Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle
, in which Napoleon's armies met Russian troops 75 miles east of Moscow on 7 September 1812. The huge battle, involving quarter of a million troops, was the strongest stand the Imperial Russian Army made against Napoleon's forces, and it resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. Although the Russian army withdrew, the French tactical victory in the Battle of Borodino was a Pyrrhic one, and Napoleon ultimately left Russia in defeat.
The battle was reenacted
at Borodino last weekend, as is done annually
. A cultural symbol of Russian national courage, the Battle of Borodino has been famously commemorated in Russian literature, music, art, and poetry.------ History ------
Napoleon had invaded Russia three months earlier on 16 June 1812, causing Tsar Alexander I
to declare a Patriotic War and prepare to face the French. The commander of the Russian forces
was, controversially, a Scotsman: Field Marshall Michael Barclay
. Barclay had advocated a scorched-earth strategy, burning the countryside and drawing the French further into Russia with successive retreats; this, coupled with his non-Russian heritage, aroused suspicions that he was reluctant to defend Russia and devastated troop morale. On 29 August, Barclay appointed the 67-year-old Prince Mikhail Kutuzov
as the chief commander. Kutuzov found himself in a tight spot: strategically the Russians needed to retreat, but the change of command did little to rescue troop morale, and advocating a retreat would make Kutuzov look no better than Barclay.
Realizing that only fighting a battle would save morale, Kutuzov decided to make a stand against Napoleon.
On 3 September, the Russian army established a defensive line in the best available position: the field at Borodino
. Earthwork redoubts and fleches
were built in the area surrounding the new Smolensk Highway along which Napoleon's troops were expected to enter Moscow. French and Russian cavalry met on 5 September, fighting a battle which cost 10,000 lives and ended with the French capture of the Shevardino Redoubt. The Russians withdrew to the east. The left flank of the Russian defense had collapsed.
On 7 September 1812, the bloodiest single day of fighting during the war took place at Borodino
. Some 250,000 troops fought a battle that left at least 70,000 dead. The French won the battle when Kutuzov finally retreated; he had only 20,000 men ready to continue fighting. But the French army, too, was in a weakened state; Napoleon later stated, "of all my fifty battles, the most terrible was the one I fought at Moscow [Borodino]." The French General Baron Lejeune
recounted the day of the battle
in his memoirs.
Out of position at the end of the battle (and contrary to Barclay's advice), Kutuzov's troops were in no condition to fight the next day. The best strategic option was to retreat and draw Napoleon's troops farther from their supply lines -- that is, toward Moscow. There was no way the Imperial Russian Army could defend the city, and so it was abandoned... and burned
. Napoleon's troops entered and occupied Moscow without resistance, but had insufficient resources. For five weeks they remained there as Alexander I refused to surrender or negotiate a peace. Crippled by the Battle of Borodino, lacking reserve troops, cut off from their supply lines, and unable to forage in the scorched surroundings, the French faltered and were ultimately forced to withdraw from Russia in defeat.
You can find additional historical information on this website
, at the State Borodino War and History Museum and Reserve website
(in Russian; there is an English version, but it's much more limited -- google translate may be a better option), and in this very detailed page captured on archive.org
------ Literature: Tolstoy's War and Peace ------
The Napoleonic wars, and the villainization of Napoleon, figures prominently in Russian literature. Geoffrey Hosking, a well-known historian and scholar of Russian literature, argues in Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917
that this played a significant role in literary "nation building." The most comprehensive and direct treatment of the conflict with the French is, of course, Tolstoy's War and Peace
. Part novel, part essay, and part ethnography, War and Peace
looks at the Napoleonic wars from the perspective of five aristocratic families, and blurs the line between history and fiction. The Battle of Borodino is a central event in the text; this virtual Battle of Borodino
, although a little outdated (and, sadly, with broken movie clips), lets you follow Tolstoy's account of the battle in the context of its military history.
