"A continuous slaughter which could be of no avail either to the French or the Russians."
September 7, 2012 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, 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.

posted by Westringia F. (24 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Tchaikovsy's 1812 Overture

"Interesting percussion session.

Those are cannons.

And they perform this in crowded concert halls? Gee, I thought classical music was boring!"

Calvin & Hobbes discussing the 1812 Overture.

Great post.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:02 AM on September 7, 2012

I am in the midst of this battle scene in "War and Peace," but reading it on my phone makes it seem like a smaller experience than perhaps it would on the printed page.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:05 AM on September 7, 2012

Holy... awesome post, Batman.
I saw Napoleon's tomb. It was pretty swish.
Like this post.
posted by Mezentian at 8:22 AM on September 7, 2012

Battle of Borodino Panorama.

If you ever get a chance to view a panorama in situ, I recommend it; they are more impressive and affecting than their description suggests. I bet they were even more so in the days before movies.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:25 AM on September 7, 2012

And all this time I've been led to believe that Napoleon kept his armies... in his sleevies. Thank you! I'll be here all week! Tip your waiter!
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:43 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't fave a lotta posts but I faved this one.

Those old battle panoramas are so kick-ass. The military museum in Paris has a bunch of them.

Regarding the 1812 Overture... for years I've been trying to find a high-quality digital recording where
(A) the hymn at the beginning is sung in Russian
(B) the folk chants actually include the lyrics (again, sung in Russian)
(C) the cannons actually sound good... not synthed or compressed or dim or whatever.
...Anybody able to point me to one?
posted by AugieAugustus at 8:57 AM on September 7, 2012

Great post. As I read through the links it got me thinking of War and Peace and I was pleased to see it mentioned as well as the fantastic translation team of Pevear and Volokhonsky (I've read some of their other translations, but not yet this one).

Another neat bit of fiction set in this time period is Ridley Scott's The Duellists.
posted by exogenous at 9:14 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Since Tchaikovsky's original instrumentation doesn't include a choir, it may be hard to find versions where those fragments are sung [the hymn would be in Church Slavonic, probably, rather than Russian]. It's possible that there's a recording of an alternative arrangement that includes them, but I'm not aware of it; maybe someone else knows....

One interesting thing that I didn't mention is that the 1812 Overture does have a history of alternative arrangements -- and outright changes. The most notable is the 1961 Soviet score, in which the melody of God Save the Tsar was removed. The "1812 Overture [score]" link above has multiple versions (I should have said "scores"), including the Soviet modified one.

As to the canons, if you're looking for power, I would recommend the 1978 Kunzel/Cincinnati recording referenced above, but in a noncompressed (ie, on CD or a .wav file) form. Telarc's recording and sound engineering of the canons in that recording is famous (or infamous, depending whom you ask) in the audiophile world for having a dynamic range that can destroy stereo systems. The canons don't mess around.

And thanks, Burhanistan, for that link! I was focusing so hard on the Russian stuff that I completely forgot it even existed, despite the fact that I have Tufte's book right here on my desk -- here's Tufte's discussion of Minard's infographic.
posted by Westringia F. at 9:25 AM on September 7, 2012

Lots of good stuff to dig through here - thanks. Seems odd that Field Marshall Barclay was still considered a foreigner; his family had been living in Russia (er, Lithuania/Estonia, but whatever) for about a century, he entered the Imperial Russian Army when he was young and had an illustrious military career behind him by 1812. I wonder what he did to arouse peoples' suspicions ...

Also, did he actually invent the scorched-earth tactic? I had the impression that this was something that Russian armies had been doing forever, the natural result of being a huge country with plenty of room to retreat and mostly open terrain (and little regard for the serfs who lived there).
posted by Quietgal at 9:36 AM on September 7, 2012

I took Tufte's one day graphics class and he summed up Minard's display by saying solemnly "this is an anti-war poster".

Here is what I want to know about the Russian film which I have never heard a satisfactory explanation for: the Russian villains or anti heroes (Helene, Boris, Dolohov) are the only blonde actors (and actress) with significant speaking roles. It is pretty obviously a conscious director's choice. Was this a common trope in Russian art c. 1960 like white hats and black hats in Hollywood westerns? Or is it an oddity?

The BBC did a twenty episode mini-series with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre which is pretty cool if you can get past everybody has a British accent.

