Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Napoleon in Russian Thought

Despite Russia’s own history with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) 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. Balzac, a writer who influenced Dostoevsky enormously, framed a situation Dostoevsky later adapted for Crime and Punishment in his novel Le Père Goriot (1835). Its hero, Rastignac, asks a friend, a poor medical intern, whether, if his own enrichment and the fulfillment of all his desires required only the death of a nameless peasant in China, he would condone the innocent man’s death. His friend answers that “to act in this way… you have to be Alexander [the Great],” and that even “Napoleon did not eat his dinner twice, and could not have any more mistresses than a medical intern…. I decide to let the Chinaman live.” As a historical example or type, Napoleon surfaces in the writing of Gogol, Lermontov, Tolstoy, 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.” Scholar Robert L. Jackson, in his article “Napoleon in Russian Literature,” (attached) writes, “indifference to people, egoistic insensibility to anything opposing his will, the complete subordination of means to ends, and the passion for power characterized Napoleon.” As a representative, however extreme, of a generation of radical youth beginning to embrace the egoistic branch of Nihilism, Napoleon (a proto-Nietzschean Superman) was a natural figure for Raskolnikov to seize onto.

“We all now pose as Napoleons--
Millions of two-legged creatures
For us are the instrument of one.”

--Eugene Onegin, by Pushkin

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