Letters From Minsk: Berezina Crossing

The place where, in 1812, the Napoleonic army that had invaded Russia crossed the Berezina River on its disastrous retreat to France.

This is the eleventh in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

To get to Napoleon’s Berezina Crossing, I took the train for an hour from Minsk to Borisov (actually a sleeper bound for Murmansk took me one stop; my seat was an open bunk) and then on my bicycle rode about 15 miles to the crossing, which I found in a small village. There are two markers by the riverbank. As a place to brood about the end of the Napoleonic imperial dream, it’s as good as any.

To escape from the shipwreck that is Borisov (think of Chernobyl but without all the charm) took me more than an hour. It is difficult to explain the nightmare of Belarusian city planning. Roads end or fall apart, sidewalks start and stop, and nearly every block is pitted with potholes. The city was a mass of crumbling concrete. Nor are streets marked with signposts or numbers. Rural Belarus is terra incognita.

Without a GPS link on my phone, I had to navigate by (pointlessly) asking directions (the Berezina isn’t on many Belarusian minds) and with a paper map, neither which helped. I used the compass on my phone and finally found a road heading west along the north bank of the river.

After leaving my hotel at 8:30 a.m. I got to the crossing at 1:15 p.m. No wonder that the word “Berezina” is used in French to describe a fiasco.

The Village of Studienka

Studienka, the village of the crossing, is in the middle of Nowhere, Belarus, famous only because of the Napoleonic disaster that unfolded there.

I rode the last kilometer on dirt trails and roads. Down by the riverbank I came upon a cluster of wood-frame houses with tin roofs, little changed since the 19th century.

A few residents eyed me suspiciously, as if perhaps my bike helmet was a Napoleonic bicorne hat.

At the riverbank I met two Russian travelers, a father and son from Moscow, who had driven there to pay their respects to history. They were in their car and I was on my bike, but we still bumped into each other at several of the Russian monuments that are scattered about in nearby fields. To them Napoleon was a villain.

On the river’s edge I found two French monuments (the rest of the memorials in the surrounding fields are Russian) indicating where in November, 1812, several pontoon bridges spanned the river, at this point about 400 meters wide.

Napoleon was fleeing Moscow and his invasion of Russia. The Russians pinned him against the river, which wasnt frozen.

Only by the grace of three Swiss regiments (decimated in making their last stand) did Napoleon make it across the marshy water on makeshift pontoon bridges, but the battles before and during the crossing were routs.

Napoleon himself crossed in the first wave and never looked back as he rode hard to Vilna and then on to Paris, to rescue what remained of his empire, not to mention his marriage. (What happens when you remark about your second wife: “It is a womb that I am marrying.”) Most of his men were not so lucky.

The Retreat from Moscow

Obviously there are many histories of Napoleon’s misadventure in Russia, including Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which largely tells the story of the battle of Borodino, fought as Napoleon was approaching Russia. (Technically he won the battle.)

Napoleon’s army might have camped for the winter in captured Moscow, except that, as the emperor arrived in the city of his desire, it was burning, leaving the French the only option of retreating toward the warm safety of either Prussia or France—although few of them made it.

Perhaps the most vivid account of the campaign in Russia comes from Philippe Paul, comte de Ségur, who was an officer on Napoleon’s staff, a brigade commander, and a French diplomat later in his life.

His two-volume memoir of the campaign was published in 1824, playing up Napoleon’s personal shortcomings and cowardice, which prompted one unhappy reader to challenge Ségur to a duel.

The author was wounded, but the book has lived on as a classic of military literature, translated into many languages. My copy has the title: Defeat: Napoleon’s Russia Campaign.

Borodino: War and Peace

Ségur was in close proximity to Napoleon throughout much of the disastrous retreat across western Russia, and he records the vanity and hubris that prompted the Russian invasion, writing:

When his body was at rest his mind was all the more active. How many reasons have I for going to Moscow at once!” he would say. How can I bear the boredom of seven months of winter in this place? . . . Am I to be reduced to defending myself—I who have always attacked? Such a role is unworthy of me . . . I am not used to playing it . . . It is not in keeping with my genius.”

Things went reasonably well for the invading grand army until Borodino, about fifty files outside of Moscow, where Marshal Kutuzov fought a battle of attrition and then retreated deeper into Russia.

At Borodino the French rolled back but did not destroy the Russian army, and when Napoleon came forward to look at the battlefield he learned the truth of words that later his opponent at Waterloo, Lord Wellington, would utter, which were: “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Ségur describes the dying embers at Borodino:

Napoleon rode over the battlefield; there was never such a ghastly sight. Everything contributed to the horror of it: the gloomy sky, the cold rain, the violent gale, the houses in ashes, the plain torn up, littered with ruins and debris. On the horizon the melancholy foliage of the northern trees; soldiers wandering among the corpses, looking for food in the very knapsacks of their fallen comrades; dreadful wounds (Russian bullets were larger than ours); cold campfires without song or tale; a tragic silence!

