Napoleon in Russia Tour Diary & Photo Gallery - September 2017
TCE Managing Director Alan Rooney recently guided our Napoleon in Russia: The 1812 Campaign tour and also kept a tour diary which you can read below.
Saturday 2 September
Arriving at London Heathrow on a clear bright morning, no problems were experienced in checking-in to our British Airways flight which took off with only a few minutes delay. The good weather continued for almost the duration of the flight and those of us with a window seat enjoyed great views until we hit the cloud cover above Russia itself. One interesting point of note was that whilst Economy class was virtually full, Premium Economy, Business and First Class were virtually empty. Clearing customs and immigration at Domodedovo took about an hour, but Sergey, our Russian guide was waiting to meet us with porters once we got airside and we were soon on board our small coach making our way in to Moscow. We arrived at our hotel, the four-star Azimut on the corner of Smolenskaya, which was to prove a great base later in the tour. For now though, after we had checked-in to our rooms, we met in the bar for a welcome drink where Alan provided a historical background to the 1812 campaign in which each of us made useful contributions – an excellent way of getting to know each other. Dinner followed in the hotel, the restaurant of which was to prove to be of a high standard throughout. The evening ended in the bar for some & others retired after a busy travel day.
Sunday 3 September
A reasonable 9 am start saw us on the road to the battlefield of Borodino to watch the 205th anniversary re-enactment of the battle. With few traffic problems we arrived in good time, wisely approaching the site from the west so that we could benefit from a quick getaway after the event. The re-enactment took place on the battlefield side of the Kolocha River, on ground that was probably occupied by Eugene’s Army of Italy. There were a number of merchant stalls, the vast majority of which were selling food and drink, but there was the odd sutler selling military themed items. We benefitted from VIP seats which gave us a great view of the proceedings and the Russian Preobrazhensky Guard regiment gave the salute before the battle commenced.
The script for the re-enactment was to be loosely based on the events of the 5th September, the fight for the Shevadino Redoubt, loosely being the operative word as whilst a great spectacle any semblance to the historical events 205 years ago were soon lost. Nevertheless there was a wealth of cavalry on the battlefield that looked resplendent in their colourful uniforms, the sun glistening on the swords and helmets. The thunder and smoke of the cannon was a constant feature of the battle whilst the infantry marched across our front, the guard battalions of both Russians and French in their gorgeous dress uniforms. The organisers had built a number of wooden buildings which were gradually set alight as the Russian army withdrew in the face of the advancing French, the smoke bellowing over the field, but fortunately away from the spectators. Then as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. The participants of both sides drew of together for a general review by the spectators before smartly marching off the field of battle. We too engaged in our own march back to the car-park and we were soon on our way to Smolensk, arriving mid-evening. After a quick check-in to the centrally located Hotel Smolensk, we took a short walk to the local restaurant where we enjoyed a lovely four-course dinner. No bar tonight, we were a little tired after the spectacle at Borodino and the journey to Smolensk.
Monday 4th September
A lie in meant that our day didn’t start until 09:30 and the morning consisted of a walking tour around the Smolensk of 1812. We walked past the city’s theatre, the statue of Lenin and Zhukov’s former headquarters in to the Lopatinsky Gardens where we saw a number of commemorative monuments and discussed the defence of the Royal citadel and the missed exploitation of the French.
Modern Smolensk has very much grown over the battlefield of 1812, but the archaic walls are still very much extent and there are many refurbished towers which are very reminiscent of the paintings of Faber du Four and Albrecht Adam. From the citadel we walked along the outside of the old city walls to the imposing Russian monument at the head of the Avenue of Heroes, where the Russian commanders involved in the fight for Smolensk are remembered with oversize bronze busts.
As we were to discover throughout the tour, the Soviet perception of Kutusov being omnipresent throughout the campaign was recognised with a monument, bust and Oak Tree to commemorate the commander, probably as Prince of Smolensk, as he was later to become, rather than for any involvement in its defence.
At the 1812 partisans monument we discussed the role of the partisan warfare and leaders such as Davidov and Figner. Then it was off to the dazzling Cathedral. This building dominates Smolensk and its peeling turquoise painted walls disguise the wonder that is inside. As one enters, one it startled by the amount of gold that adorns the walls, ceilings and furniture. Frescoes are everywhere, whilst the ‘highlight’, the ‘Icon of Smolensk’ seemed so unassuming in its dark simplicity. This was the exact icon paraded by Kutusov in front of the Russian Army at Borodino and it is evident that it is still very much revered today. It’s no wonder that Napoleon insisted that guards were placed on this magnificent building to prevent it being defaced.
Lunch was served in an atmospheric restaurant that in Soviet times has served as a KGB officers club. Removing ourselves from its comfortable sofas was a challenge that had to be overcome as we had to make our way out to the local history museum which had some interesting exhibits from 1812.
