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"This brave Russian soldier posed as a man to fight Napoleon" Topic

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Tango01 In the TMP Dawghouse27 Apr 2018 12:17 p.m. PST

"At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, a Russian soldier was summoned before Tsar Alexander I to address a rumor. The meeting came in response to the suspicion that the warrior before the emperor's court — though dressed as a man—was actually a woman.

It was true. But rather than condemning her, the tsar was impressed.

At the age of 23, Nadezhda Durova had ditched her family and the comforts of bourgeois life. She began anew by disguising herself as an adolescent male named Alexander and enlisting in the army. Called before the tsar in 1807, she was asked if she was indeed a cavalrywoman in disguise. Durova replied in confirmation. "My heart was throbbing," she wrote in her memoir. "My hand trembled in the tsar's grasp."…"
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14Bore27 Apr 2018 3:30 p.m. PST

Working on her regiment now was pondering how to make her but in 15mm not sure

Tango01 In the TMP Dawghouse28 Apr 2018 11:12 a.m. PST



Gazzola28 Apr 2018 11:27 a.m. PST


I've read her memoir and also the silly and useless novel based on her exploits. However, if I remember rightly, she did not actually do any fighting, certainly not man against man (or rather, in this case, woman against man). And she also deserted her five year old son to go off to war, which I am sure was not seen as the right thing to do during that period of history, although men were doing it all the time, of course. But she had a choice and chose to leave her husband and child. That bit is not mentioned by her in her memoir. But it was still an interesting read.

14Bore28 Apr 2018 12:28 p.m. PST

She was a officer and as such not supposed to fight in a battle but direct troops, now often officers did call eachother out for individual duels. Still thinking my 1 officer in my Mauriopol Hussars might be her, no way to tell.

seneffe29 Apr 2018 2:43 a.m. PST

Gazzola- according to her account, she actually fought at Guttstadt (where she rescued a Russian officer in the melee), Friedland, Smolensk and Borodino where she suffered a contusion from a cannon ball.
She never mentions killing or wounding anyone, but she was evidently in the thick of the melee more than once and was shot at many times.

14Bore- She served in three different regiments- the Polish Light Horse (later Uhlans) in 1807, transferred to the Mariupol after the 1807 war, and transferred again to the Litovski Uhlans in 1811- so unfortunately- the fighting part of her career was not spent in Hussar uniform.

Her autobiography is an informative, pretty balanced account- with several reflections on the alternating bravery and cowardice of troops, including her men and even herself, and of the very quickly reversing fortunes of cavalry in battle.

14Bore29 Apr 2018 3:43 a.m. PST

Its a shame then, but so 1 of my Litovski Uhlans might be her

Gazzola29 Apr 2018 9:08 a.m. PST


I am not doubting her bravery (or rather perhaps her naive impetuosity at times) or her being present at battles, but she was never involved in actual combat with the enemy, that is, actually fighting with anyone one on one. And it is questionable if she would have actually killed anyone, had the situation arisen.

'Joan of Arc was urged by her "voices" to save France. Durova was apparently not prepared to go as far as actually kill (chap. 7), but her journals show a rare sense of vocation for the profession of arms. She is, moreover, already a contemporary, a product of the romantic epoch, and her rebellion against women's fate is more readily comprehensible than Joan's mystic call' (page xvii)

In terms of the Battle of Guttstadt, 1807, described in Chapter 2, page 38, she says she charged a group of enemy dragoons who had surrounded a fallen Russian officer. She goes on to say that the sight of her charging them must have 'frightened' the enemy because they abandoned the fallen officer. So, other than her charging towards the enemy, there was no actual combat involved.

