You know that scene in Godfather II where young Vito is given the last name “Corleone” by the American border guard, only because he’s from Corleone? Turns out that my own last name may have a similar kind of history. The story (a bit legendary) is that our Kotar ancestor was not a Kotar at all, but he was from Kotor (Montenegro). In the early 19th century, he had the unfortunate fate of being in the path of Napoleon’s armies.
Luckily, my Kotar ancestor was a doctor. Napoleon was no fool. He needed plenty of doctors, carpenters, metal-workers, and other professionals in his army. And he was not averse to “impressing” people to his army. So Dr. Kotar accompanied Napoleon on his fateful invasion of Russia.
We all know how that ended…
Today’s article is a translation of a fascinating article that explored what happened to some of the remnants of that great army that couldn’t survive the horrors of Russian winter. Here’s the original Russian, for those who are interested.
In 1869, a French engineer named Charles-Joseph Minard decided to begin a unique project. He created a diagram in which he plotted the losses of Napoleon’s armies during the Russian campaign.According to his research, 422,000 soldiers entered Russia with Napoleon. Only 10,000 returned to France.
Later research would show that Menard didn’t include the over 200,000 (one of whom was Dr. Kotar) who were impressed into the army during the campaign. The newest research, however, is no less impressive. Of the over 600,000 person army that entered Russia, no more than 50,000 returned. At the same time, casualty reports account for no more than 150,000 deaths. What happened to the other 400,000?
The summer of 1812 was unseasonably hot. Not an insignificant amount died from heatstroke and heart attacks related to the heat. The situation was not helped by the usual infections that plague any large army during the march. But the heat was quickly replaced by sudden cold and extreme rains that very soon turned to snow.
Historian Vladlen Sirotkin believed that 200,000 of the French army were taken as prisoners of war. Many of them did not survive. All the same, almost 100,000 of them still remained in Russia two years after the end of the war, and of them, 60,000 became Russian citizens. After the end of the war, the restored Louis XVIII asked Alexander I to repatriate the French who remained in Russia, but Alexander I did nothing.
The proof of French habitation in Russia is seen all over the country. In Moscow, to this day, there are about twenty families who descended from French soldiers. Oddly enough, the city with the largest population of these “French leftovers” is Chelyabinsk in the Urals. But more on that later.
Samara had a place called “The French Mill,” presumably because French prisoners of war worked there. And near the city of Syktyvkar (Vologda region) stands a nearby village called Paris. The legend goes that it was founded by French prisoners of War.
The Russian language also has plenty of “French leftovers.” Hungry and cold French soldiers would sometimes ask Russian peasants for bread, addressing them as “chers amis” (dear friends). Whenever they asked for a horse, they used the French “cheval,” naturally. Strangely enough, in Russian slang, “sharomizhnik” and “shval’” are words that mean “hobo” or “wandering bum.”
Napoleon is said to have had a high opinion of Cossacks: “Give me the Cossacks alone, and I will take over Europe with them.” Oddly enough, some of his own soldiers would end up joining that famed army. But the adaptation didn’t happen overnight. Historians are still assembling much of this information.
For example, Professor Sirotkin found a small community of Napoleon’s soldiers in the Altai (far Siberia). The documents show that three French soldiers—Vensan, Cambré, and Louis—willingly departed to the Taiga, where they were given land and the designation of “local peasants.”
Some officers were taken in by noble families of Russia. A certain Unter-lieutenant named Ruppel remembered how he lived in the family of a nobleman of Orenburg named Plemiannikov. As for the nobles of Ufa, they became famous for their unceasing parties, dances, and hunts in honor of their French guests. They even fought each other for the privilege of inviting the invaders over for dinner!
In all of Orenburg, around 40 of these French officers ended up staying, and twelve of them showed an interest in entering the Cossack army. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were over 200 Cossacks in the Orenburg Cossack Division that had French roots. As for the famed Don Cossack army, local historian found that at least 49 descendants of French soldiers had joined the army by the end of the 19th century. They weren’t that easy to find, as it turned out. For example, “Jandre” changed his name to “Zhandrov”, while “Billenon” became “Belov.”
The French “New Front”
In the beginning of the 19th century, the small town of Verhneural’sk (in the Chelyabinsk region) was a small fort that defended the Southeastern borders of Russia against Kazakh incursions. In 1836, that area needed to be propped up, and so a new front of forts and military towns was built all along that border. From Orsk to Berezovk a chain of Cossack village-forts was built. Four of them had French names: Champenuaz, Arsi, Paris, and Brienne. All the “French Cossacks” in the area were relocated to these forts, together with their families.
The local Kazakh sultan, spooked by the move, decided to try to invade. And so Napoleon’s old soldiers had to return to war, but for the army that used to be their enemy.
As for Dr. Kotar, he didn’t join the Cossacks. He settled in Western Belarus (near Brest), where nearly all of his progeny became priests. There are still Kotars living in Brest to this day.
If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about Russian history and traditions, be sure to join my Readers’ Group. Members of my Readers’ Group will get exclusive opportunities to get bonuses from me when I launch my first novel, The Song of the Sirin, on July 1.