What would Paris be without bistros? These intimate restaurants and their simple fare are considered by many to be just as integral to Parisian life as the tree-lined avenues and limestone facades. But where did they come from?
Short answer: Russian Cossacks.
I know what you’re thinking: what the flibbity-jibbet do Cossacks have to do with Parisian Bistros? It sounds a bit like a riddle, but the answer to it is much simpler than you’d expect. It’s a great story and, as a fun bonus for us nerds, a poignant example of how Napoleon’s military campaigns facilitated a widespread cultural exchange in Europe in the nineteenth century.
You’ve probably heard of Napoleon’s doomed invasion of Russia in 1812. If you haven’t heard of it, I’ll sum it up: too damn cold. Anyway, Napoleon made a humiliating retreat back to greener pastures, coming out on the other end with only around 1/6th of the men he went in with.
Napoleon’s opposition (primarily Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, Spain, and Sweden) used this opportunity to band together and form the Sixth Coalition. Then, at the Battle of Leipzig in late 1813, they Hulk-smashed the Grand Armée so hard that Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine cracked and shattered.
After this resounding success for Coalition forces, Russian tsar Alexander I pushed for a full-scale annihilation of Napoleon’s empire. His people had burned their own cities to stop the Russian Bona-party. Alex was going to have the last word.
So, in January 1814, more than 400,000 of the Coalition’s forces scooted over the French border and began a march on Paris. No hostile army had set foot in Paris since the medieval period, so it was kind of a big deal. And, on March 31, 1814, the tsar and his allies successfully occupied Paris.
The capitulation of France’s capital would eventually lead to Napoleon’s famous exile to the island of Elba. It also led to a mingling of Prussian, British, Russian, and French cultures as the Coalition’s forces settled in to the fallen city. Parisians are reported to have been a little freaked out by the boisterous Russians at first, though they generally got along quite well.
The Russian forces included many Cossacks from what is now Ukraine. These Cossacks have gone down in history as the inspiration for the term “bistro”, since they are reported to have shouted “bystro!” (the Russian word for “quick”) at Parisian waiters enough for it to have stuck.
As with many things in history, this etymology is disputed. Because of the several decades-long gap between the occupation and the first recorded attestation of the word, many experts suggest the term has other origins, though it’s undecided. Nevertheless, there’s a plaque in Paris celebrating this quirky origin story, and it makes for one helluva tale.
Danielle Hardgrave is just a writer with a passion for history and all its crazy, quirky, and weird stories. She tells these stories on her blog, Haphazard History