Thence to the battlefield of Lubino or Valutino Gora where Tutschov III, though wounded and subsequently captured, held off Ney long enough to allow Barclay de Tolly’s First Western Army to regain the Moscow Road. The battlefield is little changed from 1812 and the site of the centre of the Russian stand is marked by a cross and a number of monuments, one of which had an inscription in English, which we all found very surprising as only the enthusiast is likely to find themselves in the centre of this isolated field. Unfortunately the weather turned against us and amidst a downpour we made our own rapid retreat to our coach. So it was back to the hotel for shower and change ready for dinner, which was in one of the oddest restaurants of the tour. Nevertheless the food was excellent.
Tuesday 5th September
The weather was still against us as we set out to follow Napoleon’s retreat from Smolensk the next morning. We stopped at Korytnia and Krasny, the latter where the Grand Army should have been stopped in its tracks. Indeed Ney was unable to break through the Russian Army and so commenced his march northwards. We, like Ney, made our way to the Dniepr to see where he crossed with his small band of men. This required some confident driving by Dima, who took our coach over unmade Russian roads in driving rain to the little visited village of Syrokorene. From there, we all became hardy warriors and walked though intermittent rain to the banks of the river. Nobody knows for sure exactly where Ney crossed but de Fezensac says it was very close to this village. We then stood on the banks of the Dniepr and wondered at that audacious manoeuvre that won Ney the sobriquet of The Bravest of the Brave. We conversed with a number of the local people, who said that over the years many French had visited the area in search of Ney’s ‘treasure’ and divers had even explored the river to see if they could recover his baggage, but nothing has ever been found.
1812 aside, it was lovely to explore a little of rural Russia and see villages that in a few years’ time are sure to be abandoned as the youth move to the cities.
A packed lunch allowed us flexibility in our arrangements, which was just as well as we were running late by the time we arrived at Katyn. Here, some 22,000 Polish officers were murdered by the NKVD in April 1940 on the instructions of Stalins’ henchman, Beria. It was an atrocity that the Russians only came completely clean about in 1990 when, under, Yeltsin’s instructions, the commemorative site was constructed in conjunction with the Polish government. It is a sobering site, the Polish officers’ names recorded on steel plaques around the perimeter of the mass graves and memorial bell, which we tolled in their memory. Despite the fact the entrance to the site is situated on the Minsk – Moscow highway, we seemed to be the only visitors – it would seem that these tragic events are once more fading back into history. Sadly from the apparent lack of public interest in the site, one suspects that might suit the Russian authorities.
Our final port of call was Smolensk’s Great Patriotic War Museum, which not only recounts the German offensive and Russian counter offensives, but also the partisan war and life under Nazi occupation. This evening we enjoyed a special dinner in a restaurant in one of Smolensk’s towers. No doubt this same room was an eye witness to Russians and Frenchmen alike enjoying their last meal in Smolensk.
Wednesday 6th September
And so today we said goodbye to Smolensk, a city which we had all very much fallen in love with. But it was time to pick up Napoleon’s advance and the Russians retreat on Moscow. At Yartsevo, we discussed the problems that Eugene’s Army of Italy had crossing the River Vopp in both directions. Just outside of Dorogobush we saw the site that Colonel Toll had selected for a defensive battle and for which he was berated by Bagration. At Vyazma we enjoyed a late lunch and discussed how Davout narrowly escaped the clutches of Miloradovich, but for the foresight of Ney. The little museum is housed in the very church that feature in the painting of the battle by Peter Von Hess (minus bell tower). Thence to Tsarevo where Kutusov took command of all Russian Western Armies and where he discussed his character, strengths and weakness. But there was still a long way to go to Moscow and we couldn’t check-in to the Azimut hotel until mid-evening. Still the restaurant was waiting for us and sat down to a very enjoyable meal around 8.30pm
Thursday 7th September
Today was the 205th anniversary of the battle of Borodino and we set off in great anticipation. The traffic was light and made good time. Alan provided a brief battlefield orientation and chronology from the Raevski Redoubt before we visited the superb battlefield museum. Refurbished for the 200th anniversary, this museum never disappoints. Its many exhibits include a 4 pounder Unicorn cannon, Kutusov’s carriage, an excellent diorama (although badly lit), many fantastic pictures, and a wonderful collection of uniforms and weapons. There was even a shop, although nothing was available with English translations.
We made our way to the Shevadino Redoubt where we enjoyed our picnic lunch before Alan gave us an account of its capture on 5th September and then we discussed Napoleon’s plans for the 7th. The woods have grown much around but the Church of the Holy Saviour was visible, allowing us locate the Bagration fleches. However our battlefield tour proper started from Kutusov’s command post at Gorki from where we could see most of the battlefield. We discussed initial Russian dispositions and Kutusov’s plans. A short drive away we stopped just before bridge over the Kolocha where not only were we able to consider the ejection of the Russian Jagers from Borodino village, but also explore some of the extant remains of the Mozhaist Line from 1941. Crossing to the southern part of the battlefield we explored all three of the fleches and the Saviour Convent, commissioned by the wife of General Tutschkov IV distraught after not being able to discover her husband’s body on the field of battle. We then placed ourselves on the site from where the famous Borodino panorama was painted and noted how much the woods had encroached since 1812.
