Russia’s historic Borodino battlefield is in war with cottages

Historical reenactors rehearse at the site of the 1812 Battle of Borodino between Russian soldiers and French invaders. “Local officials are ready to sell this land without thinking of the legacy,” one critic said.
(Mikhail Metzel / Associated Press)

BORODINO, Russia — Dozens of war buffs in fur hats, capes and tights rode prancing horses, practicing for the battle reenactment. Workers frantically laid tiles, paved roads and touched up monuments in a skirmish of last-minute activity before Sunday’s anniversary festivities.

But 200 years after Russian forces fought Napoleon’s men in the apocalyptic Battle of Borodino, leaving 70,000 people dead and the ground soaked with blood, a new enemy is on the march on the edges of the iconic battlefield immortalized in “War and Peace.”

Summer cottages.

Two-story dachas, slick and modern, are springing up on the rolling grassland where Russian soldiers, whom Leo Tolstoy described as “tortured” and “terrified,” waged a battle that many see as a turning point against the invading French.

Russians are outraged that local officials had taken advantage of lax land regulation to sell off parcels of national parkland — many of them, locals allege, to rich people from nearby Moscow.

“A cottage village could have grown right behind a monument!” said an incensed Anna Pakhomova, the public relations director of the State Borodino War and History Museum and Reserve.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin, who on Sunday will be the first head of state to show up for an anniversary since Czar Nicholas II visited Borodino in 1912, ordered subordinates to draft laws that will protect Borodino and other historic sites.

But land sales, especially in the Moscow region, are the most corrupt sphere of governance in Russia, said Moscow anti-corruption activist Sergei Korolev. Land-grabbing officials know they have nothing to fear because few face any reprisals, he said.

“Local officials are ready to sell this land without thinking of the legacy, probably because many of their children don’t live in Russia, so they don’t care,” Korolev said. “Neither the government nor the citizens follow the laws.”

Although the Battle of Borodino is honored on the first Sunday of September every year with a reenactment, the bicentennial is a much bigger deal.

French and Russian troops fought the decisive battle on Sept. 7, or Aug. 26 on the old Julian calendar used at the time in Russia. It was the bloodiest battle of the war.

The French, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Russia in June 1812 after conquering much of Europe. They tore through western Russia on their advance to Moscow. At Borodino, they won the battle, but suffered such heavy losses that they were not able to rebound. French forces soon left Russia, a shadow of their former size, and Napoleon subsequently lost much of his European empire.

Countless artworks commemorate the battle. Putin quoted Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Borodino” during a campaign rally in Moscow, which drew more than 100,000 Russians (many of whom were forced to attend by their employers).

“Let’s die outside of Moscow. Like our brothers died! And we promised to die, and swore to be faithful during the Borodino battle,” Putin said in February.

Perhaps the most famous account of the Borodino battle comes in “War and Peace.”

“Several tens of thousands of people lay dead in different positions and uniforms in the fields and meadows,” Tolstoy wrote.

“An acre of land and grass was saturated in blood at spots where the infirmaries stood. Crowds of wounded and healthy people from different troops, with terrified faces, from one side staggered back toward Mozhaisk, from the other side back toward Valuyev. Other crowds, tortured and hungry, walked forward to carry out the orders of their commanders. The third group stood at their places and continued to shoot.”

To many Russians, such a hallowed spot is hardly the place for summer cottages. Confusing laws and rampant corruption are partly to blame for their spread, Pakhomova and Korolev said.

The Soviet government deemed Borodino a national park and outlined its boundaries in 1961, but the boundaries were not officially included in the government registry; the reasons are unclear.

During the Soviet years, the government owned several villages and farms in the park that had existed for centuries. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, although the majority of the park remained government property, more than 10,000 farmers and villagers became owners of plots of land that they lived or farmed on.

Local councils were formed, four of which have dominion in the park and were given power over the land not owned by the government. In 2009, a federal law was passed allowing the councils to convert farmland into much more valuable plots for country cottages.

Even though national parkland is the domain of the federal government, some local officials took advantage of lax regulation and lack of official boundaries and converted some of the farmland on the Borodino reserve into cottage parcels, Korolev said. More than a hundred cottages went up, mostly on the outskirts of the reserve.

Finally, after numerous letters from the Borodino museum and angry activists, the Kremlin got involved. An investigation was opened and several cases were filed to the local court in nearby Mozhaisk.

One involved a former Borodino region head of administration, Maya Sklyuyeva, who was removed from her post this year. She had converted 94 acres of the reserve’s land into cottage land and turned four plots into her family’s personal property. The museum’s director was also investigated for negligence for allowing the cottages to be built, but was cleared.

This spring, the court ruled that 11 cottages must be demolished, said Vadim Skvortsov, deputy head of the administration of Mozhaisk region, responsible for Borodino. Complaints about other cottages are still being reviewed. Putin’s head of administration, Sergei Ivanov, acknowledged last month that the cottages wouldn’t be down before the anniversary.

Despite the scandal, Internet ads for land and houses in the Borodino area abound. “Beautiful historic place, Borodino museum reserve is nearby,” an advertisement placed in July reads.

Villagers don’t believe the cottages will be demolished.

“Everywhere they are converting farmland to cottage villages. There is big money in that, not just here, all over the Moscow region,” said one 70-year-old, who wouldn’t give his name for fear of problems with the local administration.

“What rules the world?” he said. “Money.”

Narizhnaya is a special correspondent.