The Title of Sylvain Tesson’s book ‘Berezina’ hits an immediate chord here in France, in everyday language it means a disaster!
The battle of Berezina took place during October 1812 as The French army under Napoleon, retreating for the first time from Moscow and the Russian Army, with heavy losses, managed to cross the Berezina River and avoided being trapped.
Sylvain Tesson and some friends, two Russian and two Frenchmen decide in 2012, exactly two hundred tears later to travel from Moscow to Paris, in veteran soviet mopeds with sidecars (Ourals with a top speed of 80 km/h), following the route of Napoleons Great Army.
“Two hundred years later, I decide to follow the route of the agonising army, of the shocked cavalry, of those skeleton-like infantrymen, of those men with feathered helmets believing in the invincibility of the Eagle. It’s not for a commemoration (do you commemorate horror?), much less a celebration, it’s to acknowledge across the centuries and the verstes, those Frenchmen of year XII blinded by the Corsican sun and smashed on the reefs of nightmares”.***
In this part travel story, part historical account Sylvain Tesson, driving through the freezing Russian winter, manages to get across to us the absolute horror of this wartime retreat where the French army, ill equipped for the Russian winter and without supplies, and the Russian army following but not confident enough to attack, lost more than two hundred thousand dead through cold, starvation (accompanied by cannibalism) and skirmishes. We learn from the two Russians that this campaign forged the idea of Russian nationalism.
This book is full of anecdotes and forgotten details, and the juxtaposition of the retreat with the modern day exploits of Tesson and his friends gives the comic relief needed to follow the horror of this Napoleonic drama
I thoroughly enjoyed this discovery from start to end
First Published in French as “Berezina” by Guerin in 2015