Bringing the Past to Life

For MT
The General galloped into the bivouac, shouting furiously. Buttoning up their uniforms tight from sweat, 1,250 troops lined up on the field. In a mix of French and Russian, the General shouted:

"Soldiers, the battle you have so long awaited has come! Victorious at Austerlitz and Eylau, with your customary bravery carry confusion to the enemy ranks and proudly take the fields of Friedland!"

"Vive L'empereur!" his troops saluted, as the General checked the time on his cell phone.

The General -- otherwise known as Oleg Sokolov, a St. Petersburg-based historian of Napoleon's Russian campaign -- organized a recent re-enactment of the Battle of Friedland attended by 1,500 enthusiasts at Pravdinsk, 50 kilometers from Kaliningrad. Napoleon routed Russia's Imperial Army in the 1807 engagement, after which peace accords, the Treaties of Tilsit, were signed with Tsar Alexander I.

Although lavishly funded, the event was almost ruined as re-enactors and armaments got held up at border crossings. And soldier after soldier fell victim to horse-related injuries.

Nearly all the participants were Russian, but the majority chose to impersonate Frenchmen. They were flown in on chartered jets from Chkalovsky military airport, northeast of Moscow, and some even wore their uniforms on the plane. Most didn't break character all weekend, calling each other only by their re-enactment names.

Friedland was the first of a series of bicentennial recreations of battles in Napoleon's Russian campaign that will conclude with the Battle of Borodino on Sept. 7, 2012.


Alissa de Carbonnel / MT
The event was organized by the All Russian Military-Historical Movement, founded by Sokolov in 2006 to unite hundreds of re-enactment societies scattered across Russia and re-enacting periods from medieval Russia to World War II.

Chairing the organization is the brother-in-law of Mayor Yury Luzhkov, tycoon Viktor Baturin, who sponsors re-enactment clubs as far away as Spain. A renowned collector of Napoleonic memorabilia, Baturin paid for all the participants to travel to Kaliningrad, as well as for catering, accommodation and a concert by pop star Dima Bilan.

He wouldn't say how much he spent on the weekend.

"The people at the beginning of the 19th century were smarter and more tactful than us," Baturin said in a recent interview in Moscow. "Historical reconstructions make it possible to understand some very simple things: The question of honor, cowardice and how people handled themselves in critical situations."

Baturin has also bought fields, stables and several houses near Kaliningrad to create a historical theme park, and visitors will be able to dress in period costume for weddings and equestrian outings, or "whatever their fantasy is," he said.

The battle didn't go off without a hitch. The Baltic states refused to allow a shipment of 600 kilograms of gunpowder from Moscow to travel over their territory by train or plane. At the last minute, re-enactors said, the shipment was flown illegally over Sweden by the military.

And the Foreign Ministry denied visas to an official French delegation, including the French Ambassador, a 55-person army band, about two-dozen air and marine troops and an army battalion that has historical links to the Battle of Friedland, though they had been planning their trip since April 2005.

"We were not given an explanation for the visa refusal," said French Embassy spokeswoman Isabelle Tourrancheau.

Still, about 300 French participated, though three French horses were stopped at the Polish border as officials said they were missing letters of invitation.

Participants slept in period canvas tents, using potato sacks as trash bags and tin cups for coffee. Their uniforms were sewn years ago; Sokolov, for example, had an antique saber and saddle, and his gold-brocade parade uniform took an embroiderer for Russian Orthodox clergymen two years and cost 5,000 euros to make.


For MT
As in the original battle, re-enactors in the Russian Army at first appeared to have the upper hand but were later overwhelmed and routed by a surge oF French reinforcements.
Three training days kicked off the re-enactment. On the eve of the battle there was an Etat Major, or conference between high-ranking officers. The General invited his closest Russian colleagues in their roles as commanders of the Polish, French, Swiss and Lithuanian regiments, and they dined in full parade uniform. Gold hoops glinted in their ears, as was the fashion in the early 19th century; the earrings could be sold if there wasn't enough money to pay for a soldier's burial.

Toasts were made with cries of "Vive L'Empereur" and interlaced with songs in a variety of languages, the most popular French refrain being: "Let's drink ... to the health of the king, and shit for the British king, who declared this war."

Marshal of Napoleon's Third Hussar Regiment Ann Francois Charles III, alias Vadim Zevlever, a history teacher from Novosibirsk, traveled three days to attend the re-enactment with his hand-sewn uniform and a reproduction rifle.

"I wanted to be part of a democratic army," he said, explaining his choice of the French. "Officers in the Imperial Army could beat their soldiers, but in Napoleon's army the officer came from the ranks ... and every soldier felt he could appeal to him directly."

Re-enacting is "like entering a church, where we go to clean ourselves," said Vladimir Charodin, 42, a senior engineer for Golden Telecom and a brigadier in a legion formed of members of the Moscow Artillery Club.

The next day, a crowd of thousands watched from bleachers set high on the bank of the Lava stream. From there, the Russian cavalry charged over a just-built and camouflaged Marine bridge. They confidently encircled the weaker French artillery huddled in the battlefield smoke.

But there were cheers as French reinforcements overwhelmed the field from the surrounding wood, clashing swords with their enemies. A cardboard town exploded into flame, dividing the Russian troops. Realizing their defeat, they fled.

Friedland was not without wounded. Participants tested 150 unfamiliar, trucked-in sports horses in close formation for the first time as loud, smoky gunpowder discharged all around. The General's white stallion drew blood from one soldier, while another re-enactor, Zhenya Petrovich, 31, is still in a Kaliningrad hospital with a blood clot and severe head injuries.

The General himself was treated for back and wrist injuries after his horse tripped. He was laid out on his embroidered greatcoat near an incongruous Soviet-era medical van at the battlefield's edge and tended to by a blond, smocked doctor.

"This damned old potato field," he announced to his gendarme, his aide de camp and a film crew. "He tripped in a hole," he waved toward the stallion that had just rolled over him.

Sokolov disregarded the doctor's orders not to ride and commanded a shot of anesthetic.

"The horse has battle spirit -- he has already kicked two," he said.

One commander at the Etat Major dinner mused that the Russians should restrain their enthusiasm since, after all, the Russian army was defeated at Friedland. At this, Major Sergei Ulanovich of the Lithuanian Lancer Regiment proposed a toast:

"Napoleon brought Europe to Russia, and now we are bringing Russia back to Europe!"