LE BOURGET, France — The plan to repatriate the skeleton of a Napoleonic general who died on a Russian battlefield two centuries ago was supposed to bring together the leaders of two long-disturbed nations.
The remains of General Charles Étienne Gudin, who died in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, would be flown home in official pomp, and President Emmanuel Macron of France would receive his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, for a funeral. that would serve as a symbolic burial of the hatchet.
Instead, General Gudin’s return to French soil on July 13 was much more peaceful: his coffin was flown on a private plane chartered by a Russian oligarch and welcomed with a small ceremony in a stark hangar at Le Bourget airport, near Paris, next to a decommissioned Concorde jet. The presidents were nowhere to be seen.
“It was not the repatriation that was originally conceived,” said Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a French historian of Russia.
Once seen as an opportunity to use history for diplomatic purposes, the plan was ultimately thwarted by France’s unwillingness to support Russia’s increasingly tough domestic and foreign policies. The project’s unraveling also spoke to the curious relationship between France and Russia, shaped by a complicated shared history full of 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.”
General Gudin, a favorite of Napoleon, distinguished himself in battle before being hit by a cannonball on August 19, 1812, as the French army marched towards Smolensk, in western Russia. His left leg was amputated and three days later he died of gangrene.
The whereabouts of his grave remained a mystery until 2019, when Pierre Malinowski, an amateur history buff, set out on a quest with a team of Russian and French archaeologists — and the explicit support of the Kremlin.
Malinowski, 34, a former French army corporal and former aide to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the longtime French far-right leader, had charmed the Russian authorities through a series of archaeological projects linking France and Russia.
In May 2018, he was invited to celebrate Mr Putin’s fourth term. A few months later, Mr. Malinowski inaugurated the Moscow-based Foundation for the Development of Russian-French Historical Initiatives in the presence of Mr. Putin’s spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov. The daughter of Mr. Peskov, Elizaveta Peskova, is the vice president of the foundation. Mr. Peskov has declined an interview request.
So when Mr Malinowski began searching for the general’s remains in the spring of 2019, French diplomats were concerned.
“When we heard about the case, we had questions,” said Sylvie Bermann, the French ambassador to Russia from 2017 to 2019, noting that the Kremlin had long promoted French far-right figures serving its interests.
In July 2019, the team of Mr. Malinowski found a rotten wooden box under the foundations of a nightclub in Smolensk. Inside was a one-legged skeleton, later confirmed by DNA testing on several of his descendants as General Gudin’s.
Malinowski remembered kneeling by the coffin and whispering, “General Charles Étienne Gudin, Count of La Sablonnière, I will take you home.”
The discovery did not go unnoticed in Paris. Bruno Roger-Petit, Mr Macron’s adviser on historical and commemorative issues, invited Mr Malinowski to the Élysée Palace in August 2019 to discuss future steps.
“I walk into the office and he tells me, ‘Bringing Macron and Putin together with a general of the Empire would look pretty cool,'” Malinowski said. “And that’s how it started.”
Mr Roger-Petit said in an interview that he had originally envisioned a joint funeral led by Mr Macron and Mr Putin on the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death last May – the kind of grand, symbolic bilateral event that is rarely seen 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 could be “an embodiment of reconciliation” between France and Russia.
The discovery came when Mr Macron, who had been trying to restore relations with Russia since his election in 2017, had just invited Mr Putin to his summer residence in southern France.
The presidents discussed General Gudin’s return over dinner during that visit, according to: Mrs Bermann, who said it was seen as “an opportunity for rapprochement”.
Aleksandr Orlov, a former Russian ambassador to France until 2017, said the repatriation was meant to “remind us that in addition to the disagreements we have today, there are other things that bring us together.”
Some of Mr.’s other projects Malinowski also aligns with the Kremlin’s interests. Last year, he organized the reburial of the remains of French soldiers who died during the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856. The burial took place in Crimea, a former Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014, despite opposition from most Western powers.
“Our projects,” said Ms. Peskova, “are cultural, historical, diplomatic and political.”
She added: “We look like Putin’s dolls, but that’s not on purpose.”
In early 2020, General Gudin’s repatriation appeared to be on track. The coronavirus pandemic was expected to delay plans for several months, but Mr Peskov told several news outlets that the Kremlin would respond positively to a French repatriation request.
The request never came.
In August 2020, Aleksei A. Navalny, Putin’s most prominent opponent, was poisoned during an operation later revealed to have been orchestrated by the Kremlin.
Macron’s enthusiasm for rapprochement with Putin waned significantly. Plans for a joint presidential ceremony were postponed, diplomatic exchanges stopped and communication with Mr Malinowski stopped.
“We entered a phase of total freezing,” said Christian Bourdeille, the president of Paris Napoléon 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 who warned him that the French Foreign Ministry was blocking the return of the remains and suggested that he repatriate them privately instead.
“That would bypass the diplomats,” read a report seen by NewsMadura. “We have to figure out a way to get around this.”
Ms Carrère d’Encausse and Mr Orlov said the French Foreign Ministry had long been skeptical of Mr Macron’s reset policy.
Stripped of French support and while Russia worried about a possible diplomatic episode, Malinowski went through a legal back door and made a demand for the remains on behalf of Albéric d’Orléans, one of General Gudin’s descendants.
After all bureaucratic hurdles were cleared, General Gudin’s coffin left Moscow on July 13 in a private jet owned by Andrei Kozitsyn, a Russian oligarch who has financed several of Mr. Malinowski’s projects.
Mr Malinowski’s brash move ruffled the feathers within the French government, and initially only a small, private ceremony was planned on the flight’s arrival.
But 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.
Ms Darrieussecq announced that General Gudin’s remains would be buried at Les Invalides, where other prominent military figures lie, as part of a national tribute to be held on December 2, the anniversary of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.
The move surprised many. But honoring a Napoleonic general will appeal to the conservative voters Macron is pursuing in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, and for whom Napoleon embodies a lost greatness.
Mr Roger-Petit said Mr Macron had always wanted General Gudin to be in Les Invalides.
“It’s about the result,” he says.
To date, France has not invited Russia to participate in the December tribute.
D’Orléans, the general’s descendant, said the return of General Gudin’s remains was overly politicized.
“My feeling,” he said, “is that we have missed a unique opportunity to improve relations between France and Russia.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.