creditors and alleged relatives, many of which are fraudulent. Finally, the Prince returns to St. Petersburg and visits Rogozhin’s house, which is a dark and dreary place. They discuss religion and exchange crosses. However, later that day, Rogozhin attempts to stab Myshkin in the hall of the prince’s hotel, but the prince is saved when he has a sudden epileptic fit. Several days later, Myshkin leaves for Pavlovsk, a nearby town popular for summer residence among St. Petersburg nobility. The prince rents several rooms from Lebedev, a rogue functionary. Most of the novel’s characters—the Yepanchins, the Ivolgins, Varya and her husband Ptitsyn, and Nastassya Filippovna—spend the summer in Pavlovsk as well.

Burdovsky, a young man who claims himself to be the son of Myshkin’s late benefactor, Pavlishchev, comes to the prince and demands money from him as a “just” reimbursement for Pavlishchev’s support of the Prince. Burdovsky is supported by a group of insolent young men who include the consumptive seventeen-year old Hippolite Terentyev, a friend of Kolya Ivolgin. Although Burdovsky’s claim is obviously fraudulent—he is not Pavlishchev’s son at all—Myshkin is ready and willing to help Burdovsky financially.

The prince spends much of his time at the Yepanchins’. Soon, those around him realize that he is in love with Aglaya and that she most likely returns his feelings. However, a haughty, willful, and capricious girl, she refuses to admit her love for Prince Myshkin, and often even openly mocks him. Aglaya’s family begins to treat him as her fiancé, and they even hold a dinner party with many renowned guests who are members of Russian high society. Myshkin, during the course of an agitated and ardent speech on religion and the future of aristocracy, accidentally breaks a beautiful Chinese vase. Later in the evening he has a mild epileptic fit. The guests and the family are convinced that the seemingly sickly prince is not a good match for Aglaya.

Aglaya, however, does not renounce Myshkin, and even arranges a meeting between herself and Nastassya Filippovna, who has been writing letters to Aglaya to convince her to marry Myshkin. During this meeting, the two women force the Prince to choose between his romantic love for Aglaya and his compassionate pity-love for Nastassya Filippovna. Myshkin hesitates briefly, which prompts Aglaya to run off, breaking all hope of an engagement between them. Nastassya Filippovna wishes to marry the Prince again, but in the end she proves unable to bring herself to do so, instead running off with Rogozhin at the last minute. The Prince follows the two to St. Petersburg the next day and finds that Rogozhin has stabbed Nastassya Filippovna during the night. The two men keep vigil over her body, which Rogozhin has laid out in his study. The epilogue relates that Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia, that Prince Myshkin loses his mind and returns to the Swiss sanitarium, and that Aglaya leaves Russia with a Polish count who lies to her and soon abandons her.
(end plot summary)

This was the second Dostoyevsky book I have read (the first was Crime and Punishment), bought from a second-hand bookstore in the city for $6. So I knew what I was getting myself in for tackling one of Dostoyevsky’s novels, particularly as I was only 19 at the time I read The Idiot. It wasn’t easy to read and I found it one of the more challenging novels I have ever read. A lot of the difficulty I had with The Idiot was the pace of the novel, which moved at the speed of a tortoise on a sedative. It is certainly a departure to what I am used to reading, then and now, but I found a lot of Dostoyevsky’s narrative to be completely boring. Boring and unnecessary and pointless. There is one scene; I forget where specifically, but at length a description of a veranda (porch) was given that went for three or four pages. Every little minute detail was put in front of me, but it was boring and not needed and I didn’t care.

