Another, and one of the most active and effective agents, was Alexander Ivanovich Chernishev, later Minister of War under Nicholas I. Though only twenty-eight at that time, he had the rank of colonel and aide-de-camp. Attached to the Russian Embassy in Paris, Chernishev several times served as his courier, bearing letters from Alexander to Napoleon and from Napoleon to Alexander. Chernishev won Napoleon's confidence by his subtle flattery and his apt and quick-witted remarks on the military subjects in which the Emperor so delighted. The smooth-spoken courtier, young, brilliant, and handsome, was an absolutely unprincipled careerist. Subsequently the ruthless executioner of the Decembrists, he aroused moral loathing even in those inured to court life. During his long life he won the favor of three emperors. The three were strikingly dissimilar, but he knew how to handle each: Alexander, Napoleon, and Nicholas. And that was all he needed for his purposes. The favor of Napoleon opened the doors to all the salons in Paris and provided him with connections in the upper circles of French society.
Early in 1811, Chernishev made the acquaintance of one Michel, who was serving on the General Staff of the French army and who had long been connected with the Russian Embassy.
As it was known that on the first and fifteenth of every month, the French Minister of War handed the Emperor a so-called Survey of the Situation of the entire French army, with all the numerical changes in its separate divisions, all the changes in billeting, a complete list of fortnightly appointments to commanding posts, and so forth. These reports found their way into Michel's hands for a few hours. Michel made rapid copies of them, and delivered them to Chernishev for a suitable reward. This arrangement went on smoothly and successfully for over a year, from January 1811 to February 1812. But despite Chernishev's cleverness and Michel's discretion, there were others who specialized in these issues: in February 1812 Chernishev's apartments were thoroughly searched by the Imperial secret police (in his absence-unofficially, of course). A courier was also searched at the frontier.
As a result, no doubt was left in Napoleon's mind concerning the real activities of the Russian Colonel for whom he had developed so much affection. By this time, Napoleon had decided that war with Russia was inevitable, but he could not and did not want to precipitate a break with Alexander. He needed another three to four months for preparations, and refrained from divulging his discovery.
Following the secret and delicate, yet ill-boding, search of his premises, Chernishev decided that a longer sojourn on the banks of the Seine was unhealthy. He paid a respectful farewell call at the Tuileries and left for Russia. Before his departure he burned all the incriminating documents that might reveal to the Imperial secret police the one thing they wanted to know -who had given Chernishev access to the documents? The riddle was solved by mere chance. In his haste to depart, Chernishev had forgotten to have the rugs taken from his floors. Under one of the rugs, near the fireplace, the police, which promptly called at his rooms, found a letter written by Michel; it must have dropped there by accident. Michel was immediately arrested, tried, and executed on 2 May 1812. His trial, and that of three others was deliberately held in public; Napoleon wanted to create the impression that Russia was planning to attack France, and was sending spies as a preliminary. Although the information in the hands of the Russian Government was somewhat out of date by the time war broke out, it was so extensive as to retain much of its value. Furthermore, lesser agents in Paris, in Germany, and especially in Poland had provided more recent information on French troop movements and changes in the army.
Napoleon was infuriated by the disclosures of espionage. On 3 March, his Foreign Minister, the Duke of Bassano, wrote a cutting letter to the Russian Ambassador:
"His Majesty was deeply distressed by the conduct of Count Chernishev. He was surprised to learn that a man whom he had always treated kindly, a man who was in Paris not as a political agent, but as the Russian Emperor's aide-de-camp, who was the bearer of a personal letter to the Emperor, and for that reason enjoyed more confidence than an ambassador, had taken advantage of this position to abuse the most sacred human ties. His Majesty the Emperor is grieved that spies were introduced to him under a title inviting trust, and this in peacetime - though such conduct is permissible only in wartime. And in a hostile country. The Emperor is grieved that these spies have been chosen not from the lowest class of society but from men whose position has placed them so close to the Tsar. I am too well acquainted with your sense of honor not to believe that you yourself are distressed by this affair so contrary to mind the dignity of sovereigns. If Prince Kurakin, the Emperor told me, had engaged in similar maneuvers, I should have forgiven him; but a colonel, enjoying the confidence of his sovereign and occupying a place so close to his person, is a different matter. His Majesty had only recently shown his trust in Chernishev by holding a long private conversation with him. The Emperor had no inkling that he was conversing with a spy and bribe-giver."
Of course, Napoleon's moral indignation did not prevent him from maintaining a host of spies in Russia. Nor did it deter him from beginning, in April and May, to print counterfeit Russian bank notes to meet the demands of the coming invasion. While preparing all his forces for the invasion, Napoleon could do nothing to hasten the approaching break. Certain internal French developments had a delaying effect. Chief among these was a serious bread shortage in some of the departments. Hunger riots broke out in Normandy, and had to be quelled by force of arms. Profiteers tried to enrich themselves on the people's misery by extensive and bold speculations. The administration proved unable to put a prompt stop to the rise in the price of bread.