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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Battlefields and Bread

For MT
Special to The Moscow Times

When you arrive by train in Borodino, the first thing you see is a tiny village surrounded by flatlands and sparse birch groves -- a landscape typical of the outlying parts of the Moscow region. Then you start noticing obelisks, burial mounds and posters directing you toward one of the most important sites of Russia's military history: the field where the battle of Borodino was fought between Napoleon's army and Russian troops in 1812, involving a quarter of a million soldiers.

Most of the 300 monuments spread out on the field were paid for and erected in 1912 by families of the battle's veterans. Even the active Spaso-Borodinsky monastery holds a war memorial, built by Princess Margarita Tuchkova after her husband was razed at Borodino by a cannonball. Another blow -- the death of her young son in the 1830s -- led Princess Margarita to take the habit herself. The nuns of the Borodinsky monastery later invented the now-ubiquitous Borodinsky bread. First, these rye loaves studded with coriander seeds were taken away by visiting pilgrims; now, Borodinsky bread is a national food item coveted by nostalgic Russian expats.

The centerpiece of the field is a museum and the main obelisk to the Russian heroes. Connecting the two is a walkway sided with birch trees and -- surprisingly -- artillery points and trenches dug during World War II. Borodino was also a point on the Mozhaisk front that kept Nazi troops from advancing on Moscow in 1941.

Maria Antonova / MT
Luzhetsky Monastery.
One can only wonder how WWII soldiers felt as they were holding the war front in trenches right next to monuments built in remembrance of their great grandfathers. The Borodino field already had communal graves of soldiers that perished in the battle against Napoleon almost 130 years before.

Many of the older memorials were damaged by German troops that occupied Borodino for several months in 1941, and the more valuable museum exhibits were evacuated to Almaty until 1944. Today the museum has an assortment of weapons, flags and other Borodino battle paraphernalia. You can also visit the hotel room where Leo Tolstoy lived when he was here researching for "War and Peace."

The battlefield is quiet and peaceful most days, but in September it draws thousands of visitors to the annual historical reenactment of clashing troops, complete with costumes, horses, and cannons with real gunpowder. A smaller event called "The Brave Tin Soldier" is held in late May. Register before May 15 to see short, staged episodes of the battle and try on a period costume.

Maria Antonova / MT
A sculpture map of the Borodino battlefield.
The area's military history didn't begin with fighting off Napoleon. The lands around Mozhaisk defended Moscow from Lithuanians in the 14th century and the town, one station from Borodino, is even rumored to be older than the Russian capital. Although its Kremlin walls were eventually dismantled, Mozhaisk was at one point an impregnable fortress. A small part of the fortress gate remains in front of the St. Nicholas Cathedral, a red Gothic Revival church (pictured page 9). Suspicious numbers in some of the cathedral's measurements (66.6 archines, 66.6 fathoms, 666 spans) led some historians to conclude that it was built by Masonic conspirators.

Mozhaisk was also home to one of the most revered Russian relics -- the wooden sculpture of St. Nicholas. In Mozhaisk, a significant fortress of Muskovy, the saint's image abandoned the traditional Bible and took the sword into one hand and the fortress of Mozhaisk into the other. The carved St. Nicholas, now in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, was believed to be the benefactor of troops and defender of cities. Mozhaisk became a kind of mecca, drawing people from all over the country to see the sculpture. All of the Russian princes frequently visited the city, although it's not clear whether their priority was honoring St. Nicholas or hunting the legendary Mozhaisk spotted rabbits.

Getting There

By car: Take the A100, or Mozhaiskoye Shosse. Mozhaisk is at the 91-kilometer mark, and Borodino is 13 kilometers further west.

By train: Trains to Borodino and Mozhaisk depart Belorussky Station daily at 9:12 a.m., 2:12, 2:29, and 4:31 p.m. Additionally, there is a train at 11:49 a.m. on weekends. The trip takes two hours.

What to See

Borodino War and History Museum: Optional tour packages and excursions are available, for information see or call (49638) 51-546/522. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Novo-Nikolsky Cathedral, 8 Borodinskaya Ul., Mozhaisk.

Luzhetsky Monastery, founded in 1408, is located on the intersection of Ul. Gerasimova and the Moscow River, Mozhaisk.

Korobeiniki gallery and salon, 14 Moskovskaya Ul., Mozhaisk. Sells local folk arts and crafts.

Where to Eat

Guberniya cafe
is located in a sports palace at 15 Ul. Mira, (49638) 23-044, Mozhaisk. Weekdays noon-midnight, Fri. and Sat. noon-2 a.m.