Was it something I was missing? Is this sort of thing a hallmark of Russian literature I simply don’t get? I don’t know, it was this sort of humdum narrative that gradually turned me off The Idiot the more I read. I grew to dislike it the longer it went and for some reason, I kept reading until I eventually finished it. Forcing yourself to finish a novel is never a good sign you enjoyed it – and, to be honest, I didn’t. I liked it at the start and enjoyed some of the characters but the longer it went on the more I wanted to put it down and call it quits. The part spent at a summer retreat was painful and the part I hated most. I didn’t necessarily hate The Idiot, but I didn’t really like it all that much either and I was glad to have it finished when I finally did. Thank god I bought it for $6 …

It’s probably wrong of me to trash something of Dostoyevsky’s like this. Who am I to say this when Dostoyevsky is hailed as one of the greatest writers of all-time, a giant among giant Russian authors? I don’t know, maybe I’m not intelligent enough or have the patience to appreciate a work such as The Idiot, but I didn’t like it all that much. That is fairly obvious. By all means, read it yourself. I’m not discrediting Dostoyevsky and doubting his place in literature, but for me … eh, it’s just not my thing. I’ll stick to what I know and love I think.


1 page length depends on which translation you have, mine is the 1913 translation by Constance Garnett.


“Bones of the Hills,” by Conn Iggulden

3 Jul

“Bones of the Hills,” by Conn Iggulden (540p)

Bones of the Hills is the third and final novel in Conn Iggulden’s trilogy of the life of Genghis Khan and the formation of the Mongol Empire. Depicting the conquest of Central Asia and the war against the Khwarezm-Shah Empire, it also tells the story of Genghis’ later life as Great Khan and the looming succession crisis facing the Mongols once Genghis is gone between his three ambitious sons.

After the conquest of Yenking (see Lords of the Bow here), Genghis Khan had sent his three eldest sons Jochi, Chagatai and Ogedai on scouting and conquering missions to lands far from the ancestral Mongol homeland to practice and hone their skills. Jochi had travelled to Russia under the tutelage of Tsubodai, Ogedai had ventured south in pursuit of the Chinese Emperor to Kaifeng with his uncle Khasar, while Chagati had accompanied Jelme to Goryeo (modern Korea) in search of spoils, tribute and submission from the ruling Wang Dynasty. But now Genghis was calling them back to the fold of his Mongol nation, the great horde, for a coming war.

The Arab lands to the south had greatly affronted Genghis by refusing his envoys and offers of trade, brutally killing his ambassadors and scouts and returning their heads. Genghis, taking great offence and hurt to seeing his wishes challenged, declares war on the leader of these unknown people, Shah Muhammad II of Khwarezm and plans to take almost his entire nation south-west to the desert and mountains with a force 200,000 strong. In rapid succession Genghis, his brothers and sons, and generals destroy Shah Muhammad’s armies and cities with a great victory outside Otrar, reducing the Khwarezm army to ruins. Genghis turns his vengeance on Otrar itself, destroying the city and forever reducing it to ruin. He sacked and destroyed Merv and Urgench and conquered Burhkara and the great city of Samarkand with ease. Only the exiled princes of the deceased Shah, chased beyond the Caspian Sea, remained to challenge Genghis’ control over the Khwarezm Empire. He also had to deal with threats on his life by fanatical Shia Muslim assassins and rode to batter their secret fortresses deep in the Persian mountains, destroying their order for good. Returning to Samarkand, Genghis sat idle with his people and began to contemplate the final years of his life. Did he turn to civilisation and cities and keep his people in one place or return to the nomadic existence they had known all their lives? Genghis was also faced with the succession as he grew older. He had groomed Chagatai for the role all his life and spurned Jochi, the eldest son, but their continued rivalry and fighting amongst the nation humiliated Genghis and his reputation, and so he named Ogedai as his successor and swore his family and people to follow Ogedai once Genghis was gone.

Rebellion soon surfaced. The son of the dead Shah, Jelaudin, had returned with an army travelling north from the southern reaches of the Khwarezm Empire and beyond, from India and the Afghan lands. Despite sending Kachiun and Jelme, Jelaudin inflicted the first crushing defeat on Genghis Khan’s Mongols in history, forcing Genghis to take the field himself. Genghis was without Tsubodai, though, as the legendary general had been sent north (to somewhere in Siberia) to retrieve Jochi after the khan’s son had refused to return to camp following a scouting mission, disobeying Genghis and forcing Tsubodai into the heart wrenching (at least for him) decision to execute him. Despite Tsubodai’s absence Genghis routed the last Arab army on the banks of the Indus, destroying the force completely even if Jelaudin escaped. His last tasks in the Arab lands was to exact revenge on the rebellious cities that had gone against him and he turned Herat and Balkh into virtual ghost towns.

