Fantastic Exploit of Sub-Lieutenant Asseyev
A hundred years ago, a little garrison town in peace time.
Life for the out-of-work soldiers is extremely monotonous.
The locals have locked up their daughters and there are few distractions.
They are seriously bored. So
they sit indoors and natter. What
do people talk about when they are horsemen?
About horses, of course, and how bad they are.
About officers, and how useless they are, and about the rules, and how
idiotic they are. They put the
world to rights. It passes the
The story which I am about to tell you happened in a garrison in a
charming village in the Ukraine, Lubny, where the 26th Regiment of
Dragoons of the Tsar’s powerful army is stationed. The nearest big towns, Poltava to the east and Kiev to the
west, capital of what was then called “Little Russia”, are several days’
march away. And then some!
At this time of year the roads are impassable.
It is the end of 1888. The
autumn manoeuvres have just finished, and Lubny is already under snow.
Normal life in the barracks has resumed.
God, but the evenings are long!
This evening, fortunately, Sub-Lieutenant Mikhaïl Vassilievitch Asseyev
is in fine form, livening up the officers’ mess. This young man, barely 25, is a brilliant horseman.
He has a family tradition to uphold:
his father commanded a battalion of Cossacks.
The son left the Elizabethgrad School of Cavalry with the mention,
“Very good”. For nearly four
years he’s been in charge of a detachment of cavalry.
Did he have a little too much vodka?
Normally so reserved, tonight he’s full of passion.
Not usually a talker, all of a sudden he’s eloquent!
His friends listen to him, stunned.
“We are in the process of transforming our horses into drawing-room
creatures,” he exclaimed. “Just
because a racehorse is exhausted after a 200 metre gallop, it doesn’t mean
that no horse is capable of covering long distances at a reasonable speed.
Just because an hour’s schooling brings a dressage horse to his knees,
it doesn’t mean that the army horses have to be shut up in a loosebox for 23
out of 24 hours! We’re making
them into wimps!”
“These days”, he continued, “when a rider has covered 35-40
kilometres (25 miles) in a day, we think that’s the maximum. If we ride 50 or 70 kilometres (32 or 45 miles), everyone
thinks it’s an amazing achievement. To
cover a hundred kilometres (62.5 miles), the rule-book allows five days:
four days’ travel (at a walk) and a day of rest.
It’s insane! A military
horse is designed to go to war, and war is no picnic!”
“You’re quite right, Mikhaïl Vassilievitch,” says a white-haired
old officer. “I remember a
Hungarian, Count Zoubovitch who, fifteen years ago, rode from Vienna to Paris
without a change of horse. Today no
horse, and no rider, could do as well as that!”
“I shall do better”, the young sub-lieutenant replied calmly.
“Don’t forget that barely 75 years ago our cavalry was bivouacked on
the Champs Elysées! We have not
gone downhill since then! I shall
ride from Lubny to Paris!”
A burst of laughter shook his audience.
Sarcastic remarks, jeers and ironic questions were fired at him from
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”
“Who will collapse first, the horse or the rider?”
“Can you say ‘I love you’ in French?”
“Bring us back some champagne!”
For the remainder of that evening the officers of the 26th
Dragoons of His Imperial Majesty had to content themselves with Ukrainian
The following day, Asseyev started laying his plans, which proved that he
had not made his promise under the influence of alcohol.
He would leave in Spring, during his time off, and at his own expense.
He would travel in a straight line from Lubny to Kiev and from Kiev to
Paris. He would take two horses:
his usual mare and a horse chosen at random from the army stables.
“Any of them will do”, he insisted.
“I want to make the point that every one of our remounts is capable of
providing, if necessary, the extreme service that might be required of it.
It doesn’t even need to be fit. All
that matters is that it should be healthy…
and that its rider is experienced: knows
how much feed to give, how to make sure it is not asked to do too much, how to
choose the right pace, and how to be aware when it is tired.
In a nutshell, he has to know how to push his horse to the limit without
ever going beyond it.”
Easier said than done! There
were still plenty of sceptics in the regiment.
Deep down inside himself, Mikhaïl Vassilievitch himself did wonder if he
would be able to do it. But there
was no question of backing out.
At dawn on 16th April 1889, Sub-Lieutenant Asseyev, now off
duty, left Lubny with the firm resolve of getting to Paris!
He was riding Diane, his faithful dark bay mare, aged 4, easily
recognisable by the two white stockings on her hind legs.
She was a little crazy, like all good Anglos (she had both English and
Don blood). He was leading Vlaga, a
7-year-old bay mare, whom he had virtually never seen before in his life, and
who had been willingly sold to him for the normal price of a remount.
He had had them shod the day before by no less a person than the master
farrier of the regiment, Anton Yeffimov – he must surely have been an artist,
as the shoes were to last for over 1,300 kilometres!
His luggage? Precious
medicines from Piotr Bartchouk, a famous local horseman, who had not mocked when
the young officer went to discuss his project with the man.
And a few personal belongings tidily packed in the saddlebags of his
military saddle. In all, tack and
baggage together weighed less than 20 kilograms (45 lbs)!
