Many of India’s diplomatic missions and residences abroad occupy beautiful and historic buildings: the Ambassador’s residence in Cairo has a jetty on the Nile; the one in Tunis slopes down to a private patch of the Mediterranean; and in Paris, the Ambassador virtually lives in the shadow of the Eiffel. Some of the buildings have legends lurking in the backyard. The residence in Bonn, before the capital moved to Berlin, housed a farmer’s annexe where a teenaged Beethoven is said to have composed the opening chords of his Fifth Symphony. And in Moscow, Indian envoys since K.P.S. Menon have looked down from their chandeliered reception rooms in the elegant residence on Ulitza Obukha, at a small cottage-like structure within the embassy’s compound, introduced to every awe-struck new arrival as Napoleon’s dacha – Russian for a country home or summer house.
Legends spin around the dacha like the russet brown leaves of autumn or the snow flurries of the ruthless Russian winter and some find their way inevitably into memoirs. B.S. Das, an IPS officer turned diplomat records his arrival in Moscow in 1961 (after a month long journey from Bombay through London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Leningrad!): “I reported to our embassy located in Ulitsa Obukha, a historical place with a small hut called Napoleon dacha. Legend has it that the place got its name from the fact that the great man spent a night at this place in 1812.” Sheila Gujral, wife of former envoy (and Prime Minister) I.K. Gujral has a more colourful entry in her recollections and revelations about her days in the USSR: “A small dilapidated building at the back of the embassy estate was another interesting landmark of history. We were told that Napoleon spent two nights there with a Russian girl.”
A less romantic version is that it was from this hill of Vorontsovo Polye that Napoleon watched Moscow burning across the river. He had entered the city on September 14, 1812, a week after barely winning a bitter and bruising battle at Borodino against the experienced Russian commander-in-chief Field Marshall Kutuzov. The Russians had been retreating for three months before that, leaving scorched earth behind as they went. Once again Kutuzov ordered the Russian army to abandon the city and retreat, predicting that the French “shall eat horseflesh yet, like the Turks.”
Most of the citizens of Moscow simply abandoned their homes in the beautiful autumn when, in Lev Tolstoy’s words “the sun hangs low and gives more heat than in spring, when everything shines so brightly in the rare clear atmosphere that the eyes smart, when the lungs are strengthened and refreshed by inhaling the aromatic autumn air….”
Napoleon waited in vain for Moscow’s noblemen to bring him the keys to the spiritual if not the political capital of the Russian nation. Deprived of the pomp of a ceremonial surrender he finally entered Moscow only to find it empty, “empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty” (Tolstoy). The French soldiers wandered around the rich abandoned houses wonderstruck, hearing only their own footsteps. Soon the looting began and then the fires started. Russians themselves, it is believed, began to torch their city and quickly an inferno was consuming the predominantly wooden city, its houses and churches, art and sculpture and of course the critical ammunition and food stores. An amazed Napoleon may well have watched it from the hill, exclaiming “What savages! To annoy me they burn their own history, the works of centuries!” What began that day would end only with an inglorious retreat of the French Grande Armee from Moscow five weeks later. A garden pavilion, or our dacha, was built to commemorate the spot where the Emperor may have stood at that fateful hour.
Whatever the truth may be, the Indian embassy carries the historical presence of the dacha lightly. A few yards away lies the squash court which was at one time the only one in Moscow, a huge asset in the business of making friends and influencing people. On the other side, volley ball courts appear in summer. The dacha itself has been used at various times as a video rental library, an officer’s club, a gym…. Twice a year its doors – like the rest of the embassy’s – are opened up for cultural tours. Generations of diplomats have heard the legend of the dacha, debated it among themselves and often dismissed it as apocryphal – but only amongst themselves. For the rest of the world, this is Napoleon’s dacha where he spent a night – or two – and let us not get overly troubled by facts.