...My general, Ivan Ivanovich von Klugen, never received a basic school education, and so in accordance with the practice of the time he entered military service at a very young age. Still, by nature he was gifted with sound judgment, the kind that cannot be acquired in any school, and being assigned to several headquarters staffs during his service, he was rubbing shoulders—as they say—with people of higher education. He was even in correspondence with the noted German writer and uniquely practical philosopher Zeime. At that time I knew nothing of that writer and listened coolly to the general’s stories about this extraordinary person who was first the teacher of General Graf Igelström’s children and then acted as his secretary in the rank of sublieutenant in the Russian service. The general told me things about the great Suvorov that I never found in any book, and most probably the following judgment on Suvorov was expressed to I.I. von Klugen by the renowned Zeime.
“It is yet too soon to judge Suvorov,” said the general to me one day. (This was said only nine years after the hero’s death on 12 May 1800.) “Everyone ranks Napoleon higher than Suvorov, and not only a great many foreigners, but even some of our own countrymen, fail to see in Suvorov the high qualities of a military commander, calling him a brave grenadier who conquered by means of sudden assault and determination, without regard for the lives of his brave soldiers.
They say that from all his campaigns Suvorov never deduced a single tactical or strategic rule, and that all his expertise was limited to “Hurrah, forward, at the bayonet!” There may be some truth in the accusations, but the accusers have not investigated the circumstances that forced Suvorov to act this way and not otherwise. Suvorov rated only Kutuzov (Mikhail Illarionovich, later field marshal and prince) as a general capable of deep strategic concepts. All other generals—he did not trust. Suvorov had his favorites, Prince Bagration and General Miloradovich, who were young, brave, and fiery warriors, and he called them his eagles and bayonet generals, but he dared not let his success depend on their judgment. He respected Generals Derfelden, Buxhoeveden, and some others, but he had full faith only in Russian courage and that was his method of victory, so that he was able to create in his soldiers unbounded trust in himself. “God is our general!” Suvorov often repeated. But those who knew Suvorov well and with whom he spoke seriously (of which there were very few) maintain that Suvorov was second to none as a military commander with the exception that he did not like dividing his forces into separate bodies but rather maneuvered with a concentrated force. Although the defeat at Zurich was not Rimskii-Korsakov’s fault, since he had been abandoned by the Austrians, Suvorov nevertheless used even this to confirm his distrust of a separated corps. “Herman could eat up in Holland, but Korsakov was starved in Switzerland,” Suvorov once remarked to General Derfelden, from which I draw the meaning: if he had been with me with his corps, in four months we would have sung God’s praises together in Paris! Suvorov was a great man in the full sense of the word, but always liked to operate everywhere alone, with his soldiers, and credited all his victories to God and the troops!
I have always remembered this judgment regarding Suvorov, and when I later began to study the great leader’s campaigns, I became fully convinced of the truth of what General von Klugen said. Specifically, Suvorov did not like to share the glory of victory with others, and based his actions more on his soldiers’ courage, their fury and speed, than on maneuvers. A pity that Suvorov never fought against Napoleon! I am convinced that Suvorov would have found a counter to Napoleon’s maneuvering
Speaking of the Finnish war, I am reminded of what happened in Vasa and which was distorted and exaggerated in the foreign newspapers. “It was a mere scratch compared to what I’ve seen in my lifetime!” said the general. “Emperor Alexander earned eternal glory and the gratitude of posterity for eliminating the old barbarity and introducing humanity into wars. In the old days any city taken by storm was given over to the soldiers to do with what they liked as a reward for their bravery. Such was the custom! And what else could be expected from maddened and infuriated soldiers! Victory always ended with looting, rape, and murder. You remember the words in Suvorov’s writings on tactics: “Take a town, take a camp—it’s all yours!” I admit to you that I myself never considered that it could be otherwise! I have been in hell two times in my life—the assault on Izmail and the storming of Praga... It is frightening to remember!”
At my request the general told me some of the details regarding the storming of Praga and the preceding events in Warsaw. In relating the recollections of a witness, I consider it necessary to add some preliminary information regarding Polish affairs at that time which I learned not from books, but from the stories of my general and other eyewitnesses.
