The Ryazan Road to Ruin by Revolution
Anyone who has ever attempted to organize a simple family reunion will get a good laugh out of today’s chapter. It’s tough enough to coordinate the schedules, diets and desires of loved ones. Just imagine trying to impose your will on an entire nation composed of Rostovs, Bezukhovs and Bolkonskys! Yet that is exactly what Napoleon has in mind today as he surveys Moscow from the Poklonny Hill:
“Here she is, the reward for all those fainthearted men,” he reflected, glancing at those near him and at the troops who were approaching and forming up. “One word from me, one movement of my hand, and that ancient capital of the Tsars would perish. But my clemency is always ready to descend upon the vanquished. I must be magnanimous and truly great. But no, it can’t be true that I am in Moscow,” he suddenly thought. “Yet here she is lying at my feet, with her golden domes and crosses scintillating and twinkling in the sunshine. But I shall spare her. On the ancient monuments of barbarism and despotism I will inscribe great words of justice and mercy…. It is just this which Alexander will feel most painfully, I know him.” (It seemed to Napoleon that the chief import of what was taking place lay in the personal struggle between himself and Alexander.) “From the height of the Krémlin — yes, there is the Krémlin, yes — I will give them just laws; I will teach them the meaning of true civilization.”
We’ve spoken before of Napoleon’s hubris. We’ve also discussed the stabilizing forces of tradition in society. Today these subjects are married. Today Napoleon believes that with “one movement of my hand” he can rearrange the social and political relations of an entire society. He honestly believes that instant proclamations upon an untested, unstudied population will prove more robust than the system the Muscovites themselves have built up through centuries of tinkering trial-and-error.
Napoleon considers the subjects of his conquest to be like so many chess pieces. He need only arrange them in an advantageous position on the chessboard. But people are not chess pieces. People are primates, prone to the same compulsion towards group identity and lethal violence as their evolutionary forebearers.
That’s probably one reason why revolutions are such brutal affairs. Does Napoleon really think his revolution will be so different when he rolls up with all his fancy French ways and starts ordering these Russians around? We’ll see.
Revolutionaries take note.
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France