She then gave her horse to the wounded officer and was later scolded for doing so: 'You do foolish things, Durov! You won't keep your head on your shoulders. At Guttstadt, in the heat of battle, you decided to give up your horse to some wounded man or other. Are you really too half-witted to realise that a cavalryman on foot in the midst of combat is a creature bound to perish? At the Passage you dismounted and went to sleep in the bushes when the entire regiment was expecting orders at any minute to go and to go at a trot. Whatever would have become of you if you didn't have a horse who, no offense meant, is a great deal smarter than you are! They let you go into Heilsberg for half an hour, and you settled down by the fireplace and went to sleep, at a time when even to think about sleeping was impossible-that is, impermissible. A soldier has to be more than human. In this calling there is no question of age: he has to carry out his duties the same way at seventeen and at thirty and at eighty. I advise you to die on your horse and in the ranks, or else I warn you that you will either be taken prisoner in disgrace or killed by marauders or, worst of all, considered a coward! (page 45)

As with all memoirs, care and caution must be taken concerning the contents and how accurate they are to reality. In the introduction it is revealed that she lied about how old she was when she ran away. In the memoir she knocks 7 years off her actual age and was actually 23 when she ran away to join the army. She also knocked the same number of years off her mother's age and that of her 'faithful steed Alcides'. (page xx) She also failed to mention that she was married and had given birth to a son in 1803, who, of course, she abandoned to go to war. (Translator's Introduction: pages xix-xx: The Cavalry Maiden, 1990)

Perhaps she felt that someone aged 17 might be forgiven for making such naïve mistakes, rather than someone older which was actually the case, who knows? And I do wonder if her son who she abandoned was equally proud of her exploits?

So yes, a very interesting, if somewhat romantic read, despite the lies and missing reality of her life, but again, one does have to be careful and cautious when it comes to memoirs, no matter who wrote them.

seneffe29 Apr 2018 12:42 p.m. PST

Gazzola- well you did say in your first post above that 'she did not actually do any fighting'- I think that you are applying a very narrow definition of 'fighting' and 'combat' (as you call it in your second post) in this case.

Whether or not she ever personally killed or wounded anyone with lance or sabre- she was in mortal danger leading troops in the face of the enemy in major engagements on a number of occasions, and if that had happened to me- I for one would certainly regard myself as a combat veteran. Maybe you wouldn't count that as actual fighting/combat- it's a matter of opinion I guess.
If fighting people 'one to one' is a necessary qualification of fighting/combat in her case, then many soldiers in battles of the Napoleonic era (not to mention later) would not qualify as having fought either.

Pretty familiar with the pitfalls of memoires- I have more than one version of Marbot- which probably says enough.

Thanks for the quotes- it certainly indicates that the translations of various versions seem consistent.

Tango01 In the TMP Dawghouse29 Apr 2018 3:05 p.m. PST

Many thanks my good friend!. (smile)


Gazzola01 May 2018 9:37 a.m. PST


I accept your point concerning the definition of fighting and combat. Although, from what I remember, and as I stated before, she did not seem to have actually untaken any actual fighting. But yes, she was, or so we are led to believe, present on various fields of battle. And I imagine soldiers who stood at the rear in reserve who did not actually fight, could equally claim to have been in combat.

However, there is of course elements of suspicion of what she did or did not do, mainly because she lied right from the start. 'Because she omitted the truth about her unhappy marriage, Durova was open to legitimate suspicion about the accuracy of other aspects of her tale.' (page xxvii: The Cavalry Maiden)

I found 'tale' as an odd choice of word for the translator.
This could suggest she 'romanticised' her exploits to some degree, but whatever she experienced, they certainly seemed to have inspired her romantic fiction writing later on. As I say, an enjoyable read, but read with obvious caution. I'm just surprised no one has made a film about her?

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP01 May 2018 10:53 a.m. PST

One suspects that, to get away with something like this, she was "less than easy on the eye" and might not appeal as a potential role in a cinema film.

Photographs of those who tried this stunt in the ACW are well documented and they do seem, universally, to have been "homely" ladies.

seneffe02 May 2018 3:52 p.m. PST

Gazzola- I certainly don't want to trigger any any upset or bad feeling, but I think you are being too hard on her and not giving sufficient credit, not just to her account, but of what we know in general of the battles in which she took part.
Her regiments were certainly engaged in all the battles she records, and the Litovski Uhlans was involved in numerous combats throughout the day at Borodino. None of the accounts I have indicate her regiments just 'stood at the rear in reserve'.

