A History Lesson

Selection_005Last year was the 200th anniversary of the events of the great patriotic war with Napoleon. And back in 1962, to celebrate the 150th anniversary, some films, including ‘War and Peace,’ directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, were shot, and it was decided to begin holding an annual theatrical event in the field of Borodino – the site of the most famous battle of the war (Borodinskaya Bitva, or, as the French named it, la Bataille de la Moskova). Soldiers of the Soviet Army were brought to the field under an officer’s command. They all were dressed in uniforms provided by Mosfilm and other studios and theatres, and armed with wooden rifles that the kids from the audience were happy to take home as souvenirs. The event won the hearts of the public, and was continued year after year in the same fashion, growing into historical re-enactments by 1982.

Napoleon started his doomed-to-fail Moscow campaign in the summer of 1812 by approaching Smolensk, ‘the key-city to Moscow,’ after being hesitant for a while, residing in Vitebsk and contemplating a peace treaty with Alexander I. Smolensk is my hometown, and I find its role in history fascinating. This is why I feel proud of the fact that for six years now the Battle of Lubino (taken from the name of a nearby village) that happened near Smolensk August 7, 1812, has been reenacted, uniting historical reconstruction clubs from all over Russia, former Soviet Union and abroad. Why is it important? Of that battle, back in 1812, it was said: ‘If it were not for Lubino, would there have been Borodino?’ Do I need to explain more?

Selection_007I arrive to the site early and walk around. Men and women dressed in 1812 clothes are teaching ballroom dancing to anyone who’s willing to learn. I snap some pictures and take the road that leads to the Russian and French camps. As I walk, I meet officers and soldiers, French ‘madams’ with children – everyone looking as if they had just stepped out of one of the Hermitage pictures painted back in the early 1800s. In the camps, everything – the tents, the furniture, the cutlery, even, I am told, food and beverage – is just like the way it was back then. Ladies are talking, horsemen are saddling their horses, some regiments are already lining up… It all looks like a movie site, only there’s no filming crew.

Selection_008As the battle begins, I join the ‘regiment’ of the press and photographers, and stand at the front line, doing my share of shooting which will not impact the outcome of the battle, but will capture the unique moments of glory. True, the scenario is the same every year, the outcome is always the same, but the battle is always different. After the battle is over, as tradition has it, the remains of unknown soldiers that fell at Lubino on August 19, 1812 found on the site during the year (search works are held by members of special patriotic clubs) are buried with honour. And then, there’s talk, laughter, music, fireworks and dancing in the camps. Historical reconstruction is much more than just a show. It’s a lifestyle.
Later, the soldiers, the officers, the generals of both armies and their guests are sitting at the wooden tables next to the camps. Selection_006Before I know it, I’m having some great conversations. “We hardly ever miss a battle,” my new friends tell me. Why, I ask them. A great hobby. Patriotism. Love of history. A young man from Germany says it’s the best way to meet interesting people. “Last year (the 200th anniversary), two punk rockers from Belgium followed the way of the Great Army, covering the distance between Moscow and Paris on foot, wearing 1812-styled jackets,” a finely dressed Russian officer smoking a pipe tells me. “We ran into them every battle we went to. Isn’t that fantastic?” Yes, it is. We exchange contacts and make sure we can find each other on social networks, and meet again in a matter of weeks at Borodino.