Napelon as Portrayed by Pushkin and Lermontov

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“We all now pose as Napoleons--
Millions of two-legged creatures
For us are the instrument of one.”
--Eugene Onegin, by Pushkin
Napoleon in Russian Thought

Despite Russia’s own history with Napoleon Bonaparte in the Russian invasion of 1812, Russians came to view Napoleon with a strange sort of admiration and reverence. In much the same way as Western Europe at the time, Russians saw Napoleon as a symbol: an extraordinary modern man who overstepped boundaries and moral law to change history on his own terms. As a historical example or type, Napoleon surfaces in the writing of Gogol, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Tutchev and Pushkin. In his verse novel Eugene Onegin (1825-1832), Pushkin cites the influence of Napoleon in Russian thought: “We all now pose as Napoleons/ Millions of two-legged creatures/ For us are the instrument of one.”

Napoleon in Russian Poetry of the 19th Century

During his exile at Se. Helena, Napoleon often exclaimed "What a novel my life has been". These words expressed a genuine appraisal of his life, however at the same time they are filled with the bitterness born of the incompatibility of life as British prisoner at St. Helena with the sudden meteoric brilliance and glory of the past. Napoleon was observed by millions of contemporaries. He has a million books dedicated to his life and military campaigns, with many more to be added in the future. The most fascinating aspect of this personality is its powerful aura of the romantic charm. This image has been a constant companion to the Napoleonic epoch, transforming it into a mythical era. Maybe it wasn't even the greatness of his soul that caused it, but its undoubted magniture which drawrfed the souls of all his fellow men. Goethe said that Napoleon's "destiny was more brilliant than any the world had seen before him or would see after him. The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that of the Revelations of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.”

The admirationo of Napoleon was an important part of the Russian spiritual and cultural life in the first half of the 19th Century. Some echos of this admiration went on for quite some time, but after Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Tyutchev and Mikhail Lermontov it lost the majority of its social significance. The first half of the 19th Century was an incredible period in Russian literature which found the luminaries of Russian poetry creating their greatest masterpieces. But why did they, great patriots of Russia, praise Napoleon? Why, did they, remembering Moscow’s ashes, thousands of Russian dead and a devastated country, ponder on his personality? Despite subjective reasons to reprimand Napoleon, the poetic genius of these Russian poets rose above patriotism, personal feelings and found an objective historical and philosophical thread that they transformed into incredible artistic image of Napoleon. This portrayal varies with the characteristic features and vision of each of the poets, but the admiration for his character and a sense of his greatness unites them. In the creativity of each of them, Napoleon appears surrounded by a specific romantic aura. However, this charm is deprived of any servility. Each poet tries to perceive the internal essence of Napoleon and the genuine proportion of his greatness.

In his poem, “Napoleon,” Alexander Pushkin offers not only an image of the French Emperor, but also a depiction of that age, filled with a rich diversity of events. But the review of past deeds is difficult without predilection or hatred. Consequently, Pushkin creates conditions of objectivity around the hero by bowing in front of the emperor’s tomb to utter:

“A wondrous fate is now fulfilled,
Forever extinguished this grand man.
In somber prison night was stilled
Napoleon’s grim, tumultuous span.
The outlawed monarch has vanished,
Bright Nike’s mighty, pampered son;
For him, from all Creation banished,
Posterity has...
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