Fight club

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


In the rolling fields to the west of Moscow, armed men are on the march. The afternoon sun glints off the steel of a cavalier's sword; double-headed eagles and imperial crowns gleam amid the flames of combat. Cannons roar and the whiff of gunpowder hangs in the air once again.

Two centuries after the Battle of Borodino, where Napoleon's march across Europe came to a juddering halt, Russia is getting ready to celebrate the anniversary of its Great Patriotic War of 1812. Throughout the year, historians and enthusiasts have recreated key moments of Napoleon's ill-fated Eastern campaign - some on the original battlefields near cities such as Smolensk, some far behind the imperial frontlines in cities as remote as the Bashkir capital, Ufa.

The high point, though, is to be the biggest ever re-enactment of the Battle of Borodino, fought just outside the town of Mozhaisk on September 7, 1812. More than 4,000 people are expected to take part and crowds of 100,000 are likely to witness history in the re-making on September 2.

The battle is refought every year, and with a full day of combat to condense into a dramatic 90-minute summary, the action is fast and furious. A running commentary is provided, but the sheer scale of the exercise means that even native Russian speakers struggle to understand what is going on. Once the 19th-century cavalry reach full gallop, however, the historical details become less important than the spectacle.

Not that those involved are amateurs when it comes to the tricky business of determining what exactly happened within the fog of battle in 1812. Oleg Polyakov, editor-in-chief of the web portal and a keen re-enactor, is well versed in the debate about what happened, how and why.

'We are slowly approaching an understanding of what happened in the battle,' he says. 'But of course, if all the mysteries were revealed, we could not kindle the same strong interest in Borodino, among both Russian and international researchers.'

The event is growing in international stature: this year Polyakov will welcome re-enactors from Europe and America. To mark the anniversary, officials from the Borodino Military History Museum promise a wealth of new and restored memorials to the fallen, an extensive exhibition called 'Borodino - the Battle of the Giants' and a reconstruc-tion of rooms from the Imperial Palace of Borodino.

It's a continuation of a strong tradition of commemorating this battle. Barely had the dust settled, than Mikhail Lermontov, one of Russia's first great poets, was hymning the glories of the Imperial Army. Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture remains one of the best-loved works in the classical repertoire, cannon blasts and all. And even if Leo Tolstoy struck a more cautious note in his novel War and Peace, his descriptions of the battle and its impact on all levels of Russian society have helped ensure its lasting fame.

Polyakov believes the enduring interest in the events of 1812 reflects the importance of a moment when Russia was truly united - from the nobility (most of whom, ironically, were French speaking) to the lowliest peasant.

'Moscow was abandoned by its inhabitants and ravaged by a great fire - but worse still, the events dealt a severe blow to the national pride of every Russian,' he says. 'At this point, the war against Napoleon became a truly patriotic war. The Russian army did not lose its desire to fight; the Russian people made huge sacrifices on the altar of victory and, most important of all, nobody contemplated the prospect of defeat. In this new war, it was no longer a matter of battles between great armies. Napoleon's Grande Armee was faced with the people - and a people cannot be defeated.'

Two centuries on, the resonance of the battle is almost as strong, and there is more than just a reconstruction to mark the 200th anniversary. Two of Moscow's major monuments are emer-ging from restoration. On Kutuzovsky Prospekt, as the Minsk highway begins its final approach to central Moscow past Poklonnaya Hill, where Napoleon waited in vain for the city's capitulation, the Triumphal Arch has shed its scaffolding to present a shiny new facade to the festivities. A few metres away, the Borodino Panorama museum has re-opened after an extensive renovation that has breathed new life into Franz Roubaud's epic depiction of the battle. Commissioned in 1912, and moved to its current home in 1962, the painting gives some sense of scale to the deadliest day of combat in the Napoleonic wars.

The museum also helps put Borodino into the context of Napoleon's Eastern campaign, although non-Russian speak-ers would be advised to organise a guided tour in advance. Military enthusiasts might also like to combine a visit here with a trip to the nearby memorial museum complex devoted to the next great patriotic combat Russia fought - the second world war. All three sites are signposted from the Park Pobedy metro station.

The Borodino re-enactment coincides with Moscow's birthday. Details of the full programme for the weekend (September 1 and 2) have yet to be released, but it is likely that many of the capital's celebratory events will have an 1812 theme. The city's cultural institutions are also getting involved: the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko opera company is premiering a production of Prokofiev's epic, seldom-seen staging of War and Peace in its upcoming season.

Getting there: Borodino Field is about 120 kilometres from Moscow, just off the M1 Moscow-Minsk highway. Rail connections to Borodino station run from Moscow's Belorusskiy Vokzal and take about two hours. From Borodino station it's about a 40-minute walk past the museum and the monastery to the viewing areas for the re-enactment - follow the crowds, and don't forget to collect a free pass into one of the colour-coded spectator areas.