So unless, on the basis of no evidence whatever, we assume she had been somehow absent from the ranks on those bloody occasions- it is very hard to suggest she had not been heavily involved in combat whether of not she ever killed or wounded anyone personally with her lance or sabre. How many French cavalrymen were there who charged at Waterloo but didn't manage to land a sabre blow themselves- to take one well documented example? What then are we to make of their service on that day?

We may have different editions- in the one I am looking at right now by Angel Books 1988, page xxvii is actually a picture of Durova in old age.
In my edition the translator Mary Fleming Zimin, actually addresses directly the question of Durova's lies about her early civilian life. Zimin quite rightly says that we do not know why she eliminated mention of her marriage, but suggests that it was either state censors compelled her to do that, or self censorship because that aspect of her personal life would have been considered very shocking to the readership of the time. But there is no suggestion of falsehood in the military aspects of her memoir as far as my edition indicates.

As the book makes perfectly clear by printing extracts of official correspondence about her case including a report to the Czar- that her real family circumstances and her war service 'with distinction' were well known to the Czar and army high command.

Overall, I genuinely do think that she and her memoir deserve rather more credit.

Gazzola03 May 2018 6:39 a.m. PST


I don't want to cause any upset either. And I am not trying to downplay her exploits or bravery. What she did was considerably brave for a woman during that period, albeit she did abandon her young infant son in order to do so.

It is only the fact that I can understand her lying about her age to her fellow troops and superiors, in the hope possibly that her physical appearance would be more acceptable if she could fool them about her actual age. But why lie in a memoir? There is no need for it. The reader is not going to kick her out of the army. And why deliberately hide the fact she was married and had a son. Although perhaps she felt the book would not sell if those facts were revealed?

The book I am referring to appears to be the same, although my paperback version was published by Paladin Grafton Books, 1990. The image of Durova is on page (xxvi) and it is dated as 1810. There is also an image of Durova aged 14 on page 10.

There are other questionable factors to her memoir, which was brought up by Hussar Poet Denis Davydov in 1836:
'In her notes there are a few contradictions and oversights. For example: 1) She tells Kutuzov that she was already serving during the Prussian war, distinguished herself, and that Count Buxhowden noticed her bravery, and in your foreword to her notes you say that she joined the service in 1808. Either the one of the other is incorrect. The Prussian war began in December 1806 and went on until June 8, 1807, but Count Buuxhowden was called away at the beginning of it and would hardly have seen action personally. A corps of his was in action, Dokhturov's corps at Golomin, no more. If Bennigsen noticed her bravery, that's different, but even in this case she would have had to join the service in 1806 and not 1808.' (page 230, Appendix B. The Cavalry Maiden)

So we have her lying to the reader about her real age and deliberately lying about her status, that is, not revealing she was married and had a child at the time. She also appears to have lied about her military and combat record and career, and to none other than Kutuzov.

Her book is interesting, in that, although it does not cover military actions in any details, if any at all to be honest, she shows the other and somewhat boring but necessary side of military life. However, considering she disliked the conventional role women were meant to undertake, I was surprised she did not go into more detail and description of the actions she was said to have been at, in the sense that she could show fellow females that they could do and achieve the same as males.

But the fact she lied and deliberately mislead the reader right from the start cannot be ignored, especially after she claimed: 'I assure you on my word of honour of the truth of everything I wrote, and I hope you will not believe all the gossip and condemnations made hit or miss by scandal-mongers' (The Cavalry Maiden, page xix)

'Durova was a pioneer in Russian fiction as well as in autobiography.' (Note 28. Page xxxv)

'The fictional works that Durova published in a burst of literary activity from 1837 to 1840 belong chiefly to the "hyperromantic" school (page xx).

These may have been inspired by her memoirs, which, in a way, can possibly also be considered to a degree as 'hyperromantic' in format.