In politics there is no place for poesy or sensitivity. When the business concerns the wellbeing, peace, and prosperity of the fatherland—you may weep, but you do what is needed. The amazing body politic that was the former Poland in the midst of three autocratic states—Russia, Austria, and Prussia—could not exist without raising in them anxiety and the utmost vigilance. The Polish kingdom was called the Rzeczpospolita.This was an epigram for a republic and a kingdom. The king had no power in his kingdom, and there was no Polish popular sovereinty in the republic because there was practically no native middle class, and villagers were the objects of oppression and robbery. In the cities and towns Germans and Jews occupied the trades and businesses with very few exceptions. The nobility constituted the imaginary republic, which is to say an entitled class that had accrued to itself all power, and within the nobility wealth took precedence over all other merit. The poor nobility was subject to the same oppression as the townspeople and villagers. Religious fanaticism, fanned by the Jesuits, extinguished any true enlightenment in Poland and ignited mutual hatred and discord within the noble class, which both openly and surreptituously worked against the common interest, desiring only to destroy personal enemies. Everyone recognized the state’s deficiencies, but no one could undertake to improve it since the nobles did not want to relinquish their rights and the parliament, or Sejm, would not agree to increase taxes. How could remedies be realized without funds, without troops, without obedience to the authorities? In his satires the distinguished Polish writer Naruszewicz accurately portrayed the habits and morals of the Polish nobility during the eighteenth century. All Polish writers, even emigres who wrote with an inspired passion for everything Polish, were of one voice in recognizing that in eighteenth century Poland corruption, both political and administrative, was rampant to the utmost degree! They lamented then and now the interference of foreign powers in the the affairs of the former Poland, but who in fact invited them, if not the Polish king himself or the Polish noblemen!
Out of greed for money the elite of the aristocracy offered their services to foreign powers against the good of their own country. Others worked to overthrow King Stanislaw Augustus and acquire the royal title for themselves. All Poland was divided into factions and there was no unity of power or will. There is no one to blame—the Poles themselves were the guilty ones! I will not keep repeating what is already known or repeat the old reproaches, but rather be guided by the words of the wise Capefigue: “le respect du malheur est un des plus nobles instincts de la mature humaine.”
Of course, in Poland at that time, as in any human society, there were men of intelligence, honor, and good will, but everywhere, even where they might be in the majority, they could not stand against the stormy waves of passion released in the masses by intriguers, connivers, mercenaries, and egoists.
It shameful to humanity that the noble Andre Zamojski, who proposed in the Sejm in 1780 that the liberum veto (niepozwalam) be abolished and the rights of the middle class and villagers be confirmed, was declared a traitor to his country! And where? In Poland, which called itself a republic! The French Revolution of 1789 spun round the heads of exicitable Poles, and in Poland a strong party was formed under the influence of the abbot Hugo Kołłątaj, to reform all government institutions. But the business was not done appropriately, and instead of establishing the basis for a strong monarchy that might reassure neighboring powers, they introduced Jacobin principles and produced politcal propaganda menacing to the surrounded countries. The free press knew no bounds of decency and insulted the persons of even the neighboring rulers, threatening monarchies everywere. Such a state of affairs within the government could not be tolerated by three powerful neighbors, and it was decided to adopt the old plan of Frederick the Great to destroy the nest of discord and propaganda in eastern Europe.
I will not describe the popular uprising that chose Kościuszko as one of its leaders. Virtuous, noble, but unsteady and kind by nature, Kościuszko was unsuited to managing the people at that time. The Jacobins acquired all power to themselves in defiance of general opinion and pushed Kościuszko into open warfare with foreign forces. Afraid of losing the affection of the people and their trust, Kościuszko, though unwilling, confirmed all the actions of the provisional revolutionary government which slavishly copied the French National Convention. It is incomprehensible how intelligent and sober people in Poland could without laughing sign public acts with the titles “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” and how orderly citizens could read these without indignation! One had only to look around or recall the state of Polish villages, hamlets, and small towns to convince oneself that this was all rubbish and twaddle!
My cousin once removed Stanislav Bulgarin, the elder headman of the village of Jalow, was an intelligent and objective man who was noted in his advanced years for his devotion to the Russian government and even made his four nephews (sons of two of his sisters), Graf Michael Timan and the three Gouvalts (Severin, George, and Christopher) serve in the Russian military under the threat of losing their inheritance. He used to tell me much regarding the last uprising under Kościuszko, and among other things he told the following anecdote: “I can only recall with pity and a smile,” said my older cousin to me, “how much we young people of that time were stupid and in error! I was a volunteer in the army and served in Kościuszko’s suite at his personal orders. Once when Kościuszko was encamped next to Wola (near Warsaw) there were many visitors, and after lunch a bundle of Parisian newspapers arrived, smuggled through Germany. Kościuszko opened the package and after taking a look at the papers, threw them on the ground, exclaiming 'Robespierre is dead!' At the time we believed in the greatness and philanthropy of this bloodthirsty egoist and hoped that once he made himself dictator of France he would send troops to help us! Nothing in the world could have been more stupid and unrealistic, but we believed because Poland’s rulers at the time assured us of it! The death of Robespierre, who now I would tear apart with my own hands, shocked me so much that I got up from the table, went into a garden next to Kościuszko’s quarters, and began to sob convulsivly! By myself I was insignificant, but I expressed the views of the highest circles...” After this the question arises, how did a Poland that awaited salvation from Robespierre appear in the eyes of Russia, Austria, and Prussia?
