Napoleon today is still a figure who fascinates both his admirers and detractors because of his seminal role in European history at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, straddling the French Revolution and the enormous empire that he fashioned through military conquest. Napoleon in the Russian Imaginary focuses on the response of Russia's greatest writers—poets, novelists, critics, and historians—to the idea of "Great Man" as an agent of transformational change as it manifests itself in the person and career of Napoleon. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and his subsequent exile to St. Helena, in much of Europe a re-evaluation of Napoleon's person, stature, and historical significance occurred, as thinkers and writers witnessed the gradual reestablishment of repressive regimes throughout Europe. This re-evaluation in Russia would have to wait until Napoleon's death in 1821, but when it came to pass, it continued to occupy the imagination of Russia's greatest writers for over 130 years. Although Napoleon's invasion of Russia and subsequent defeat had a profound effect on Russian culture and Russian history, for Russian writers what was most important was the universal significance of Napoleon’s desire for world conquest and the idea of unbridled ambition which he embodied. Russian writers saw this, for good or ill, as potentially determining the spiritual and moral fate of future generations. What is particularly fascinating is their attempt to confront each other about this idea in a creative dialogue, with each succeeding writer addressing himself and responding to his predecessor and predecessors.
Gary Rosenshield is professor emeritus of Slavic languages and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Chapter One: A Tale of Two Tyrants: Napoleon and Alexander in Pushkin's Pre-Exile Poetry
Chapter Two: Pushkin and the Great Man: Napoleon Re-Imagined
Chapter Three: Napoleon and Hero Worship: Tolstoy and War and Peace
Chapter Four: History and the Great Man: Tolstoy and War and Peace
Chapter Five: Napoleon as Superman: Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment
Chapter Six: Merezhkovsky and Napoleon: Re-creating the Myth of the Great Man
Chapter Seven: Erasing Napoleon: Eugene Tarle, Russian Literature, and Soviet Historiography
Afterword: Napoleon, the Great Man, and the Idea of History
About the Author
Anyone interested in Russian cultural history will need to read this book. It is both clear enough for the general reader and complex enough to satisfy the specialist. Napoleon, the ‘little corporal,’ has loomed large in the European imagination. This was true in Russia, which he invaded in 1812, and which, although he was defeated and driven out, he changed irrevocably. Focusing on five iconic authors of different genres, Gary Rosenshield documents the extent of his influence there. As myth and as historical figure, he became a model for the ‘great man,’ its meaning, and its role both for good and for evil. Perspectives on Napoleon even by the same author are shown to evolve over time. Pushkin is ambivalent in his evaluation, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are mostly negative, D. Merezhkovsky is mostly positive, and E. Tarle, an historian writing during Stalinist times—political.
Given the immense significance of Napoleon’s shape-shifting presence in Russian literature and culture, it is surprising that no such study of it has already appeared. But it was worth the wait, because Gary Rosenshield is uniquely qualified to tackle this colossal theme—important for our understanding of the past and, surprisingly, of our present, as strongman leaders multiply across the globe. Most interesting is how the image of Napoleon changed profoundly in the years after his death. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Merezhkovsky, and Tarle embody the intricate set of often contradictory responses to Napoleon as myth and historical figure; Rosenshield deftly leads us through the myriad understandings of ‘the great man,’ engaging, along the way, with a host of others from Goethe and Beethoven to contemporary historians and social philosophers. Structuring his argument as an intertextual dialogue among the Russian writers who are his primary focus, he analyzes their shared preoccupation with how transformative change occurs. Rosenshield brilliantly demonstrates how this inquiry often coalesced around their scrutiny of Napoleon.
Napoleon in the Russian Imaginary: The Idea of the Great Man in the Works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Merezhkovsky, and Evgenii Tarle, by Gary Rosenshield, provides a masterly presentation of one of the most frequently recurring tropes of nineteenth and twentieth century Russian literature: the figure, character, achievements, and significance of Napoleon—the ‘great man’ of history. In an Introduction, seven chapters, and a summative Afterword, Professor Rosenshield describes the portraits of Napoleon offered by Alexander Pushkin (two chapters), Leo Tolstoy (another two), Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, and the Soviet era historian Eugene Tarle (one each). This book offers extensive detail on the contrasting views of these authors on the figure of Napoleon: Pushkin's ambivalence; Tolstoy's dismissiveness; Dostoevsky's alarm and hostility; Merezhkovsky's initial great hopes for such as Napoleon, and his ultimate disillusion; and Tarle's politically driven shifts in the portrait offered in the several versions of his biography of Napoleon. But Rosenshield offers much more than a series of separate portraits. The five years of research that produced this book has led also to the discovery of a factor that unites the disparate opinions of the various writers. Each of them is shown to have been dealing not only with Napoleon but also with devising or clarifying a conception of history and historical development in which their understanding of Napoleon and the ‘great man’ can be understood. As such, the book offers a significant contribution also to the understanding of the other works of these writers and of the political and historical contexts in which they lived.
Napoleon in the Russian Imaginary is a work of deep reading and painstaking analysis. Gary Rosenshield takes us into the creative laboratories of several of Russia's greatest authors and demonstrates how ‘their’ Napoleons are reflective of their specific historical and personal contexts. For Pushkin it's the riddle of the ‘man of fate’ (muzh sudeb), who is also the usurper taking the emperor's crown out of the hands of the pope and placing it on his own head; for Dostoevsky it's the will to power and the Nietzschean (before Nietzsche) superman who is willing to wade through blood to achieve his ends; for Tolstoy it's the preening fraud who is too full of himself to realize that it's all the little men around him who make history; for Merezhkovsky it's the supreme egoist whose very sacrifice is an expression of that egoism; and for Tarle it's the military and diplomatic genius who was always thinking only of himself, only of his personal domination of Europe and of how to maintain that domination. Especially welcome is the chapter on Tarle, the celebrated Soviet historian, whose portrait of the great man was continually touched up under censorship pressure, real or imagined, from his most important reader, Stalin himself. This is an important book, one that all who are interested in modern Russian literary and intellectual history and cultural mythology should read.