With Samarkand and Bukhara already in his power he turned east and headed for home with one more war to fight as the Xi Xia kingdom had rebelled against the Mongols, thinking them to be too far stretched to keep power. Genghis headed east but did not make it – he fell from his horse and soon died, leaving the Mongol nation to his son Ogedai with brothers Khasar and Kachiun and Tsubodai, Jebe and Jelme to rule. Genghis’ final wish was fulfilled as his family exacted revenge on the Xi Xia kingdoms, utterly destroying them with Ogedai at the head of a new Mongol nation.

You know when you are really looking forward to something and when you finally get it, it wasn’t quite as good as you were hoping? That’s sort of how I feel about Bones of the Hills. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite a good novel. Very good, in fact. I had been eagerly anticipating the mass market paperback release since the gripping finish of Lords of the Bow last year and perhaps that had something to do with it, but I just felt it wasn’t nearly as good as I hoping it to be. This is mainly because certain parts of it dragged, particularly in a lot of the sections devoted to Jelaudin and the dying Shah on the run from the Mongols. Too often I felt Iggulden switched point of view to them for an irrelevant passage that did not need to be there, and I felt that could have been done without. The middle parts of the novel rather lacked some direction as well and it was a bit of a situation where I thought the characters were all standing around waiting to get into the next part, and a lot of useless passages could have probably been done without to keep the pace moving at the sort of speed I have grown used to when reading Iggulden. It is more or less the only section of the trilogy I have actually disliked.

The dynamics of the novel changed quite a lot as well. Previously, Genghis’ brothers Kachiun and Khasar were integral to the story, but they were largely anonymous for the most part in Bones of the Hills, only forming peripheries to the story and then only becoming important again right towards the end. This was something I didn’t like because I always enjoyed Khasar as a character, Iggulden depicted him quite differently from his infinitely more serious brothers. He lightened the mood and allowed the reader a respite from the brutality and ruthlessness of Genghis, and I felt the novel suffered with him absent. Genghis himself dominates most of the narrative, as expected, and Iggulden has certainly captured the many contradictions of this man to create the image of a truly ruthless military mastermind but also genial family man true to his roots as a Mongol. The shift away from his brothers to the others in the nation in the narrative continued with Jochi being such a focal point for most of the novel. Iggulden is favourable to Jochi, presenting him as a brilliant military mind and charismatic general, and again went to great lengths to create the intolerable way Genghis treated his first son. Their relationship is quite interesting and develops a lot early, first going from grudging tolerance and then to open hostility when Jochi finally rebelled. Jochi is such an interesting character and is one of the most developed in the trilogy and while I missed Khasar I enjoyed Jochi’s presence, and I don’t think there are many people who couldn’t feel sympathy for Jochi with the way Genghis treated him throughout his life.

I have enjoyed this trilogy a lot. Iggulden’s style is easy to appreciate and follow – he moves at a fast pace, going from battle to battle and creating his world in effortless strides that produces a proper page turner. It is easy to get lost in this series and demolish several dozen pages in one sitting. I didn’t think he ended it right, though, and don’t think Bones of the Hills is the best of the three, but on the whole it would be hard to say I was overly disappointed because it was a good novel, just not as a good as the one that came before it because of that rather dreary middle section. To complete the trilogy it is a must read and caps off the life of Genghis Khan perfectly. At no point do you ever lose sight that this man was the scared little boy left alone by the tribes when his father was murdered, even if he was then the most powerful man in the world. Iggulden has captured the life and spirit and personality of one of history’s most complex and interesting figures superbly and done so in a way that makes you fly through the pages and want to read more, and for that I recommend it to anyone if they are captivated by military adventure historical novels. I am, that’s why I can’t wait for the second trilogy and the rest of the life of Ogedai Khan.