Back on the Raevski Redoubt we had a fabulous view of the ground over which the massed cavalry assaults against Semyonovskoe and the redoubt itself. And turning 180 degrees to our rear we looked upon the final positions of both armies. Although not planned to the be the final stop of the tour, because of a long goods train remaining stationary on the level crossing on the road to Utitsa earlier in the afternoon, we ended up on the Mound on our way back from Moscow. The whole of this southern flank is separated from the main battlefield by thick woods, just as it was in 1812. This gives the impression of a battle within a battle in which the Poles of Poniatowski later aided by Junot fought their dual against Tutschkov and Baggavut, the latter only being forced to withdraw so as to keep in contact with the main Russian battle line. The traffic back to our hotel was quite heavy and it was dusk by the time we arrived back there to enjoy dinner.
Friday 8th September
The weather was bright as we set off for a day in Moscow which started at Sparrow Hills, where we gained a wonderful vista of central Moscow. At Novodovichy we visited the famous ‘Swan Lake’ pond, took a tour around the cemetery and enjoyed our Russian guide’s humorous commentary on a selection of its residents such as Yeltsin, General Lebed, Brezhnev and Molotov.
Unfortunately Red Square was off limits due to it being set up for outdoor concerts but we managed a brief exploration of the chic GUM shopping arcade before an enjoyable lunch on Lubyanka Square. In a slight change of programme, to avoid the annual ‘Moscow City Day’ crowds, we brought forward our visit to the 1812 Historical Museum. This has to be one of the greatest Napoleonic museums in the world. Created to coincide with the bi-centenary, it has been superbly curated: a mix of original paintings (including many of Vereshchagin’s 1812 series), captured French artefacts (Davout’s dress uniform, a field kitchen, the eagle of the 2nd Regiment Napoleon’s sleigh), maps, weapons, and of course, many items relating to the Russian army.
An English speaking curator pointed out and explained the significance of the more important or unusual items and then we had an hour or so to explore on our own. As the crowds were starting to build, we returned to our hotel by way of the remarkable Moscow Metro system which was just two stops from Revolution Square.
Saturday 9th September
There had to be a day when the Moscow traffic would get the better of us and today was it! It seemed as though every Muscovite had decided to travel to their country dacha for the weekend via the Kaluga road this morning. However the weather was good and were able to walk along the old Kaluga Road to the Winkovo Battlefield Park which commemorates both the fight on October 18th and the 1941/2 battle for Moscow.
Thence to Tarutino, the site of the Russian armed camp that Kutusov ordered should be maintained for posterity where there was a small museum, earthworks and monument. More traffic delayed us getting to Malayaroslavets, but it was worth the perseverance. We enjoyed a late lunch at an 1812 themed restaurant, visited the impressive refurbished 1812 museum, watched the multi-media presentation and saw the diorama of the battle housed in the 1912 chapel. We walked down to the monastery that was staunchly defended by the French and climbed the hill above the River Lusza from where we gained a commanding view of the battlefield. Fortunately the traffic had somewhat lessoned, but it was still a late arrival back at the hotel.
Sunday 10th September
With the sun shining, we drove to the Kremlin for our pre-timed visit with our Russian guide who escorted us throughout the complex and explained the significance of the many buildings and exhibits. Being a holiday weekend in Moscow, unfortunately the place was very crowded, but Sergey smartly managed our tour to minimise their impact. We visited the cathedrals of The Dormition (or Assumption as its also known), Annunciation and Archangel. Some of us examined the captured French artillery in too much detail, whilst we all marvelled at the size of the Car puszka Cannon and the Tsar Bell. With time running out, our tour of the Armoury was somewhat limited and I think that we would have all liked a little longer to take in the magnificent opulence of its exhibits but lunch was calling us and we made our way through the Alexander Gardens to once again battle through the crowds filling the centre of Moscow. But our restaurant was fairly empty and service prompt allowing us to catch the Metro to pick up our coach at Smolenskaya which whisked us away to our final visit of the tour: the Borodino Panorama.
Having explored the battlefield in some detail days before, we were all able to make much sense of the geography of the pointing and the events that were depicted within it. On the ground floor there was also a marvellous collection of battle scenes and portraits of the Russian commanders. Then it was back to our hotel late afternoon, from where some elected to walk to the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, whilst others explored the eclectic Arbat Street with its artists and street musicians. We all enjoyed our final dinner where we shared memories of the tour and some of us bade farewell.
Monday 11th September
A late checkout allowed for some free time before we left our hotel at midday to Domodedovo airport from where we caught our punctual British Airways flight back to London.
View details of this tour - Napoleon in Russia