Borodino 190 – that Great Battle under the Walls of Moscow
By Eman Vovsi, New York
Photos by Alex Slogis
One hundred and ninety years ago, on 7 September 1812, the Emperor Napoleon fought one of the bloodiest battle of his 22-year military career. At that time, the Grande Armée was deep in Russia, tired from the seemingly endless pursuit of Russian troops, who had been evading French imperial forces since their crossing of the Niemen River in June 1812. “I need a huge victory,” Napoleon said to Duroc, his Grand Marshal of the Palace, “a battle before Moscow; my taking Moscow must astound the world.” But that great September day, a day of bravery, courage, sacrifice and prodigious resistance, was to become a turning-point, which slowly changed the course of Europe’s history. . . and saw the sun of Austerlitz slowly set.
This is a report of the 190th Anniversary celebration of the battle, held in Russia on 7 - 8 September 2002.
The author had waited a long time for this one – Borodino 2002 was the first real big Napoleonic re-enactment since he immigrated to the United States in 1992 from the Latvian Republic. (Curiously, events in the territory of the former Soviet Union at the end of 1980s created this almost spontaneous movement of living history. Thanks to various democratic movements and a new mentality and comprehension of the past— all due to the famous perestroika— you could meet or organize a club or society of almost any kind.)
The first real Military History Association (as it was first called) was created in 1987 under the chairmanship of Mr. Oleg Sokolov of St. Petersburg. He had already founded a Napoleonic Society, having been, for almost two decades, the indispensable commander of all “French” units within the former Soviet Union. The proposed task was quite simple – to recreate the most famous Napoleonic regiments and to follow in the Emperor’s footsteps, from Marengo to Waterloo. They also organized the first “military-history tour”, from Borodino to the Berezina River. The participants, nearly 50 enthusiasts (all Napoleon’s buffs), re-enacted marches, battles, and events of those heroic days. Since then, the number of participants has risen every year. In 1992, when the author was on the Borodino battlefield for the last time prior to his departure for the U.S., the 180th Anniversary celebration gathered nearly 500 re-enactors for both the Russian and French armies! But how did it all really start?
Borodino as Memorial
Soon after the battle of Borodino (or la Moscowa, that is, near the Moscowa River, which is how it was depicted in French reports and the first maps; and from May 1813, how it appeared on flags of the Imperial Guard), snow covered the tragic and mute field of honor. From November 1812 to May 1813, Russian police forces, fearful of epidemics, tried to expedite the burial of countless corpses along the route from Moscow to Kowno (now Kaunas, Lithuania). On the Borodino battlefield itself were buried nearly 50,000 men and 36,000 horse. The first “monument” on the battlefield was erected on the spot where French general Montbrun of II Cavalry Corps died right after the battle. The modest wooden notice-board bearing his name survived nearly a year. In 1913 the French Government was allowed to build a real monument made of Vogues’ granite to commemorate all of Napoleon’s soldiers who fell at the battle of Borodino – Aux Morts de la Grande Armée. A cast-iron fence was added in 1987.
At the very end of 1812, Margarita Michailovna, a widow of the Russian General-major A. A. Touchkov of the 2nd Army of the West, desperately tried to find the body of her husband. She was so devastated by what she saw, she sold all her estates and property and in 1817, used the money to build a little wooden house, right near the Bagration “fleches” where, according to an eyewitness account, her husband had been killed. Later, she built the Church of the Image of the Savior Not Made By Hands. This Church, which is still well preserved today, became the first monument on the Borodino battlefield to all those who died in the battle. Margarita Touchkova initiated a tradition of celebrating each anniversary of the battle with a procession and the last rites near the common graves.
On 22 July 1837, on the “Red Hill”, where “The Raevsky Battery”, the famous Grande Redoubt, had been positioned, a Great Monument was started, which was finished in 1839. There, the Russian Emperor Nicolas I, with nearly 120,000 troops and many participants of the great battle gathered to honor to all who had died on that day. Later, 33 monuments commemorating the various regiments and units of the Russian Army were created and built by descendants of those who served in those regiments – they were mostly completed by 1912, for the 100th Anniversary celebration of the great battle.
But only in 1961 did the Borodino battlefield became an official museum-reserve, taken under the control and protection of the Russian Government. Today, it contains nearly 68 square miles of protected fields and woods, small streams and old churches; it also preserves nearly 300 recreated pieces of fortifications, big and small plaques and monuments, along with the great museum at the small Borodino village, which is well worth a visit.
