Denis Davydov, the hussar who became a hero and literary model for Russian writers

If there is a characteristic and well representative type of the Napoleonic wars, it is the hussar. It was a body created much earlier -at the end of the 15th century-, although it reached its maximum splendor in that period and in every way.

From their spectacular uniforms to the deeds of a particularly famous officer (here we saw, for example, those of the ineffable General Lasalle) but, above all, because it was then that the classic image of the hussars as downright braggarts, bullies and brawlers And part of the blame for that was due to someone named Denis Vasilyevich Davydov.

Ironically, Davydov was not from Hungary, the country where the hussars were born, nor from France, which sublimated them.

He was Russian, born in Moscow on July 27, 1784 in the bosom of a family of aristocrats whose origins, it seems, went back to Genghis Khan.

Therefore, they had a great military tradition and, in fact, his father served under the orders of Alexander Suvorovone of the most famous generals in the history of Russia for never having lost a battle -and that the curriculum was extensive, against Poles, Turks and French- and for coining a lucky warrior motto: “Train hard, fight calm”.

Loyalty to Suvorov meant adversity in the long run, since when Catherine died the big one That soldier fell into disgrace -he was his protector- and with him the Davydovs. Suvorov was sacked by Tsar Paul I (although he was later reinstated temporarily to fight French revolutionaries in Italy) and the family found itself economically sanctionedhaving to sell his property and settle on a small Borodino farm.

Still, young Denis was able to be sent to enter the Russian Imperial Guard Cavalry while his brother was assigned to the diplomatic corps.

Despite his short stature, he managed to be a cadet of a regiment in 1801, rising to cornet the following year and obtaining the office of lieutenant in 1803.

By then it was already popular among his peers for various reasons: first, his mocking and sarcastic character, reflected not infrequently in cheating during card games and issuing fierce criticism against everyone, some for being corrupt, others for cowards, many for being people of order. They say that Denis had a certain complex about his size and his nose, which could have influenced that provocative personality.

The other reason that made him known was his hobby to write, both in prose and poetry. Some of his verses recorded how he faced these physical complexes with humor, but the truth is that his literary production is quite varied and along with those jokes he also wrote more serious things, such as the essay titled guerrilla warfare theory (something he practiced with notable success) or his memoirs themselves, At the service of the tsar against Napoleon.

He did not speak without knowing: on December 2, 1805 he had the opportunity to participate in the battle of austerlitzin which he was wounded several times, once with a bullet and the others with a saber and bayonet, being captured and receiving a visit from Napoleon himself in the field hospital where he was recovering.

He also fought in eylau, where he won the Vladimir Cross and a golden sword as a reward for his heroic performance at the head of the Russian hussars against the Gallic lancers. In 1808 he was posted to Finland and the following year he fought the Turks in Moldavia. In all these actions he was under the orders of the audacious prince Pyotr Bagrationimmortalized by Tolstoy in War and peace.

What’s more, it is believed that Davydov himself appears in that novel, identified with the character Vasily Denisov. Despite everything, with Bagration he had his pluses and minuses. Something paradoxical considering that it was the prince who appointed him assistant after replacing Marshal Mikhail Kamenski in November 1806, as Pushkin tells in his novel the queen of spades.

The fact is that the sarcastic Davydov could not avoid composing some verses in which he laughed at his superior’s nose (it was of considerable dimensions) and from then on their relationship was never the same. That hussar was unable to contain himself in his cheeky jokes and tirades, very amusing to the reader… as long as the reader was not the one being mocked.

Of course it wasn’t always like that. Experts say that his poems they reflect a deep feeling and are of great rhythmic vivacity, in addition to being very original; Pushkin himself praised him, considering him his literary model, while other authors claimed that he himself a prototype hussar image was fabricated under which, in reality, lay a fine sensitivity.

And it is that, together with the soldiers who shared his drunkenness with him, his visits to brothels, his waste of recklessness at the front, his exaltation of camaraderie and the fat salt of his humor, the romantic writers and the Decembrists they appreciated, valued and extolled him in strictly artistic terms.

Being a playboy and hedonist did not prevent him from ascending in 1812 to lieutenant colonel of the Ojtirka Hussars. On August 21 the Grande Armee he arrived in Borodino, the town where his family made their home. Davydov proposed to Bagration to make a guerrilla warfare and the idea was accepted.

Thus developed a series of fearless actions. Some with success, such as the capture of three hundred and seventy French prisoners by one hundred and thirty Russian hussars or the continuous interceptions of enemy baggage columns; other unfortunate ones, such as the ambush suffered at the hands of local peasants, who took them for Napoleonic soldiers.

Davydov on campaign/Image: Simon Kozhin on Wikimedia Commons

However, the balance was positive enough for Bagration to decide to continue in that line throughout the campaign and, once, Davydov’s men were about to capture the Emperor in person by surprising you in a transfer with a minimal escort; In the end Bonaparte was able to escape but that episode spread like wildfire and definitively consecrated the Russian as a hero, to the point that today he is considered a guerrilla archetype.

Then, when the French were in retreat, Davydov was one of those who reached the gates of Paris; there charging against the defenses of Jacquinot’s brigade, he was killed by five horses and earned the promotion to general.

Then one of those episodes occurred that only a hussar could star in: he received the order to change bodies and join the dragons. Terrible outrage that made him indignant and decide to resign. At the last moment he opted to send a letter to the tsar expressing his anger but slyly adopting that humorous tone he was so good at.

Thanks to this, the order was revoked and he was able to continue displaying his curly mustache, his hairpiece and his coat with bells. still had wars aheadsuch as the one against the Persians in 1827 and against the Polish insurrection of 1831.

passed away on April 22, 1839being buried in the town of Novodevichy, southwest of Moscow, in a cemetery that also houses the graves of other famous personalities of Russian historysuch as the writers Nicholas Gogol and Anton Chekhov, the politician Viatcheslav Mikhailovitch Molotov, Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva (Stalin’s second wife), the musicians Serge Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostákovich, the diplomat Andrei Gromyko, the violinist Mstislav Rostropovich, the engineer Andrei Tupolev and Raísa Gorbachova (Gorbachev’s wife); also the filmmaker Serge Bondartchouk, director of two films related to this theme as the co-production waterloo or a Russian version of War and peace.


Russia Against Napoleon. The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (Dominic Lieven)/Guerrilla Warfare. A Historical and Critical Study (VVAA)/Towards the Romantic Age. Essays on Sentimental and Preromantic Literature in Russia (Rudolf Neuhauser)/Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (John Arquilla)/Wikipedia