One of the best books – no, make that the best book – I read last year was 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski. I was reading it in Smolensk, fittingly enough, on a flying two-day stay, as part of our two weeks in Russia, in the very city where the Russian army finally made a stand against Napoleon’s Grande Armée.
There are two chapters featuring Smolensk in the book – one, when the Grande Armée was on the way to Moscow, and one on the way back. “Smolensk was a city of 12,600 inhabitants with no particular economic or strategic importance,” writes Zamoyski. But it did have a renowned miraculous icon of the Virgin, and it had been “the scene of several desperate struggles for dominion between the Poles and the Russians, who had finally wrenched it back 150 years earlier.” Napoleon could have crossed the Dnieper further east and avoided Smolensk, but he was frustrated by the evasive manoeuvres of the Russian army and calculated that by attacking such a symbol of Russia he would force the Czar’s army to stand and fight. It did, for two days at least.
An early morning train from Moscow took us seven eighths of the way to Belarus, leaving us only a day’s forced march from the border (it’s hard, reading about the history of the place, not to see distances in such terms) if we’d a mind to visit that country. Our destination, however, was Smolensk. Out west it felt like we were in the real Russia, far from the Hermitage and Nevsky Prospekt, and from the chandeliers and grand halls of the Moscow Metro. We tripped over cracked pavements and suffered from a distinct lack of the fast food chains we’d grown accustomed to. We couldn’t even find a Teremok. Dingy looking taxis circled. Dingier-looking people did too. Our apartment, in a brand-new fifteen-storey tower block plonked in the middle of a field in the southern suburbs, was nice enough, but I had the eerie feeling, reading Zamoyski, that this was exactly where the French fought the Russians mano a mano to kick off the siege of Smolensk 207 years before.
Zamoyski notwithstanding, you’re not going to get the most out of the region around Smolensk unassisted, not if you don’t speak Russian, and certainly not if you don’t have a car at your disposal. So we hired a guide called Mike who spoke perfect English. As well as being our walking Wikipedia page on Smolensk, Mike was the only native Russian, other than our first guide in St Petersburg (who lived up to our expectations of Slavic taciturnity), that we got to spend time with over our entire two weeks in Russia. Mike was up for it, answering questions on everything from the Kursk disaster to Boris Nemtsov, although I noticed that he glanced furtively over his shoulder before answering one or two of our more indiscreet enquiries.
First on the agenda for our tour was an obligatory visit to the Cathedral of the Assumption, with its celebrated (and very dark) icon. Outside, under a grey late afternoon sky, I looked down from Cathedral hill and tried to imagine the scenes l’Empereur saw from outside his tent which compelled him to compare the hell of the burning wooden city, whose defenders showed like devils in hell, silhouetted against the conflagration around them, to the eruption of Vesuvius. Now, one doesn’t want to fetishize war and destruction and imagine that that was all there was to Smolensk, but we were in a place, after all, where simply trying to attend an event commemorating a massacre in the vicinity could itself end in disaster.
Unlike the Kremlin in Veliky Novgorod, Smolensk’s seemed to comprise only a few remaining sections of the red brick walls, although there were some fine towers still standing, despite having absorbed so many fusillades from Napoleon’s twelve-pounder field guns. In Zamoyski, you can read the observations of a French Cuirassier of this battle – how he observed “a Polish division, an ant-like mass of men: these brave men trying to scale the walls by climbing on each others’ shoulders while above their heads, the cannon, which were the object of their efforts, thundered against their brothers-in-arms.“
Further on, the Eagles monument is not, as you might expect, a tribute to the Californian country rockers, but rather a brutalist concrete slab of gratitude to the defenders of the city erected on the centenary of the Battle of Smolensk. Not far away the imposing Monument to Defenders of Smolensk in 1812 expresses the same sentiment, this time in cast-iron. One could easily get the impression that the struggle against Napoleon had been kind of a big deal in this neck of the woods.
Just walking through a park with the right sort of guide is an experience in itself. We came (or were subtly guided) to a life-size statue of a deer with splendid antlers. Originally commissioned in Prussia by Kaiser Wilhelm II, it was ‘transported’ by Soviet soldiers to Smolensk during WWII where it has had its genitals rubbed for good luck ever since.
Mikhael Glinka was one of the notable Russians we had researched in preparation for our trip here by listening to his greatest hits on Spotify in the weeks leading up to our departure. I’d expected him to be a complete blank slate to me, but, surprisingly, I knew the Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. It turns out he was a native of Smolensk, so we got the full spiel from Mike at a statue to the great man (Glinka, not Mike) while a drunken gopnik (another cultural icon we’d come across on our investigations) hovered and made strange noises.
My favourite sculpture, though, was the imaginative monument to the writer Aleksandr Tvardovsky, who is shown sitting down with one of his own literary creations, Vasilii Terkin. It was touching the way the sculptor had thought to situate both the writer and the figment of his imagination in the same space – on a log in the woods – and it even looks as if a fireside polka on the accordion might be in the offing.
The main road going west out of Smolensk to the Belorussian city of Viciebsk follows the river Dnieper. Belorussians come to Smolensk to shop, apparently. It used to be the other way around, but since Russia’s Crimean adventure there’s been a cooling of relations between Russia and Belarus, and crossing the border has become harder. We weren’t going that far, however. After only about ten kilometres or so down the road we pulled in to the Katyn memorial complex, a memorial site to the infamous ‘NKVD’s Dachau’, built in 2000.
One thing became clear as soon as we set off – this was a joint memorial, commemorating both Russian and Polish victims of different massacres, not just the Polish ones, as someone like me, whose only knowledge of this cursed part of the earth comes from the Andrzej Wajda movie Katyn, would have thought. No, there are two distinct sections, since Russia has insisted on commemorating a similar number of its POWs, some twenty thousand or so, who died in ‘unsanitary conditions’ in the hands of the Poles, a claim that continues to strain relations between the two nations. Mike walked us around both sections.
On the way back to town we pulled into another woods, the Red Pine Forest (Krasny Vor), within which there’s a bit of a monstrosity called Führerhauptquartier Bärenhöhle. ‘Fuhrer’s Headquarters Bear Cave’ is better known as ‘Hitler’s bunker’, even though he never got around to using it. In fact, no-one has ever gotten around to using it and actually excavating its subterranean passages. We went in, and just saw some rubble, graffiti, and a blocked off hole in the ground. In Berlin a couple of years back, we missed our chance to see Hitler’s actual Bunker, the one he did use in the end, the one in Downfall, so here, a few clicks west of Smolensk, we made a kind of amends.
Later that afternoon I took the kids out for the last of the afternoon’s sun to a place close to us called Pobedy Square. In the middle of the square there’s a three-sided obelisk which reminded me of a similar one in we’d come across in Pylos, in the Peloponnese. The facets on this one commemorated the three greatest battles Smolensk had endured: the Tatars in 1609-11, Napoleon in 1812, and of course the German Army from ’41-’45. The battle against Napoleon is the setting for Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I’ve since bought and will get around to reading as soon as I finish Moby Dick. That afternoon, however, as I sat in Ploschad Pobedy, it was of course 1812 I was reading on my phone.
Napoleon was the victor here in Smolensk, but the Russians’ stand cost him around 10000 dead or wounded, and settled nothing. The Russian generals Barclay and Bagration managed to slink away towards Moscow (we’d be doing the same the next morning). Many people might associate Napoleon’s epic 1812 campaign with the Battle of Borodino or the epic crossing of the Berezina but “it was at Smolensk that Napoleon committed the greatest error of his whole campaign, according to Clausewitz.“
War is not over until the last soldier is buried – old Russian saying.