It would hardly have been possible to travel lighter.
|Riding Diana and leading Vlaga, Asseyev makes his triumphant entry into Paris with his two Russian mares.|
The journey began very badly. The
thaw had transformed the roads into bogs, which sucked in the hooves.
The horses waded through the sludge:
in places, they were almost swimming in mud!
The ruts were so slippery and so deep that there were times when the poor
creatures could barely get out of them. Near
Barychovka, on the road leading to Kiev, Asseyev saw the corpses of several
horses who, exhausted, had died on the spot!
It was grey, it was cold. When
the trio finally got to Kiev, after losing a lot of time and a lot of strength,
it was snowing!
Luckily, once they got through the capital, the climate improved and so
did the going. It was not bad
weather which slowed the travellers down, but other misfortunes – every type
of bureaucrat imaginable.
At Novgrad-Volynsk (still in Russia), the police suspected the young
officer of being an Austrian spy! They
retained him for two days “to check his papers” as we would say today.
Then there was the problem of crossing the innumerable Central European
borders of the time. In this puzzle
of Prussian possessions, of provinces reattached to the Austro-Hungarians, and
of German Grand Duchies, the Customs officers were everywhere.
The formalities had to be gone through on a daily basis, the border
controls were never-ending.
When he arrived in Bohemia, Czech dependence of the old Austro-Hungarian
Empire, the Customs officers insisted on attaching some pieces of lead to the
horses, which would be removed when they left the country.
“And what if they break and I lose them along the way?” Asseyev
“Not my problem. Be off
These small inconveniences were as nothing compared with Asseyev’s
constant worry about board and lodging. This
was a serious problem every evening. Frequently he had to go from village to village before
finally being able to untack, groom, feed and water the mares who had been on
the road since dawn. And
under what conditions!
“Right from day one, near Piriatine”, Mikhaïl Vassilievitch tells
us, “I was obsessed with what was waiting for me at the end of each day, all
the way to Paris. We spent one
night in a small, filthy and humid shed, full of stinking rags. It was so narrow that I had to put my mares in in tandem, one
behind the other, with me at the end in a wagon that was more like a coffin than
No doubt that wasn’t very comfortable, but at least it was a good way
of keeping an eye on the horses – and ensure they weren’t stolen!
Neither lodgings, nor the roads, were very safe in those days.
A wise traveller, Asseyev said he always had available “A glass of
vodka to greet a friend and a gun to receive an enemy!”
These sensible precautions prove that the young officer was both flexible
It was largely due to these qualities that day after day, night after
night, kilometre after kilometre, he overcame all obstacles, triumphed over all
difficulties, and outwitted all pitfalls.
At last, on 19th May 1889, at 2 p.m., the amazing horseman saw
the Eiffel Tower in the distance. This
had only just been completed, but its distinctive shape was already famous.
His heart was beating very fast.
He urged on his mares, who incidentally were in the most wonderful shape.
And thus at a brisk trot Diane and Vlaga arrived in Paris at exactly 5
They had travelled 2,475 verstes, or 2,633 kilometres (1,646 miles) in 33
days. It is almost unbelievable:
nearly 80 kilometres (50 miles) a day – actually much more if you
discount the days when they were forced to wait, as at Novgrad-Volynsk.
It was a fantastic exploit, and fortunately Paris celebrated it in style.
Asseyev had his portrait painted, was photographed, interviewed.
The newspapers were full of him. All
Paris wanted him to join them for a meal, they quarrelled over his presence.
He was taken to the races in the Bois de Boulogne, he was welcomed at the
Military Academy, they took him to Versailles.
He was received by the highest military and civil authorities.
Congratulations poured in from around the world, and he was invited to
all four corners of the planet.
Obviously everybody was fascinated by his mares:
they were shown at the Universal Exposition.
They looked so well, and were in such perfect condition, that the Society
for the Protection of Animals decided to honour their owner to congratulate him
for the care he had taken of them. In
front of a huge crowd (four thousand people!)
gathered at the Winter Circus, the President of the SPA awarded the young
Russian officer a superb gold medal, while the rafters rang to the tune “God
save the Tsar”!
That evening, at a banquet given in his honour by an SPA which was
decidedly different from what it is today, Asseyev made a little speech.
The gist of what he said was, “Ladies and Gentlemen!
I only know three words in French, ‘Long Live France’.
But thanks to them I have been able to cross all of Europe. I am happy today to be able to repeat before you, with all my
heart, ‘Long Live France! Long
You can imagine the patriotic delight with which these words were greeted by a
crowd which was also very different from what it would be today.
His Majesty the Emperor of All Russia, having read the report which recounted
his subject’s exploit, wrote in the margin “Brave young man!
A very original journey!” and made him a Sub-Lieutenant in the Imperial
Guard in a regiment of Uhlans, after which he was never heard of again.
This remarkable story is featured in "Un Petit Cheval dans la Tête", a collection of equestrian stories from the "Internationale de l'Imaginaire" revue, edited by Jean-Louis Gouraud.