Recollections about the Last Officer of Napoleon’s Army
Translated By Alexander Mikaberidze, FINS
(To the portrait of N.A. Savin)
[This article was originally published in Russkaya Starina, 1896, vol. 86, No.4, pp.109-114.]
(Editor’s Note: Recent research by Russian scholar V. Totfalushin questions many details of Savin’s life and further details can be found in Footnote No. 3)
By Constantine Voyensky
Soon after the publication of my article on the veteran of the Grand Armee in the Novoye Vremo, I began to receive numerous letters and questions to publish his photograph and provide additional details about his personality, way of life and last minutes of this man of incredible longevity. So in this issue of the Russkaya Starina, I am including the portrait of N.A. Savin, taken when he was 120 and given to me by his daughter, Evdokia Nikolayevna Savin, and will try to share with readers a few details that I managed to gather about Savin in Saratov as well as with my personal impressions developed during the two year acquaintance of this venerable old men.
Arriving to Saratov in early 1893 and talking to one of the local old residents, I accidentally learned that an old Frenchman was living here since 1812, that he arrived in Russiawith the Grand Armee of Napoleon, participated in many battles of the First Empire and received the Legion d’Honneur from the hands of the Emperor of French himself. Such an interesting personality could not but interest me, and I decided to see this incredible old man, the living witness of Napoleonic epoch, at any cost. I say "to see” since I was certain that it would be impossible to have a conversation with a man of his age and was convinced that I will see a hundred year old, fragile man, who had long fallen back into childhood and had lost all memories and, possibly, sanity as well and so it will be hardly possible to get anything from him. Circumstances, however, soon showed that I was completely wrong.
That the same day I went to the indicated address. The old man lived
in the first part of the town, on the
I approached the old man and called him by his name, apologizing for uninvited visit, which was caused by my deep surprise and desire to meet him and to have a talk with a living representative of that famous epoch, with a person, who served under the command of the greatest of military leaders. The old man warmly shook my hand and told me, “You spoke to me of the man to whom I dedicated the best years of my life and whose memory is sacred to me. Be my dear guest and enter my house.”
Inside the house we were met by the veteran’s daughter, herself
an old woman, whose caring hand put a visible imprint of neat homeliness
on this modest dwelling. There were flowers in all windows since
the old man loved them so much and despite very weak vision he dedicated
all his time to the gardening. Six years from his death but at the
old age of 120, he, nevertheless, still could read without eyeglasses
and sometimes spent time at his favorite pastime – drawing.
In recent years, however, his sight began to weaken rapidly and he
found it difficult to sign his name with his trembling hand. Nikolai Andreevich's (the
old man liked it very much when he was called on a Russian name by
his first and paternal names) room represented a miniature but to
the highest degree unique corner, where everything spoke about the
times long past; here he lived by the memories of the glorious and
majestic past, of his Emperor who looked at him from the frame of
a large watercolor portrait and from a small bronze statuette, which
stood on the table near the n window. This was part of the cult of
Napoleon, a unique but touching in itself,
revealing a deep devotion, literally to "to the grave itself." The
history of this portrait is noteworthy: it was painted by Savin himself
in 1837, some 25 years after his arrival in Russiaand was
painted by memory – the Emperor’s features were so firmly
engraved in the memory of the old veteran. Napoleon was depicted
standing, in his traditional campaign coat and bicorne,
with his hand placed inside the uniform. He was standing on the seashore
looking pensive into the distance. Not far away from him was another
portrait showing a gallant hussar officer in the uniform of Napoleonic
troops - an inscription revealed that this was Nikolai Andreevich himself
in the uniform of the 2nd Hussar Regiment in 1812. Studying attentively every little thing in this
wretched and at the same time rich in recollections room, I became
especially interested in a small engraving inside the ancient frame
with weathered gilding that was hanging in the far corner. The engraving
depicted an episode of the Egyptian Campaign of 1798 and was noteworthy
for remarkable sharpness of figures surrounding Bonaparte. The commander-in-chief
and his staff were depicted sitting on the camels; the pyramids and
the famous Sphinx, at whose feet the French troops were bivouacked,
could be seen in the background. When I commented that I was
particularly intrigued by this engraving, the old man suddenly began
to name all generals in Bonaparte’s suite with remarkable details. “I
could hardly see this painting anymore,” –Nikolai Andreevich said, “But
I remember everyone depicted on it… This was my first campaign
with the Emperor… Here, to the right and facing Napoleon
– that is Berthier, next to him is Lannes, the future Duc de
Montebello, with whom served at
I listened attentively to this remarkable old man, stunned by his memory that was incredible for his age… I discovered that he was 126 years old: he was born in April 1768; at 20, he took part in the Egyptian Campaign while the Patriotic War [Russian Campaign] of 1812 found Savin at a mature age of 43. This remarkable memory remained with the old man to the very last moments of his life. His aged daughter told me many time that when forgetting names of people who were long dead, she would ask her father and he would always remembers their names and oftentimes where they lived.
