Gunslinger in the Tsar's Army: Brett Favre and the Napoleonic Wars


Photo by Ty Grovogel

I made a rookie mistake on facebook last week; in a moment of weakness I posted my true feelings on a sensitive subject. Pardonne moi, but I am new to this social media stuff. At the time I was doing some heavy head-of-a-publishing house type work - networking or creating content - and the local TV news was on in the background. After hyping the weather for the first half of the broadcast, they launched into a breathless preview of Brett Favre's upcoming induction into the Packer Hall of Fame. I guess I was just caught off guard; it's only the begining of July, I'm not ready to be bombarded with Packer coverage. Also I was trying to concentrate on something else . . . My post went something like this: "All this fucking Brett Favre shit is going to make me barf." Harsh, I know. No doubt I hurt a lot of feelings that night.

It's not that I'm bent about Brett Favre, but the coverage is ridiculous, local sports guys acting like embedded war correspondents. Worse yet is how people take this whole idiotic saga soooo personally. Allow me to break it to you all: Brett Favre is not your buddy; he's not your cool uncle and - cruel truth - he did not play football for YOU. He doesn't even know who you are!

I'm not saying he wasn't a great player, I just think the cult of Favre is a bit misguided. But now we're just rehashing the same old shit - the same tired soap opera that's been playing in Wisconsin for the past 20-plus years. What's needed is a new perspective on this drama. We need to breath some new, more literary life into this argument. Perhaps it's time to confer with the old master - maybe the best ever at delineating vast, beffudling dramas. That's right . . . let us consult old Count Leo.

I assume you've read War and Peace. (Just pretend you have. It doesn't matter for this excercise.) My favorite aspect of the book is Tolstoy's unique perspective on the profound events that shaped his century. Traditionally, human history is presented to us as an endless string of biographies of "great men", as if these giants shaped all the events of our world. In contrast, Leo presents history as a momentous wave comprised of innumerable, relatively equal-sized droplets that are: the actions of men, subsequent reactions and percussions, as well as chance, misunderstanding and prevailing predjudice. Not so easy for the American psyche to digest, but pretty insightful, I think.

So, right then, let's try our modern drama in the context of early-19th century Russia . . .

Enter Brettanov Lorenzovitch Favreinski. Brettanov was born on the distant Siberian plains to a family of goat herders; humble folk, but of some standing in their rural community. The Favreinskis made some decent money herding goats and they controlled a large swath of land. They generally had to be dealt with by any official who had business in the territory, though they certainly held no sway in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Young Brettanov distinguished himself early on with certain feats of physical prowess. For instance: at the age of twelve, he displayed the unnatural ability to throw a stone clean through a goat from 50 yards out. When he came of age, Brettanov embarked on a career in the military, which was the only viable option for a young Russian man of obscure origins who did not wish to herd goats for a living. Brettanov was perfectly made for the manly, rough and tumble military lifestyle and he quickly ascended in the ranks. Besides his physical prowess and general fearlessness, he displayed sundry other wits and wiles that made him a natural leader. He proved to be good at more than just blowing holes in goats. He could drink more vodka than any man in his regiment, able to do a whole pint of the stuff up his nose! And Favreinski's appetite for the pleasures of the flesh was legendary. He'd plow through all the women of whatever outpost at which he was stationed and then, if he was still not satisfied, he'd finish up on whatever else was around and still breathing. He easily earned the respect of his men.

Despite all of this, Favreinski could well have lived out his life in obscurity on the Russian steppe. Or, far more likely, considering the constant peril of his day to day, he might have been killed before making his name. Enter Ronaldovitch Wolfinski, a top advisor to the Tsar with a keen eye for talent. Wolfinski became intregued by the tales of our young captain's distant exploits. It just so happened that the governer of Favreinski's territory was none too happy with the young star. Either the governer felt threatened by him, or just could not tolerate Brettanov's lack of professionalism. Either way, the gov was eager to see Brettanov go. So Wolfinski took a chance on Favreinski and brought him west. You know the rest. Favreinski rose to the head of the Russian army, beat back Napoleon and won the heart of every peasant in the vast motherland. He was showered with wealth and glory and he loved every minute of it.

Yet Leo Tolsoy and I would argue that none of this glory was inevitable. Favreinski had failures early in his generalship and many of the Tsar's ministers were calling for his head. And who knows how the war would have unfolded had Napoleon not pushed his luck disastrously and pressed too far into Mother Russia, overstretching the supply lines of his already depleated army. Could another general have accomplished what Favreinski accomplished? Almost certainly - though probably not with the same flair. Was Favreinski not a great general? He certainly was. Though he did benefit from an unusually serendipitous convergance of circumstances.

Then, of course, there was the hero's fall from grace. It was every bit as spectacular as was his rise. After the decisive battles of the war, Favreinski embarked on an ongoing public Hamlet performance in which he dangled the possibility of his retirement in front of the Tsar and in front of the country. Initially there was much sorrowing in the country at the thought of noble Brettanov Lorenzovitch riding off into retirement and the Tsar played along. But Alexander 1 had a plan and as Favreinski hemmed and hawed and counsulted the stars, the Tsar put his plan into action. Now Russia was somewhat divided on Favreinski's play; some, especially the intelligensia, the westerners, thought it all a cynical sympathy grab, pure political leveraging. The peasantry, however, was solidly in Brettanov's corner. When the Tsar called his top general's bluff, accepting Favreinski's resignation, the peasantry flowed over with tears and tributes. What would Russia do without him?

The scene was now set for Favreinski to come riding in on a white steed and, once again, play savior to the nation. How could he resist? What Brettanov failed to take into account was the Tsar's determination. Alexander had already replaced the old stone-slinger with a younger, more cerebral, more reliable man. The Tsar's man. Favreinski was assured that his services were no longer needed. There was a great tumult and the Tsar was reviled by the peasantry. If Brettanov had decided to lead a revolt at this point he probably could have had all of Russia. Instead he took a deal to stay in the game. Favreinski accepted a role as an ambassador/military advisor to Prussia, with whom Russia was officially friendly at the time. Anyway, Brettanov had always wanted to find out first hand just what delectable pleasures Europe had to offer. Well, it wasn't long before Brettanov embarassed himself completely over there. He took to canoodling with the French, which finally turned general public opinion in Russia against him. His ham-handed manners and barbaric buffoonery at European court made him a pariah in every civilized parlor and salon west of the Volga River. He soon retired for good and headed back to Siberia in disgrace and shame.

But Brettanov had always been the hero of Mother Russia and before long she took him back into her arms. Now she is planning imperial celebrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg in honor of his military exploits. Well pardon us, but the intelligensia are not interested! Again, we are not denying Favreinski's accomplishments. . . The point is: the whole bloody autocracy is fucked! It's a great sham; a con job! How did Favreinski's wars improve the peasants' lot one bit? How?! It's all just a farce designed to distract the people from the gross inadequacy of the system; to keep the priveledged few in power; to deny the Russian people any say in their government; to keep them under the boot of tyranny. I say, people rise up! Seize power, my comrades! Out with the Tsar and all his cronies!

Fuck Alex 1? Yes. Brettanov who? indeed. We'll start having T-shirts made immediately.

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