The French Revolution blinded Polish political leaders to such an extent that they imagined Poland, like France, could fight three other powers! To imitate France completely Poland only needed bloodshed and the abitrary rule of the mob—and in time these were provided by the Polish Jacobins in Warsaw!
There were about 8000 Russian troops in Warsaw, brought there at the king’s invitation and that of the aristocratic party that sought Russian patronage. The Russian force was under the command of General Baron Igelström, who at the same time was Russian ambassador to King Stanislaw Augustus.
The king’s duplicity, indecision, and weak will could not create any feeling of respect on the part of the Russian high officials who attended him at different times in the office of ambassador. Prince Repnin, Graf Stackelberg, and Baron Igelström dealt with the king not merely in plain words, but often very brusquely, without observing either in writing, speech, or actions the well-known diplomatic forms distinguished by refinement and politeness, even in the most hostile relationships between courts. Polish society at that time was based in intrigues, and almost every Polish nobleman active in public affairs either by election or by royal appointment gave more thought to himself than to his fatherland. He strove solely to acquire local power or income producing positions. Baron Igelström was in close contact with one of the great beauties of the time, Gräfin Zaluska (née Piotrowiczew), whom he later married, and was drawn into factional infighting and therefore interfered in private and administrative affairs in Poland that had no connection to politics. He acted autonomously, which is to say he forced the king to accede to the wishes of Gräfin Zaluska. She ruled in Poland, handing out positions, villages, knightly orders, and monetary awards. A strong counter faction formed and open battle began.
European writers were unable to create new characters so they finally had to resort to imaginative and fantastical exaggerations, but there are still some characters that have come from the perceptive insight of an author. A most curious character is that of the Polish female on the make. In his Lithuanian ballad Trzech Budrysow, the first Polish poet, Mickiewicz, sang the virtues of Polish women and compared them to young cats. I accept this comparison in a full and actual sense. All members of the cat family, from the housecat to the tiger and leopard, are exceedinly beautiful and graceful in all their movements—but this is the most insidious and crafty family in the animal kingdom. A person tames a cat and makes it a domestic pet, but it retains many of its natural instincts, especially slyness. It fears the person who doesn’t care about it, and only claws those who love it, pet it, and play with it. Every Samson who comes to Poland finds his Delilah, and every Hercules has his Deianira.
Among the intrigues sparked by envy and selfishness was the development of a conspiracy for a general uprising in Poland to free it from all foreign influence, which is to say a task was undertaken that was physically and socially impossible. The conspirators intended that they would make an example by destroying the Russian troops in Warsaw. Hugo Kołłątaj was the chief instigator and inspiration for the plot and is considered an intelligent man, but where was his intelligence when he though this up?! Did he and his accomplices not foresee the consequences that the deed would incur, a deed that could have no justification?! The conspirators had to foresee that Russia’s honor would demand equitable revenge for such a perfidious massacre of her soldiers without warning or a declaration of hostilities, and that a weakened Poland would perish... Astounding blindness!
The basis of the conspiracy seemed so simple-minded to General Igelström that at first he refused to believe Gräfin Zaluska’s warnings, supposing that she was being frightened so that she would make him and his troops leave Warsaw. This opinion was bolstered when the king advised him to withdraw from Warsaw in order to prevent bloodshed. However, Baron Igelström ordered the troops to be vigilant, and in several places he doubled the guards, provided them with cannons, and finally in response to the persistant urging of the Polish nobles who favored Russia he decided to arrest the most suspected persons. This was to take place on 6/18 April (1794).
The uprising in Warsaw erupted the day before, on 5/17 April, at three o’clock in the morning. Polish regular troops along with rebellious citizens suddenly fell upon Russian guardposts, seized the arsenal and powder magazine, and distributed weapons and ammunition to the people as the fighting became general. General Igelström had not foreseen such swift developments. The Russian garrison was dispersed into small detachments between which were no direct communications. This basically guaranteed the uprising’s success. The house occupied by General Igelström was attacked from two sides and though defended with great stubborness was finally taken by the rebels. General Igelström was rescued by Gräfin Zaluska and in different clothes taken out of Warsaw. The retreating Russians were fired upon from the windows and roofs of houses and had thrown down on them wooden beams and anything else that could cause injury. Of 8000 Russians some 2200 were killed and 260 taken prisoner, besides a small number of Russian ladies and diplomatic officials. A few days later the same events were repeated in Vilna where there were about 3000 Russians under General Arsenev, who was killed during the revolt.
