BY MIKE MAGEE
Two hundred and ten years ago, on September 7, 1812, a Putinesque commander, narrowly won a battle, but lost a war and entered a downward cycle that ended his reign. The battle was the Battle of Borodino, a town on the river Moskva, 70 miles west of Moscow. The commander was Napoleon.
The facts are clear-cut: Napoleon arrived with 130,000 troops, including his 20,000 Imperial Guards, and 500 guns. Opposing him were 120,000 Russians with 600 guns. The battle engaged from 6 AM to Noon. The French took 30,000 casualties, while the Russians lost 45,000 men, but survived to fight another day.
As Leo Tolstoy describes the scene of carnage on page 818 of his epic novel, War and Peace, in 1867, “Several tens of thousands of men lay dead in various positions and uniforms in the fields and meadows where for hundreds of years peasants of the villages…had at the same time gathered crops and pastured cattle. At the dressing stations, the grass and soil were soaked with blood over the space of three acres. Crowds of wounded and unwounded men of various units, with frightened faces, trudged on…Over the whole field, once so gaily beautiful with its gleaming bayonets and puffs of smoke in the morning sun, there now hung the murk of dampness and smoke and the strangely acidic smell of saltpeter and blood. Small clouds gathered and began to sprinkle on the dead…”
But in the next paragraphs, it becomes clear that Tolstoy’s intent and focus is not to describe why and how Napoleon had won the Battle of Borodino, but rather how this was the beginning of the end of his army and the Napoleonic reign.
Tolstoy writes: “For the French, with the memory of the previous fifteen years of victories, with their confidence in Napoleon’s invincibility, with the awareness that they had taken part of the battlefield, that they had lost only a quarter of their men, and that they still had the intact twenty-thousand-man guard, it would have been easy to make the effort (to advance and annihilate the Russians)….But the French did not make that effort….It is not that Napoleon did not send in his guard because he did not want to, but that it could not be done. All the generals, officers, and soldiers of the French army knew that it could not be done, because the army’s fallen spirits did not allow it….(They were) experiencing the same feeling of terror before an enemy, which, having lost half his army, stood as formidably at the end as at the beginning of the battle. The moral strength of the attacking French was exhausted…(For the Russians, it was) a moral victory, the sort that convinces the adversary of the moral superiority of his enemy and of his own impotence, that was gained by the Russians at Borodino.”
The Russians not only retreated, but did not stop in Moscow, continuing another 80 miles beyond their beloved city. But as Tolstoy describes, “In the Russian army, as it retreats, the spirit of hostility towards the enemy flares up more and more; as it falls back, it concentrates and increases.”
As for the French, they take Moscow but stop there. Again from Tolstoy, “During the five weeks after that, there is not a single battle. The French do not move. Like a mortally wounded beast, which, losing blood, licks its wounds, they remain in Moscow for five weeks without undertaking anything, and suddenly, with no cause, flee back…without entering a single serious battle…”
Putin’s aging dreams of conquest likely are Napoleonic in scale. But as his hesitant forces observe the Borodino-like human carnage that they have unleashed on Mariupol, at the estuary of the Kalmius and Kalchik rivers, and prepare to enter Kyiv, the first eastern Slavic state which, a Millennium ago, acquired the title “Mother of Rus Cities”, their vulnerability and lack of “moral strength” is already apparent. Lacking a rational stated goal other than dominance, the young Russian conscripted soldiers and their commanders must certainly grow more concerned day by day. They too have become entrapped, and are “experiencing the same feeling of terror before an enemy, which, having lost half his army, stood as formidably at the end as at the beginning of the battle.”
As for Putin, like Napoleon, he may feel the winds of fate blowing heavily on his shoulders even now. Napoleon did make it back to Paris. But three years after the Battle of Borodino and the 5-week occupation of Moscow, he met his Waterloo on June 16, 1815, at the hands of the Duke of Wellington. He died in exile on the island of Helena on May 5, 1821. In his last will, he wrote, “I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of that French people which I have loved so much.”
Putin likely feels a similar love for Mother Russia, but ultimately the Russian people may choose not to return the affection.
Mike Magee, MD is a Medical Historian and Health Economist, and author of “CodeBlue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex.“