Two hundred years ago this week, Napoleon Bonaparte fought a battle in Russia that may have begun his undoing when he led his Grand Army against the Imperial Russian Army near a village called Borodino, about 70 miles from Moscow.
It was the single bloodiest day of the Napoleonic Wars, and it’s remembered by Russians as a symbol of national courage. On Sunday, an army of re-enactors are reliving that day.
There’s still some historical dispute about who won the battle of Borodino, but most agree that it was a tactical victory for Napoleon since he forced the Russian Army to retreat. Historian Oleg Sokolov says the real significance of the battle came later.
“The importance of Borodino … is by literature, by history, by poetry. It’s not so important strategically,” Sokolov says.
Mikhail Lermontov wrote a poem about Borodino that’s read by every Russian schoolchild, and Tolstoy made the battle the center of War and Peace.
Sokolov has spent much of his career making the battle of Borodino come alive. He began as a teenager, with a few friends, making period uniforms and doing small reenactments that led to the epic performance that the event has become today.
Now, at 56, he usually represents one of Napoleon’s generals, in full regalia, mounted on a prancing horse.
During the event there are several thousand people on the battlefield: lines of infantry, artillery, grenadiers, hussars in plumed bearskin hats and heavy dragoons with gleaming brass helmets.
Smoke and flame erupt from the batteries of cannon, as cavalry sweeps across the battlefield amid the crackle of musket fire. The horsemanship is worthy of real cavalry, and when the riders clash with their sabers, you can see that some of the more agile ones are women.
Among the foot soldiers, 61-year-old Viktor Penzas is representing a lieutenant colonel, a tempting target for the enemy in his plumed cocked hat. Russian officers showed a special heroism, he says.
“In those days, officers led from the front, and they took a lot of casualties,” Penzas says.
The French and their allies were no less brave.
Bernhardt Schaveck, from Germany, is representing a soldier in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Napoleon held his Imperial Guard in reserve during the battle and didn’t use them.
Some historians say that if he had deployed them, he might have been able to destroy the Russian Army instead of just forcing them to retreat.
As it was, the French suffered at least 30,000 dead and wounded in that single day. The Russian casualties were around 45,000.
Schaveck is the piper for his regiment, and he plays the advance march of the French Army, a deceptively cheery tune, given what happened next. He thinks the Russians ultimately won at Borodino.
Napoleon moved on to occupy Moscow, much of which was burned by the retreating Russians. His army was depleted, and his supply lines were under constant attack, so he was forced into a disastrous retreat in October, with the approach of winter.
The Grand Army he led to Russia was effectively destroyed.
There are no bodies on the field when the re-enactors finish their battle, but there are a lot of spectators who know something more about the awful tumult that took place here.