The French in Russia during the 1812 invasion often commented on the stamina of the low-ranking Russian soldier. The private seemed to be more machine than man, fighting as if he had no mind of his own and no thought of dying. The truth was not too far off. Many of those young Russian minds probably were gone. Conscription filled the Russian ranks, but unlike other European states, the Russians drafted the ranker essentially for life. Twenty-five years was the mandatory term, but after so long a time, the conscripted soldier knew he could not likely go home. If he did, he would be a stranger among a family who would not have heard from him in many years. He would be a middle-aged man without the skills necessary for village or manorial life. And as a retired soldier, he was considered “free,” which meant he was no longer held responsible to the lord of a manor if he’d been a serf, or for paying taxes in his village if he’d been a state peasant. The military would be all he knew at that point. Most retired soldiers became wanderers.
When the authorities imposed a levy, life was finished for the young man whose number came up; existence as he knew it was at an end. In fact, an induction was usually treated like a funeral, with tolling bells and wailing women. To a soldier, military life was so miserable that death was often preferable. State-owned peasants and manorial serfs bore the brunt of the military draft as the laws exempted sons of merchants, clergy, and noblemen. National service was devastating to the point that parents frequently maimed their male babies rather than ever have to worry about it. Self-mutilation by draftees was so common that laws had to be implemented. Intentional injury could be severely punished and the perpetrator could be forced into service anyway, which pissed off company commanders trying to form cohesive units. Runaways eventually became the responsibility of village leaders, whose backs might feel the lash if they could not produce the required number of conscripts. Incarcerating a draftee until an officer came to collect him was common practice. On the outskirts of the empire, particularly near Poland or Prussia, flight was practicable, but in the interior it was near impossible. A male of draft age wandering into a town with no visible means of support was automatically considered a draft dodger and quickly reported.
Some peasants were wealthier than others, and these might be able to buy a substitute inductee from a broker. Enterprising middlemen could buy serfs from a landowner and then sell them at a profit to peasant families who could afford them. A family then would deliver the purchased peasant in place of their son to the draft officer. Administrative corruption was also rampant, and bribery was another means for the better-off to avoid giving up their own. Sometimes, losing a son to conscription would ruin a small family.
Cowardice or other forms of dishonor on the Russians’ side of a battlefield met a punishment both swift and capital. The Russian soldier was not permitted to duck his head while under artillery fire. During skirmishes and pitched battles against Napoleon’s army, the Russian ranker generally faced death admirably, but hopelessness likely informed that behavior more often than any patriotism. On entry into the service, the recruit was immediately forced to march great distances to his regiment. Here, the living conditions were ripe for disease and illness. The food was anything but nutritious, the water was unhealthy, and the barracks were usually close and filthy. The men were treated like hell, often barbarically, which, combined with homesickness, was a significant factor in the high rate of suicide.
In “Beyond the Berezina,” Sir Malcolm purchased several Don Cossacks, serfs also known as “Little Russians,” to work his stables. He bought these from a female landholder—a pomeschitsa—in Voronezh province. Such a woman actually existed at that time, and her reputation was one of inveterate cruelty. Sir Malcolm treated his serfs well and they responded accordingly. Every once in awhile a ne’er-do-well was discovered in the mix, and Sir Malcolm would mark such a person for the conscription rolls when a levy was imposed. In real life, masters and villagers were known to turn over criminals, drunkards, and the generally useless for military service when called upon to satisfy the requirements of a levy. Sometimes a serf family’s sons were called out of turn by the master to punish the father. Sir Malcolm was a factory owner, and in 1812 Russia, factory workers were often exempted from duty, as the state needed their skills in their civilian capacities. Many of Sir Malcolm’s employees volunteered out of patriotism when Napoleon invaded, which was not an uncommon reaction that year. Manor-house staff in 1812 Russia also enjoyed exempt status, which is why Sir Malcolm did not have to find replacements for his. Sir Malcolm’s carriage factory, by the way, was based on one the French actually found unharmed and stocked when they arrived in Moscow. That factory survived the fires, as did Sir Malcolm’s.