She was a remarkable woman and born in the wrong period. What she did and the way she thought about a woman's role would probably not raise an eyebrow today. So I do give her credit for what she achieved in a 'man's world' but like any other memoir, I read and accept the contents with caution.

Gazzola03 May 2018 6:49 a.m. PST


When has accuracy, especially in historical films, ever prevented an historical character from being portrayed and looking completely different to how they did in realty?

And in the images we're seen of her, she is meant to look like a man, so who knows how she might have appeared had any images of her as a young woman been available. Indeed, the image of her aged 14 in the memoir mentioned above does not indicate her to be 'less than easy on the eye." There may be other images available which might agree (or disagree) with your suggestion but I am not aware of them.

seneffe03 May 2018 5:14 p.m. PST

Gazzola- as you can see from the text- the translator offers compelling explanations about why she may lied in her books about the facts of her her family life and age at enlistment. The two possibilities advanced are that she either censored herself or that state censorship was applied to her work. Both of which are absolutely understandable (whether or not one thinks she did a bad thing leaving her family) and create no suggestion of falsehood in the military account.

In Tsarist Russia, state censorship was applied to pretty much every book written before it could be accepted for commercial printing. One of the issues very likely to fall foul of the censors would be autobiographic descriptions of anything seen as immoral behaviour- such as abandoning her family in pursuit of a lover. Considering the social mores of 1830s- it is actually quite easy to understand why she would have lied about this part of her early life to the readership. In short, if she wanted to get published, the awkward husband and child bit had to go….

Davydov did question some of the sequences of events she quotes of 1806-7- but if you read the memoir it is he who is more likely to be mistaken about the sequence of those events- of which he had no first hand knowledge.

Durova did not claim (as Davydov thought- commenting before her book was published) to have been noticed by General Buxhowden during the 1806-1807 war- which Davydov thought unlikely. In her account (p 59 in my edition), that she actually claims to have met Buxhowden on her post war return to Russia, and states that Buxhowden said he had heard about her valour- not to have personally noticed it (He was though in charge of the initial post war enquiry which led to her commissioning, and which took evidence from her regimental commanders and comrades- Appendix A). It is also clear that she did join the army in 1806, resolving another misunderstanding.

But aside from that tangle- it might have also been worth quoting what Davydov said of her service in 1812- which he saw at first hand. After a description of her shyness on meeting, and hearing the rumours of her true sex, Davydov continues-

"Afterwards, I saw her at the front, on vedette, in a word, all the difficult duties of the time, but I didn't pay much attention to her; there was no time to worry about whether she was of male or female gender. That grammatical category was forgotten about then."

You are right that she doesn't give much of a description of the fighting she was in- but that is common of lots of accounts of soldiers who have been in battle- I've got a shelf full of them. I'm actually more inclined to believe vague and fragmentary accounts like hers- the sensation of shot flying around, and rapidly alternating charge and flight at the gallop- than something like Marbot's incredibly detailed technicolour tall stories.

I've read Durova's book a couple of times, including recently just by coincidence- so happy to keep comparing and contrasting quotes from it if that helps reach a final consensus.

Gazzola04 May 2018 6:06 p.m. PST


Any consensus of the worth or accuracy of the Memoir will be by whatever level of interpretation and acceptance of the actual work undertaken by the reader. What you may find acceptable, I may not and vise versa.

For example, I find the excuses offered for Durova lying to the reader right from the start as totally unacceptable and laying the foundation for not accepting everything she goes on to recall as entirely truthful or indeed accurate.

And, as I have already pointed out, she claimed that 'I assure you on my word of honour of the truth of everything I wrote' yet knowing full well that the memoir starts off with a blatant lie. She was not a maiden, a virginal youth age 17. She was aged 23, married and a mother of an infant boy. So to claim truthfulness and then lie just does not quite go together, does it?