Poles who were in Warsaw during the uprising say that if the Russian forces had been concentrated and kept with them all their artillery, and if the arsenal and powder magazine had been in Russian hands, then the revolt could have very easily been put down at its very beginning.
The revolutionaries were not content with the events of 5/17 and 6/18 April. To them it seemed right to repeat the Parisian scenes from the temps de la terreur in their entirety—and this was done on 16/28 June. Incited by the Jacobin club, the Warsaw mob demanded punishment for the Polish noblemen arrested on 5/17 and 6/18 April as suspected of allegiance to the Russian government and being in correspondence with the Russian ambassador, as was discovered by going through papers found in General Igelström’s house. When the revolutionary government refused to inflict punishments without investigations and trials, the mob, lead by club members, broke into the prison tower and publicly hanged about twelve Polish nobles. The same was repeated in Vilna. There even the bishop was not spared even though he belonged to an important Lithuanian family.
This must be the first time in a Catholic state that a bishop was turned over for an ignonimous public execution!
To Kościuszko’s credit it must be said that not only did he not approve the beastly manner in which the revolutionaries took matters into their own hands, but he even ordered that seven of the chief instigators of the revolt be hanged in Warsaw and the Warsaw citizenry be disarmed, and in a secret instruction to the provisional government he directed the formation of a body of National Guards drawn from its most incorregible thugs to be put in the Praga fortification’s most dangerous positions. In proclamations to the people Kościuszko clearly described the stupidity of the mob’s deeds and of its instigators. He threatened punishment without mercy for any autonomous actions as well as for mistreating prisoners.
But the three neighboring powers had already decided Poland’s fate. Kościuszko was defeated first at Szczekotine by the Prussians and then at Maciewice by General Baron (later Graf) Fersen, where he was taken prisoner. Krakow was already in the hands of the Prussians, and Suvorov was given the task of ending this business once and for all.
After defeating separate groups of forces in Lithuania, Suvorov quickly advanced to Praga where the best Polish troops were concentrated and where the most fiery patriots resolved to win or die. Tomasz Wawrzecki, also Lithuanian by birth, was chosen to replace Kościuszko.
Suvorov had from 22,000 to 25,000 troops in all and 80 guns. Praga’s defenders did not think it possible that with his forces Suvorov could decide to assault fortifications defended by 200 guns and about 30,000 brave soldiers and volunteers. They thought that Suvorov would be limited to a siege or blockade of Praga—and were not alarmed, expecting that a nation-wide popular uprising and diplomatic support from France would turn events in another direction. But suddenly on 22 October/3 November Russian troops appeared under the walls of Praga to set up camp a cannon shot’s distance from the fortifications.
Now I will relate the story of a witness, General von Klugen, in the form in which it lodged in my memory.
When we halted within sight of the fortifications, the Poles fired a volley at us from all their guns. This was the signal for all Warsaw volunteers and National Guardsmen to gather together in Praga, as well as to show us their strength. Crowds of people were outlined on top of the earthen walls, cannons gleamed, and hoarse cries could be heard. Several hundreds of horsemen rode out of Praga and started to skirmish with our cossacks and light horse. This ended the action for that day. In the twilight the order was given to prepare for an assault and weave fascines. That is how we spent the whole night without closing our eyes once. Our entire army was divided into seven detachments, or as they say now—columns. Our artillery deployed in front. At five o’clock in the morning when it was still dark a signal rocket rose in the air and the force moved forward. In front of every detachment went a company of expert marksmen and two companies carried ladders and fascines. At the distance of canister shot our artillery gave a volley and then began to fire individually. From the fortifications round shot came in reply. When the gloom had dissapated, we saw that our shot had collapsed the Praga fortifications in many places. The ground around Praga was sandy, and inspite of being shored up with turf and fascines, the fortifications were unstable.
