In Soldiers’ Remains, Russia Plots a Way to Reconcile With France

On a recent cloudy afternoon, the remains of three Russian soldiers were buried in virtual secrecy in a small corner of northeastern France. There were no Russian officials at the funeral. No Russian flag was hoisted. No Russian anthem was played.

The soldiers had died on the French battlefield more than a century ago, fighting as part of the French-Russian alliance during World War I. But their remains, hidden deep beneath a farmer’s field, were found only late this summer — by a man with close ties to the Kremlin.

Worried that Moscow may try to use the discovery as a propaganda ploy and mindful of the new sensitivities generated by Russia’s war in Ukraine, the French authorities took no chances with the burial.

“The ceremony took place very quickly and with a very limited attendance,” said Mayor Antonia Paquola of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, the village where the soldiers were laid to rest in late October in a small Russian military cemetery. “You could feel that it was very tense.”

Russia, however, was delighted by the discovery of the fallen soldiers’ remains.

“Truly an amazing find,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said, adding that Russia must give credit to France for burying the soldiers. Work is underway to find their descendants so they can come to France and honor them.

Moscow’s touting of the discovery is part of what analysts say is an attempt by Russia to leverage history for diplomatic purposes as the country seeks to renew ties with the outside world and as some countries are growing weary of the conflict in Ukraine.

The remains are an opportunity to “restore the dialogue,” Alexandre Orlov, a longtime Russian ambassador to France until 2017, said in a recent interview.

Russia’s move has presented France with a thorny challenge. The country is still trying to shake off a reputation for having been soft on Moscow, as reflected in President Emmanuel Macron’s calls last year that Russia should not be humiliated. Paris has since offered strong support for Ukraine, backing its bid to join the European Union and NATO.

But France’s complicated relationship with Russia has long been shaped by a shared history of revolutions, empires and wars, raising concerns that Paris might prove an ideal target for backdoor diplomacy by Moscow.

“This case is one piece in a much larger Russian scheme,” said Françoise Thom, a professor of Russian history at the Sorbonne University in Paris, adding that it was representative of the “new Russian offensive in Europe, a charm offensive.”

More than 20,000 Russian troops were sent to fight in the French trenches during World War I. They participated in the bloody battle of the Chemin des Dames in April 1917, distinguishing themselves by capturing the village of Courcy, outside Reims, at the cost of nearly 4,500 casualties.

Many of the Russian soldiers killed in France during the war were never found or buried. Every year, strollers and farmers in northeastern France stumble across a rusty helmet or rifle, signaling that a soldier may be lying underground.

But the recent discovery of the Russian soldiers was no accident.

It was orchestrated by Pierre Malinowski, an outspoken French amateur history buff and former aide to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the longtime French far-right leader. Mr. Malinowski has won the Kremlin’s good graces with a series of archaeological projects connecting France and Russia, including the return in 2021 of the remains of a Napoleonic general killed in Russia.

His historical foundation counts Elizaveta Peskova, Mr. Peskov’s daughter, as its vice president, and he was granted Russian citizenship last year.

Nicolas Quénel, a French journalist and author of “Allô, Paris? Ici Moscou” (“Hello, Paris? Moscow Here”), a book on Russian information warfare in France, said that Mr. Malinowski, who lives in Moscow, had become one of the Kremlin’s “unofficial ambassadors,” a key element in back-channel diplomacy with France.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine forced a freeze on his projects, Mr. Malinowski said, he sought the advice of his foundation’s longtime financier, Andrei Kozitsyn, a Russian oligarch under European Union sanctions.

“At some point, Russia will need you,” Mr. Malinowski recalled Mr. Kozitsyn telling him. He understood it as an encouragement to continue his projects despite the war.

Having grown up near Courcy, Mr. Malinowski said he had immediately thought of the Russian soldiers. He also knew it was a topic dear to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who had been due to visit Courcy in 2014 until the visit was derailed by Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Mr. Malinowski traveled to Courcy last fall and began searching for the soldiers’ remains. The excavation work was illegal, but he could count on the cooperation of the local farmers, whom he had known since childhood, and their respect for those who died defending France.

“In their minds, they didn’t know it would later serve the Kremlin propaganda,” Mr. Malinowski said.

After months spent digging, Mr. Malinowski said, he came across a Russian rifle in August. Beneath it lay “a pile” of Russian skeletons, with their helmets, bandoleers and military identity plates.

“A sign from God,” Mr. Orlov, the former Russian ambassador, said of the discovery.

Remains discovered by Mr. Malinowski during a dig near Courcy, France, in August.Credit…Pierre Malinowski

Mr. Malinowski hopped on a plane to report to Moscow and ask whether to make the discovery public. “Let’s go!” he said Mr. Peskov told him. Mr. Peskov denied Kremlin involvement in the project but described it as “amazing.”

Back in France in September, Mr. Malinowski reported his find to the police, who passed the case on to France’s National Office for Veterans, an agency run by the defense ministry.

In just over a month, the French authorities exhumed, identified and then buried the remains of the three soldiers in a ceremony that participants described as solemn but hastily arranged.

Invitations were sent out less than 24 hours in advance, with the Russian Embassy in France saying it had not received one. The first, middle and last names of the soldiers were mixed up on the memorial crosses, which did not bear the inscription “Died for France,” like all the other graves in the cemetery.

“They wanted to do it so quickly, so secretly,” said Marie Bellegou Mamontoff, the head of “Russian Brigades 16-18,” a group remembering the soldiers. She said she had been barred from giving a speech. “It was a bit surreal.”

The French government declined to comment on any political implications of the matter, saying it was just one of many examples of World War I soldiers being unearthed and buried.

Russia’s reaction could hardly have been more different.

“Projects like this hold special significance,” the country’s foreign ministry said in written answers to questions, suggesting that it could help mend ties between France and Russia.

Mr. Peskov told reporters that the burial showed that, despite the current freeze in French-Russian relations, “some glimmers of humanity still remain.”

Mr. Orlov said the discovery could represent an opportunity for a resumption of talks between Mr. Macron and Mr. Putin, two presidents attuned to the power of history in diplomatic relations. “It costs a little but can yield a lot,” he said.

With Ukraine and Russia locked in a grinding fight that may benefit Moscow in the long term, Mr. Orlov said the West had to re-engage with Russia to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war. France, he added, “is a natural ally to get out of the current crisis.”

The quick and low-key funeral indicates that France is unlikely to take the bait.

But Russia is already laying the groundwork for future talks. Mr. Malinowski said the Kremlin had urged him to find descendants of the fallen soldiers (The French authorities said they would pay for relatives wishing to pay their respects to visit.)

More remains of Russian soldiers have also been found at the site by the French, so France may have to deal with more funerals. Russia’s foreign ministry said it would not rule out asking for the remains to be repatriated.

Mr. Quénel said he expected Russia to play up the case of the soldiers’ remains and try to “lock France into an untenable position.”

Either Paris refuses to cooperate and is accused by Moscow of trampling on historical memory, Mr. Quénel said, or it agrees to work with Russia, sending a devastating message to Ukraine and its allies.

“Heads, I win, tails, you lose,” he said.

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting from Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.