September 7 marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino. This military showdown marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It’s one of the most important events in Russian history.
Russians to this day are still enamoured with the romance and heroism of the Battle of Borodino. And soldiers from Russia, France and other European nations have just returned to the battlefield for a dramatic re-enactment.
It was a glorious, if chaotic celebration of the Borodino anniversary. This was where, back in 1812, Russian troops and Napoleon's Grand Armee faced off just 120 kilometers west of Moscow.
Oleg Sokolov is the head of the Russian Union of Re-enactments. And on this occasion he played the role of Marshal Francois Lefebvre, one of Napoleon's most senior officers. Sokolov was decked out in traditional French costume, his bicorn hat atop his head, looking every bit the part.
"When I was very young I read the book which changed my life," Sokolev said. "The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. And I began to love the history of the French and the spirit of French chivalry."
What started out during Soviet times as a small event with just Sokolov and a few friends is now a truly international event . This year, around three thousand volunteers came from across Russia, France, Poland, and Germany, even the United States and Canada.
The uniforms and props have been studied and copied in meticulous detail. The staging camps resembled those of the era with basic sleeping and eating facilities. There were of course some modern touches. A helicopter, hordes of television crews and mobile phones - as was befitting an event broadcast across Russia.
Ironically, this day back in 1812 was a far from glorious day for the Russians who retreated in defeat to Moscow. But when Napoleon reached Moscow, the city was burning, forcing him to return to France.
"Tactically it was a victory by the French army," explains Sokolov. "But strategically it was the Russians who won the battle."
Today, the Battle of Borodino is celebrated by Russians of all walks of life. Indeed it's become an obsession across the country. In central Moscow, large crowds of locals have been visiting the Borodino Panorama Museum. It features a dramatic diorama and painting of the battlefield spanning 360-degrees. The museum's director, Vladimir Presnov agrees the epoch of the 1812 Patriotic War is very popular in Russia. "It's a romantic time, with dignified aristocrats and officers, and beautiful ladies," Presnov said.
Presnov said Russians like to remember what came after Borodino. "This battle dictated the way the rest of the war played out and the beginning of Napoleon's demise. Just a few years later the Russian army entered Paris, Napoleon was stripped of his emperor's title and the sun set on his time. It was a decisive moment that changed history."
Russians also love the pomp and ceremony of the past. And that was even preserved during the Soviet era through military parades and national days of celebration.
Russia's third term president Vladimir Putin attended the re-enactment, using the occasion to pull the strings of patriotism as he spoke of unity and nationalism.
By tapping into this Russian obsession, Putin might have been hoping to prompt a turn around in his popularity ratings, which have flagged amidst concerns about attacks on democratic freedoms.
But he might also want to take note of the history books that show how some Russian officers returned from France after this campaign with liberal ideas that challenged the ruling elite.