Since 1987, the big re-enactment day on the Borodino battlefield—some75 miles west of Moscow—usually takes place on the first Sunday of September. The author tried regularly to attend each annual event through 1992. His Fusiliers-Grenadiers Regiment of the Imperial Guard, which he created and first commanded, was a dependable participant in each anniversary celebration. Today, after a 10-year absence, it looks like it all started all over again.
The Journey to the 190th Anniversary Celebration
Flying FinAir from New York via Helsinki to Riga, Latvia, then taking a train from Riga to Moscow, a nearly 14-hour ride, was not that problematic. The real adventures started after arriving in Moscow. In the past, we used to rent a bus from Riga’s autobus bureau, which took us to Borodino in the same amount of time. But these days, with all the new borders, customs, currency and passports, it gets longer and is less comfortable.
Nonetheless, we all were coming there. The author accepted an invitation of one of his Moscow friends, Nick Semibratov (also a re-enactor and corporal of the 46e Line Regiment), to stay at his small town house, or dacha, just 16 miles away from Borodino, at “Sadovaya” station. Riding a local train from the Belorysski Terminal to “Sadovaya” took approximately 90 minutes and it was a great opportunity to observe the countryside. Alas, it looks like it has not changed much in 10 years. If Moscow is a very modern, dynamic and urbanized city with fast-paced environment and a number of McDonald’s here and there, the suburbs mostly remained the same as we knew them 10, 20, or even more years ago. Big help was offered by the author’s sister-in-law, Natalie, an editor for one of the Russian TV stations covering the festivity, and who also lives in Moscow.
The author was warmly greeted by Nick and his friends, all stationed at the dacha. Later, several re-enactors of the 30e Line Regiment had arrived. We all were “ol’ good buddies, kids of the 80s,” so we had a lot to talk about. Usually the Borodino battlefield offers re-enactors the liberty of camping in the open field, but according to Nick and his friends, they do not do this anymore. Because of administrative chaos and mismanagement, each and every unit acts on its own accord, without proper order and often, without discipline. So, for “our American friend,” they said, it could be tough and heartbreaking after a 10 year-absence to face “the harsh reality.” They offered to let me stay with them and it was gladly accepted.
However, using a car of one Nick’s friends, we drove to Borodino on Saturday, a day before the actual event. First, we stopped at the French infantry camp with its large number of re-enactors, representing almost every regiment of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Here, the author embraced his old friends as they arrived from the various parts of the former USSR, some even bringing their grown kids. Then we observed drills by the various French and Russian units, preparing for the next day’s re-enactment of the battle.
Gathering on the Field of Battle
Now we stood on the actual battlefield. Despite all attempts to preserve its originality, the field has changed its landscape over the years due to excavations, heavy utilization by nearby farms, and certain carelessness of locals. The usual spot for the event is a grassy field near the Grande Redoubt monument, with a flat hill on the left near the main road to the museum. This hill is usually occupied by spectators. The author finally met his comrades of Fusiliers-Grenadiers Regiment – several guys, with whom he started this business with back in 1988, and now included several new faces. Meetings and greetings (and drinking of a good Latvian beer) was so warm and friendly!
Our next stop was at the Schewardino Redoubt, Napoleon’s main command post during the battle, a sacred place for anyone who re-enacts a French unit. Today, it is a small hill with the monument dedicated Aux Morts de la Grande Armée on the top of it. Nearby is a local bus stop – is now a concrete square, but underneath which were buried generals and high-ranking officers of the Grande Armée who were killed in the battle or died of wounds soon afterwards. Here, we placed some flowers, tied by tricolored lace, and spent a minute of silence, thinking of those who died on that great day, 190 years ago. (We also met a group of German re-enactors, who cursed the Russian custom officials who had seized their muskets and other weaponry, because the group did not have their paperwork in order.) From here opens a great panoramic view towards the main battlefield, where we stood nearly an hour with old and modern maps, discussing various aspects of the battle, speculating on the usual “what ifs.” In the evening we went back to dacha, where we had a light dinner near the fire. We sang old French songs, discussed the next day’s battle, recalled events of our youth, etc.