In War and Peace
, Tolstoy uses the interesting device of switching between French and Russian, as can be seen in the Russian text
. Initially, this is symbolic of aristocratic pretentiousness, since in the early 19th century the French language was considered to be more refined than Russian. As the book progresses and the previously-revered French become the enemy, the use of French diminishes (in fact, the aristocratic characters seek out Russian tutors); its gradual elimination may be seen as symbolic of Russia reasserting its national culture against foreign pressures.
Sadly, many English translations (particularly older ones, such as the uncredited translation of War and Peace [English] on Project Gutenberg
) translate both the Russian and the French, literally losing Tolstoy's device in translation. More modern translations, such as that by Pevear and Volokhonsky (who are also well known for their faithful translations of Dostoyevsky), retain the French in keeping with Tolstoy's style.
Naturally, a book of such an epic scale needed to be turned into a fittingly epic movie, and as the 150th anniversary of the war approached, the Soviets decided to do exactly that -- including massive depictions of the battles. The Soviet film adaptation
was an enormous undertaking that took six years to produce and officially cost over 8,000,000 rubles -- over $9M in 1967 dollars. The film, which has a complete running time of just over seven hours (all four parts combined), was recognized universally as a cinematic achievement; it won awards world-wide, including the Golden Globe and Academy awards in the United States for best foreign language film. It is generally considered a faithful adaptation, although there remains some disagreement amongst scholars about the degree to which it was manipulated to reflect Soviet themes.
------ Music: Tchaikovsy's 1812 Overture ------
The battle is also famously commemorated in in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture [score]
, which musically depicts the French invasion of Russia (symbolized at the beginning with the Slavic Orthodox Troparion [hymn] of the Holy Cross
), the unrelenting advance of Napoleon's army (symbolized by the repetitive use of the opening fragment of La Marseillaise
), the resistance of the Russian people (depicted by a folk melody) and, ultimately, defeat by Russian canons which famously fire 16 shots in the Overture while the victorious motif of God Save the Tsar
-- the Russian national anthem in Tchaikovsky's time -- becomes prominent.
Despite the fact that the Overture tells a very clear story of a battle that had nothing to do with the United States, Arthur Fiedler and Boston Pops started a tradition that causes most Americans to associate it with July 4th
. If you crave listening to it right now -- and picking out all the fragments Tchaikovsky incorporated -- here's Telarc's famous recording of Erich Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops
(albeit with the live canons compressed into YouTube's dynamic range).
------ Art: Prokudin-Gorsky's photographs and Roubaud's Panorama ------
A century after the battle, the photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
had pioneered a color photography technique
using multiple RGB-filtered exposures
of black and white film that would then be composited. With the patronage of Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky set about documenting the Russian Empire
at the turn of the 20th century. In 1911/1912 Prokudin-Gorsky photographed the Borodino battle field and redoubts
The centenary was also marked by the exhibition of the Russian (of French descent!) painter Franz Roubaud
's epic Battle of Borodino Panorama
. It, along with several other panoramic depictions of battles, had been commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II; the Battle of Borodino Panorama
was unveiled on 29 August 1912.
World War I and the Russian Civil War ensured that the exhibition didn't last long. If the colors in the image above look a little strange, it's due to the fact that the painting was nearly destroyed and restored several times. A history of the painting
published in Pravda describes how it was folded and stored in inhospitable environments for forty years until Stalin decided to restore it, but after Stalin's death it was once more stored improperly. In anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the battle, Khrushchev had it restored again in 1961... only to have a fire break out in the room where it was displayed in 1967. In the 1990s it was restored yet again, and can be seen at the Battle of Borodino Panorama Museum
, which stands on the site in Fili
where Kutuzov made the decision
to sacrifice Moscow.
------ Poetry: Lermontov's Borodino ------
Lastly, the Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov
wrote a long poem entitled Borodino
that was published in 1837 on the 25th anniversary of the battle. The famous poem
is one that school children learn. You can hear it recited in this video with Russian subtitles
or read an English translation.