Monday, October 19, 2009


130 km west of Moscow is the small provincial village of Borodino. On this site, in September of 1812, Napolean's Grande Armee of over 250,000 soldiers clashed with the Imperial Russian Army of over 124,000 troops. In the 15-hour battle, more than 70,000 men were killed in the single bloodiest battle in history up until the Somme in 1916.
Although Napolean won the battle, he lost the war at Borodino. His army was shattered and he could not replace the veterans of his conquests of Europe. The Russians suffered appalling casualties, as well, but they withdrew north of Moscow and replenished their forces while Napolean was stuck deep in Russia with a much smaller force. Winter came and Napolean was forced to retreat back to Germany with the Russian army harrassing him the whole way. Less than 20,000 of Napolean's troops made it back alive.

Borodino was not only one of the biggest battles in history (until the First World War), it also became the scene of a huge battle between Nazi German and Soviet Russian forces in the Second World War.

Here the Soviet 38th Rifle Division held back the advancing Wermacht for 6 days during the German drive on Moscow. The Soviets suffered 14,500 casualties while the Germans lost 9,300 men. The fighting took place around the monuments erected to commemorate the 1812 battle.

Wonderpants and I went to Borodino yesterday. It was a sunny (but cool) autumn day and the Russian countryside was incredibly peaceful compared to the bustle of Moscow. We took a train from Byeloruskaya Station to a town called Mazhaisk and then a bus from there to Borodino. The trip took just over 2 hours. The bus, however, dropped us off on the side of a country road in the middle of nowhere and we had no idea where we were.

Fortunately Wonderpants speaks a bit of Russian and we saw a produkt (convenience store) with a couple of people smoking cigarettes around a car in the parking lot. They were in their early twenties and were blaring techno music and chatting. Wonderpants asked them "Where's the Borodino Battlefield Museum?" and they laughed. "It's 10 miles down the road!"

I couldn't understand what they were saying but I did hear the words "mashina" and "dyetd" ("car" and "drive") and realized they were offering us a ride! We got in the car with two of the guys and they drove us to the battlefield.

The battlefield was incredible. Many of the trenches and pillboxes of the Soviet defences in 1941 still remain, as do the monuments to the battle with Napolean. The 105 square km battlefield is preserved and untilled, so today it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1812!

We spent several hours walking through the fields and trenches, had a picnic lunch at a memorial, and toured the little Borodino Museum.

We were getting tired and it was getting late, so we decided to head back. The only problem was that there were no buses coming to Borodino! They do have limited service but on Sundays one must wait for hours before the next bus comes by. We decided to walk to the village of Borodino, about 2.4 km away from the battlefield.

Along this peaceful route we came across random monuments to the battles. The sun was in the west and the tree-lined road was gold and red with autumn leaves. The odd car drove past but otherwise there wasn't a sound to be heard save for birds and wind. We passed through a couple of provincial villages on the way, which seemed quaint and peaceful. I think that Wonderpants was thoroughly fed up with the entire day and I watched his mood get pissier as the time went by, but I enjoyed myself.

After a couple of hours of walking we reached Borodino and two goats ran past us, chased by a black dog. One of the goats stopped and turned and faced off with the dog (who was jumping and barking and about as excited as a dog can get). The goat stood its ground and lowered its head, as if to charge the yappy mutt. Then there was a sharp "crack" and both the goat and dog jumped in surprise. I looked to my left and there was a guy with a pellet gun shooting at the goat!

The other goat ran down the street after a woman walking a German sheppard, which started barking and the goat changed its mind. The first goat and dog chased each other through a park with the guy shooting at them.

Wonderpants and I decided to get the hell out of there and caught a train back to Moscow, only we misread the time. A train was waiting at the platform so we got on and, thinking we had 20 minutes before it left, I got off again to use the toilet at the side of the platform. When I emerged from the little WC, the train was pulling away from the station! Thankfully Wonderpants grabbed our bags and jumped off at the last moment, or else I would have been screwed. We checked the big schedule board again and saw that another 'Sunday Only' train was due in 20 minutes, so we made it back home alive.

It's weird things like perfectly preserved battlefields, goats chasing dogs while guys shoot at goats and getting stranded in strange towns that make me realize that I'm once again overseas!

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