Basically, we have no way of knowing why she lied, the reasons mentioned cannot be confirmed and are only opinions. And the author herself does not even bother to explain why, then or later on in life, which might have been acceptable, had she done so. And of course, it sounds far more romantic and endearing for a virginal female youth to run off to join the army, rather than a mother abandoning her infant son. Overall, it suggests there may be some truth in the fact 'she took liberties with the facts of her life and of historical actuality' (see page 57 in the linked article)


Also, the critic Vissarion Belinsky thought it was so well written that he believed it was actually written by Alexander Pushkin, who was said to have edited it and helped her get it published.

It is interesting that the editor of the Cavalry Maiden states on page xix – 'She chose passages that give The Cavalry Maiden a novelesque quality…' The memoir does read at times more like a novel, which, of course, could be attributed to her skill as a writer or possibly helpful editing or that the author has basically romanticised her exploits.

In short, as I have already stated, what she did was ahead of her time and her memoir is an enjoyable read. However, the fact her memoir deliberately deceives the reader right from the start cannot be ignored or readily brushed aside. The poor reader, unless they know about the lies from the start, continues to read, and is expected to believe, how the 'naïve young female' manages to cope as a young female pretending to be a 'young' man in a man's world. It is deceit of the worst kind.

Anyway, all memoirs contain elements of truth and I see no reason to dismiss this one as not containing them. But all memoirs do need to be read with caution and only a fool would accept them as gospel. And I am happy to place Durova's book alongside Baron Marbot's memoirs.

Le Breton Inactive Member04 May 2018 6:21 p.m. PST

I do not know what is in the translated versions. Here is the earliest Russian version I could find online, witht he spelling modernized and free (1838)


In the original Russian version, she skips over being married and having a child without mention. She recounts saying she was 17 upon joining the Army. If she had said any older age, her lack of facial hair, upper boby musculature, etc. would have been remarkable. If she had said any younger age, she would not have been accepted.

By the way, in Russian, she does write well – clear, descriptive, flowing narrative.

seneffe07 May 2018 1:20 p.m. PST

I think we're getting a fair way to consensus, which is always good.
We've moved a long way from Durova not having done any fighting, and we've acknowledged the major actions in which she took part, and the fact that as a result of official enquiry into her conduct she was not just allowed to stay in the army but commissioned as an officer from the ranks.

No one could fail to agree that such a promotion was rather unusual distinction in the Tsarist Russian Army (although less unusual- to be fair- in 'recruited' volunteer regiments such as the one in which she first served). If anything had come to light in the general officer-led enquiry into her actions in 1806-7 which cast doubt on her account of herself- she would have been unlikely to have been allowed to stay in the army, let alone have been commisioned- yet we can all see that she was indeed made an officer for her conduct – The official report at Appendix A of the book makes that quite clear.

We are to be fair, in a bit of a loop about that the undoubted fact that she did lie about the circumstances of her early civilian life. No-one on this thread or the translator of the book has sought to deny that for a moment. The translator has offered two very compelling reason s why she might have done so- self censorship through personal shame- or state censorship which was strict and highly pervasive- with authorial morality high on the list of priority.

Although it's absolutely true that we cannot know the reason for why she lied about her early life- either of these suggestions is highly plausible, no-one has sought to advance any other possibilities for why she might have lied about it, and no-one has indicated any point to indicate any doubt about the reliability of her military account.

We've also discussed the point the prominent military and literary figure Denis Davydov cast doubt on some claims which he thought that she was making about the 1806-7 period- prior to her account being published. But we have seen on actually reading her text, that Durova did not make any of the claims that Davydov expressed premature scepticism about. We have also seen that as an eyewitness to her later service in 1812, Davydov was wholly complimentary about her conduct as a front line light cavalry officer.

Durova's accounts of her military service are the subject of no specific factual challenges that I have been able to find. They also really convey only the senses of duty, patriotism and frequent personal doubt. There is no glory in Durova's story of her military service, which is another reason to give it credence. If there are any factual doubts about her military account which I have missed- I would be certainly grateful to have them identified.

