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I am not sure if I understand this clearly but why? "Must be the grub" and what's the grub?

Part IV, chapter 8, from the 2009 Penguin translation by Anthony Briggs:

I’ll tell you one thing, boys. Bloody marvellous,’ went on the man who had been so taken with their whiteness. ‘Some o’ them peasants down Mozhaysk way was telling me ’ow they was shiftin’ dead bodies where the big battle ’ad been, an’ them dead bodies – their lot – ’ad been there a good month. They was just layin’ there, their lot, clean and white like pieces of paper, and there wasn’t no smell comin’ off ’em.’

‘Oh, that’d be the cold, wouldn’t it?’ asked one.

‘Nay, son. I’ll give you cold! No, it were really ’ot. If it ’ad been cold, our boys wouldn’t ’ave rotted neither. But what they said was: go anywhere near one of ours, and ’e’d be all rottin’ away – maggots everywhere. ’Ad to put ’andkerchiefs over their noses an’ turn their ’eads away before they could shift ’em. That’s what they said. They could ’ardly stand it. But they was clean and white like pieces of paper, and there wasn’t no smell comin’ off ’em.’ Nobody spoke.

‘Must be the grub,’ said the sergeant. ‘Fed ’em like gentry they did.’ There was no comment.

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  • 1
    "grub" in this context is slang for food.
    – Matt Thrower
    Feb 10, 2023 at 12:28
  • 1
    @MattThrower is right. In Ru text online it's Должно́ от пищи, — сказал фельдфебель, — господскую пищу жрали.
    – Andra
    Feb 10, 2023 at 16:13
  • But different food could make such a difference to the dead bodies?
    – Ethan
    Feb 11, 2023 at 16:23

1 Answer 1

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These uneducated soldiers ascribe supernatural unhuman qualities to the invaders. A little further they suspect that the French military commander Napoleon possesses shape-shifting and undead capabilities:

He turns into a bird in his hands and flies away. And there’s no way of killing him either. [...] If he fell into my hands, when I’d caught him I’d bury him in the ground with an aspen stake to fix him down.

Historian Alexander Tchoudinov in his paper “С КЕМ ВОЕВАЛ РУССКИЙ МУЖИК В 1812 ГОДУ? ОБРАЗ ВРАГА В МАССОВОМ СОЗНАНИИ” (Who was Russian Peasant at War with in 1812? The Image of the Enemy in the Mass Consciousness) tries to investigate his subject by studying Russian folklore. (Here are popular presentations and PDF. I’ll give some translated excerpts.)

In the XVIII century folk culture “French” was mostly a mark of the difference between the life of the Russian nobility and peasants:

In other words, "French" was perceived as "foreign" not so much because it was "non-Russian" but because it belonged to "alien" world

The author mentions a speech by a rayok performer who describes peculiar dishes that noblemen eat:

Strange for the Russian ear, the culinary terms like "menu" […] "jelly", "torte" and the no less outlandish dishes which had French origin, like a pie stuffed with frog legs, emphasize the striking difference in the lifestyle of the Russian gentry...

So here's the role of food in constructing the difference.

Tchoudinov says that the invasion of 1812 was an unprecedented event for Russians. Since they couldn’t rely on their experience they had to resort to an existing archetype in the folklore which was heavily influenced by the Mongol invasion. This archetype had three features. The enemy is anti-Christian, predatory and dehumanized (i.e. shown as inhumanly violent):

in the collective memory of the "silent majority" of Russian society for centuries there was a single, syncretic image of a foreign enemy, which possessed such pronounced specific features as hostility to Christianity, predatory nature, inhumanity, but at the same time deprived of any clearly defined ethnic identity. Collective memories of foreign enemies appearing in different historical epochs turned out to be integrated into something whole, becoming part of a single archetype of the Enemy that practically did not change over time.

So the dehumanizing discourse was applied to the French. In the folk songs they want to skin people alive, take all the women and turn churches into horse stables. The motive of Tatars turning churches into stables appears even in old epic poems. The problem is that

French soldiers, indeed, often stayed in churches, bringing their horses there as well. They did not put any anti-religious meaning into such actions, but simply followed their accepted practice: tents were not used in the French army

OK, if the French didn’t commit all these atrocities, then who did? Well…

Tchoudinov continues:

The way the Russian peasants treated the captured French made enlightened contemporaries recall the darkest pages of medieval history. In the villages, prisoners were tortured, burned and buried alive. [..]The English General Robert Thomas Wilson, seconded to the Russian army, testifies:

Not far from Vyazma, fifty Frenchmen were wildly burned alive. In another village, fifty people are buried alive. But all these terrible acts of cruelty are not the worst…

Then the author describes some very bad act of ritualized violence. Tchoudinov says:

The anti-Christian and dehumanized nature of the enemy placed him outside of morality and compassion, allowing and even prescribing behavior towards him that a Christian would hardly allow himself with his own kind

Some authors, however, believe that official propaganda should be blamed for this cruelties. The paper “Партизаны и народная война в 1812 году” (Partisans and the People's War in 1812) by A.I. Popov (PDF here) mentions the peasant saying:

"А вот вишь ты, — сказал крестьянин, — наловили мы это их, французов-то, десятка два и стали думать, что бы с ними наделать... и приговорили миром побить их". Тут он приостановился и, подумав, со вздохом продолжал: " Оно точно того, если бы он на тебя с ножом лез, ничего бы... а то смотрит как баран; как тут быть-то? Француз не баран, а все же человек, враг только, землю разорил"» [...]. Даже церковная пропаганда не могла затуманить в сознании мужика того, что он поступал не по христиански, убивая безоружных людей.

"But you see," said the peasant, "we caught them, the French, about two dozen and began to think what to do with them... and sentenced them to be beaten by the people." Here he paused and, after thinking, continued with a sigh: "It's definitely worth it, if he jumps on you with a knife, it would be nothing... and then he looks like a sheep; what to do here? The Frenchman is not a sheep, but still a man, an enemy only… and has ravaged our land" [...] Even church propaganda could not obscure in the mind of the peasant that he was acting un-Christian, killing unarmed people.

In the next chapter, War and Peace characters meet two French soldiers. They give to one of them some hot porridge. He really appreciates the porridge. (One might turn back to the ‘Fed ’em like gentry’ and make a connection.)

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