Tolstoy wrote: “After the shock that had been received, the French army was still able to crawl to Moscow; but there, without any new efforts on the part of the Russian troops, it was doomed to perish, bleeding to death from the mortal wound received at Borodino.”

I only have made it once to Borodino, and it was not on this trip. In 2015 I took my son Charles to Russia during his Easter break in high school. We got to Borodino in a third-class rail carriage that only had wooden benches for seating.

As the English would say, we “walked off” Borodino, where I had the impression Tolstoy had lived for months while researching War and Peace. It turns out he was only there for two or three nights. (In that sense the novel better describes Tolstoy’s combat experiences in the Crimean War.) Still, he wrote famously: “At the battle of Borodino Napoleon shot at no one and killed no one.” (It is thought Napoleon was suffering from flu at Borodino, which may explain his sluggish command in the battle.)

The Burning of Moscow

Further gloom awaited Napoleon in Moscow, then under the torch of marauding French soldiers. As Ségur writes:

On awaking the next morning, the seventeenth of September, Napoleon looked anxiously toward Moscow, hoping to find that the conflagration had subsided; but he saw it still raging as violently as ever. The whole city seemed one vast swirling column of fire, towering into the sky and dyeing it with lurid colors. Sunk in gloomy contemplation, he kept a long, mournful silence, which he broke at length by the exclamation, “This forbodes great misfortune for us.”

The retreat turned into a rout, as the French discarded their plunder in the snow and marched toward their fate on the Berezina. Ségur describes the rabble:

Most of the soldiers, interested chiefly in food, rejected embroidered garments, pictures, gilded bronzes, valuable ornaments in favor of a few handfuls of flour. That evening the riverbank presented a strange sight, with the riches of Paris and Moscow, the luxuries of two of the worlds great cities, lying scattered and despised on the snowy waste….

So great expeditions are crushed by their own weight. Human limits had been exceeded. Napoleon’s genius, seeking to transcend time, climate, and distance, had as it were got lost in space. Great as his capacities were, he had gone beyond them.

The crossing and the battle of the Berezina took place over three days at the end of November 1812, largely because the river, usually frozen at this time of year, had thawed, requiring the construction of the pontoon bridges.

In modern terms, the Berezina was France’s Dunkirk, with its army positioned in a semi-circle around the beachhead while the Swiss regiments hastily constructed the bridges across the swampy river. (A bridge at Borisov had been destroyed.)

Casualties on the Berezina

A 2015 book, Berezina by Sylvain Tesson, a French author, describes the retreat in these terms: People died crushed and stifled. They slipped, fell, tried to get back onto the footbridges, but fell into the water and drowned. The river collected the corpses of men and horses, carriage debris mixed with ice.”

Casualties among soldiers and camp followers, on both sides, are almost impossible to estimate, although many have tried. I have read that the French suffered about 25,000 casualties crossing the river, while the Russians had casualties (dead and wounded) of some 8,000 men.

The more telling statistic is that 685,000 French and allied soldiers invaded Russia and that many of them (about 600,000) were killed or wounded in battle, or deserted the army on the march home.

At the Berezina Napoleon did manage to save 60,000 men, although by the time they struggled across the river he was streaking across Poland. It’s safe to say that Napoleon’s empire never got across the pontoon bridges.

Retreat to Minsk

For inexplicable reasons, after eating picnic down by the river, I decided to bike deeper into Belarus, hoping that down the road (in about ten miles) I would intersect a bigger road and there catch a bus back into Minsk on the south side of the river. As bicycle ideas go, it was on a par with Napoleon’s invasion, only with fewer consequences.

Actually the biking was fine, as the rolling road, through forest and farmland, had few cars or logging trucks. After about five miles, I came to the village of Viesialova. When I asked in a store about buses to Minsk, I was met with the universal symbol of indifference, a few shrugs.

In the end I waited an hour by a crossroad outside Viesialova and from there flagged down a bus (circa the 1959 five-year-plan) that was spitting heavy exhaust fumes.

I saw about where Napoleon would have emerged from the river, but the driver was less interested than I was in such a footnote to history.

The bus dropped me somewhere in the ruins of Borisov, where I began riding (on the side of the road) toward the railway station, only for a police car to do a U-turn through traffic and cut me off with its lights flashing.

The cop asked to see my passport, lectured me on the bicycle laws of the Lukashenko state (bikes can only be ridden on sidewalks), and then waved me away in disgust, with a stern warning.

For part of the trip to the railroad station, I pushed my bike along the side of the road, as there were no sidewalks in this part of Borisov, an industrial wasteland with little street traffic. It felt like the ends of the earth.

Finally I got tired of walking and for the last few miles to the station I (illicitly) hopped back on my bicycle, a furtive ride that I later remembered when I heard that thousands of Belarusians were in the streets in Minsk, demonstrating against the heavy hand of the police state.

Next: Around Minsk before the revolution. Earlier installments can be found here

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.