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Introducing Borodino

In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, lured by the prospect of taking Moscow. For three months the Russians retreated, until on 26 August the two armies met in a bloody battle of attrition at the village of Borodino, 130km west of Moscow. In 15 hours more than one-third of each army was killed - over 100, 000 soldiers in all. Europe would not know fighting this devastating again until WWI.

The French seemed to be the winners, as the Russians withdrew and abandoned Moscow. But Borodino was, in fact, the beginning of the end for Napoleon, who was soon in full, disastrous retreat.

The entire battlefield - more than 100 sq km - is now the Borodino Field Museum-Preserve, basically vast fields dotted with dozens of memorials to specific divisions and generals (most erected at the centenary of the battle in 1912). Start your tour at the Borodino Museum (51 546; www.borodino.ru; 10am-6pm Tue-Sun), where you can study a diorama of the battle before setting out to see the site in person.

The front line was roughly along the 4km road from Borodino village to the train station: most of the monuments are close to the road. The hill-top monument about 400m in front of the museum is Bagration's tomb, the grave of Prince Bagration, a heroic Georgian infantry general who was mortally wounded in battle.

Further south, a concentration of monuments around Semyonovskoe marks the battle's most frenzied fighting; here, Bagration's heroic Second Army, opposing far larger French forces, was virtually obliterated. Apparently Russian commander Mikhail Kutuzov deliberately sacrificed Bagration's army to save his larger First Army, opposing lighter French forces in the northern part of the battlefield. Kutuzov's headquarters are marked by an obelisk in the village of Gorky. Another obelisk near Shevardino to the southwest, paid for in 1912 with French donations, marks Napoleon's camp.

Ironically, this battle scene was re-created during WWII, when the Red Army confronted the Nazis on this very site. Memorials to this battle also dot the fields, and WWII trenches surround the monument to Bagration. Near the train station are two WWII mass graves.

The Saviour Borodino Monastery (51 057; admission R15; 10am-5pm Tue-Sun) was built by the widows of the Afghan War. Among its exhibits is a display devoted to Leo Tolstoy and the events of War and Peace that took place at Borodino.

The rolling hills around Borodino and Semyonovskoe are largely undeveloped, due to their historic status. Facilities are extremely limited; be sure to bring a picnic lunch.