“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser

23 May

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser (321p)

1854-1855: Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Conquest of Central Asia

Flashman at the Charge is the fourth in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series of a false-memoir detailing the life and times of the heroic but cowardly Harry Flashman. Written in 1973, Flashman at the Charge takes Flashman to the front of the Crimean War and details his involvement in not only the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade but also his exploits on the wild steppe frontier of Central Asia.

Britain and her continental allies were hurtling toward war with Russia, with disputes over sovereign authority of the Holy Land at the heart of it (for more, go here). Flashman, meanwhile, is kicking about on half-pay while scheming to prepare his way out of the inevitable conflict by taking up a position with the Ordnance Board. All seems to be going well until Flashman’s reputation as a gallant and valiant officer comes to the attention of Prince Albert, where Flashman is tasked by the prince consort to be the guardian and mentor of one of Victoria’s cousins, Prince William of Celle. Despite his every attempt to avoid it Flashman and Prince William are soon packed off to the war front so the young prince can experience what war is all about. Prince William is soon killed at the Alma and Flashman himself falls desperately ill with cholera, recovering only in time to rejoin his aide-de-camp duties on the 25th of October; the day of Balaclava and the day of the most infamous cavalry charge in history.

Flashy’s day starts off in the usual fashion as disaster quickly befalls him. While carrying messages across the battlefields he finds himself trapped with Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders as the Russian cavalry attacked, and then with Scarlett’s heavy brigade as they chased the Russian cavalry uphill in a daring charge. All the while Flashman just wants to go and have a lie down with his stomach still ailing him terribly. He almost manages to get away from further duty after Raglan sends an order to Cardigan in the care of Louis Nolan until needing to add further instruction to his order, so he sends Flashman after Nolan to catch him. Unknowingly, Flashman was about to see himself thrown into the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. He survives, somehow, but is taken prisoner by the Russians. Flashman is at first bundled off to a makeshift prisoner of war camp away from the battlefield, but as an officer he is then transferred to be a hostage (more like a guest) at the home of a trusted landowner in the Ukrainian countryside.

At the home of Count Pencherjevsky Flashman is reunited with Harry “Scud” East (from Tom Brown’s Schooldays), also taken prisoner, and spends many weeks in the company of the Cossack Count Pencherjevsky and his family, including his daughter Valentina, who Flashman is unable to resist spending a few late night’s with in the bedroom. One such late night sees Flashman and the curious Scud East, curious of the constant arrivals of other guests to the Pencherjevsky house, chance upon a meeting of several Russian military and government officials planning an invasion of British-held India. When the opportunity arises Flashman and East escape, taking Valentina with them, and head off for the Crimea and the safety of the British army. They almost make it but Flashman is re-captured by Count Pavel Ignatiev and quickly locked up again, before taken across southern Russia and deep into Central Asia, blackmailed into acting as a double agent in Ignatiev’s scheme to end British rule in India.

While imprisoned at a fort on the Aral Sea coast Flashman meets Yakub Beg and Izzet Kutebar, two Tajik warlords and befriends them. They are soon rescued by Beg’s men and whisked off to the wild steppe (modern Uzbekistan) by Beg’s lover, a Chinese castout woman. There, Beg and his followers hatch a plan to halt the Russian advance over their own lands by performing a near-suicidal attack on the arriving magazine ships, thus destroying any hope of an immediate attack on the Central Asian khanates and eventually British India. Flashman, drugged with hashish, leads the attack and they are successful, allowing him to steal away from Ignatiev and flee into British India. The story is continued in Flashman and the Great Game.

