A skeleton for Diplomacy: How a Plan to Reconcile France and Russia Collapsed

LE BOURGET, France — The Plan to Repatriate the Skeleton of a Napoleonic general who died on a Russian battlefield two centuries ago, had to bring the leaders together of two nations at odds.

The remains of Gene. Charles Etienne Gudin, who is killed in action in 1812 during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, would be flown home with official pomp and pageantry, and President Emmanuel Macron of France would receive its Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, for a funeral die would serve as a symbolic burial of the axe.

Instead, General Gudin returns to French soil on July 13 was over more low-key: His coffin had flown in on An private plane chartered by a Russian oligarch and welcomed with An small ceremony in a grim hangar at Le Bourget airport, in near Paris, next to a decommissioned Concorde jet. The presidents were nowhere in sight.

“It wasn’t the repatriation die was originally conceived,” says Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a French historian of Russia.

Ever seen as an opportunity to profit history for diplomatic purposes, the plan was eventually scuttled by France’s unwillingness to support Russia’s increasingly harsh domestic and foreign policies. unraveling of the project also spoke met France and Russia’s peculiar relationship, formed by a complicated shared history stuffed with shadowy middlemen and backdoor diplomacy.

The case of General Gudin, Mrs. Carrère d’Encausse said, “reveals the complexity, the difficulty for France in this Franco-Russian relationship.”

AN favorite of Napoleon, General Gudin distinguished himself in battle before you are hit by a cannonball on August 19, 1812, while the French army marched on smolensk, in western Russia. To be left leg was amputated and he died of gangrene three days later.

the residence of his grave remained a mystery until 2019, when Pierre Malinowski, an amateur history buff, did a search with An team of Russian and French archaeologists – and the Kremlin’s explicit support.

Mr Malinowski, 34, a former French army corporal and a former help with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the longtime French far-right leader, had in pampered with the Russian authorities through a series of archaeological projects die France and Russia met connect each other.

In May 2018 he was invited to celebrate Mr Putin’s Fourth term. A few months later, Mr. Malinowski de in Moscow based foundation for development of Russo-French Historical Initiatives in the presence of Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman. Mr. Peskov’s daughter, Elizaveta Peskova, is the foundation’s vice president. Mr Peskov declined an interview request.

So when Mr. Malinowski started the search… for the general’s remains in spring of In 2019, French diplomats were worried.

“When we over heard the case, we had questions,” said Sylvie Bermann, the French ambassador in Russia from 2017 to 2019, noting that the Kremlin has long French far-right figures die serve their interests.

In July 2019, Mr Malinowski’s team found a rotten wooden box under the foundation of a nightclub in Smolensk. Inside was a one-bony skeleton, later confirmed by DNA testing on multiple of his descendants are said to belong to General Gudin.

Malinowski remembered kneeling by the coffin and whispered: “General Charles Étienne Gudin, Count of La Sablonnière, I’ll take you with me home.”

The discovery did not go unnoticed in Paris. Bruno Roger-Petit, Mr Macron .’s adviser on historical and commemorative issues, Mr Malinowski invited in the Elysee Palace in August 2019 to discuss future steps.

“L walk in the office, and he tells me: ‘Bringing Macron and Putin together’ with An general of the empire, that would be there best look cool,” said Mr. Malinowski. “And that is how it’s started.”

Mr Roger-Petit said: in presided over an interview he had originally planned for a joint funeral over by Mr Macron and Mr Putin on the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death last May — the kind of grand, symbolic bilateral event rarely seen between Mr Putin and a Western leader.

Mr Roger-Petit said Mr Macron approved the idea. A few days later, Mrs Carrère d’Encausse sent Mr Macron a letter saying it was “an embodiment of reconciliation” between France and Russia.

The discovery came when Mr. macron, who had tried reset relationships with Russia since his election in 2017, had just invited Mr Putin in his summer residence in South France.

The presidents discussed the return of General Gudin over dinner during that visit, according to Mrs Bermann, who said it was seen as “an opportunity” for rapprochement.”

Aleksandr Orlov, an old Russian ambassador in France until 2017, said the repatriation was intended to us that aside from the disagreements die we have today, there are other things die U.S us together.”

Some of The other projects of Mr. Malinowski have: also aligned with Kremlin interests. Last year, he organized the reburial of the remains of French soldiers who died during the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856. The Funeral took place in Crimea, An former Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014despite the opposition of most western powers.

“Our projects,” said Ms. Peskova, “are cultural, historical, diplomatic and political.”

They added, “We look like Putin’s puppets, but it’s not on target.”

At the beginning of 2020, the repatriation of General Gudin… on track. The coronavirus pandemic expected to be delayed plans for several months, but Mr. Peskov said: multiple news outlets that the Kremlin would respond positively to a French repatriation request.

The request never came.

In August 2020, Aleksei A. Navalny, Mr Putin’s most prominent opponent, used to be poisoned in An operation later turned out to be orchestrated by the Kremlin.

Mr Macron’s enthusiasm for a rapprochement with Mr Putin declined significantly. Plan for were a joint presidential ceremony postponed, diplomatic exchanges halted and communications with mr. Malinowski dried up.

“We came in in An phase of total freezing cold,” says Christian Bourdeille, the president of Paris Napoleon 2021, an organization that helped plan the ceremony.

“Gudin, really, was the word to” avoid,” he added. “Because everyone knew it was an extremely sensitive issue.”

In early April, Mr Malinowski received messages from a close adviser to Mr Macron warning him that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs blocked the return of the remains and suggests that he instead repatriate them privately.

“That would bypass the diplomats,” read one report seen by The New York Times. “We have to think” of An way around this.”

Ms Carrère d’Encausse and Mr Orlov said the French Foreign Ministry had long been skeptical over Mr Macron’s reset policy.

stripped of French support, and with Russia is concerned of a possible diplomatic episode, Mr. Malinowski went through a legal back door and issued a demand for the remains on On behalf of of Alberic d’Orléans, one of General Gudin’s descendants.

After all bureaucratic hurdles were overcome, General Gudin’s coffin was… left Moscow on July 13 in An private jet from Andrei Kozitsyn, a Russian oligarch who has funded several of Mr. Malinowski’s projects.

mr. Malinowski’s brutal move ruffled feathers within the French government, and initially only a small, private ceremony was scheduled on the run arrival.

But the controversy grew in conservative media over France’s refusal to honor a Napoleonic general, and at the last minute, the government sent Geneviève Darrieussecq, the minister for veterans affairs, to attend.

Mrs Darrieussecq announced die of General Gudin remains would be buried in Les Invalides, where others leading military numbers lie, as part of An national tribute being held on December 2, the birthday of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.

The move took many surprised. But in honor of a Napoleonic general shall appeal to the conservative voters, mr. Macron is making love forward of next year’s presidential elections, and for who Napoleon embodies a lost grandeur.

Mr Roger-Petit said that Mr Macron always… wanted General Gudin is lying in Les Invalides.

“What matters is the result,” he said.

To date, France has not extended an invitation to Russia to participate in the December tribute.

Mr d’Orléans, de general’s descendant, said the return of General Gudin’s remains Has been overly politicized.

“My feeling,” he said, “is that we have a… unique opportunity to improve relations between France and Russia.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.

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