Durova does not claim that her personal intervention with high commanders made any difference to any military operations, she did not save any beleaguered regiment's colours, her horse never bit off the face of an enemy soldier- and her memoires were never- as far as I am aware- later satirised in a series of comic novels. So I wouldn't quite place her alongside Marbot- although I'm sure some of his claims must have been true- especially given the crystal clarity with which he remembered his exploits.

I think it's been a good debate and I am interested to know what other readers of Durova's account think of it.

von Winterfeldt07 May 2018 11:30 p.m. PST

I agree with Seneffe.

Otherwise our main problem as non Russian speaker is – that we have only a limited number of translated Russian memoirs available – and as we all know, usually translations, regardless how fine they are – loose quality compared to the original language.
Some Russian memoires were published in German or French.

A good comparison read is

With Count Pahlen's Cavalry
against Napoleon: Memoirs of the
Russian General Eduard von
Löwenstern (1790-1837)

Translated by Victoria Joan Moessner, PhD
with Stephen Summerfield, PhD

Gazzola08 May 2018 4:15 a.m. PST


I think, because she never bothered to reveal why she lied, we could spend forever making up excuses as to why she decided to do so right from the start and basically fool the reader, a reader who, unlike present day readers, may not have been aware of her lies and not aware that she was in fact not a youth. So her work offers a false sense of who Durova really was and the reader continues reading her tale under this false pretence.

In my opinion, it stains a very interesting and somewhat different memoir, to the extent of why should the reader believe anything else she writes when that too, or at least some of it, may be equally fabricated.

It is almost as if she wanted to write a novel, rather than a memoir and indeed, she does go on to write romantic novels. And, at times, the memoirs reads almost like a Russian 'Black Beauty'. The Tsar Alexander of course may have been aware of the truth and continued with the cover up, so that the Russians could not be accused or exposed as having to resort to employing women in the army to fight their enemies.

And apart from her early errors for which she was scolded, there is no evidence of her not being a good soldier, although, saying that, just because she did not include anything else in her 'own' memoir, does not mean she was always a good or bad soldier.

The fact Durova failed to include any real details on military actions and battles could be because she was a woman and did not want to write about them, was present but did not see much action (and we know she did not actually fight anyone) or that she did not actually take part in them and did not write about them in case someone challenged her descriptions. And she certainly would not want to offer anything that might knock into disrepute a woman's memoir, which I think may have been her main aim, that is, to show other women they could join the military and serve their country, rather than stay at home undertaking conventional roles like being a housewife and mother.

I fail to accept any of the 'imagined' reasons as to why she lied right from the start. It would have been far more interesting and acceptable for her to describe to the reader why she lied about her age for whatever reason within the text. We could then have enjoyed the deceit and know why she did it. It is just a shame that she never bothered to explain why.

Anyway, even so, it is an interesting memoir in that it concerns a women choosing to abandon her traditional life and expected role to dive into a man's world and a dangerous one at that, although I felt she never really goes deep into the challenge of a woman in a man's world and the problems a woman would have to cope with. And in the same way that people put down Marbot's memoirs because of possible exaggerations and untruths, I see no reason why this memoir should be placed above Marbot when it starts with such a blatant untruth right from the start.

But that's just my opinion. I would still recommend anyone to read it. It is different, if somewhat dull and lacking when it comes to military actions. Indeed, in some ways, it is not really a military memoir but a woman's memoir and, as I said before, a woman ahead of her time.

Le Breton Inactive Member08 May 2018 6:44 a.m. PST

"…. lied …."
It was not really an active "lie" to the reader in the Russian text. I have no idea what it says in English versions. She "lies by omission" by not relating about her husband and child. Actually, she just omits her late teens and early 20's as if they were not there – and the narrative is a bit less smooth, more disjointed, at that point (maybe due to editing?).
She reports that she told the army she was 17. I really do not think we need to speculate why : if she said older and her physical appearance would have given her, and if she had said younger she would not have been allowed to join.