Thank you for the post. You would think after 1812 people would have realized warfare is a senseless way of settling differences but obviously they didn't and a lot of people still haven't figured that out yet. Fuckers.
posted by bukvich at 9:42 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're right, Quietgal -- scorched earth wasn't Barclay's invention. It had been used at least a century earlier against the Swedish (coupled with a particularly nasty winter) during the Great Northern War. And I think most of what Barclay did to attract criticism was to lose: Napoleon's army was seemingly invincible, the Russians were continually in retreat (strategically, perhaps, but still in retreat), and the soldiers were not only seeing their land destroyed, they were lending a hand. That Barclay wasn't of Russian descent just compounded things -- you can imagine how his subordinates, tired and frustrated with his command, might then turn on him and start to question whether his policies were truly strategic.
posted by Westringia F. at 9:53 AM on September 7, 2012

Barclay de Tolly was likely seen as a foreigner because he was German-speaking and his name was not russified. If he was a native speaker of Russian and was called Barclaev or Tolliysky, there would be no issue. The same dynamic played out again during WWI - many of the top level command of Russian Army were of German descent and had German names; in some ways it was worse because the fight was against Germany.

P&V translations are flashy but there's been a lot of criticism in regard to their substance and being close to the original work.
posted by rainy at 10:08 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd only heard positive things about P&V; can you point me to some of the criticisms, rainy?
posted by Westringia F. at 10:37 AM on September 7, 2012

scorched earth wasn't Barclay's invention

The Fabian Strategy is so named after Fabius Maximus, (ca. 280 BC – 203 BC)
posted by fredludd at 10:40 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

One P&V contrarian.
posted by bukvich at 10:47 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let us recall the origin of the term Pyrrhic victory -- Pyrrhus of Epirus:
While he was a mercurial and often restless leader, and not always a wise king, he was considered one of the greatest military commanders of his time. Plutarch records that Hannibal ranked Pyrrhus as the greatest commander the world had ever seen,[2] though Appian gives a different version of the story, in which Hannibal placed him second after Alexander the Great.[11]

Pyrrhus was also known to be very benevolent. As a general, Pyrrhus's greatest political weaknesses were his failures to maintain focus and to maintain a strong treasury at home (many of his soldiers were costly mercenaries).

His name is famous for the term "Pyrrhic victory" which refers to an exchange at the Battle of Asculum. In response to congratulations for winning a costly victory over the Romans, he is reported to have said: "One more such victory will undo me!"

posted by Devils Rancher at 11:00 AM on September 7, 2012

Westringia F.: the link in bukvich comment above contains a lot of good argument, and more good links. It seems like vast majority of those who like their work have not read the originals while a lot of criticism came from translators, scholars, etc.
posted by rainy at 2:37 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

bukvich: I've watched a lot of russian films, including many from the 60s, and I don't think that's a trope, I've never heard of anything like that.
posted by rainy at 2:41 PM on September 7, 2012

> 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.

Their translations are not more "faithful" except in their own hype (every translator believes that about their own translations, needless to say); they're not awful, but they're not great either. If you enjoy them, fine, but you're not getting some magically better version of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or whoever (note that they only translate "classics" with zillions of other translations; it would be nice if they'd translate some worthy but unknown authors, but I guess their publisher wouldn't like that). See this LH post for an example of why I have problems with them. (N.b.: The slawkenbergius who dismisses their work in that thread is the same as MeFi's own nasreddin.)
posted by languagehat at 2:47 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

> 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.

While all that is true (in the sense that making a seven-hour movie at mind-boggling expense is definitely a cinematic achievement), it's not actually a very good movie; some of the lead actors are wooden and it's so determinedly faithful to Tolstoy it's dead on arrival as cinema. That said, there are some brilliant scenes that have stayed with me since I first saw it in Buenos Aires almost half a century ago: Pierre leaning out of the window downing a bottle, Andrei looking at the ancient oak and thinking about life and love and beauty, and of course the amazing battle scenes.
posted by languagehat at 2:51 PM on September 7, 2012

Thanks for the input rainy. By the way I made a bad mistake above. Where I typed (Helene, Boris, Dolohov) that should have been (Helene, Anatole, Dolohov). Boris was not a villain and he wasn't blonde.
posted by bukvich at 3:48 PM on September 7, 2012

bukvich, rainy, and languagehat - thank you all so much for the info about P&V! Duly educated :)

[This is why I fucking love MeFi.]
posted by Westringia F. at 6:50 PM on September 7, 2012

I mean to say, between those two lines, that the Ask thread bukvich linked above regarding translations is fascinating throughout.
posted by Westringia F. at 9:06 PM on September 7, 2012

I just read over on RPS that the one day death toll at Borodino was 60,000. Quoting from the article:

"For anyone struggling to comprehend death on that scale, historian Gwynne Dyer offers a useful visualisation aid; imagine “a fully-loaded 747 crashing, with no survivors, every 5 minutes for eight hours.”"

posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 12:18 AM on September 8, 2012

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