Antichrist at the Gates: Apocalyptic Discourse in Russia Surrounding the Napoleonic Invasion of 1812

Michael A. Pesenson, Swarthmore College

My paper will examine the rich and varied apocalyptic discourse appearing in Russia at the time of the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, focusing primarily on material published in literary and political journals of the time, such as Vestnik Evropy and Syn Otechestva. It will also discuss lesser-known works of Gavriil Derzhavin and Vladimir Zhukovskij written to celebrate Russia’s victory over the French, as well as obscure Old Believer writings purporting Napoleon to be the Antichrist and Alexander the angelic Tsar-Savior. Such literature virtually deified the Tsar, urging him to stamp out iniquity and godlessness, restore order in Europe, and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Indeed, the apocalyptic rhetoric and passionate proselytizing of these works may have spurred Alexander’s ambitious plans at the Congress of Vienna to create a Holy Alliance of nations united by Christian spirit and brotherhood that would maintain order in a post-Napoleonic world.

While much has been written about the influence of the French-Livonian mystic Julie de Krudener and the German Heinrich Jung-Stilling on the Tsar’s beliefs at this time, much of the Russian literature – the numerous poems, sermons, and sketches – appearing in print before Alexander even had occasion to meet with the foreign spiritualists has received scant attention. They show a lively eschatological imagination tinged with a strong sense of patriotism, presenting the war as the ultimate battle between good and evil, the powers of light and darkness, humility and ambition, kindness and tyranny, salvation and destruction. The purpose of this paper is to give some of these writings greater visibility and to show how the writers used apocalyptic discourse to shape public opinion and rally their compatriots to victory, in the process formulating a resurgent role for Russia and stoking the messianic ambitions of its Tsar.