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Thousands of French, Russian actors recreate 200-year-old battle in Russia

BORODINO, Russia -- Thousands of mounted French and Russian actors Sunday recreated a 200-year-old battle at the gates of Moscow that led to the fall of Napoleon and the rise of Russian patriotic fervor.

President Vladimir Putin arrived to oversee the grand festivities after seeing his government spend US$1.1 million (900 million euros) on a celebration of not only Russian history but also its military and resolve.

France is represented at the sleepy Borodino field 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Moscow by former president Giscard d'Estaing and 1,550 actors who began drawing swords with 1,450 Russians before nearly 100,000 history buffs.

Putin's chief of staff had earlier urged Russian authorities to use the occasion to expand “the patriotic education of youth,” and the day-long performance was being aired live in almost its entirety by state TV.

The battle scene crowns weeks of celebrations that unofficially kicked off when 23 Cossacks on horseback began a two-month march on Paris on Aug. 12.

Putin is also making the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church an instrumental part of the occasion as he seeks to cement its place in society.

“The entire people rose against the invaders. Its unprecedented heroism, spiritual strength and heartfelt love for the land filled our country with an tremendous force that had never been seen before,” Putin said in a keynote address.

Putin's strategic use of nationalism has served the ex-KGB spy well since he rose to power in 1999, a period in which he has remained Russia's most popular and dominant politician. But it has also hampered his relations with powers such as Britain and the United States.

France itself has remained one Putin's closest partners under a policy that survived the Soviet era and stretches back to the days when Napoleon's exploits inextricably linked the histories of the two states.

The Russians' advance on France brought words like “bistro” to Western culture and the writings of Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac to tsarist courts and — after many more decades — most basic schools.

The Sept. 7 clash of the giants at Borodino represented the definitive example of a general winning the battle but losing the war.

Napoleon watched his smaller army of 20,000 soldiers overcome 45,000 foes after a day of carnage and then decided to take time to recover before pushing on to Moscow.

It was a fatal and possibly history-altering mistake.

Thanks to help from the locals, the Russians had time to regroup and then plot strategy as Napoleon's stunned generals entered the ashes of a Moscow that still smoldered from the day the natives had burned down the city and left.

They then drove out Napoleon's spent and demoralized soldiers before marching on to Paris and helping make French into the second language of all Russian aristocrats.

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