Remembering the Battle of Borodino Through re-enactment

Helen Borodina

The Borodino battle is remembered every September 8th according to the governmental decree ‘On observing days of marshal glory and other memorial dates in Russia’, signed on May 13, 1995.

From Moscow re-enactment festival: ‘Times and Epochs’ to the Borodino battle field.

1812 military parade in Tverskoy boulevard, Moscow, at Times and Epochs. Photo by Lina Dee

When, this August, I arrived in Moscow after a two. moth absence, I ran into a 1812 military parade in Tverskoy Boulevard, catching the last couple days of the biggest historical reenactment festival in Russia and one of the biggest in Europe, ‘Vremena i Epochi’ (‘Times and Epochs’) that portrayed different historical periods in 30 different spots in Moscow.

The parade (performed on horses from ‘Ballada,’ a horse-riding club in Povarovo near Moscow), was a demonstration put on by re-enactment clubs from Russia and abroad that were preparing to participate in the annual Borodino battle episodes reenactment on September 2.

“Borodino is our main event,” – a re-enactor from Belarus shared with me. “It draws participants from Russia, France, Poland, Czech republic, CIS countries, and so on… We talked more, and before I left the Boulevard, he suggested, much to the joy of the children looking at his tent, armour and uniform with curiosity: “How about I sing you a song from those times?”

Picture of reenactor singing, photo by Helen Borodina

 

The Festival at Borodino

On September 2nd, a commuter train took me from Belorussky railway station on a flying visit to Borodino. It wasn’t my first time there; I had also attended the Lubino battle re-enactments, of which I wrote upon an occasion for Moscow Expat Life (see link here). I also hope to see the battle re-enactment in Vyazma later this month.

The  oldest 1812 re-enactment in Russia (over 30 years), the Borodino festival that lasts from September 1 to September 8 is held by, and on the premises of, the Borodino museum near the city of Mozhaisk, 110km to the West of Moscow. The museum is open all year round, and hosts various events, but of course the beginning of September is the highlight of the year, with its battle episode re-enactments, conferences, excursions, souvenir and food markets, and memorial ceremonies where episodes of the battle took place 206 years ago.

History

The central battle of the French Invasion of Russia/the Russian campaign, or, as it is called in Russia, ‘The Patriotic War 1812’, was the battle at Borodino – la bataille de la Moskowa– that took place on September 7, 1812.


On June 24th, 1812, well-armed and great in number, the French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte entered the Russian Empire without an official declaration of war. The Russian army under Barklay de Tolli (Barklay was born in the Baltics into a German-speaking family of a Scottish clan, but served as commander of the Russian army, until the battle of Smolensk failed), had to retreat as they had no time to prepare for battle.

Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov was appointed Commander in Chief of the Russian army in late August 1812. By that time, the French had suffered significant losses, lessening the difference in the two armies’ numbers and forces. Kutuzov decided to engage the French in a battle by the village of Borodino near Moscow.

Who won? Formally, the French: Napoleon took the main positions the Russian Army was defending, which caused the Russians to retreat, and later, leave Moscow. However, Napoleon didn’t fulfill his main task of crashing the Russian army. Kutuzov, in turn, failed in his main goal, which was, to save Moscow, having to choose saving Russia and the integrity of the Russian army instead…

Later Napoleon would write in his memoirs: “Of all my battles the most terrible was the one with the Russians. The French showed themselves worthy of victory, and yet, Russians claimed the right of not being defeated… Of all the fifty battles I fought in near Moscow, more courage was shown [by the French army] than elsewhere, with the least successful outcome.”

Kutuzov, in turn, wrote:

“The battle… shed more blood than our times have seen. We were in perfect command on the battlefield, and the enemy retreated then into the same position he had used when he came to attack us.”

According to historians, the numbers of dead on both sides ranked as one of the highest of all XIX century battles. According to calculations (which are, even though professional, still very approximate), at least 8,500 men were killed every hour. The French fired their canons over sixty thousand times, and shot from their guns over a million and a half times. Napoleon had good reasons to call the Borodino battle one of his greatest regardless of an outcome which was fairly poor for a military commander spoiled by victories.

After the Battle. Photo by Helen Borodina

When I was leaving the site, I approached a group of people listening to a re-enactor talk of his armour and uniform, and realised that, no matter how authentic the clothes, weapons, horse equipment and other attributes, we, the people of the XXI century, can only come so close to imagining what those battles were really like. Certainly, when the Great Patriotic war raged 206 years ago, there was no kvas or souvenirs, no snapping photos and then catching the bus, tired but happy, and even contemplating joining the re-enactment movement for the next season.

 

 

 

Links:

The Borodinskoye Pole (Borodino Field) museum in Borodino http://www.borodino.ru/

The Borodino Panorama museum in Moscow https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g298484-d302983-Reviews-Borodino_Battle_Museum_Panorama-Moscow_Central_Russia.html

Times and Epochs festival http://historyfest.ru/en/

Article about the Lubino battle in Moscow Expat Life: http://www.moscowexpatlife.ru/2016/05/a-history-lesson/

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