Charles Esdaile

The Bear Against The Cockerel

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 617pp £30 order from our bookshop

Readers familiar with Tolstoy’s War and Peace will possibly remember a dramatic incident that occurs in the wake of the French invasion of Russia. Alone at her estate of Bleak Hills following the death of her father, Princess Marya finds herself in the direct path of the oncoming French army. Desperate to escape, she orders the peasants who farm the estate to provide transport for her so she can pack up her belongings and flee to Moscow, and tries to persuade them to evacuate their villages and follow her example. However, her pleas have no effect – on the contrary, the peasants turn rebellious – and the princess is only rescued by the fortuitous arrival of the dashing young cavalry officer Nikolai Rostov. Given that one of the chief themes of War and Peace is the heroism of the Russian people in the face of Napoleon, the vignette is a troubling one that positively demands discussion, and yet, until the publication of this book, subjecting such contradictions to the spotlight of academic discussion has proved almost impossible for any author without a knowledge of Russian and access to the Russian archives. 

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