Tag Archives: literature

En Route to Prussia, Letters from Russia, Part 5

April 25, 1812
Somewhere in Austria, en route to Prussia

My Sweet Genevieve,

When the corporal told me of a letter from Paris, I was overjoyed!  Ah, to read the first words from you since that morning which now seems so long ago.  I remember you in daisy yellow dress blowing me kisses all way until disappeared.  Me standing atop the carriage ‘til you faded from view.

Now I see you in my dreams and in my waking hours, chestnuts the color of your hair, the deep endless lake blues of your eyes, you pouting lips breaking easily into laughter. Oh for those days to come again an soon!  Our love will snap us together over so many muddy miles.  I, if you’ll allow me, must admit that I value you as a friend as much as a woman, my lover, my wife to-be, you are my confidant, my gentle lover & rambunctious friend.  You are my comforting presence and make me feel loved and mighty.  You, the memory of you, the dreams of you – remembering you each time I smell fresh lemons or see the daffodils growing by each stream we cross.  You offer me reason to come home, you are my source of hope in those tumultuous times.

Oh, but life is not so bad as we travel.  I ride in the wagon with Maurice and Eugenio. We know we are fortunate and work hard, even en route.  The wagon has heavy cloth sides & canopy to protect our supplies and we often stop away from most of the other troops so to enjoy the countryside.  I’ve taken to sketching and using E.’s watercolors. He paints in oils but allows me to watch him with my good natured (I hope) ramblings. I’ll enclose a few of my attempts to give you a sense of the local environs.

Letters from Russia: Countryside (watercolour)
Letters from Russia: Countryside (watercolour)

We move quickly through villages of only a few shops and houses, across fields of wheat with farmers looking much the same as home.  A couple of oxen, a small barn, chickens vegetables.  They look on ~ deciding how to feel, it seems.  Their home and environs are important to them, no matter who sits in power.  It their surroundings and ‘home’, more than ‘homeland’ or king, they would fight for.  Let us hope that they are allowed in peace.  We should all be so lucky – all of us I mean – to have a piece of land that we reap the whole of our labors from.  Free to exchange our efforts for a result of our choice without encumbrance or malice.  I hope this is what our revolution brings to Russia.

Always, H.

En Route in Austria – Letters from Russia, Part 4

April 15, 1812
En route in Austria

Mon Cheri Genevieve,

We are on the move now, a tremendous length of soldiers on foot, trudging with their packs and sleek polished weapons.  Other plumed in comical hats, proud on horses that seem indifferent to the rank of their riders and more impressed with their importance.

Since my letter last, the camp became a flurry of activity as we readied to move through Austria quickly on into Prussia, Poland, then Russia who continue to allow British ships into port despite N.’s blockade.

Letters from Russia: Lucid blue lake
Letters from Russia: Lucid blue lake

Austria, now defeated again will march along with us, with the Italians, Dutch, Polish and more forces from twenty European countries unified under France.  I wonder how they feel about their conscription by an enemy.  But, such things are not discussed, dissent is grounds for persecution and ridicule ~ my aim is to avoid both and thus, consider my thoughts alone.

My hope is N. will not drag this campaign deep into Russia for my own selfish reasons, that of keeping me far away from your slender, giving arms for any longer than absolutely needed for the great of the Republic. It is you that is important to me!

Yours,  Henri

Still camped near Vienna – Letters from Russia, Part 3

Letters from Russia: Folio, letter 4
Letters from Russia: Folio, letter 4 with letter, envelope, and lake sketch (vertical)

April 8, 1812
Encamped near Vienna, Austria

Cher Genevieve,

Again, I spent all day gazing at clouds while I wandered the camp, thinking of you and us.  Remembering long lunches in second-story cafes, peeking below at passers-by, guessing their stories: Where they are going? What do they do? Their secrets, or their names.

Thinking of our future, perhaps a small country house where you’ll teach at a school & I’ll go bald & tend to radishes.  Or maybe I will grow my shop and train apprentices, but honestly, I am not sure I want to force a profession on someone unless it is what they want to do.  Rather I want to be the one who encourages others to find their essential nature, to explore their desires and predilections without shame.  Honestly to make their way in the world without hindrance, fear or influence from Church or State.

Letters from Russia: Rowboat
Letters from Russia: Rowboat

Being from a merchant family, I am awkwardly struck between the so-called nobles, clergy and other suckling wastefully from the labors of others, – and those others being the peasants reduced to shame by the “sin-king” who shone nothing but scorn for those who produced the wealth of France.  But neither class care for the trader and crafters, both fearing and envying our limited political influence.  No matter, such a world is not mine to decide.

Though I have endless choices before me, I know only one choice to make and that is you.  You Genevieve, you are the joy that sustains me, the antidote for the venom of fear.

With the vigor of our love, I will keep safe in my tasks so as to return to you whole.

Affectionately, H.

