Napoleon in the Russian Imaginary: The Idea of the Great Man in the Works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Merezhkovsky, and Evgenii Tarle (Crosscurrents: Russia's Literature in Context) Gary Rosenshield Publisher: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic (15 April 2023)
Hardcover: 256 pages
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.
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.--Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University
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 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.--Donna Tussing Orwin, University of Toronto