"and we know she did not actually fight anyone"
Not correct. She does not report any such actions, but does not aver that such never happened. I am pressed to think of *any* Russian memoir that does so (except for reporting the occasional duel with another Russian officer). I do not think it was seemly for Russians to write about how they hacked and slashed and shot their way to "glory". Come to think of it, I doubt that I would include any such passages if I (Heaven forbid!) wrote a memoir, and I am American. It is just not seemly, especially for an officer.

"to show other women they could join the military"
There is nothing in the text to suggest this aim – and it was a virtual impossibility. It was the strangeness of her case which made it noteworthy.

"it concerns a women choosing to abandon her traditional life"
Maybe the translations are bad. That is not what she wrote. There was little or nothing about "choice". She felt a compulsion, from a young age, to join the military – apparently caused by the bad treatment she received from her mother and other women compared to the welcome she received from the military men at her father's posts. She writes how she greatly regretted the unhappy feelings such a course of action might cause he father, but (in modern idiom) "could not stop herself".

"I felt she never really goes deep into the challenge of a woman in a man's world and the problems a woman would have to cope with"
Not really at all, you are right. She barely self-identifies as female from the point in the narrative when she joins, and before that she describes how her early life was also extremely atypical for a Russian girl of the era.

Really, if one will want to see the small nuances in the story, and to strive to deduce motivations, I do not how it can be done well unless one can read the text as written : in Russian.

seneffe08 May 2018 3:51 p.m. PST

Gazzola- work prevents a longer response right now but I'll get back to you directly. We're getting there, but still stuck on the wider significance of the lie about her early life- or the omission as Le Breton's points out from the reading of the original Russian text. Even if omission is more accurate in terms of her Russian text- I've gone along with lie up to now so I'll carry on- but I do defer to Breton's linguistic knowledge.

I fail to accept any of the 'imagined' reasons as to why she lied right from the start. It would have been far more interesting and acceptable for her to describe to the reader why she lied about her age for whatever reason within the text. We could then have enjoyed the deceit and know why she did it. It is just a shame that she never bothered to explain why.

You have raised a really good point here. I agree it would indeed have been far more interesting and enjoyable for her to describe to the reader why she lied about her age- and circumstances- IF you and I and Le Breton and other 21st century military history enthusiasts were the readers at whom she was aiming her work- but we weren't.

The point is that she wasn't aiming her work at us- she was aiming her work at the Russian upper and upper middle classes of the 1830s- who would have regarded that part of her story as completely shocking and unacceptable. If you bear that crucial context point in mind- you have the answer to your question. We've been around this a couple of times now.

Also- the fact that she lied from the start of her book, might not be wholly surprising given that the events she was trying to conceal occurred at the start of her story. People may have noticed if she'd written the truth at the beginning and then changed the story half way through- it could have defeated the original object a bit I think.

Nothing has yet been raised here to indicate anything else in her account is untrue- so that question will be worth a good detailed look through the text.

When I used to oversee teaching techniques of information evaluation and analysis a few years back- the most common difficulty I noticed by far in students was in trying to evaluate a given piece information from the perspectives of people in other cultures and societies (or historical periods). It was also one of the hardest to teach if it didn't come intuitively, and often it was folks who were really strong in other facets of analysis who didn't find it came intuitively.

I'll try to get back to you with a full response idc. In the meantime, if there are any specific parts of her military memoir that you think are factually inaccurate- regimental operations and actions, commanders, any indication that she was not present with her unit when she claims to have been, etc- that would be really interesting to hear about and consider.

Gazzola10 May 2018 9:28 a.m. PST

Le Breton

It is obvious she would need to lie to the army in the hope that pretending to be of a younger age, in this case 17, her physical and feminine aspects may be seen not due to being a female but connected to being a male youth.

But no one can say for sure why she decided to lie or leave out facts that would create a different picture for the reader, right from the start. It is really a shame she did not do so. But like it or not, she does lie. The reader is given the false impression that she is a 17 year old female. Durova does not inform the reader that she lied about her age (page 30) to fool the military. Nor does she inform the reader that she was not actually 17 but 23. Nor does she inform the reader that she was actually married and had an infant son, who, as we know, she abandoned. In fact, she even goes as far as to lie to the reader about the age of her horse, Alcides (page 9).

