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In Russia, 200-Year-Old Battle A Day To Remember

Sep 2, 2012
Originally published on September 2, 2012 1:08 pm

Two hundred years ago this week, Napoleon Bonaparte fought a battle in Russia that may have begun his undoing. 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. An army of re-enactors relived that Sunday.

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," he says. "It's not so important strategically."

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 re-enactments 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 it 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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Two hundred years ago this week, Napoleon Bonaparte fought a fateful battle in Russia. Napoleon 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 is remembered by Russians as a symbol of national courage. NPR's Corey Flintoff visited the battlefield as an army of reenactors prepared to re-live that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER AND BATTLE)

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Smoke and flame erupt from the batteries of cannon, as cavalry sweeps across the battlefield amid the crackle of musket fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON FIRING)

FLINTOFF: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON FIRING)

FLINTOFF: Historian Oleg Sokolov says the real significance of the battle came later.

OLEG SOKOLOV: Importance of Borodino, this is by the literature, by the history, by the poetry. It's no so important strategically.

FLINTOFF: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE CALL)

FLINTOFF: Now, at 56, he usually represents one of Napoleon's generals, in full regalia, mounted on a prancing horse.

(SOUNDBITE OF BATTLE)

FLINTOFF: There are several thousand people on the battlefield - lines of infantry, cannoneers, grenadiers, hussars in plumed bearskin hats and heavy dragoons with gleaming brass helmets.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

FLINTOFF: The horsemanship is worthy of real cavalry, and when the riders clash with their sabers, you can see that some of more agile ones are women. Among the foot soldiers, 61-year-old Viktor Penzais is representing a lieutenant colonel, a tempting target for the enemy in his plumed cocked hat.

VIKTOR PENZAIS: (Russian spoken)

FLINTOFF: Russian officers showed a special heroism, he says. In those days, officers led from the front, and they took a lot of casualties. The French and their allies were no less brave.

BERNHARDT SCHAVECK: I am Bernhardt Schaveck. I'm coming from Germany, and I'm representing a soldier of the Old Guard of Emperor Napoleon.

FLINTOFF: Napoleon held his Old Guard in reserve during the battle and didn't use them. Some historians say that if he had deployed it, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: Schaveck 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONS FIRING)

FLINTOFF: There are no bodies on the field when the reenactors finish their battle, but there are a lot of spectators who know something more about the awful tumult that took place here. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.