I have always said this is my favourite Flashman novel and, having just re-read it for the third time, my opinion on that front has definitely not changed. I loved it again just as I did the first time. It is, as the endorsement on the front cover suggests, vintage Flashman. That means it is wildly entertaining, superbly written, historically accurate, engaging and engrossing, amusing and with perfect characterisation. Flashman himself is on the top of his game as Fraser presents the anti-hero in his usual swagger – cowardly, perpetually horny, deceptive, lecherous and resourceful. The way he paints the picture of Flashman trying to get his way out of doing anything remotely dangerous while maintaining his public face of a gallant hero, with Flashman’s own running commentary, makes for tremendously amusing reading and a number of laughs. The history is very strong as well and Fraser provides a first class account of the ineptitude of the Crimean War and the events that led to a cavalry charge headlong into artillery, this is bound to make for interesting reading for any history buff as it actually reads, as it always does, that Flashman was actually there and you can essentially take his word as gospel (why not? These books are so meticulously researched you wouldn’t be wrong to quote him).

As seems to be the case with the Flashman novels, Flashman at the Charge doubles as a social commentary of the nineteenth century as well. Flashman’s travels across southern Russia should give a unique insight into the life of a common Russian peasant and their pitiful existence of subversion and submission. In addition, there is a nice social commentary on the state of the officer corps within the British army at the time (which was soon to change following the disastrous Crimean War) and the spirit of the steppe people, which is a welcome change to the present bad press people from that part of the world receive in the modern age.

A first class and immensely enjoyable read. This is the very best of a brilliant series by an exceptionally talented author and one not to be missed.


“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski

21 Sep

“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski (656p)

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow is a 2005 non-fiction historical study of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 by Polish historian Adam Zamoyski. Using a combination of contemporary diaries, later historical studies and interpretations from drawings by Johann Adam Klien and Faber de Faur Zamoyski constructs a descriptive analysis that tells the story of France’s invasion of Russia, both proceeding and during 1812.

The first part of the novel provides the lead-in and sets the tone for the events of 1812. Zamoyski spends a chapter detailing the face of the European landscape at the beginning of the second decade with Napoleon virtually as its master. At the end of 1811 Napoleon controlled the French lands and made himself King of Italy, his puppet-states in Germany (the Confederation of the Rhine), his brother-in-law Joachim Murat as King of Naples and Sicily, and his brother older Joseph as King of Spain. He had also married Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria making his father-in-law Emperor Francis II, thus dragging Austria into an uneasy alliance by marriage. Lastly, he had entangled Russia in a treaty signed at Tilsit in 1807 after he had crushed them in the previous three years, and he had beaten the only other continental nation, Prussia, so badly it was only the intervention of Alexander I that kept Prussia on the map. Meanwhile, Britain had been hemmed into the southern half of Portugal and posed next-to-no threat to Napoleon’s control over Central Europe.

Zamoyski then moves onto the second half of his background to 1812 by analysing the complicated relationship between France and Russia. Throughout, it is placated by Napoleon’s wish for peace with Russia but also his demands of them to adhere to the Continental System, a policy devised by Napoleon to damage Britain economically by blocking access to ports and making British trade redundant. Russia, of course, imported many goods from Britain as she only had limited agricultural options and as a result they blatantly ignored the Continental System, enduring Napoleon’s wrath as a result. Zamoyski hypothesises of Napoleon’s reasons for invasion, but Zamoyski believes the most likely reason for it was that he had always intended to formally put Russia under his thumb through conquest than any well-meaning treaty. Intermittent between this is the goings on at the Russian court and Alexander’s position amongst the nobility, where Zamoyski details Alexander’s tenuous grip on the throne. It had only been a few years since Alexander played his part in the assassination of his father, Paul I, and coup d’état to snatch the throne. As a result he had a less than frosty relationship with his boyars, of whom Alexander was largely dependent on to draft troops.

Nevertheless, why would Napoleon fight two wars on two campaigns, so far apart from each other at the opposite ends of Europe? He was already well entrenched in the guerrilla war in Spain, although he had been conspicuous by his absent, leaving it up to Masséna and Soult to command the campaign. But this question, of why Napoleon would fight two major campaigns simultaneously, is the main question Zamoyski asks (the second being the question of Poland) as the narrative rumbles along leading up to his mobilisation of le Grande Armée in spring of 1812.