After that day I made frequent visits to the venerable Nikolai Andreevich and gradually learned about his remarkable Odyssey
that was both fascinating and tragic. The main episodes of his military
life flashed in front of his eyes:
With the tears on his eyes, the deeply-moved Nikolay Andreevich received this precious medal from the hands of Governor Prince Mezhersky and showed it with great enthusiasm to his friends and acquaintances who came to congratulate. This interesting and very rare decoration consists of a dark- bronze medal (on the green ribbon), on face side of which is depicted the profile of Napoleon I with the inscription all around: "Napoleon I a ses compagnons de gloire Sa derniere pensee!" On other side – an imperial eagle and inscription: "Sainte-Helene, 5th May 1821 g." (the day of death of Napoleon).
Nikolai Andreevich Savin lived
in the Saratov Gubernia, without leaving
it, for 82 years. Captured by [Ataman Matvei] Platov’s Cossacks during the crossing of the
Years added burden on his shoulders and the difficult responsibility of teacher and educator became too hard for the old man: using the meager savings that he was able to save during 60 years of his pedagogical career, he acquired that very house where his old daughter still lived and where he spent that last 20 years of his life. His physical agility and cheerfulness, extraordinary for such old years, left him only recently. Only few year ago, the residents of Saratov could see the small figure of old man, bent in his back, hurrying early in the morning to the market with a basket in the hand, or going on Sundays towards Catholic church, wearing a holiday frock-coat with the Legion d’Honneur ribbon on it. Judging from the words of Nikolai Andreevich himself and the stories of local old residents, he was always characterized by extraordinary moderation in food, drinking and overall way of life. He always ate the simplest, the most unpretentious food, and especially loved tea, which, until the very last days, he drank eagerly; in the spring and summer, he spent most of the time in the open air, rummaging in his garden; he remain on his feet until the end of his life.
The death arrived quietly, without any sufferings. After feeling sick for several days, he felt particularly weak on Tuesday, 29 November 1894, and, after inviting a local priest, he was given the sacraments. The Roman Catholic priest, Count Chembec, who attended him in these last minutes, testified to the deep religiosity of old man, who remained a sincere and good Christian throughout his life. Several hours after the priest’s departure, the old man died. He was 126 years, 7 months and 12 days old. Soon after Nikolai Andreevich’s funeral, which were paid for by the town of Saratov, which desired to honor the memory of its oldest residents, the French community in St. Petersburg started a subscription for his monument, which is, at present, being built by his daughter at the local Roman Catholic cemetery, where the "last veteran of the Grand Armée" now rests.
 A revised version of this article is also available in French: “Le dernier des vétérans de la Grande Armée [Souvenirs personnels des entrevues et entretiens de l'auteur avec un officier de l'Armée de Napoléon Ier] / Constantin Woensky. “Revue des Études napoléoniennes” vol 5 (3e année, Tome I, Janvier - Juin 1914), p. 5-21.
 Voyensky’s Note: In 1894, shortly before his death, Savin signed his last name in the letter to the editor of Figaro and on the request letter written to the Minister of People’s Education Count Delyanov. One of Savin’s last autographs is preserved with the author [Voyensky] of these recollections inside Count Segur’s Histoire de Napoleon et de la Grande Armee, which was gifted to him by the old man himself.
Russian historian V. Totfalushin has recently
found a document in the Russian State Historical Archive that casts
doubts about Savin’s claims and provides a few very interesting
details about this man. The document is an excerpt from the official
memo by the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs relative to the
status of the surviving veterans of the Grand Armeé still
 Voyensky’s note: At the present moment only four veterans have the St. Helena Medal: J. Sabatier (serving since 1809), aged 104; Victor Baillot, aged 103; Pierre Rousset and Joseph Kose, aged 102. All of them retired in low ranks.
 Voyensky’s Note: Details of the funeral were published
in the local
 Voyensky’s Note: In 1895, the community also published a French language brochure “Nicolas Savin, dernier veteran de la Grande Armee. Savie. Sa mоrt". (1768—1894)” (Saint-Petersbourg 1895)
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2007; updated November 2007.