Encamped near Vienna – Letters from Russia, Part 2

Letters from Russia: Dossier page, April 6, 1812
Letters from Russia: Dossier page, April 6, 1812

April 6, 1812
Encamped near Vienna, Austria

Cher Genevieve,

I have only been gone for less than two weeks but already I miss you more than I thought I would after many long months!  We can only hope my duty goes quickly so to return to you soon.  For this, we’ll trust Napoleon’s judgement.

After the hurried wagon trip, I’ve met up with my unit in a beautiful part of Austria. I’ve attempted a sketch to give you a sense of place.  With the high mountain altitude come waves of late blooming wildflowers of every lavender and purple, gold, orange & the lovely blue of your eyes – glowing like patina on copper.  Soaring peaks frosted with the immaculate sheen of ice.

As it is, there is little evidence of recent or impending war.  The towns are lively and efficient and the people cordial considering the manner in which the French arrived!  At the camp, there is a methodically, tense routine of preparing equipment & provisions of all manner.  You know I do not fit well into routine and early mornings but I will make do.

Letters from Russia: Camp cabins (pencil)
Letters from Russia: Camp cabins (pencil)

As for my unit, I’ll be traveling with a supply wagon along with a few others, a tailor Maurice; he tends to all uniforms for officers, both mending and outfitting.  He somehow doesn’t look the part – stout and chubby-fingered.  He has a cynical wit and an easy wink.  He remembers names and tells stories about fishing in rowboats with his uncle, a preacher in Arles.  Besides M. is Eugenio, wiry and always smoking.  He is also older than most everyone I’ve seen in camp and turns out he fought with Italy against Napoleon but now is conscripted as a painter, obliged to produce portraits of corpulent generals and grand scenes of battle.  He knows well the history of the each campaign and seems unimpressed by the eager anticipation of orders.

Everyone assumes we are soon bound for Russia, combining with the northern troops to form one Grand Army.  This alone should be enough for Russia’s Czar Alexander to come to terms – ending this campaign and sending me back to your arms in just a few months of spring and summer.  Even if we move into Russia, we will surely be returning well before winter.

Such a schedule will give me time to open up a cobbler shop of my own and marry you next Spring.  I am glad we told your parents of our plans before I left – though they weren’t as surprised as we thought!  (Of course send my regards and best wishes to them.)  But for now, I am bound by the wishes of Napoleon through the orders written for the day.  The soldiers never question and maintain a sense of urgency to seize their place history.  This is Napoleon’s skill, a genius ability to motivate the troops with promises of glory, the causes of the revolution, importance of spreading French culture and our civil code throughout a united Europe.

I must admit some reservations about the need of bringing Russia into our Grand Republic but I will leave such decisions to more seasoned minds.  I can only trust the motives are not driven by ego.  We can only hope for sound judgement and that the state does not exceed the bounds of what can be expected from a citizen.

You and I (and so many others) will be the harvesters of the rich new, country. Rich in spirit, filled with light and truth.

I am eager to live in this France – a France as ideal as we believe it can be – where the unjustness of class and privilege at birth is eradicated.  Where fair courts and laws bring sense and equality from the arbitrary whims of unfit monarchs.  A country where virtue is celebrated and honesty replaces corruption. Please know that when I return, you, your family and our community will know I did my part to build this Republic – for us and our children and grandchildren.

Yours, Henri

Preamble – Letters from Russia, Part 1

Letters from Russia: 3 Iterations of dossier (with Underwood typewriter)
Letters from Russia: 3 Iterations of dossier (with Underwood typewriter)

Letters from Russia: Note to Readers

What follows is a collection of letters (albeit ostensibly) written by Henri LaFleur – a cobbler in the French army during the Russian campaign of 1812 – to Genevieve Vaschon, his fiance in Paris.

Henri’s fourteen letters offer his observations on the physiology of war, as well as discourse and personal sentiments on love, war, society, politics, and meaning of self. The accompanying landscapes give a sense of his search for solace and release in the surrounding chaos of war.

The letters were sent over an eight-month period beginning in Austria and moving through Prussia, Poland and into Russia.   First with battles in Smolensk and Borodino, then fires and pillaging in Moscow, and finally the well-documented November retreat.

The final letter in the correspondence was sent on retreat near the Berezin Bridge at which location during three days, much of the remaining French army perished into the icy river while attempting crossing of the bridge.  Others were stranded in on the Russian side with the pursuing Cossack troops when the retreating French army destroyed the bridge behind them.

As it were … the collection of letters, along with a variety of sketches and paintings, was found bound and stored in an attic trunk, as per Henri’s written request before leaving Moscow.  There is no further verifiable historical information to confirm Henri’s return home though regional folklore contends that he indeed survived and lived a long life in a small village near the sea with his dear Genevieve.

-Dave Olson
Summer 2004
Lake Cresent, Washington & Manzanita, Oregon

Letters from Russia: Reading Tolstoy in Manzanita
Letters from Russia: Reading Tolstoy in Manzanita

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