Napoleon assembles the largest army to date to march on Russia. Le Grande Armée consisted of an estimated 610,000 soldiers and officers drawn from France, Italy, Germany, the Duchy of Warsaw and a nominal corps from Austria and Prussia that had been required by treaty and marriage. Through Napoleon’s adjutant, Armand Caulaincourt, Zamoyski constructs the early weeks of the campaign as the French stormed through modern Lithuania and Belarus and into Russia itself more or less unopposed. Russia’s tactics to fall back deeper and deeper into Russia were already at work.

When not discussing and analysing the French advance into Russia, Zamoyski, through Caulaincourt, poses the question how much of an affect did Napoleon’s ailing health have on the campaign? Throughout, Napoleon was uncharacteristically undeceive and unable to make a clear aim for the campaign. Likewise, Zamoyski shifts back to the goings-on at the Russian court and the demise of Barclay de Tolly and his replacement with the popular charismatic yet incompetent Mikhail Kutuzov. From there, come the battles that led to Borodino, which of course did irreparable damage to le Grande Armée as they collapsed into a Moscow on fire.

France is devastated as Moscow burns. It had been Napoleon’s goal to capture the city, with its obvious large food stocks for the coming winter, and billet there until winter had passed. Russia had other plans and instead set Moscow ablaze, burning about a third of the city (mostly comprised of wooden buildings) completely and rendering it about 70% destroyed as a whole. Napoleon demanded Russia’s defeat but Alexander and Kutuzov did not even give it a thought – why would they? They were safe behind Moscow; or in Alexander’s case, in his imperial capital at St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles to the north in safety. But Moscow was lost for both sides. Gone was food and housing and the French soldiers went on les maraud. Churches and other places of business were ransacked, homes of the nobles were looted, women were raped and gangs of Russian men roamed the city, looking for a fight with the largely drunk soldiers. Zamoyski describes les maraud in intricate detail, owed to a painting by an unknown artist depicting French soldiers storming a house and looting and raping the inhabitants as well as the diary kept by Caulaincourt. They spend around three weeks in Moscow as Napoleon is forced to lick his wounds and come up with an escape plan.

But Napoleon has no plan other than to run for the Prussian border, some 900km west. Here is the greatest triumph of 1812 with Zamoyski’s brilliantly detailed description of France’s flight from Moscow. Winter was already setting in, food was scarce, uniforms and equipment were falling apart, and they were constantly harangued by Cossacks out for revenge. The retreat to the border is not for the weak of stomach as every bloody gory horrible detail is described. This includes one particular story of a woman breastfeeding her newborn that had frozen to death, but the child was still living and crying, so a soldier pulled the child off the frozen woman’s breast ripping the breast clean off the woman’s body. The hopelessness of the retreat is brought to life as le Grande Armée dies by the thousand as Napoleon flees ahead of the main pact and hurries back to Paris, but eventually they make it to the Prussian border after the terrifying crossing of the Berezina, where even more die after falling into the freezing water when the bridge boats collapse. As the last men cross the border, with Marshal Ney one of the final to cross, le Grande Armée had been reduced from 610,000 soldiers to barely 25,000. So too had Napoleon’s myth died.

1812 truly is an excellent, detailed and historically accurate historical study of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Russia. If there is one criticism of this novel to bad had is that it mostly tells the story from the French perspective, there being more French sources than Russian available, but the Russian side does get plenty of attention regardless. But otherwise, it is a superb read, not least of all because Zamoyski’s writing style is easy on the mind and eyes.

The descriptive style flows from page-to-page and you really do get wrapped up in the narrative. I would almost say Zamoyski’s easy style, use of diaries and quotes makes it like reading fiction. While he gets down to the nuts and bolts of the campaign it never gets boring, like many non-fiction novels can do, and leaves you constantly wanting more. It’s engrossing, comprehensive, detailed and brilliantly written. If you have some interest in Napoleon, Russian history or the Napoleonic wars I just cannot recommend it any higher, it is a top notch read.