The Approach March
On the next day it was very cold morning. We dressed in our parade uniform, grabbed some coffee and… went marching nearly 5 miles, fully equipped, to the nearby bus station. Locals observed us with enthusiasm and cheers – there were plenty of smiles and photo shots. We were on approximately the same road that the French army had used in 1812, during its march towards Moscow after the battle. Some of the old houses probably had not changed since then! Finally, the bus station came in sight. We boarded a small-town bus which shook our equipment, muskets, and gear, along with some spectators going to Borodino. Traffic was very heavy. Roads, which all were packed with arriving spectators, cars, buses and all possible means of transportation, also hadn’t changed much since then. After nearly 2 hours of very slow motion, we arrived at the Borodino bus station, 3 miles away from the battlefield; after yet another march, we met the entire gang.
The author couldn’t believe his own eyes. So much had changed since he had last been there. A lot of new reenactment groups; old ones had either disappeared or substantially increased their ranks. The French Horse Guard Artillery with 5 cannon, horses, full equipment and personnel was astonishing! Hussars and cuirassiers; the 10e Guard Mounted Chasseurs squadron, which had arrived right from France; groups from Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain – so many re-enactors gathered here on that great day! Nearly 2,000 participants from both sides! Some Line regiments advanced with their own bands having in their ranks nearly a full company! The author joined his Fusiliers-Grenadiers Regiment; as a Guard unit, it was placed in reserve by an orderly officer.
The (Happy) Face of Battle
The main forces of the French army were positioned in three echelons for advancement. And around 2:00 p.m. the great reenactment has started. The French attacked in columns, preceded by a cloud of skirmishers and supported by light artillery that moved along with troops. The main force of French infantry advanced from behind a low hill. Interestingly, the author’s old friend, who reenacts one of the Russian regiments, took his 14-year-old nephew along for the first time, and here is how they felt about the spectacle. “First, we saw the blazing gilded Eagles on the top of French flags; then we saw the flags themselves, then plumes on the shakos and, finally, the numerous French battalions, advancing abreast. We were deafened by the artillery salvos, the thunder of drums and screams of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ We saw the blazing steel of bayonets pointed at us…. My nephew suddenly got really very scared. ‘Uncle, uncle,’ he screamed, ‘look how many of them there are!'” Perhaps, that was how it was in reality?
Suddenly, the French troops were attacked by Russian cavalry, including the famous Cossacks. They were very swift and looked very natural: black beards, bright coats, long lances. It was a moment when all the French troops were already in action, including the reserves and Guard. Russian infantry moved to left and right, and the French advancing columns were facing their artillery! So, cavalry from flanks, artillery from up front – but the French soldiers formed a square and repulsed the enemy. The author still remembers a Cossack’s lance just several feet from his face! But now there was an infantry charge. The Russians advanced in compact dark-green formations, line by line, with flags and musicians. Some regiments even had priests on the flanks of their formations! Somewhere to the left-rear, French cuirassiers were pursuing numerous Russian Hussars and Uhlans, and vice versa.
For a moment, the author’s group got stuck in the very narrow area that was still hot after artillery shots: the grass was set on fire, but watered down and extinguished by a local emergency unit stationed nearby. We moved back and forth on that area (it was hot, damn it!) until we finally got cleared and sent to attack. Clash, bayonets, hand-to-hand combat and … handshakes among the adversaries, little glass of vodka, some fresh Borodino apples. The author was recognized and sincerely greeted by many old friends from the Russian lines. How great it was to see them all again, after such a long break! Oh, yeah, the author also was “killed” in the melee.
Bonds of Friendship & Enthusiasm
In general, the battle has lasted nearly 1½ hours. Tired, covered by dust and smoke, we were retreating to our original position. Later at the camp, we were all thanked by our main re-enactment commanders, Mr. Oleg Sokolov (French) and Alex Valkovich (Russians). All participants were awarded the “Borodino Cross,” which the author preserves in his hometown in New York with great care, along with the uniform, which
still smacks of powder. And, of course, the author dreams yet about another visit. But the great tradition of Napoleonic re-enactment is continued here in America. The author joined the “Brigade Napoleon”, the organization which recreates several French units of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. You are welcome to contact the author, if interested, who will gladly answer all your questions or redirect them to the appropriate party.
We also had a Russian group, organized by a long time enthusiast, Andrey Mudragel, the author’s good friend from Kiev, Ukraine. Formerly, he also participated in the Borodino reenactments and decided to recreate in America the 2nd battalion of the Kiev Grenadier Regiment, therefore continuing a great tradition left behind in his homeland. He already has four active members (including his son); they are all Americans! He continues to recruit aggressively, so he welcomes you under the banner of the Holy Mother of Russia. His e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t you see how we could all get together – people with different background, mentality and points of view? Ain’t America great?!
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