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His tirade over, Ivan sat back in his chair exhaustedly. He lit a cigarette and gazed a long time at the smoke as it floated lazily in the air and slowly dissipated. Then, having composed himself, he turned to me and said "Why don't you take a nice tour of the town? Youri will take you."
There were two reasons why I jumped at Ivan's offer. First, it gave me another opportunity to see more of Belarus. But most important, it got me out of this man's office. While I liked him a lot, I admit he unsettled me.

Whatever Belarus is, and it's a lot of things, it is always fascinating. As we walked out of the building my mind cast back to the tour Youri had given me during my first trip to the factory. It had been early spring. Ivan was in a good mood then and suggested we take a drive into the country.

The three of us and the factory driver stepped into the factory Jeep and drove out of town. I was surprised at how little time that took. Soon, I found myself mesmerized by the sight of birch trees swaying in the chilly breeze. Great groves of firs, snow still lying where they cast shade, added a nice color contrast to the white of the birches.

We drove over a low hill and I was surprised to see the geography of the land suddenly change. Swampland stretched away as far as the eye could see, great clouds of mist rising from the water. It was primordial and oh so beautiful.

A village of perhaps twenty houses snuggled at the very edge of the swamp. They were squat, the roofs only eight feet off the ground. Their timber had long ago faded to a uniform grey. The people who lived there had painted the window frames and doors (and only the window frames and doors!) of their homes in bright colors: yellows, blues, whites and oranges. It was very pretty.

An old woman pulled a bucketful of water out of the village well as we passed by. I looked back through the rear window and watched her shoulder a yoke containing two buckets and carry them toward her home, the cold water splashing her bare legs as she shuffled along.

We drove for long minutes through a dark forest comprised only of firs . They effectively cut out what little light filtered down through the overcast sky.

A minute after exiting the forest our driver pulled over to the edge of the road and stopped. Noone said anything. Noone moved. A gust of wind shook our car. It was odd. We sat there, not speaking, for long minutes until our driver said something in Russian, at which point Ivan and Youri stepped out of the car. I followed.

We were standing on a small bluff which fell away gently to the Berizina River two hundred yards below. Not another soul was around. It was very peaceful, even the chilly wind seemed to have had a bit of its edge taken off.

Still we milled around until the sound of an approaching car made us turn. I watched with interest as a black Lada pulled in behind our Jeep--and then with concern as two giant men stepped out. They wore black leather coats and black pants. I recognized the trademark symbols instantly: Mafia!

I knew we were in trouble. Attacks on western businessmen were a daily occurrence in Russia, and Belarus isn't that much different.

They approached slowly. Youri was tense. Ivan lit a cigarette.

They stopped before us and one began to speak to Ivan. His partner turned to look down the road from which they had come as the conversation continued. As he turned I noticed the butt end of a pistol protruding from his shoulder holster.

"Da, da," the men said in response to something Ivan had said, lit cigarettes, sharing a match, and took up position in the middle of the road. One faced east, the other west. Both stood with legs spread and arms folded across their massive chests. They were my bodyguards.

"There was a very famous battle fought here in 1812," Youri said, taking my attention off the men in black. Reading about it later, I learned that Napoleon had retreated through this area after his failed attempt to conquer Russia (he came close enough to Moscow to see the Russians burning their capitol and retreat further into the Russian hinterland. At this point, Napoleon knew the war was over. He was aghast that anyone would do what the Russians were doing: when you lost your capitol you were supposed to surrender! And these Russians were burning theirs!

Additionally, winter was coming on harshly. Daily he was losing men to the biting cold. He tugged on the reins of his horse, and turned his army around.

Fighting against the Russian and Belorussian armies as he retreated, Napoleon soon founds himself on the bluff where we stood, hemmed in by two armies in front of him, and the Berizina River behind.

When they marched off to war, the French had counted on living off the land to bolster their supplies. It was a strategy which failed because the Russian army burned everything as they retreated. And now, Napoleon was faced with having to retreat through a wasteland of burned farm fields and houses. His army starving, and with the full fury of a Belorussian winter hitting him in the face, Napoleon realized he had a decision to make.

If he ran, the retreat would instantly become a rout, and his army would be slaughtered. If he fought, he calculated he could perhaps buy enough time to make an orderly retreat across the semi-frozen river.

Napoleon decided to dig in and fight. It was a good strategic move...but it all went wrong. He sent out scouts looking for bridges to cross. The Russians burned them. He sent men off in violent charges, hoping to punch a hole through the enemy lines. The Belorussians repulsed them. Finally, desperately, Napoleon realized he had no option to run. Not retreat, run!

And so he ran. He ran away like a thief in the night, and left his treasure, his bejeweled coach, and his men behind.
As soon as the men realized that their emperor had fled, a "sauve qui peut" (every man for himself) mentality took over. Seeing the confusion in the ranks, the Russian and Belorussian armies attacked. Napoleon's soldiers ran the only direction they could, toward the Berizina River.

More than 50,000 men died on the fields we were walking on. Tens of thousands leaped into the freezing water in a desperate attempt to swim across to safety. Many quickly tired, became hypothermic, and drifted away to their deaths.

Those who managed to swim across, the strongest, discovered there was no safety to be found on the opposite bank. As they shuffled ashore, shivering in the cold, they saw great groups of grim, vengeful villagers awaiting them, pitchforks and axes in hand.

Historical records show that 600,000 men left France to conquer Russia with their emperor. Only 25,000 returned.

"Would you like to look around?" Youri asked me, taking me out of my reverie. I said I would very much like to do that. The four of us walked along the footpath, Youri pointing out the emplacements where Napoleon's artillery had dug in in haste. I was amazed to see how little the emplacements had eroded even though 180+ years had passed. Dirt was piled in front to protect the gunners. Rusty wire poked out from various emplacements. We walked into the hollows, taking in the scene.

Youri then led us to the trenches where the infantry had made their stand. I had the strongest impression that, given twenty minutes and a shovel, I could make significant archeological discoveries. I asked Youri if the State ever did any archeological work in the area. "Sometimes," he said with a shrug. "But not very much. There is no money."

Whatever lay under the earth would have to wait. Moments later we stood on the banks of the Berizina River. Youri gazed soulfully across, the wind whipping his hair. "This is Belarus," he said sadly. "Always fighting."