Suddenly in the center column the shout rang out: “Forward! Hurrah!” The entire force repeated this cry and hurtled into the ditch and at the fortifications. Musket fire belched smoke along the whole line, and the whistle of bullets merged into a single howl. We made our way over the bodies of those killed and without halting for a moment clambered into the trenches. Here the carnage began. We fought with bayonet, gun butts, sabers, daggers, scabbards—even our teeth! We had only just crawled up into the trenches when the Poles who had faced us, after giving a musket volley, broke into our ranks. One hefty Polish monk, all covered in blood, grabbed the captain of my battalion in a bear hug and with his teeth tore off part of his cheek. I managed to knock down the monk in time by plunging my sword into his side up to the hilt. About twenty volunteers rushed on us with axes, and until they were impaled by bayonets they chopped up many of us. To say we fought furiously is an understatement—no, we fought in a merciless rage. It was impossible for us to maintain formation, and we just kept in tight groups. In some of the bastions the Poles had barricaded themselves in, surrounded by cannons. I was ordered to attack one of these bastions. Withstanding the canister fire of four guns, my battalion overran them with the bayonet and continued onto the Poles ensconced within. What a pitiful sight struck me on my first step inside! The Polish general Jasinski, brave and intelligent, a poet and dreamer whom I had met in Warsaw society and admired, lay bloodsoaked over a cannon. He didn’t want to ask for mercy, and he fired his pistol at my grenadiers whom I had directed to lift him up... They ran him through on the cannon. Not one living soul was left in the bastion—all the Poles were bayoneted.
The same fate met all who remained in the fortifications, and after reforming we went after those who were fleeing to the main square. They fired at us from house windows and rooftops, and our soldiers broke into the houses, killing everyone they didn’t get their hands on... Fury and a thirst for vengeance was at the highest pitch... Officers were powerless to stop the bloodshed... Praga’s inhabitants, the old, women, children, all ran in a crowd before us toward the bridge, to the same place that the fortification defenders who had saved themselves from out bayonets were hurrying---and suddenly frightful yelps broke out in the fleeing mob, then smoke rose up and flames appeared... One of our detachments, sent along the bank of the Vistula, broke into the trenches and set fire to the bridge over the river, cutting off the fugitives’ line of retreat... At the very same moment there was a horrible crack, the ground shook, and daylight became dark from the smoke and flames as the powder magazine flew into the air... Praga was set afire at all four corners, and the flames quickly spread through the wooden structures. All around us were bodies, blood, and fire...
At the bridge the massacre began anew. Our soldiers fired into the crowds without discrimination—and the piercing shriek of the women, the sobs of the children, created horror in my soul. It is true when they say that the flow of human blood gives rise to a kind of drunkeness. Our infuriated soldiers saw all living things as the murderers of our comrades during the Warsaw uprising. “No pardon for anyone!” screamed our soldiers and slew all without regard to age or sex...
Several hundred Poles managed to escape over the bridge. About two thousand drowned after throwing themselves into the Vistula to try to swim across. About 1500 men were taken prisoner, among whom were many officers and some generals and colonels. It was hard work for our officers to save these unfortunates from the revenge of our soldiers.
We had gone into the assault at five in the morning, and by nine there were none left of the troops who had defended Praga, nor Praga itself, nor its inhabitants... In four hours a terrible vengeance had been taken for the massacre of our own men in Warsaw!
At that time we did not know our own losses nor the enemy’s. Afterwards we read in the commander-in-chief’s reports that over 13,000 Poles perished in Praga and 8 of our officers and 600 of our privates had been killed. Of wounded there were 23 officers and about 1000 men. Two hundred guns, howitzers, and mortars that had been in the fortifications, and a great quantity of flags, made up our military spoils. Poland had never before experienced such a defeat and such losses... It was the final blow which ended its political existence...
As the good general was telling me about the storming of Praga he was in great agitation, and sometimes he even wiped away tears. “Hell, pure hell!” he repeated several times.
You, my dear readers, have often heard the jocular saying: “Healthy for a Russian, fatal for a German!” General von Klugen assured me that this saying originated at the storming of Praga. Our soldiers had broken into an apothecary’s already wrapped in flames and carried bottles out into the street to see what was in them. They began to share them around and praise the contents: what fine, fine drink! At that moment a veterinarian from our artillery, German by birth, was passing by. Thinking that the soldiers were drinking ordinary vodka, the doctor took a cup and downed it in one gulp—and immediately fell down. In a few minutes he was dead. It was pure alcohol spirits!
When Suvorov was told of this event, he said, “It’s a German’s choice if he wants to measure up against Russians! What’s good for a Russian is death to a German!” These words formed the saying. Whether Suvorov was repeating something old and forgotten or whether he coined a new phrase, I can’t answer. I only say what I heard.
An extract from F. V. Bulgarin’s Vospominaniya. Part 6, Chapter III.
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Translated by Mark Conrad, 2010.