There is no reason why she should not have included for the reader, her real age and the fact she was not a virginal youth but a wife and a mother. No reason at all. As I said before, an author cannot claim that 'I assure you on my word of honour of the truth of everything I wrote, and I hope you will not believe all the gossip and condemnations made hit or miss by scandal-mongers' (page xix, The Cavalry Maiden) and then start off with an outright, blatant and very important set of lies.

And woman fighting during the Napoleonic period is not new or exclusive to Durova. You only have to look at Diaries of Pavel Pushkin, translated by Alexander Mikaberidze: 'It is remarkable that even women fought fiercely on this occasion. Among the dead is an eighteen year old girl who fought especially valiantly and, upon receiving a mortal wounded, she still had the will power to stab a Frenchman who shot her, and died having avenged herself.' (page 44)

Other 'fighting' exploits and descriptions are mentioned in Ilya Radozhitsskii, Campaign Memoirs of the Artilleryman, Part 1: 1812 translated Alexander Mikaberidze. (eg: Page 63) There are also detailed descriptions in The Czar's General, the Memoirs of Alexey Yermolov, Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1812, Russian Eyewitness Accounts of the Campaign of 1814.

In short, I don't think the Russians found it 'unseemly' to describe fighting any more than any other nationality. And I wasn't referring to the lack of 'bloodthirsty hacking and slashing one's way to glory'. It is just a general lack of any descriptions of actions, which, as a woman, Durova might have offered us an interesting insight.

In terms of leaving out material, again you are merely speculating that had she had not included her real age, her real marital status and the fact the was really a mother of an infant, because people would be shocked. Well, her work with these 'omissions' did create 'gossip and condemnations', so it made little difference and she should have included the truth. Plus the fact she was brave enough to leave the 'female' role of wife and mother to join the army, suggests to me she would not care about what people think anyway.

And the mere fact she is a woman who entered a man's world and a dangerous one at that, would, I am sure suggest to other women of the period that they too could do the same if they wanted. But had she added the truth about being married and being a mother to an infant son, it could have suggested to the female reader at least, that to do so may require sacrifices that some may not consider worth undertaking.

If this book had been written by a male, it would be a very boring memoir with hardly anything happening. And the fact any tension created that she may be discovered as a female any minute, did not seem to exist or place the reader on edge, wondering if she would still get away with it, as much as you would have expected it to. That, of course, could be due to her failing as a writer, in this text anyway. I'm not making out she was a bad writer but she was obviously learning the process as she wrote this book. I believe she also ignored any advice on alterations etc, she wanted it published as she wrote it. As it stands, it is interesting because she is a woman and, to a certain degree, it offers some elements of a woman's point of view. In terms on none military activities, other memoirs have included this, so that is also not exclusive to Durova's memoir.

As I say, I would still recommend it and I did enjoy reading it, to a certain degree, mainly because it was different to the usual memoir, but I would certainly not place it over other, more interesting memoirs.

Gazzola10 May 2018 9:40 a.m. PST


I think you may be better off communicating further over Durova's memoir with Le Breton.

I have merely offered my opinion on The Cavalry Maiden and I do not find the topic (or indeed her memoir) interesting enough to undertake further research or debate.

And I am not challenging her military record. The fact she decided to lie to the reader about her age, marital status and motherhood, does not necessarily mean she lied about anything else. However, the fact she lied while claiming on her 'honour' of the 'truth of everything I wrote' does raise questions of how much she may (or may not) have fictionalised and possibly romanticised.

It is a romantic memoir of a woman in a man's world, and, as I have said before, a dangerous one. That she should do so it both brave and fascinating to read. But I have read it and don't intend to read it again. I have other memoirs to enjoy, which I am turning to now. But I have enjoyed the debate and who knows what may be revealed sometime in the future.

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