MOSCOW: Two hundred years after Russia’s emblematic victory over Napoleon, the Kremlin is holding lavish celebrations aimed at rousing patriotism among modern Russians.
Russia, which annually stages military parades to mark the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany, is spending millions of dollars on a bonanza marking an earlier triumph, its rout of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion.
“Our goal is to make this glorious bicentennial a truly national celebration that inspires people to feel pride for their country and the great feats of our ancestors,” the head of the presidential administration Sergei Ivanov said.
Moscow city and regional authorities alone have budgeted some $35 million for events including balls, symphony concerts and museum openings as well as a reconstruction of a key battle this weekend.
Napoleon sent French troops into Russia at the height of his powers in June 1812. The invasion ended in December with his starved and freezing army retreating from Moscow after the capital was set alight by the Russian Army.
Russia calls the campaign the Patriotic War of 1812 and focuses celebrations on the Battle of Borodino on September 7 near a small village west of Moscow.
The centrepiece of the anniversary celebrations will be a costumed reconstruction of the battle on Sunday, to which Moscow has invited a number of world leaders.
The Battle of Borodino has gone down in Russian history books as a victory although extraordinary losses by the Russian army forced its subsequent retreat east from Moscow, paving the way for Napoleon’s occupation of the capital.
Chronicled in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the war was a historic turning point for Russia.
It “marked Russia’s first move to create a more modern state, since it united people from all social classes around one goal: to chase away the enemy,” said Ilya Kudryashov, a researcher at Moscow’s Museum of the Battle of Borodino.
The defeat of Napoleon remains a powerful source of pride for Russians today, and the authorities have seized on its significance as a symbol of Russia’s strength.
The conflict marks “a glorious page in Russian history, and the government believes it must take advantage of this,” said journalist and popular historian Vitaly Dymarsky.
The victory can still rouse a type of patriotism based on the image of the country as under attack, he said.
“Russia’s national peculiarity is its sense of being a fortress under siege, of being surrounded by external enemies, and even by a ‘fifth column’ hiding inside it.”
As Vladimir Putin campaigned for a third presidential term earlier this year, he invoked Russia’s drive against Napoleon in an emotional address.
Addressing a rally in a Moscow stadium, Putin delivered a charged speech calling the election a “battle for Russia” and asking “those who love Russia” to unite around him for victory.
“Let’s die near Moscow / like our brothers before us,” he shouted at the February rally, citing the epic poem “Borodino” by 19th-century poet Mikhail Lermontov.
In fact Russia lost most of its army at Borodino, enduring a death toll of around 80,000.
But the French army also suffered heavy losses and Borodino is seen as the beginning of the end for its force, who were unable to recover their strength in Moscow after its governor ordered it to be burnt down.
Just two months later at the Battle of Berezina in present-day Belarus, the Russian army used scorched earth tactics against the retreating French.
A total of 800 events are planned for nationwide celebrations, including a 2,500 kilometre trek to Paris by a group of 20 Russian Cossacks on horseback, who are emulating their ancestors’ pursuit of Napoleon’s diminished troops.