To the Russian Army

Victor Hugo
10/05/2022 , English articles
Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressing members of Congress virtually at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., 16 March 2022. © J. Scott Applewhite/ AP Photo/ Bloomberg via Getty Images/ Ideal Image Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressing members of Congress virtually at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., 16 March 2022. © J. Scott Applewhite/ AP Photo/ Bloomberg via Getty Images/ Ideal Image


Soldiers of Russia, become men again.

That glory is now offered you; seize it.

Whilst it is still time, listen:

If you continue this savage war; if you, officers, who are noble-hearted men, but whom caprice can degrade and cast away to Siberia; if you, soldiers, serfs yesterday, slaves to-day, violently torn away from your mothers, your betrothed, your families, subject to the nknout, ill-treated, badly fed, condemned for long years and an indefinite term to military service more severe in Russia than the hulks in other countries; if you, who are victims, take a part against the victims; if, at this holy hour, when venerable Poland rises – at this supreme hour, when the choice is given you between Petersburg, when the tyrant is, and Warsaw, where liberty is: if, in this decisive conflict, you are unmindful of your duty, your only duty, fraternity; if you make common cause against the Poles with the Czar, their executioner and yours; if, being oppressed, you have learned from oppression no other lessons than that of supporting the oppressor; if you convert your misfortune into your shame; if you, armed with the sword, place your blind and deluded strength at the service of despotism, an unwieldy and weak monster that crushes you down, Russians as well as Poles; if, instead of turning around and facing the butcher of nations, you cowardly overwhelm by the superiority of your arms and your numbers these heroic and despairing populations claiming the first of all rights, the right to their country; if in this nineteenth century, you consummate the assassination of Poland: if you do these things, know ye, men of the Russian Army, that you will fall, which appears impossible, even lower than the bands of the Southern States of America, and raise against you the execration of the whole civilized world! Crimes of violence are and remain crimes; public horror is the penalty. Russian soldiers! let the Poles inspire you; fight not against them. What you have before you in Poland is not the enemy, it is the example.

Hauteville-House, February 11, 1863

English translation published in The Examiner, February 14, 1863, p. 106.

A brave nation is desperately fighting for both its survival and human dignity. An overwhelmingly stronger enemy both militarily and in terms of numbers is standing before it: an empire known to all as a breeding ground for oppression and brutal violence. At the same time, much of the rest of the (supposedly) civilized world looks the other way, tries to maintain "delicate balances", keeps equal distances or, at the most, extends gestures of platonic (and hypocritical) sympathy to the victims.

Does this "scenario" not sound familiar to you?

Is this long-suffering Poland during one of its multiple 19th century uprisings, or long-suffering Ukraine during its 2022 defensive war? The differences are minimal, especially when the executioner of both countries was and still is timeless "Holy Russia": that of the tsars, of Stalin or of the neo-tsar / neo-Stalin who bears the name of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The page above was written less than a month after the outbreak of the great Polish uprising against Russian tyranny in January 1863. At that time, political thinker and writer Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870) who was a leading figure of the Russian political diaspora, launched an urgent appeal through the pages of the newspaper Колокол[i] (The Bell) he published in London addressing Victor Hugo: "Big brother, help! Speak on behalf of civilisation! "

Hugo, himself exiled to Guernsey in the English Channel (being an opponent of Napoleon III’s regime), immediately responded to Herzen's call and sent to Kolokol his own ‘Appeal to the Russian Army’ (which was republished by a number of European publications). 



Soldats russes, redevenez des hommes.

Cette gloire vous est offerte en ce moment, saisissez-la.

Pendant qu’il en est temps encore, écoutez :

Si vous continuez cette guerre sauvage ; si, vous, officiers, qui êtes de nobles cœurs, mais qu’un caprice peut dégrader et jeter en Sibérie ; si, vous, soldats, serfs hier, esclaves aujourd’hui, violemment arrachés à vos mères, à vos fiancées, à vos familles, sujets du knout, maltraités, mal nourris, condamnés pour de longues années et pour un temps indéfini au service militaire, plus dur en Russie que le bagne ailleurs ; si, vous qui êtes des victimes, vous prenez parti contre les victimes ; si, à l’heure sainte où la Pologne vénérable se dresse, à l’heure suprême ou le choix vous est donné entre Pétersbourg où est le tyran et Varsovie où est la liberté ; si, dans ce conflit décisif, vous méconnaissez votre devoir, votre devoir unique, la fraternité ; si vous faites cause commune contre les polonais avec le czar, leur bourreau et le vôtre ; si, opprimés, vous n’avez tiré de l’oppression d’autre leçon que de soutenir l’oppresseur ; si de votre malheur vous faites votre honte ; si, vous qui avez l’épée à la main, vous mettez au service du despotisme, monstre lourd et faible qui vous écrase tous, russes aussi bien que polonais, votre force aveugle et dupe ; si, au lieu de vous retourner et de faire face au boucher des nations, vous accablez lâchement, sous la supériorité des armes et du nombre, ces héroïques populations désespérées, réclamant le premier des droits, le droit à la patrie ; si, en plein dix-neuvième siècle, vous consommez l’assassinat de la Pologne, si vous faites cela, sachez-le, hommes de l’armée russe, vous tomberez, ce qui semble impossible, au-dessous même des bandes américaines du sud, et vous soulèverez l’exécration du monde civilisé ! Les crimes de la force sont et restent des crimes ; l’horreur publique est une pénalité.

Soldats russes, inspirez-vous des polonais, ne les combattez pas.

Ce que vous avez devant vous en Pologne, ce n’est pas l’ennemi, c’est l’exemple.

Hauteville-House, 11 février 1863


Victor Hugo’s appeal as it appeared in the Колокол (The Bell), on 1st January 1863.



[i] Kolokol.